From the Archives with Doug Nye

Chapter averse

Bygone British club racing has anecdotes enough to fill several books, but will anybody ever write one?

Too many car books are just a waste of trees. Many subjects have just about been done to death. But others have been overlooked – some of them, admittedly, with good reason. One once-leading magazine entered a steep decline when a new editor advertised “Special inside – 16-page shock absorber feature.” With the readership it went over like a concrete Kookaburra. So have many minority-interest books – including several on motor racing subjects.

I have always felt there is a super history to be compiled of British club racing, especially through the 1950s and ’60s – but apart from those who participated or spectated, who would possibly buy it?

As an enthusiastic, kind-hearted, philanthropic used-car dealer friend of mine would say, “No profit – no point.” But British club racing has been absolutely studded with interesting projects, and interesting people. It has certainly thrown up many minor stars… the best of whom went on to achieve global stature.

This can’t be said of one club-racing cadre with which I became involved – to a tiny degree – through 1964-65. I was just finding my feet working on the monthly Motor Racing magazine. We were based in a Portakabin in the canteen car park at Brands Hatch and my editors, Alan Brinton and John Blunsden, gave me a freelance – fiver a time – job to report the monthly racing activities of David Plumstead Racing.

I can’t for the life of me recall the hows or whys. In fact until Michael Whitaker – current owner of Plumstead’s contemporary TVR Mongoose – sent me a copy of what I wrote 50 years ago, I hardly recalled it at all.

In mid-season 1965 the Purley-based TVR dealer and his friends Graham Capel and Bobby Bell – who ran under his team banner – had made some changes. As I reported then: “Capel has sold his rapid Lotus 11 GT in favour of the even more rapid ex-Dizzy Addicott Lotus-Buick sports-racer; and DP’s own car, the V8 TVR, has been modified beyond all recognition.

“This car is now far more Plumstead than TVR and, as such, has been renamed the ‘DP Mongoose Special’. Just in case you’re wondering, the ‘Mongoose’ tag was added because (says Plum) the car can – and will – eat Cobras.”

The story continued: “The team’s workshop was thrown into a right old panic because David had had his entry in the V8 accepted for the sports car race at the British GP meeting. Work began immediately to modify the car, and the poor defenceless thing was given a real going-over.

“Borrani wire wheels were fitted all round, with 8¼-inch rims at the rear and 6½-inch at the front. A set of Dunlop R7 yellow-spot tyres were added, but then the wheels wouldn’t go round so the body had to be cut about.

“This was done, and handsome flared ‘wings’ fitted to cover the wheels and tyres. The steering had to be altered slightly to accommodate the larger running gear, and a different radiator was added. Unfortunately all this hard work took just a little too long and, turning up at Silverstone just minutes late for practice, the Mongoose was refused a start.

“The boys admitted that nobody was to blame but themselves, and so Plum cast about for another venue for the car’s debut. He finally managed to get a late entry for the Jaguar DC’s Brands sprint, the day after the GP, and so on a wet Sunday morning the crew headed east. There the Mongoose went well first time out, and David notched up second-FTD on a streaming wet track. Bobby Bell also had a go in the team’s Lola and added a class second to his personal list of successes [which] includes two good races wins earlier this year.

“The next race meeting was at Brands Hatch on July 18, and there bad luck struck all three drivers… First to suffer was Bobby Bell. He had his brakes lock going into Druids, and the moment ended with a crumpled Lola and a disgruntled Mr Bell.

“Graham Capel was third-fastest in practice for the sports car race, and DP fourth fastest for the GT event – although the Mongoose was in a bad state, with only six good cylinders.

“Plum started from the third row of the grid and, coughing and smoking his way through the field, finished second to Peter Lumsden’s Le Mans E-type.

The patron was also hoping to run in the sports car race, and so some frantic work went on in the paddock as the mechanics tried to trace the trouble. Sadly, this was finally found to be broken piston rings, which can’t be cured in half an hour, and the Mongoose staggered out to the grid with only a V6 under the bonnet, so the chequered flag fell with DP in second place again. One bright spot should be recorded for posterity. The Mongoose can lap Brands faster on its more or less standard and sick V8 than a professionally prepared TVR with full-blooded Cobra engine. Food for (chassis tuning) thought?”

For a race at Snetterton much midnight oil was then burned modifying the TVR until it would go round corners as well as along the straights: “Work was completed at 2am on the morning of the race, and the works snatched four hours of sleep before leaving for Snetterton. The V8 was unloaded from ‘Gladys’ (as the bus transporter had been named), and off burbled DP on his first practice lap.

“The car slid through Riches, roared up the Straight, twitched round the Hairpin and overturned at Coram Curve. Next day the wreck was completely stripped, a standard TVR taken out of stock and work began on building another racer…”

Which, I guess, in retrospect tells us all we need to know about minor-league British racing in the 1960s. Where the obsessional hard work and often the disappointment and Fred Karno chaos of the process is concerned, to this day precious little about club racing has really changed. Regardless of the level addressed, racers are never humdrum.

An open and shut case?

Single-seater cockpit protection is a hot racing topic at present, but canopies are nothing new

Closed cockpits for single-seat racing cars have been very much in the news. There is seldom, of course, anything new within the racing world, and 80 years ago (and more) closed coupé roofs were provided for Grand Prix cars by both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, though for different reasons from those presently being addressed.

The German engineers were then well aware of the aerodynamic drag their open-cockpit cars generated. First for straight-line record-breaking, and then for the exceptionally high-speed environment of the Tripoli Grand Prix on the Mellaha desert course in Libya and the banked AVUS track in Berlin, coupé bodywork was developed for the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union GP cars.

The teams developed light-alloy closed-cabin hardtops, which simply latched on to the open-wheeled einsitzer car bodies. Mercedes added a taller tail cowl, while Auto Union did a rather more sophisticated job with its rear-engined car, merging in a sloping engine cover and adding triangular fairings behind the front wheels and both fore and aft of the rear wheels.

Mercedes-Benz team leader Rudi Caracciola drove the closed-cockpit W25 in 1934 record attempts at Gyon in Hungary before cadet driver Hanns Geier drew the short straw to race the car at AVUS in 1935.

Hans Stuck drove one of the two ‘Lucca’ record Auto Union coupé cars in the 1935 Tripoli GP, which must have been quite an experience in the Libyan heat, even before the car’s engine bay caught fire behind him… When smoke began to fill the cabin he tried desperately to stop, only to find the flames had already either burned through a brake pipe or a hydraulic leak was what had ignited in the first place; either way – no brakes. Fortunately, he managed to slow the car on the gearbox before driving into a trackside sand bank, where alert marshals helped him to escape and doused the blaze.

Berlin’s AVUSRennen was run two weeks later, when Bernd Rosemeyer made his four-wheeler and Auto Union debut alongside Prinz zu Leiningen in the Chemnitz team’s streamliners – the Prince crashing in his last A-U appearance while young Rosemeyer retired after a tyre shed its tread, damaging his car.

Geier in the Mercedes-Benz W25 coupé also had a tyre burst in heat one, but rejoined after a wheel change to finish fourth. He drove carefully in the final, only for carburettor trouble to force his car out. Geier – who became team manager Neubauer’s assistant after a near-fatal practice crash during the Swiss GP at Bremgarten put him into hospital for four months – recalled: “The enclosed car was not, as you might imagine, very noisy, but it was rather worrying because it could only be opened from the outside.” One sympathises.

Post-war, Chapman Root’s streamlined Kurtis ‘Sumar Special’ tried a bubble canopy at Indianapolis in 1955, while Vanwall experimented with another at Monza in 1958. Ron Tauranac and Jack Brabham also tried an open-topped near-bubble on their Repco V8-engined BT24 at Monza in 1967 – but these devices were not raced. Visual distortion through the multi-curvature transparency was one major problem, while head-on into bright sunlight a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect was another.

Essentially, Formula 1 faces a terrible dilemma over cockpit protection to avert more tragedies of the Henry Surtees, Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson kind. When a category trades so much upon star driver personality, and even in current cars drivers are rendered as anonymous as they are with only the top of their crash helmets visible, how attractive will totally enclosed invisibility prove to be? If even risk-avoidance proves commercially unacceptable, the only civilised alternative would surely be not to race at all? Or perhaps what might be considered next would be the drone option? One does wonder…