Joining a road trip to commemorate a spectacular triumph for British – and Scottish – sports car racing six decades ago
After a lap of Silverstone and a visit to Silverstone University Technical College, which provides engineering courses that bridge school and university, the convoy blue-streaked down to Williams F1 where I caught up with them in time for a tour of the advanced engineering shop, eloquently guided by Claire Williams, the outfit’s deputy team principal. Apart from its Formula 1 racing activities, the firm through its associated arms develops a huge range of prototypes and technologies for others: a team was just finishing the FW-EVX electric chassis module – a sort of electric skateboard with integrated batteries and four motors that can carry a wide variety of stuctures – for its public announcement, while nearby sat a pair of Nissan BladeGliders. Never seen one? You’re unlikely to – these sporty three-seat EV concepts, wedge-shaped in the idiom of the Japanese firm’s DeltaWing and ZEOD Le Mans experiments and sporting a Williams-developed 246bhp powertrain, were a Nissan flag-flier at the Rio Olympics to show that battery power can still be fun. But while those built were fully working vehicles they were exploratory studies, not pre-production prototypes, so you can expect your shopping Nissan to continue having a wheel at each corner for a while yet.
Elsewhere sat the scorched form of a C-X75, the gorgeous sports car Jaguar decided not to build (and which would have been assembled here in the building where we are standing). This wasn’t the result of problems with the mooted gas turbine power unit; this was the stunt car that featured in the explosive Spectre Bond film – hence the charred finish. Photos on the wall showed Daniel Craig ‘driving’ behind a bonnet filled with cameras while attached to the roof is a cage where a fearless stunt driver is actually controlling the vehicle – the only double-decker Jaguar known to science.
Along with the expected ‘you can’t look at that’ four-wheeled secrets, Williams has developed its lightweight Babypod, a hi-tech portable incubator that benefits from F1 survival cell technology, and it’s also testing an aerodynamic spoiler for supermarket freezers which saves 30 per cent on electricity and means you don’t have to wear thermals to buy your frozen peas.
From future to past, in the shape of the Williams Heritage museum. Through its theatrical entry you are guided sinuously from start-up to today via the great, the disappointing and the occasional ugly – I’m pointing a rude finger at the sabre-toothed FW26 and the broken-nosed 34 – as well as a Metro 6R4 and quarter-size BMW V12LMR wind tunnel model, which both enjoyed Williams involvement. It’s a magnificent show of racing glory, as is the trophy cabinet upstairs, a dazzling wall of gleaming silver justifiably boasting of 16 world championships.
On the way out Sir Frank came to admire the Jaguars – apparently the noise of their arrival stopped all work – and we exchanged memories of Stoke Mandeville hospital as we’re both ‘alumni’.
This was my first chance to inspect the Bedford van that Clive Beecham, owner of XKD 603, has restored into a faithful copy of the 1950s Ecurie Ecosse service van – a perfect accompaniment to the main dish, consisting of the 1957 Le Mans winner from the Louwman museum, Beecham’s second-placed car, the bright blue short-nose privateer that came third, plus XKD 504, the prototype long-nose car, and Jaguar’s own works long-nose from its Heritage collection. All four of the Europe-based long-noses in one place, and the first three cars over the line at 4pm at the Sarthe in 1957 – an amazing feat of organisation, and all about to hit the road just as the team would drive to Le Mans 60 years back. In a touching gesture, Sir Frank was by the gate to see the convoy off. A proper racer.
Likewise the shimmering blue D-types as their rounded rumps disappeared down the road toward the next rendezvous, the RAC’s Woodcote Park clubhouse where there was to be a gala dinner. It was a brilliant sight to see these five historic machines upstaging everything else on the road, even if they did get jammed on the M25. Not a fair test for a car designed to do 175 down the ligne droite des Hunaudières; yet all made it without exploding, a tribute to the robustness of the D and to the attention of their present carers.
At Woodcote Park (venue for Motor Sport’s Hall of Fame events) the Ds posed on the lawns among a large array of Jaguars of all types, while inside speeches and films lauded that extraordinary 1-2-3 achievement and Ecurie Ecosse’s part in it. Hugh McCaig, who reinvigorated the team in the 1980s, attended along with senior Jaguar figures including design chief Ian Callum, who briefly silenced the room by declaring he had probably already designed his last pure petrol car.
Ron Gaudion, mechanic for all three D-type Le Mans wins, related his memories and swapped recollections with the evergreen, bootlace-necktied Norman Dewis, Coventry’s test driver when the D-type was a twinkle in Malcolm Sayer’s eye. Remarkable to have two people from those heady days, both with pin-sharp recall, discussing something that seems history to us but which was their live experience.
On the next day the Ds paused at Brooklands to pose on the banking, a nod to the Race of Two Worlds, or Monzanapolis, of 1957 when the Scottish team sent a trio of cars to that lop-sided event on the Italian track’s high banking.
From there this convoi très exceptionnel made a blaring midday arrival at the Hampton Court Palace concours, where in front of Wren’s baroque frontage it formed the centrepiece display among some magnificent machinery stretched up and down the gardens. Among the 8C Alfa Romeos, V12 Ferraris and Bugattis old and new, unexpected treasures included a chunky but good-looking Fiat 1100 barchetta, Piero Frua’s first car, a truly lovely 1954 Siata 208S spider concealing Fiat’s 2-litre 8V motor within a svelte Motto body, and a swooping streamlined Castagna body on a Lancia Astura.
Duncan Hamilton Ltd showed a Can-Am Ferrari 712 that grew out of a 512M, while Abbeyfield brought an Arnolt Bristol Bolide, its surging Bertone lines hiding a Bristol engine about three storeys high.
Returning to the Jaguars’ location you had only to turn your head to see both an 1896 Arnold Benz and a McLaren P1 GTR, six decades each way of extraordinary automobile development all arrayed within lush green lawns. It was a fine close to an eventful week.
AN IMPRESSIVE 21 works competition Minis reunited in August at the Abingdon, Oxfordshire, base where BMC’s motor sport team once hand-assembled the giant-killing vehicles for their attack on races and rallies around Europe. The 1930s building, now reclad as a mail distribution centre, held many memories for the likes of team chiefs Stuart Turner, Bill Price and Peter Browning, Monte winner Paddy Hopkirk, co-drivers Paul Easter, Willy Cave and Mike Wood, Mini racers John Rhodes and Christabel Carlisle and mechanics Den Green and Dudley Pike, who all contributed to the Mini Cooper legend. More than 70 race or rally Minis came out of this place between 1959 and 1970, and survivors are keenly sought after.
Appropriately the weekend wrapped up in the nearby Dog House pub, which was the team’s drinking hole in period.
Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635