Chasing Ghosts

Not pursuit along dusty roads of a bevy of 40/50 hp Rolls-Royces, simply a glance-back at some off-beat motoring history. First, during the weekend of August 15th/16th, at the Open Days of the Fairboume 15"-gauge seaside railway near Dolgellau (see Motor Sport for June, page 732), something came about that I had long wanted to see. Two prized possessions of Count Louis Zborowski's, which he owned just before his fatal accident in the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, were temporarily reunited. Owen Wyn-Owen brought "Babs", the 27-litre Liberty aero-engined LSR car which he disinterred from Pendine sands some years ago and has since restored to running order, to Fairbourne on its massive trailer behind a friend's 3-litre Rover and it took up a position at the terminal station alongside "Count Louis", the Henry Greenly-designed, Bassett-Lowke miniature 4-4-2 GNR Atlantic steam-locomotive which was also built for the adventure-loving Count.

It was good to note that Wyn-Owen has progressed with re-clothing "Babs"; the scuttle, much of the tail, and the cockpit-sides have been made. As the dashboard instruments, etc. had been removed for this rebuild, the monster could not be run-up, but "Count Louis" was very busy on the 3-mile out-and-back line, Wyn-Owen driving it for a short distance. The link is that "Babs" was originally the Higham-Special, called after Zborowski's house at the now by-passed village of Bridge, near Canterbury, and completed for racing at Brooklands in 1923/24, and that the locomotive was constructed to the Count's order (although I am not certain whether it was completed just before, or just after, his fatal accident in the GP Mercedes). It was bought from Bassett-Lowke after his death by the Fairbourne Railway. When Joint Wilkins, who was riding on his trains on the weekend of "Babs" visit, acquired the line after the war. "Count Louis" was in a bad way, but it was overhauled and returned to the line in 1947. As for the Higharn-Special, Parry Thomas acquired it, renamed it "Babs", used it to break the LSR, and was killed in it in 1927.

It was great fun riding on this unfenced little railway, which is run with outward informality but which has an unsurpassed safety record. I took rides behind both "Count Louis" and the Stourbridge-built 4-6-0 tender-locomotive "Ernest J Twining", both double-banked with the larger "Sian" and "Katie", as very long trains, including covered coaches, were being run. Rumour has had it that the Fairbourne Railway was being transferred to the Isle of Wight. Fortunately this seems not to be the case and I believe a new shares-participation scheme is to be introduced to further the Welsh project. Among the "Great Little Trains of Wales" it is the only 15"-gauge, or model, railway and if you can tear yourself away from cars, and get there before the season closes, the 80p return ride is highly recommended. . . .

Having had a comfortable trip up to the Fairbourne Railway in that inimitable car, the Solihull Rover 3500, and another very effortless, easy to conduct, family-car the Tagora GLS having presented itself for test, it seemed reasonable to chase a few more ghostly items from motoring's past. in the course of a Day Tour in a Talbot. For some time I had been thinking about the first private road to be used for speed-trials in England, namely Clipstone Drive, then on the Duke of Portland's Welbeck estate, in Nottinghamshire. It was here, over a straight mile course, that the first proper British speed-trials took place, in May 1900. They were part of the second 1,000 Mile Trial run by the influential ACGBI and Clipstone was one of the timed tests incorporated. It seems that to save time, competitors were allowed on to the course at half-minute intervals, so that some use was made of the grass verge for overtaking. The Hon CS Rolls made fastest time, on his 12 hp Panhard, averaging 37.63 mph mean, for runs in opposite directions. Second best, a tie, were an 8 hp Panhard and an 8 hp Napier. Alas, this useful course was put out-of-bounds by the Duke the following year, after he was forced to take to the ditch by a car while riding in his own grounds. He banned all motors from using his roads. However, by 1902, when County Councils were to be given a demonstration of the braking power of the new-fangled motors, the Duke had relented, even to the extent of straightening-out his drive. A flying-mile was now possible over it and after speed-trials, in January, coupled with the braking tests, the ACGBI later removed its proposed Bexhill speed-trials to Clipstone when local feeling was opposed to them.

Using a half-mile run-in to a flying kilometre, Charles Jarrott did over 63 m.p.h. on his 70 h.p. Panhard at that meeting, in spite of a wet day, when, as Tim Nicholson reminds us in his book about sprint events. "several cars nearly left the road, and all threw up plumes of black mud fifteen or twenty feet high in their passing".

The Clipstone course gained more fame in 1903, when the Eliminating Trials to select a British team for the Gordon Bennett Cup race were staged there, watched, it is said, by 3,000 people. They saw the 45 hp Napiers of Rolls and Stocks fly over the downhill kilo, at just better than 71 mph, after a short run-in. This must have prompted Rolls to use Welbeck for an attempt on the Land Speed Record that year, his 70 hp Paris-Madrid Mors covering the kilo at a rousing 84.73 mph, only to be disqualified due to suspect timing apparatus. He had run in the slightly downhill direction, admittedly, but his speed would otherwise have constituted the very first British LSR, being slightly faster than the time set by Duray and the 131/2-litre Gobron-Brille at Ostend, and which was only equalled in France (and officially recognised) by the same combination later in 1903.

At various times after this the course was used for speed-trials by the Nottingham AC and prior to the war cars of the calibre of Percy Lambert's hour-record Talbot ran there, Lambert doing fractionally under 100 mph over the fs kilo, which must have been exciting. After the war clubs such as the East Midland Centre of the ACU and the Mansfield MC ran speed-trials at Clipstone. The Duke banned cars again after the 1922 event, but relented later. The last speed-trials over this famous road were held, it seems. in 1924, perhaps because an Army camp had been built nearby and after its ban on all public-road speed-events in 1925 the RAC may have felt that the site had become dangerous.

Anyway, that is where I went in the Tagora, first along the rural route to Bridgnorth, where enthusiasts' railway and motoring interests are so well catered for, then to Wolverhampton (why the 55 mph. speed-limit for so much of the way?) and on through rather dismal urban districts, until we shook them off on attaining the excellent dual-carriageway of the A38 and the tree-lined Derby ring-road. So to Old Clipstone.

A publican directed us to the farm on which the old course now runs, the Welbeck estate having been split up, perhaps during the First World War. At what was once the lodge but is now a pleasant farm-house, we asked permission to look at the now ghostly site. This was given willingly. Indeed. we were told that the RAC and other rallies have used the forest sections that abound on the estate, so that the surface of the one-time speed-trials course is now a dusty lane, but that not all that long ago someone brought a Brough Superior there, to commemorate a quick time set up at Clipstone by George Brough.

I must confess the place was not quite what I had visualised. The road, straight and only very slightly undulating, is this now narrow lane, running between woods and hedges, ending by the Forest Town main road in a tarmac surface. flanked by Council houses, perhaps a legacy of that Army camp, with a final stretch of hard surface. I had pictured a road cutting straight across the old Duke's rolling parkland . .

However, the Clipstone Drive is still so-narned on two boards beside the far end of the road from the lodge, and local people know that racing cars were once unleashed there. Indeed, we were sent off to meet a gentleman of 94 who, at the age of 13, had played truant from school to see this, the boys being permitted to go back to watch the next day. The cars were timed from the Great Wood, it seems, and the course was closed at the far end by white gates. Naturally. I photographed the Talbot on the drive, known to the locals as the "straight-mile". although it is a very different car from the several Talbot 25s that did well there in the 1913 speed-trials; and we lunched at the near-by White Gates Hotel. Then it was off past the open-cast coal mines and a train of trucks on a high embankment that marks the area, to chase a few more items from the past.

Through the hunting pastures of the Belvoir and the Pytchley, we drove to Melton Mowbray, where the one-time home of Count Eliot Zborowski, killed at La Turbie hill-climb in 1903, still survives, to find the family grave of the Count, his wife the Countess, and their son Count Lou Zborowski (who was killed driving, like his father, for Mercedes) in the little churchyard at Burton Lasars. It is sadly neglected — perhaps local motor-racing enthusiasts could do for it what has been done for Parry Thomas' grave in Byfleet? Our last call, in a day's drive of over 400 miles, was at Sywell, to see what has become of Brooklands Aviation, who ran the Flying Club there on the grass field before the war, as well as the better-known one at Byfleet. The old sheds were still full of Club aeroplanes but the Company dropped aviation, for vehicle suspension manufacture, four years ago. After which the Talbot Tagora brought us swiftly, effortlessly, and surprisingly economically back to the present, over the route Northampton, Daventry, Leamington Spa, Warwick. Stratford, Worcester, Leominster and Kington. — WB.

The Things They Say . . .

"Poor Schlumpf never managed to get hold of one (a Type 59 Bugatti) for his ill-fated collection". "So the works Type 59s survived, one . . . winning the Commminges GP . . . This car is preserved today in the Schlumpf Museum in Mulhouse . . ." From a 14-page feature on the Type 59 Bugatti and its creator in Motor, illustrated incidentally with a cutaway drawing which appeared in Motor Sport in 1976. Ah well, there has always been much mystery surrounding that Schlumpf Collecton! — W.B.