Not only does Britain boast some of the finest restoration facilities anywhere, it is also the home of the closest hardest historic racing around. Gordon Cruickshank talks to a man who has made a top reputation for himself in both elements of our sport
In a corner of the long low range of tile-roofed farm buildings which house Tony Merrick’s operation, a dismantled Ferrari Monza rests on stands. Bonnet and boot lean against the walls, transmission, wheels and axles make an untidy pile on the floor. Its blue and silver paint is worn and chipped; small crazes and clings decorate the bonnet, a testimony to its unlikely history of ice-racing in Finland. In a year or so it will be reassembled, and it will look — exactly the same as before. “We’ll clean and paint the chassis and overhaul the engine and running gear, but we won’t touch the body. All that wear is part of its past,” says Merrick. “It’s not up to me to strip that away.” It’s a laudable concern for history which doesn’t come automatically to restorers of old cars.
It’s somehow easy to imagine Tony Merrick immersed in books and dusty files extracting the distant background story of some new project; when in suit and tie instead of racing overalls he looks more like a university lecturer than a car restorer or racing driver. But his many wins in Ferrari Dino, ERA and any number of other rare single-seaters add weight to a record which brings a great deal of exotic machinery to this one-time farm steading in rural Berkshire.
Under a timber roof which in places is 200 years old, sit some of the great mechanical achievements of motor racing engineering: a 3-litre Tipo 61 Birdcage Maserati (just here for a fettle), a pontoon Testarossa, R4D, the most famous ERA of all, a Dino 246 Ferrari. And then there’s the rare stuff. In the engine shop, the power unit of Doug Man’s V8RI Maserati rests on a bench, its complex castings gleaming after its rebuild. Nearby, engine builder John Mann is fitting eight delicate con-rods to a long crankshaft. This is where Carlos Monteverdi’s gorgeous Alfetta 158, the only private one there is, has come to be returned to race order. They know about supercharged Alfas here — no fewer than nine 2.9 8Cs have passed through. Almost in passing we see, reposing alongside the 4CM Maserati Martin Stretton used to hurl around so impressively, one of the clean-lined, wickedly elongated 2.9 coupes, the 1937 Paris Show car, waiting in a barn for its owner to come and excercise it.
Unusual engines are meat and drink to this small team. Inside is the hefty block of an Offenhauser from an Indianapolis roadster, and soon they will add a V12 Alfa, the prewar GP engine, to their tally. And just to prove that younger machines are welcome too, there’s a racing E-type and a 1968 F2 Lola with 1600 BMW engine — another oddity with an opposed instead of paired four-valve layout which results in exhaust manifolds on both sides. With no near neighbours to worry about, unsilenced race engines can be checked out on the firm’s dyno before fitment, and clients know that the boss is more than capable of giving a rebuilt car a thorough shake-down on the track and sorting any handling worries. Merrick’s outfit concentrates on the mechanics — engines, gearboxes, transmission — calling on favoured specialists for bodywork, painting and trimming. Thus the light and roomy brick buildings house more cam than people; there are only five men apart from Tony. Not all the jobs are racing cars: an elegant Ma 1750 tourer has come to be ‘refreshed’, and Tony has just finished restoring one of only two non-race pre-war Maseratis. The 1932 4CS is his own project, and fairly typically for a personal job in the restoration world, it has taken 17 years. Unusually, he has for once deliberately bucked the historical facts: “It was bright yellow when new, but I just couldn’t see myself in a yellow Maserati. So I painted it cream.” Well, sometimes taste has to be allowed to override history…
On a wall of the workshop hangs a very different memorial of the past which Merrick is very glad to have rescued: the very laurel wreath proudly sported by Tony Brooks when he won the 1958 German GP in his Vanwall. Now crumbling and brown with faded Automobilclub von Deutschland ribbons, Merrick found it in the Vanwall factory when demolition threatened, but shakes his head sadly recalling how much else of significance had gone into the skips by the time he got there.
In a separate shed lurks another part of Vanwall’s history — beside a gleaming 1966 works Ferrari transporter lorry (a customer’s toy) sits Vanwall’s racing car transporter, looking tatty and sad. Eventually it will be tidied up but at least the flaking blue machine has a cheeky episode to boast: having begun to do work for Mercedes-Benz, Merrick persuaded the company it, or rather he, should restore its non-running W154 Grand Prix car. When it was done he loaded the one historic vehicle inside the other and drove to Stuttgart. The Germans were delighted. When the time came to restore engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut’s personal road-going 300SLR coupe, M-B sent it to Merrick. Typically he realised they had sent the other one of the two built and reported back. “Never mind,” came the reply. “We’ll send the other as well. Do them both.” “I have a very good relationship with Stuttgart,” says Tony. “They send me any drawings I want from their archives — you can’t have too much information. That was an immense help when we were getting a W125 (the 1937 ex-Comer, ex-Crabbe car) running for a private client. I discovered from one note on a works drawing that something previous restorers thought was a later problem was always meant to be there.” The memory of it stirs his normally measured tones. ‘That was a terribly interesting motor; it had wrong parts on it and we were able to put it back to factory spec. And it’s the most ferocious animal I’ve ever driven.
I gave it a shake-down to check everything worked, and it spun its wheels in every gear. It gave me a little window into what those guys endured at places like the ‘Ring.” Significant praise from a man with 40 years of racing experience, always in historic cars ,which includes driving such rarities as BRM V16, Vanwall VW10, the only running Ferrari Super Squalo and one of the fearsome 430bhp Maserati 8CLs, all restored at his shop. In fact Tony Merrick’s firm probably devotes more time to race preparation than restoration: “I’d say the ratio is about 60 percent preparation to 40 percent actually restoring cars,” says the boss. “and we’re currently looking after about seven cars.” Three of those are for well-known historic racer Robin Lodge (Merrick often drives Lodge’s cars as well as his own) and major race weekends can mean taking several prime pieces of machinery to distant circuits. With such comprehensive care on offer it’s not surprising that the waiting list for Merrick’s services is lengthy, compounded by the fact that a major rebuild can take three years. Some of that can be pure research: Tony keeps an extensive library and revels in trawling for the references, drawings and photographs which trace the complicated, and sometimes deliberately obfuscated, life stories of the cars entrusted to him. For his own 4CS Maserati he has a thick folder which begins with reports from the motor show where it was first shown with its unusual Brianza body and chronicles its appearance in Libya where it was the toy of some RAF officers. As he turns the pages he seems as pleased with his researches as with the rebuilding itself.
What happens if someone asks him to work on a boring car? Merrick is beautifully tactful: “It happens occasionally; I usually put them in touch with someone who can do that job better than we can.” Merrick’s absorption in historics goes back to 1958, to ap MG and then ERA R1A. For a while in the Sixties he looked after Tom Wheatcroft’s expanding single-seater collection and raced the Tec-Mec Maserati (“lovely, light and very quick”), then took charge of running Neil Corner’s stable. Latterly he was Chairman of the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association, but stepped down after the accident a year ago when his stalled Ferrari Dino was rear-ended on the grid. The resulting shoulder injuries mean he has not raced this season, but after a recent experiment with Lodge’s wonderful Lancia D50 recreation around the Nurburgring Merrick plans to return to racing in 2001. And the Dino will have recovered by then too.