Doug Nye

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197

‘Blarbs’ are all the rage

Racing cars are better when restored to their original state, though that was not to Ralph Lauren’s taste

Back in the early ’90s I was asked to show the remarkably diffident celebrity designer Ralph Lauren an Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato that was for sale. Friends at Prowess Racing had just finished restoring ‘1 VEV’ to virtual 1962 Goodwood TT form. We had painstakingly matched its original paint finish of Aston metallic green, carefully preserving the Zagato body’s charming hand-built Italian asymmetry, and for my taste it looked an absolute picture. For the fashionistas, Ralph Lauren was rugged-up in polo-neck sweater and navy blue duffle coat.

He circled the car for long minutes, then asked “Darg – does it have to have the blarbs on it?”. Err, the blarbs? What – umm – blarbs? “The white blarbs. Where the race numbers go”.

Oh, the roundels! “Well, any owner can obviously do what he likes with his own car, but that’s how the car appeared in period – so that’s the way we’ve restored it”. Oh, said Mr Lauren, circling the car once more. “Does it have to be that metallic green?”. My answer was along the same lines. He then told me how, during his youth, Detroit had discovered metallic paints as the latest sales fad. Ever since, he said, he’d had a powerful aversion to metallic paints. “But if that’s the colour the car should be, and if it should have those blarbs, I guess it’s not for me”. So that was it, and – very wisely – I was never asked again to act as stand-in car salesman.

I couldn’t help but think of this as I stood admiring the 1953 Ferrari 375MM Berlinetta which I’d been asked to co-drive at Goodwood. The car in question – chassis 0320AM – won that year’s Pescara 12 Hours co-driven by Mike Hawthorn and that terrific road racer Umberto Maglioli. During that season as one of the works team’s big bazookas this particular V12 had been handled by two other World Champions, ‘Nino’ Farina and Alberto Ascari. It had come to us in plain Rosso Corsa, with the rather demeaning later-season droop-snoot front-end treatment which had replaced Pinin Farina’s original chopped-off potato-chipper style. Now the great car stood restored to its original form. And to my eye what really set it off were ‘the blarbs’ in Old English white against the racing red.

It’s customary these days for drivers to specialise – in single-seat open-wheelers, ALMS-type endurance sports-prototypes, or in touring cars. In Hawthorn’s era the superstars simply drove anything and everything available. Every single race was an earning opportunity, so very few offers were ever ignored regardless of category. Today’s internet generation might turn up its nose to see Hawthorn’s record at Drivers’ World Championship level – 47 races (barely half as many as Takuma Sato), three wins, 18 ‘podiums’ (bleeaggh!) and four pole positions. But to judge the real worth of the first British World Champion add his sports car laurels with Ferrari and Jaguar – the 1953 Spa 24 Hours and Pescara 12 Hours, the 1954 and ’56 Supercortemaggiore 1000Kms at Monza, the ’54 Portuguese GP at Monsanto Park, Lisbon, and the 1955 Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours. He also shared the scratch win in the 1954 RAC TT at Dundrod though the official winner was a handicap pony – by Panhard.

As I folded myself into his Pescara-winning Berlinetta it seemed impossible that he had once crammed his 6ft 2in(ish) frame into that same air space. Even my head was brushing the roof with legs cramped wide to clear the large wood-rimmed steering wheel. But light up that 4½-litre V12 engine and the entire machine stirs into vibrant life. Ease in the clutch, and Maranello’s surging torque has the old lady gathering up her skirts and punching you towards the horizon. Ease into a turn and the tail ducks sideways – we suspect as the axle moves – before settling reassuringly onto the outside (loaded) wheel. And off you thunder…super-conscious that the shades of Hawthorn himself, and Farina and Ascari might be glowering at your puny efforts. That’s the thing with truly historic cars. For anyone on their wavelength I’m sure they carry some indefinable essence of great deeds past. I can just sense DSJ right now, reading this and bawling “b******t!”. That’s another indefinable essence. Yes indeed – just like those lovely blarbs.

*****

Dunlop’s half-tyre bridges span a century of racing

Simon Taylor and I spent a chunk of time together at the Goodwood Festival waffling our way through public presentations on behalf of the Dunlop tyre company about the Bentley Boys, a ‘Blower’ Bentley, the Le Mans 24 Hours and a Jaguar C-type. It seems that Dunlop is presently poised to expand its motor sporting activities while also seeking to capitalise upon its absolutely glittering history in racing, rallying and record breaking.

I fell into deep discussion with one of Dunlop’s enthusiastic young executives about a particular past company icon, now that considerable fuss has been caused locally by news of the demolition of “Donington Park’s landmark Dunlop Bridge”. Since I remember that particular bridge from the day in 1977 when it was barely knee-high to a pontoon ferry, I certainly don’t regard it as being in the least bit historic. Others certainly differ.

But when it comes to genuinely historic Dunlop bridges, a trawl through the archive raises eyebrows. For example the most celebrated Pont des Pneus Dunlop was undoubtedly that over the first corner at Le Mans. The corner itself did not exist until 1932 when the Sarthe circuit was shortened, turning right just after the start to use a tailor-made bypass road linking into what became the start of the Mulsanne Straight. A rectangular pedestrian bridge was thrown across the first curve, sponsored initially by Champion spark plugs. It remained the Champion Curve until at least 1935 before Dunlop eventually bought the rights and provided the distinctive half-tyre bridge which would dominate for decades a newly renamed Courbe Dunlop. Another Dunlop half-tyre bridge would be added before Tertre Rouge, and similar bridges graced many other leading circuits, notably Reims.

But if you trawl back further, there was a wonderful Dunlop half-tyre bridge erected over the Lyons-Givors road circuit for the 1924 French GP, and a decidedly less sophisticated ‘DUNLOP’ lettered bridge over the Dieppe road circuit for the 1908 Grand Prix, in the village of Eu. In fact the British company festooned the Dieppe circuit that year with its advertising banners – to an extraordinary extent since I believe only Austin and maybe Weigel used their tyres among a huge field running, primarily, on Michelin and Continental. One thing seems certain. That weekend Dunlop won the advertising GP. Now it seems set upon a comeback curve which might lead it who knows where?

*****

The Aston man cut out of the loop

Atonement is good for the soul. As far as I can remember, it was Cyril Posthumus, my mid-1960s editor on Motor Racing magazine, who introduced me to the wonderful work of the Lagonda and Aston Martin stylist Frank Feeley. Ever since, I have had it fixed in the dark sub-basement of my brain that he was the man responsible for styling such enduring classics as the Aston Martin DB3S and the replacement
DBR1 and DBR2 sports cars. I see the cars and like a knee-jerk reflex, think ‘Frank Feeley’. It seems to be one of those things which afflicts some of us, and flying on automatic then resists evidence to the contrary.

I must have read or heard many times since that the DBR body style – just about the best-proportioned and most enduringly gorgeous of anything the British industry ever produced – was in fact the work of Aston’s chief engineer Ted Cutting. But it didn’t penetrate to the same extreme as what I had learned at Cyril’s knee – and so lines like “Frank Feeley’s peerless bodywork on the DBR1 and DBR2” have repeatedly passed into posterity courtesy of yours truly.

Well believe me, it’s BS – a pure Duggism to be disregarded. The DBRs are down to Cutting, who took on the task after Feeley left Aston Martin in 1956. (However there is a broad-brush family resemblance between DB3S and DBR-series, he added – weakly.)

*****

A Lotus worth collecting

Some years ago I was partly instrumental in inviting the late John Dawson-Damer to run some of his Lotus collection cars at Goodwood. We visited ‘Bun’ at his hilltop home in rural New South Wales and enjoyed his infectious pride and enthusiasm as he showed us the F1 engine he was then reassembling in his basement workshop. We followed him out of the house and over the ridge and through the fields to the large corrugated barn which housed his cars, and I recall much laughter as he showed off his engine-test dyno in its open-ended shelter with distant views to a deserted horizon – no noise-enforcement officers there, we presumed…

He came to Goodwood, and of course in 2000 – brutally – he died there, together with marshal Andrew Carpenter. That’s a horrible memory, but shortly the bulk of the Dawson-Damer Collection of Lotus cars is to be sold in Australia by Goodmans-Bonhams. The lots include the particularly interesting and unique Lotus 39 which began life as a truncated monocoque chassis intended to accept the stillborn 1½-litre Formula 1 flat-16 Coventry Climax engine in 1965. It was later that year that Colin Chapman recruited engineer-cum-Lotus 7 club racer Maurice Phillippe from De Havilland Aircraft at Hatfield to become Team Lotus’s new chassis designer.

The first job he gave Maurice was to design a new rear-end frame which would adapt the Lotus 39 monocoque to accept a 2½-litre Climax FPF four-cylinder engine. The finished car was then campaigned by Jim Clark in the 1966 Tasman series in New Zealand and Australia. What had become the first of Maurice’s works Lotuses took second places at Levin in New Zealand and at Sandown Park, Melbourne, Australia. It won at Warwick Farm, Sydney and finished sixth at Longford, Tasmania.

The car was then sold to Australian Lotus specialist Leo Geoghegan, who ran it still Climax FPF-engined in 1967, placing second among the visiting superstars at Sandown Park and fifth in the Australian GP. By the time of the 1968 Tasman series he’d fitted a 2½-litre Repco V8, finishing fourth in the Internationals at Surfers Paradise and seventh in the AGP. And in ’69 he did even better – third in the AGP at Lakeside, Brisbane, fourth at Levin and fifth in both the NZ GP at Pukekohe, Auckland, and at Warwick Farm. Highlight of his career with the old warhorse was victory in the 1969 Japanese GP. Some old racing cars, like old soldiers, just go on… and on. The Lotus 39 certainly falls into that category, and despite its restricted success in Jim Clark’s hands I always remember it with particular affection. I had a lot of time for Maurice Phillippe’s work, and that car – although only partially down to him – just looked great!

*****

Mercedes celebrates

At the start of July Mercedes-Benz ran a wonderfully low-key centenary celebration of the first-ever Mercedes Grand Prix victory; Christian Lautenschlager’s win in the 1908 Grand Prix de l’ACF at Dieppe. While he and his muscle-bound riding mechanic Mackle won the race outright, two rival Benz cars driven by Victor Hémery and Réné Hanriot boomed home second and third and Poege’s Mercedes was fifth, followed by Joerns’s Opel!

After winning the first Grand Prix two years previously with Renault, the French industry had been kneed in the groin by Fiat of Italy in 1907, and now this shattering German whitewash in 1908 went some way to killing interest in reviving the expensive GP until 1912…

Running 1908 GP Mercedes and Benz cars on the old 47-mile Circuit de la Seine-Inférieur was fascinating and a little spooky, especially as it was 100 years to the day since the momentous event. No fewer than 17 entrants – each in effect a works team – had started 48 cars in the great race. Lautenschlager in the 12.7-litre Merc completed the 10 laps after 6hrs 55mins. The fastest lap of 36min 31sec – 78.89mph – fell to Otto Salzer in his Mercedes.

Mark Walker attended the retro event with his GP Panhard and Ben Collings with the 1908 Mercedes, among a group of VSCC stalwarts, only for Mark’s car to suffer a gearbox failure on centenary eve. But perhaps the best running car present was George Daniels’s 1907 GP Itala (above), driven by Roger Collings, Ben’s father. To me the most extraordinary thing was how many buildings survive around the circuit barely changed from 1908.