Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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Keeping things fair

When one team ordered a hot racer, Jaguar thought the others should have one too

You must be driven to win if you invest in a racer that has a shelf-life of less than a year and you’re already lined up to buy its successor. Tommy Sopwith was the man who ordered this single-season sprinter, but during its one impressive year it reeled in a string of wins and seconds. That makes it a significant car, which has now been rescued from obscurity by Jaguar devotee Chris Scragg.

It’s a MkI 3.4 saloon, much less common than the MkII which went on to dominate the tracks and feature in many a bank job either carrying the robbers or the cops, and sometimes both. There are many reasons why the MkII makes a better racer – not least its wider rear track – but although everyone knew the revisions were on their way team owner Tommy Sopwith decided early in 1959 to commission a hot MkI.

Sopwith’s Equipe Endeavour was just one outfit running Jaguars in saloon racing – Tommy himself was pipped to the 1958 inaugural championship by Jack Sears after a famous ‘shoot-out’ at Brands Hatch. Deciding to retire from driving, Sopwith knew that under new 1959 rules his team needed an edge, and this car was it.

It’s just out of a year of intensive restoration by marque specialist Mike Wilkinson, which involved some deep research and lengthy searching for appropriate parts. Mike is bubbling with information when I turn up at Sigma Engineering in Dorset where the car sits on the rolling road so Jaguar straight-six guru Peter Lander can tweak the output. Mike’s folder of info includes a copy of the Feb 1959 build sheet headed ‘3.4-Litre Special Competition Cars’ confirming the chassis numbers and listing the special features: alloy doors, bonnet, seats and bumper (with a note saying “Mr Sopwith supplies his own” – presumably paper-thin) and an S-spec engine. Apart from the internal mods and fast road cam, these four cars sport straight-port heads and a unique angled inlet manifold that fits three semi-downdraught 2in SUs under the bonnet. Peter Lander hands me a sheet from the rollers that shows it’s making around 230bhp. Yes, you can get more power from a Coventry six but Mike is keen to explain it’s strictly to original spec.

“This car has FIA papers because this is the way it was built,” he says, “but no-one else can build one to the same spec and get papers for it.” More interesting is an internal memo about Sopwith’s approach to such a car; it says that instead of the one special car he has ordered Jaguar should build several, “in the interests of fair play” and that one should be offered to John Coombs. His famous BUY 1, driven by Roy Salvadori, had been Endeavour’s great rival. Which is what happened: apart from Sopwith’s, one went to Coombs, one with LHD to Briggs Cunningham and one was kept by the factory. A fifth car for Australia was added later.

Already a Le Mans winner in a D-type, Ivor Bueb was a perfect driver option who steered the rapid car, indigo blue and carrying one of Endeavour’s trademark ‘400’ plates, to win after win, often against its sister, the new BUY 1. The only let-down was in Snetterton’s 100-mile race where he shared it with defending champion Jack Sears. After setting pole position and fastest lap the brakes failed while leading, and they came in only second behind team-mate Sir Gawaine Baillie in his own MkI. His Austin Westminster outclassed by new rules, this was a rare 1959 outing for Sears: “it was an interesting car to race after my 105 – much, much quicker,” he recalls. “Of course the 3.8 had superior handling – I never understood why the rear track on the MkI was so narrow but they sorted that on the MkII. But in 1959 this was the best there was. Driving for Equipe Endeavour was always special – Tommy ran the team with great verve and skill – but that day I think we just ran out of brakes.”

But shortly after this Bueb died when his BRP Cooper went off the road at Clermont-Ferrand. Sears and Baillie raced it again, adding to the car’s tally to close the season, but for 1960 the MkII with its 3.8 engine arrived and trod all over everything else for several years. Now just an out-dated model, the Bueb car stayed with Baillie for some years along with other Endeavour racers, then passed via an intermediate to an enthusiast whose plans for a rebuild eventually bogged down. It was then that Wilkinson recognised the engine and bought the car for historic Jaguar racer Chris Scragg, who also runs the magnificent Broadspeed XJ-C.

While preserving its originality by for example disguising the catch-tank as a heater and fitting the extinguisher knob in the ashtray socket, it’s ready to race, Sopwith’s favoured alloy seats protected inside a beefy rollcage. Within the 7in racing Dunlops, hefty rear wheel offset compensates for the narrow axle, while a red bulb in the reversing light does for a rain lamp. And before you ask, no, it never ran with rear spats.

No doubt it could be made faster, but Mike and Chris both prefer to stick with its original Koni shocks and fast road cams. It’s remarkable that Sopwith was prepared to invest in such a special car for one season, but even more so that Jaguar put such effort into it considering they weren’t officially racing at this point. But Lofty England and his development department well knew the value of winning on the track. Chris plans to reserve it for appropriate events such as Goodwood; it will be a treat to see it race once again alongside its Coombs sister car, Grant William’s well-known MkI.

*****

BlueBird on the beach

Recreating Malcolm Campbell’s Pendine record runs

While gazing at a famous old racing car close-up in a museum gives a good sense of its scale and engineering, there’s nothing like seeing and hearing it run to convey the sheer drama of past days. Anyone lucky enough to be strolling on Pendine Sands in July might have thought a minor earthquake was under way, but in fact the exhilarating noise came from Sir Malcolm Campbell’s record-breaking Bluebird, celebrating its 150mph Land Speed Record 90 years later to the day on these same sands. At the wheel on this low-speed run was Don Wales, Sir Malcolm’s grandson, himself a Pendine record-holder in an electric Bluebird.

Normally living in the National Motor Museum, the giant 350hp Sunbeam record-breaker has not long recovered from a mechanical disaster 20 years back when it threw a rod, but now the 28.3-litre V12 Manitou aero engine throbs with health. Conceived by Sunbeam designer Louis Coatalen, the giant car first took an LSR at Brooklands in 1922 driven by K Lee Guinness before Campbell bought it, christened it Blue Bird (then two words) and twice bellowed along the Welsh strand to successive new LSR marks, the early stages of his relentless quest for speed records. A permanent Pendine speed museum commemorates the many record attempts on this Welsh venue, with Parry Thomas’s restored ‘Babs’ often on display.

To cement the connection Brooklands director Alan Winn drove the Napier-Railton, which later added 10mph to Lee Guinness’s figure around the vast banked Track, along the Pendine sands. Though it made no actual record runs here, it has been paddling here before, starring as a record car in the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, alongside Ava Gardner and James Mason. Disguised with a bulbous nose, the car is just about recognisable as it thunders along the beach (which is supposed to be in Spain), but in the end it’s pushed off a cliff for the love of a woman. (It looks like a real car going over the edge, so if anyone knows how they filmed that I’d be pleased to hear from them.)

Back at Pendine the NMM team recreated some photos of the Campbell record runs before leaving the sand by the ramp where so many speed machines have regained the land, with or without glory.