Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank: October 2017

Phoenix sights: an enjoyable pub lunch with a vintage flavour, topped off with encountering a historic Alfa Romeo with Brooklands honours

There’s a place I pass from time to time and always say ‘must stop there on my next trip’. I’ve been saying it for 30 years, but finally I made it, tempted by the news that there was an interesting Brooklands car to be found. It’s the Phoenix Inn at Hartley Wintney in Hampshire, and the fascinating garage that fronts onto it.

Famous for its Boxing Day vintage car meets, the Phoenix was the scene of the formation of the VSCC back in 1934. (Even then enthusiasts thought the old days were better…) Ever since it has hosted many a vintage visitor – it was one of DSJ’s and WB’s regular haunts, too. Today it’s a smart gastropub with a Les Routiers award and a menu that would have astonished those 1930s customers. And, with the Phoenix Green Garage right alongside, there’s always some very fine old machinery to admire in the car park, a habit that goes back years – this part-17th century range of brick and timber buildings seems to have housed old-car experts forever. Names like Peter Whenman and Alan Southen are well known in the old car world, but before them this place housed Pasini & Rolt – that’s L T C Rolt who is a famous figure not only among old cars but in the steam engine and canal worlds, too. He along with Tim Carson, then landlord of the Phoenix, were two of the main figures in forming the VSCC; there can’t be many other places (barring the likes of Brooklands and Shelsley Walsh) with such long links to the old car world.

Current custodian of the garage is Nick Benwell, one-time auction expert with Christies and now mender of fine motor cars. He’s just preparing a unique machine for the Hampton Court concours, an Alfa Romeo with some impressive history, and over a hearty Phoenix lunch he gave me the gen. Starting off as a 1930 6C 1750 Testa Fissa – that’s the rare racing version with integral cylinder head better able to stand supercharger pressure – it received an elegant streamlined body courtesy of George Eyston, who then took a bunch of records with it at Brooklands. He also raced it along with owner Sir Ronald Stewart, with a fastest lap in the BRDC 500 of 114.49mph.

Across the lunch table Nick spreads a file of notes showing that Eyston designed the new coachwork, built by Leadbetter in London, plus a history trail showing that soon after its racing exploits it was converted to a four-seater by a relative of Stewart. It had a few owners after that but by far the longest was an Ian Gunn, who had it from 1954, stripped it following a biff in the rear and never got round to restoring it before he died – in 2008. Which is why it came through substantially intact to a new British owner who has had it put back into Brooklands shape with two seats, rear wheel covers, tapered tail and that shapely frontage. “But the bonnet and all the running gear are original,” Nick tells me, clicking home the curlicue springs on the bonnet strap.

He hits the starter and the six-cylinder snaps into life with a wail from the geared-up blower and a crisp bark through the Brooklands exhaust – and in the sooty stain on the flank are the words ‘George Eyston’

“I had Eyston’s family here to see it,” explains Nick, “and his great-nephew is also a George Eyston so after he’d had a run in it he signed his name in the soot.”

Completed earlier this year, the Alfa appeared at Amelia Island in March but it’s not just a showmobile; it will be road-registered – which will startle a few drivers who think old cars are slow.

Back before horsepower, when there was just horse power, the Phoenix was a coaching inn on the busy London-Portsmouth road, and part of Nick’s building was a wheelwright’s works. So not much has changed, though now it’s alloy instead of oak being handled inside. Nick has a long history with Lancias – there are two handsome Lambdas here and, in the middle of re-covering a hood, he shows me how the Italian firm made the whole thing disappear behind the rear seats – though he also has his own 6C 1750, which ran the Mille Miglia in 1933 but hasn’t been on the road since 1966. It’s currently part-way through restoration, and Nick shows me photos of it in the Italian classic, complete with the bodywork he’ll recreate. Much modified during many years in Somalia, including local competition, it will revert to its original Zagato form, “but I’ll keep the twin flared scuttle as that’s part of its African history.”

Naturally Benwell aims to take the car back to the Italian endurance classic, but typically for an ‘own job’ that’s an open-ended timescale. Nick does have a date with Brescia, though: next year he’s entering in a Lancia Lambda.

While we’re admiring his 30-98 Vauxhall Nick nips off and returns in his twin-cam Sunbeam 3-litre, a rare and sophisticated device that’s often overlooked. Lancia, Vauxhall, Sunbeam – Nick doesn’t go the conventional route. “I’ve had Bentleys,” he says, “but I like something a bit out of the ordinary.”

Like his premises, with ancient wavering brickwork and sagging lintels. “It used to have false ceilings for warmth but I took them out so you can see the roof beams,” he tells me as we gaze up at the ancient timbers. There’s an old wood-cased dial phone on the wall, too, crowned with metal bells. “My only landline phone,” Nick says proudly, before adding “I do have a mobile, though.”

Coming home I decide to avoid the motorway and enjoy the sights on a more suitable period route. I spend an hour and a half reaching Wimbledon. The record time from the Phoenix to Marble Arch is 30 minutes. In a Vauxhall 30-98.

AFTER MY CRITICISM of the security of keyless ignition systems last month, we received a press release from Tracker, which makes tracking devices, describing a rising trend in a new type of vehicle theft – ‘relay attack’. This lets thieves quickly purloin a car even when the key is out of radio range. It’s been on the increase in Germany and the US and is now happening here.

A criminal armed with a powerful radio relay device stands near the owner’s house, where he is highly likely to be in key range wherever the key has been left – hall table, shelf, jacket pocket. The device – sold on the internet for as little as £80 – amplifies and re-transmits the key signal a far longer distance, letting an accomplice open the car even if it is down the street.

There’s nothing to stop a criminal with this relay device standing casually at Sainsbury’s doorway while his mate systematically opens every newly parked car in the car park as the owner walks into the shop past the man with the relay transmitter.

Manufacturers, when do we get an ‘off’ switch?

ANOTHER STEP BACK into the past at Brooklands in August, where the annual Reunion welcomed the re-erection of the long-missing paddock scoreboard. The tall wooden structure, designed like so much in the track’s early days in the style of horse racing, was meant to be easily legible from the vantage point of the Members’ Hill so it soared a towering 12m above the paddock, with precipitous stairs for the scorekeepers to climb to slide boards in and out.

The original was demolished after the war, but now Aston Martin Lagonda has helped the Brooklands Trust construct a perfect working replica that was unveiled as Brooklands machinery gathered to recapture the days of the last meetings at the Surrey circuit before war snuffed it out. The gleaming white timber recalled on the board the names of past greats – Howe, Cobb, Hamilton (Hugh, not Lewis).

The Reunion started out as the only regular gathering at the derelict circuit. Now the place is throbbing, and with the scenery being restored like this it rivals Goodwood for period authenticity. So that’s the 1930s and ’60s covered. Any votes for turning Silverstone back to the ’70s?