Summer holiday

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This is one of those articles that was easy to write but for which it was difficult to find a suitable title. I had thought of hackneyed things like “Variety is the spice of life”, or “From the sublime to the ridiculous”, or “If it’s got wheels, let’s have a go” and also such titles as “You can have everything” or “As luck would have it” and even “At times I felt like Fangio” and all of them would have been appropriate, but I finally realised that it was all involved with activities other than race reporting and it all took place in England, so “Summer Holiday” was the only possible title.

The thought began after the French Grand Prix at Castellet when three journalistic friends were explaining how they were going to have a few days’ holiday in the South of France before returning to England for the British Grand Prix. They had all borrowed cars from various branches of British Leyland so as to incorporate a road-test into the visit to CasteIlet and the subsequent holiday. Two of them were rather unhappy as their road-test cars had broken down before they had reached the sunny south, and the third was a little perturbed by the amount of money he had spent on petrol, his new super-car doing a mere 13 m.p.g., but proving very pleasant and reliable.

They were talking about their holidays and asked what I was going to do, and I explained I was returning to England for a holiday and taking my E-type Jaguar back home as it was time it had a wash and polish and an oil change, and to make it a real holiday I intended to go to the Vintage Sports Car Club’s Meeting at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb. I was not in a great hurry to return northwards through France so I ignored the Autoroute and travelled on small by-roads through some really splendid French countryside. While passing through a small town in the heat of the early afternoon my attention wandered for a moment, at walking pace, and I drove the E-type very gently under the back of a Berliet lorry that had stopped in front of me. The lovely wrap-round Jaguar bumper and the over-rides were completely unmarked, but one of the headlamps was a very funny shape! As I was on my way home with the express intention of borrowing some vintage cars, a new motorcycle and a new Ferrari, I instantly thought of the phrase “as luck would have It”.

Putting the Jaguar into the coachbuilders for repairs, I borrowed a friend’s 3-litre Lagonda for the journey to Shelsley Walsh, for the Vintage meeting, and it was a most enjoyable day, with lots of original cars and drivers visiting Shelsley once again after many years. John Goddard had the A. F. P. Fane single-seater Frazer Nash back at the hill, this car having taken the record in 1937 at 38.77 sec., and at that same meeting C. E. C. Martin climbed in 39.67 sec. in his maroon ERA 1 1/2-litre so it was fitting that John Venables-Llewellyn should borrow this car from Moffat for the 1971 meeting, and to add to the nostalgia the fastest time by a pre-war car was recorded by David Kegon in the ERA “Hanuman” with 39.58 sec.

No vintage-style Shelsley Walsh hill-climb would be complete without Basil Davenport, and the ageless Northerner was running his 2-litre V-twin GN-Spider, with inlet valves as big as the old 2 1/2-litre Grand Prix BRM, and burning what smelt like methylated spirits, but was in fact neat wood-alcohol, that splendid fuel that kept motorcycle sport going during petrol rationing in the dark days of 1939-45. George Dowson was there with his beautiful little Lightweight Special, which he and Issigonis built in 1937/38, and it is still an object lesson to special-builders. Just how time is passing by was brought home by the sight of Dowson’s son also driving the Lightweight Special, and going faster than dad!

It was the first time that the Midland Automobile Club, who run Shelsley Walsh, had offered a full co-promotion with the VSCC and I for one rated the whole day a huge success, and I was merely a spectator. To add a little fire to the day the MAC invited a handful of modern hill-climb cars to the meeting and to see Tony Griffiths make a climb at just over 30 sec. in his rare 5-litre Repco V8-engined Brabham, with aerofoils, wide tyres, and all the Grand Prix goodies, was to keep a sense of proportion.

The return run from Worcestershire to London, reaching the Big City as darkness fell, made me realise that Summer had well and truly arrived for the traffic density even at that late hour was incredible, and driving in a high open vintage tourer made me very aware of the dreadful lack of visibility that Mr. Average Motorist has to suffer in his tin Bogmobile with all the windows wound up. Half the people you look at in tin boxes would do well to buy themselves a cushion to sit on, so that they could look over the steering wheel instead of through it. And looking at them from the open air in the Lagonda made me conscious of how they are cut off and remote from the outside world once the doors are shut. In an open car you can pass the time of day with your fellow travellers while waiting at traffic lights, providing they are similarly mounted in an open car or on a motorcycle, and this brings me to my next “holiday vehicle”, a BMW R75/5 motorcycle.

Earlier in the year we had a Press gathering to look at the 1971 range of BMW motorcycles, the three models being 500 c.c., 600 c.c. and 750 c.c., all with the classic horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder layout. The BMW motorcycle is expensive, desperately expensive, and always has been, for the Bayerische Motoren Werke have always built their motorcycles up to a standard and not down to a price, and today the biggest and best BMW motorcycle costs over £1,100. Realising that there was a potential market in the car world for a motorcycle that has been given the title “The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles” by the two-wheeled world, and not without justification, BMW set out to sell these expensive luxuries on the same lines as you sell a BMW car, a Mercedes-Benz or a Bentley, and at this Press gathering many writers discovered for the first time that there are other types of motorcycle apart from the noisy racer or the weird-looking specials that people build.

Here was a smooth and elegant two-wheeled machine that showed engineering quality in its design, from the large alloy brakes, the elegant cylinder barrels, the clean finish to the castings, to the all-enclosed shaft-drive; in fact, a motorcycle for the discerning motorist, rather than a motorcycle for the enthusiastic motorcyclist. As it was raining outside at the time of this private showing there was not much of a rush to take up the offer of a ride on the new BMW, apart from a few dyed-in-the-wool motorcyclists, and being heavily committed to foreign travel I put my name down for a ride in July. The real reason behind this was the fact that the British Grand Prix was to be held at Silverstone and knowing that traffic problems are worse there than anywhere, a motorcycle was the only possible means of transport. As I was staying with friends in the lovely Cotswold country to the west of Silverstone I could think of no better time to borrow a BMW motorcycle. Returning from Shelsley Walsh the BMW was awaiting collection and the English summer arrived in full force, and as I rode off I thought of the phrase “as luck would have it” once more.

When I put my name down to borrow the BMW I thought I would probably get a 500-c.c, model being a rather small fellow, so I was a bit taken aback when I found I was being loaned a 750-cc. model of 82 x 70.6-mm. bore and stroke, 9-to-1 compression ratio, giving 57 b.h.p. at 6,400 r.p.m. and a weight. of 420 lb. The flat-twin engine layout gives the BMW a very low basic centre of gravity and I was very surprised at the nice inherent balance of the machine, even with five gallons of petrol in the large tank. I used the BMW for a week and was very reluctant to give it back at the end of the week, but I would have happily returned it after the first day!

There are some motorcycles that are great fun to borrow for a quick blast up the road, but which get tiresome after a while, there are others that exude excitement but are not very practical, there are also good honest, usable motorcycles, but the BMW did not fit into any of these categories. My first impressions were that it was all right, it was very nice, but was not a super-bike in the sheer performance category, nor was it a thoroughbred born of Isle of Man TT experience in its handling and steering. However, after the first impressions had worn off and I began to use it for motorcycling rather than playing games, it began to grow on me and I could understand the enthusiasm that BMW owners exude. The more I rode it the more I agreed with the title “The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles”. If you want to explore unmade tracks you do not use a Rolls-Royce, if you want to dice round the twisty bits you do not use a Rolls-Royce, if you want to play bears up the High Street you do not use a Rolls-Royce, but if you want to travel in a refined and effortless manner, arriving at your destination unruffled and in good time, you do use a Rolls-Royce, and that is exactly how the BMW R75/5 fits into the two-wheeled world. It cruises along at 75/80 m.p.h., it wafts round open bends, it purrs through built-up areas, it sits at traffic lights with hardly a sound and the feeling of satisfaction and confidence grows on you so that you begin to realise that this is a motorcycle for motorcycling about the countryside that feels as if it will go on doing it forever in the same unruffled manner.

With acceleration to 90 m.p.h. as good as an E-type Jaguar, if not better, and a maximum of an honest 100 m.p.h. plus the BMW is exhilarating to ride fast just as it is satisfying to ride slowly, and the handbook is rather interesting on the subject of maximum speed. It says “The maximum speed is decided by the size, posture and clothing of the rider”; in other words frontal area and drag are all important and they quote 102.5 m.p.h. with rider seated normally and 109 m.p.h. with the rider lying prone.

That the BMW is accepted as the Rolls-Royce of two-wheelers was very evident at Silverstone when high officials of the RAC regarded it with appreciative eyes, and I was allowed to park it in the Stewards’ Enclosure to such comments as “that’s a fine-looking machine” or “what a very nice motorcycle”. I feel that if I had been on a screaming three-cylinder Japanese plot, or a really rorty blood-and-thunder British bike, I would have been ushered out with cries of “take that smelly motor-bike away”. Even an FIA official could not resist asking to have a ride on the BMW!

It was while I was back at work reporting the British GP that the phrase “I felt like Fangio” came to me, for on the first day of practice I received a message to say that a Dino Ferrari was being delivered to me, and there I was with the choice of the ultimate in road-going sports cars and the ultimate in motorcycles, and having to decide which one to leave behind. I say I felt like Fangio, because it recalled one of his early visits to Silverstone when two rival Midlands motor manufacturers put a car at his disposal and their Press Departments both sent out photographs of the great man standing by the respective cars, with a news item saying “While visiting Silverstone Fangio used one of our cars”.

Both photographs were rather badly posed and nobody was quite sure which one he had used or whether he actually drove either of them. I was so torn between the two beautiful pieces of machinery that I almost funked making a decision and went off in a friend’s car, but common sense prevailed and I used the Dino Ferrari on the practice days and the BMW motorcycle on race day, if only for the enjoyment I get from listening to my Press colleagues complaining about the traffic jams and then saying to them, “Traffic, what traffic?” for on a motorcycle there are no problems, apart that is from rain, clots who charge straight at you from side-turnings, punctures, forgetting to have some money in an outside pocket when you want to buy petrol, falling off, or letting it fall over and not having the strength to pick it up.

The BMW R75/5 is fitted with a powerful 12-volt starter motor and climbing aboard and pressing the starter button seemed to be cheating, especially when there were any real motorcyclists around. The day after the Silverstone meeting was one of those memorable motorcycling days returning from the Cotswold country to Hampshire, and by the time my week with the BMW was over I was very reluctant to return it. As there was some overlapping with the Dino Ferrari and the BMW motorcycle I did not get much work done in the way of journalistic chores, and at one point I was having a telephone conversation with a friend and he was moaning a bit about this and that, and finished up by saying “Oh well. I suppose you can’t have everything”. It was then that I looked out of the window at the Dino and the BMW and thought of the title “You can have everything”, adding a footnote to say “even if you can’t keep them”.

Thanks to the co-operation of the Motor Sport staff I keep getting bits of paper with cryptic messages on them, handed to me at all manner of strange times, and while in the Dino Ferrari I got one which said “Thruxton 9.30 a.m. Tuesday and you can drive Ford’s Supervan”. The Dino took very little time to get to Thruxton circuit and, sure enough, John Dale of Fords commercial vehicles section and Terry Drury arrived with a white Transit van on a trailer. It is part of Dale’s job to push the sales of Ford commercial vehicles and earlier this year he was looking for a way of bringing the normal Transit range of vans to the public notice.

With Drury he thought up the idea of a Supervan, and the result was a standard-looking van powered by a Ford GT40 engine, running on wide racing tyres and giving a performance and spectacle that would create interest at race meetings and shows. The result is an absolute riot and as I got out of the Dino I thought of the title “From the sublime to the ridiculous”. From the moment you see the two enormous megaphone exhaust pipes sticking out from under the back of what looks to be a normal Ford Transit van you know there is going to be some fun. Drury and his mechanics took a 5-litre full-race Gurney-Weslake Ford GT40 engine and gearbox unit, fitted it into a space frame with racing suspension back and front, disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, wide-tread racing tyres on alloy wheels, and then fitted the Transit van body and driving cab complete over the whole assembly.

You sit in the normal commercial forward-control driving position but there is no engine down by your feet, it is inside the van part of the body, sticking up through a large rectangle cut in the van floor. From the driving seat you look over your shoulder through the cab window and there are four double-choke Weber carburetters and a GT40 cross-over exhaust system seemingly lying in the back of the van. And the noise! The noise of a racing GT40 Ford enclosed in fibre-glass was exciting, but inside a steel van body it really is something else.

The object of the exercise was to do some film-making, so I took on the job of driver, charging through the Thruxton chicane almost out of control. The performance of this device is staggering and it lapped the circuit in times that would not have been bad in a Group 2 saloon car, reaching about 115 m.p.h. on the back of the circuit. The steering was diabolically heavy, the brakes needed both feet on the pedal, and the whole thing leapt, twisted and squirmed about in what felt to be a lethal fashion but was actually quite safe, for none of its vices ever developed any further than being awful, so that I soon learned to live with it all and really enjoyed myself.

After I had got the hang of it I mentioned that the steering became very light under power, and everyone hooted with laughter. Someone else drove it to let me see why and with no trouble at all you could lift both front wheels clear of the ground when accelerating hard out of a corner! It had felt much safer than it looked. This was one of the best “funnies” I have ever been let loose in, and in this rather stodgy old world of conformity and the “clinical outlook”, it was a breath of fresh air and fun. It is no wonder that it attracts attention wherever it goes, on circuits, at speed trials, drag meetings and so on, and apart from achieving the object of bringing the Ford Transit range to the notice of ordinary motorists who one day might want to buy a van, it gives a lot of people a lot of uninhibited pleasure and fun, which can’t be a bad thing when you look at some of the mentally sick and twisted people there are around us today who seem to be doing their utmost to drag us down into their mire with them.

There was still a weekend before I had to return to work and this saw the Vintage Sports Car Club’s second Silverstone race meeting taking place. Apart from the racing there were two important occasions, one being the last appearance of Tim Carson as Secretary of the VSCC at a Silverstone meeting and the other being a grand parade of Sunbeams, Talbot and Darracq cars to celebrate twenty-one years of the STD Register which the Editor of Motor Sport and his wife started in 1950. In order to take part in the parade I volunteered to drive one of Anthony Blight’s team of 1931 racing Talbots, being delegated to GO 53, the Talbot 105 that the Hon. Brian Lewis had driven in the 1932 Mille Miglia, lying fourth overall when he crashed shortly before the finish, the subsequent delay described in remarkable detail in Blight’s Talbot History, dropping the car to 25th place.

As the three Fox and Nicholl cars GO 51, GO 52 and GO 53 were taking part in the parade with Brian Lewis, now Lord Essendon, driving the first one, it meant a trip to Cornwall to collect GO 53 and-drive it up to Silverstone. I have heard tales of the holiday traffic in the West of England, but had never experienced it before; it was memorable, the memory being to never do it again. I got the impression that Cornwall, Devon and Somerset have not had any new roads since the motor car was invented, or is it that the West Country still believe the motor car to be a flight of fancy and not something that is here to stay?

When the opportunity did arise to go motoring in the Talbot 105 it proved to be a very nice road car, happy to cruise along at 65-70 m.p.h., and like many other Post Vintage cars it makes you realise that the arbitrary Vintage date of 1930 was chosen rather hastily. On the way back to Cornwall after the Silverstone meeting I stopped off at the Hampshire farm of Adrian Liddell, a super enthusiast for nice cars, as he was having a champagne birthday party, not for himself but for his Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce. It had been first registered on July 25th, 1921, and now 50 years later to the very day we celebrated her birthday, taking a quiet run round the Hampshire lanes after lunch, the old car going as well as ever it did, its high Ferguson-built body imparting an air of leisure that can never return with the progress in motor-engineering that has taken place over five decades.

Also assembled on the lawn of Westover Farm were five Hispano-Suizas, including Liddell’s own 37.2-h.p. model, for it was also the occasion of the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Hispano Suiza Club, the Secretary being D. Brookbank, of Twitten House, Furners Green, Uckfield, Sussex, who would be delighted to hear from any Hispano Suiza owners. It was one of those splendid summer days for just “messin’ about with motor cars”, so that I delayed my return to Cornwall until early the following morning, there being nothing quite so satisfying as driving a famous and historic racing car on the roads before anyone else is awake. The Talbot 105 that I borrowed finished third at Le Mans in 1931 at 73.46 m.p.h., and seventh in the same year in the Brooklands 500-Mile Race at 104.23 m.p.h., as well as second in the 1932 Brooklands 1,000-Mile Race at 95.43 m.p.h., and is a full four-seater road-equipped sports/racing car of the period, original to a remarkable degree.

The German Grand Prix was approaching and I was due to collect the Jaguar E-type and go back to serious work, with a trip to the Nurburgring, but before setting off a friend invited me to an aerodrome where he was going to do some running-in on his single-seater Vintage racing car which he had just overhauled. There is no doubt that “Variety is the Spice of Life” and we drove this stark, functional single-seater around until darkness fell, and next morning I was away on my normal travels again, having enjoyed a very strenuous Summer Holiday. The German Grand Prix seemed a leisurely affair to cope with by comparison.—D. S. J.