Matters of moment, September 1974

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Hanging The Masterpiece In Oils

If the amount of publicity it received is any criterion, the outstanding event of August was Castrol’s Great Motoring Extravaganza, celebrating 75 years of this famous lubricating-oil. Having framed their masterpiece (see Motor Sport April issue, pp. 336-338) Castrol Limited then hung it up, in the better sense of that term, with a unique display of ancient and modern motoring achievements at Olympia, an exhibition which may well start a fashion in “historic” motor shows.

Rival oil-refiners may well have thought “Hang the Masterpiece” as they contemplated the column inches of editorial space and the numerous pictures which Castrol achieved by this ingenious anniversary celebration, especially as, by charging admission to Olympia, they must have recovered at least some of the cost of staging it!

Going to Olympia, so homely compared with Earls Court, for the Extravaganza, took us back to the days of our callow youth, when we wandered excitedly about the Motor Show aisles, stuffing costly catalogues into our Trojan carrier-bag. Maybe it is advancing age that has taken some of the gilt off such shows, where the cars now tend to be swamped by near-nude girls, bands, lion-cubs and all the gimmicks of 1970s publicity, so that we do not really care whether the next one moves from London to Birmingham, or does not happen at all. Even the nostalgic exhibits at the Castrol exhibition seemed a bit out-of place and forlorn, mute on the stands, the great record-breakers looking like monsters from another age and somehow less alluring than when they used to appear at Schoolboy’s Exhibitions and Christmas Bazaars soon after their great exploits on road and beach and track. Perhaps it is that in recent times we have seen them rather too often?

During our pre-view inspection, to the sound of a racing engine on full-song, emanating no doubt from the Cinema, until it cut out pre-emptorially as some electrician wrestled with the showlighting from hundreds of Atlas bulbs, the first person we met was Leo Villa, searching for “his” record-breaking Sunbeam. The Brooklands scene, with a Paddock backdrop, featured Amilcar Six, Morgan 3-wheeler, Type 51 Bugatti, the V12 Delage and a “Brooklands” Riley 9, all appropriate but none specially built for the Track (the Barnato-Hassan was a “non-starter”). The Napier-Railton was away in the Achievements Section along with the 200 m.p.h. Sunbeam and the “Golden Arrow”, but Noel Pope’s lap-record Brough Superior sidecar outfit was about to be moved into the arena, and we were amused to see that Lord Montagu’s 1922 Maxwell charabanc had acquired a fictitious “Brooklands Motor Coaches” label for the occasion. “Babs” had a fine place all to herself, but would not have run on the (simulated) sand on those treaded tyres, although the reversed steering wheel is as fitted by Parry Thomas.

We met again that 1948 twin-cam four-cylinder XJ Jaguar engine, thought the boats Miss England 1 and the 1937/38 Bluebird impressive, looked at engines ranging from a Bentley BR2 to the “World’s Fastest Diesel” from Eyston’s “Flying Spray” record-car, and noticed that whereas the RAC aspired to an 1897 Daimler, the College of Automobile Engineering was more modest, being content with a bull-nose Morris-Cowley. The “aerodrome” was so small that even the Sopwith Pup that had landed thereon could scarcely have taken off from it and we wondered why it wasn’t attended by a Crossley tender, to match up with the Army’s Vauxhall Staff-car. “Rolls-Royce Motors” had a splendidly period stand, Foden’s had rightly taken the steam cake, and Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler UK, British Leyland, Vauxhall, Norton-Villiers. Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Mazda and Renault had entered into the spirit of the occasion, with suitable exhibits. The NMM showed the 1907 racing Itala and its Alfonso Hispano-Suiza but “Morton Motors” seemed a curiously versatile emporium, with Poore’s GP 3.8 Alfa Romeo, Ford Zephyr and Eight saloons, a GPO Morris Minor van and a Burney-Crossley rear-engined saloon on its forecourt! London Transport had sent a solid-tyred ‘bus, the Donington Collection was represented, and all manner of famous competition cars, old and new; were there to remind one of epic achievements, on Castrol of course! Britain’s departed pride and accomplishments were brought vividly to mind by the EX179 and EX181 MGs, the Le Mans Rover-BRM, a works DB3S Aston Martin, the Indianapolis Austin A90 Atlantic, and more recent Mini Cooper and Lotus-Ford rally cars, etc. In contrast, it was nice to see a decent Unic taxi in the London street scene….

Altogether, a fine affair, for which Laurie Sultan and his aides deserve much praise. Of the written support, the best piece—apart from our own, of coursel—came from Edward Eves, and he made the point that castor oil, the celebrated Castrol-R, was essential for WWI rotary aero-engines in order to prevent the rich petrol/air mixture in the crankcase diluting the lubricant (another problem is two-stroke engine lubrication, in which oil is deliberately mixed with the fuel, and with which Castrol cope just as effectively), apart from Castrol-R’s resistance to extremes of temperature, for which most writers settled. There was also an interesting explanation of why Mercedes-Benz used Castrol-R as late as 1955, for the W196. This memorable Extravaganza also produced two other good things–a Castrol film, available to Clubs, in which Denis Norden does the funny stuff very nicely and there are excellent, historic sequences, and Julian Berrisford’s book “Wheels Wings & Water” that collects together about the best selection of pictorial nostalgia we have previously encountered. The Foreword is by Capt. G. E. T. Eyston, who declared the Extravaganza open.

When all is said and done, however, fast vehicles look pathetic as static show-exhibits so perhaps the Dijon demonstration which Motor Sport illustrated in colour last month was a happier affair. As it was, we were not sorry to leave Olympia by 5 p.m., retrieve the BMW, and drive out of London, past the White City where, in 1920, 1921 and 1922, the Motor Show overflowed, visitors being conveyed between the two halls in primitive motor-coaches. Continuing our journey, within three hours we had crossed the Radnor mountains; heading for remote Powys, in spite of a “pit-stop” to take on Mobil (petrol, not oil, for even prior to the Extravaganza we were confirmed Castrol consumers!). Surely this is more what motoring is about than looking at the contents of even the better motor shows ?