This and That

Dear Reader,

Last month, in my short article on the 158/159 Alfa Romeo I made a wild guess that we had not heard one of those cars running in England since 1951. It was indeed a wild guess, and a wrong one, for reader Howard Stockley from Alcester kindly sent me a photograph of Baron de Graffenried driving one through the streets of Birmingham a few years ago. The annual Formula 3000 race through the streets of Birmingham has been an accepted fact and probably a lot of us have forgotten all the ground work that was put in by Martin Hone and his supporters to bring about actual racing on the streets of Birmingham.

One of the first steps was to get the idea of a racing car on a public road being acceptable to the outside world, and this was expanded to make the idea of racing cars being driven on the public roads acceptable. From gentle parades by nice old cars the idea was expanded until some demonstration runs by serious racing cars took place and it was during this transition from ‘racing cars on public roads’ to ‘car racing on public roads’ that Alfa Romeo sent over their ‘demonstration’ Tipo 159 Alfa Romeo.

It was the glorious sound of the Alfa Romeo engine that prompted last month’s Letter about Sound & Noise, a Letter that has provoked more correspondence and comment than I expected, ranging from those who cannot stand the noise of Concorde to those who revelled in the sound of the V16 BRM. Napier enthusiasts beamed with delight at the mention of the Sabre, while Rolls-Royce enthusiasts disagreed wholeheartedly and sighed for the sound of Merlin. Motorcycle minded readers joined in with memories of 4-cylinder Gileras and MVs and the 250cc Honda 6-cylinder and there were naturally many single-cylinder Norton enthusiasts. The interesting thing was that all were agreed on the subtle difference between Noise & Sound, and all agreed that the world would be a very dull place if we all liked the same thing. Unfortunately it is difficult to illustrate noise or sound with a photograph, otherwise I feel sure my post bag would have been fuller than normal.

Even so, interesting photos come from all parts of the world, some prompted by these letters, some by sheer interest or enthusiasm for cars and racing, and many to provide interesting information for the DSJ Knowledge Fund. Maurice Willson, whom I have known since the days when a lot of us led a carefree existence living in the Hotel Reale in Modena in the mid Fifties, sent me some photos of a Memorial Clocktower that was recently dedicated to Sir Malcolm Campbell. This is in Daytona, Florida in the United States of America, where Maurice is now living, and it commemorates that last Land Speed Record that Campbell established on Daytona Beach in 1935, before he moved his activities to the more spacious Utah Salt Flats. At Daytona Campbell set the record at 276 mph in the Rolls-Royce aero-engined Bluebird and the Mayor of the City of Daytona Beach unveiled a plaque on July 4, dedicating the Clocktower to Campbell. A local sculptor made a full size model of the car in sand for the occasion, and sprayed it Campbell blue and it lasted for days after the inauguration. This naturally prompts the enquiry as to the fate of Bluebird. It still exists in America and the last time I heard about it was when it moved to the Museum of Speed at Talladaga, and though there have been some tentative moves to try and bring about its return to England, nothing has so far been achieved.

If ever Bluebird was brought back to England it should become a centrepiece of the Brooklands Museum within the old Brooklands Track at Weybridge, because it was designed and built at Brooklands by Reid Railton and Thomson & Taylor Limited.

The recent media hype over a legal wrangle (involving money, obviously) about a pile of bits of metal, old and new, that when assembled represented an old racing car, has caused a steady flow of comment and correspondence. As in all legal wrangles we will never know all the facts, and even if we did, we probably would not understand them, but clearly the legal profession were kept in full (and expensive) employment. The present ‘old car’ scene is so artificial and devious that anyone with any sense will not get mixed up in it.

Throughout this summer there has been an exhibition at the British Museum entitled ‘Fake? The Art Of Deception’. It encompasses painting, sculpture, books, manuscripts, furniture, jewellery, pottery, stamps, coins, cutlery and newspapers. As one report of the exhibition stated, it covers every civilization whose artifacts have attracted collectors and, therefore, fakers. Surprisingly there was no mention of ‘our’ fakers’ world, no Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Bugatti, Cord, Delahaye, ERA, Frazer Nash, and so on, right through the alphabet to Z, though I am not too sure about a fake Zlin.

The report I was reading began with a quote from a letter written in 1863 by the poet Mallarmé to his friend Henri Cazalis, he said, ‘We’re back in London again, the country of the fake Rubens paintings.’ I somehow hope for our sake that that letter was a fake, but I don’t think it was. Mallarmé was not suggesting that London perpetrated the fakes, but more that the English were stupid enough to buy fakes, and that London was where they all were. It would not be true to say that all the fake cars that are around today emanate from Great Britain, for they are known to come from France, Italy, Germany and any other country ‘whose artifacts have attracted collectors and, therefore, fakers.’

Having inspected a lot of fake cars I would stand by our ‘cottage industry’ and say that if you want a really good fake car you must come to Great Britain, because we make the best. Even the Auction Houses have come to appreciate this and are openly trying to sell ‘Genuine Fakes’ and making no attempt to confuse them with the real thing. The auction profession has to be seen to be pure and white and all things to all punters. One recent description of a totally fake car read . an excellent painstaking reproduction, making the car virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article.’ Another one was described as being an opportunity to purchase a faultless car, identical in all respects to the original.

They sound like good candidates for the British Museum exhibition, though at the moment the world of the arts had not got around to making a study of fake cars, or motorcycles, or aeroplanes, or railway engines, or bicycles, or steam engines or. . . . whatever comes next. Some while ago I started a small one-make club for fakes and I was always coming up against the problem of owners with genuine cars who wanted to join. They got quite upset when I told them they could not join my club because their car was genuine, and when a member with a fake car paid his subscription by cheque, and the cheque did not bounce, he could not understand why I sent it back and asked him to pay in counterfeit money! I closed the club down eventually as it all got too serious, and I absconded with all the dud cheques, forged bank notes and home-minted coins, leaving all the members all quite happy with their fake cars, though one or two of them reneged by selling their cars as being genuine.

Some things in the auction world are of particular interest to the enthusiast, and one was the recent auction (or attempt to sell by auction) the famous V12 Sunbeam engined car known as ‘Tiger’. Not the same car that Henry Segrave set a world record with, nor the car that Thomson & Taylor built for Malcolm Campbell in 1931, or even the car that Monaco Engineering of Watford rebuilt for John James in 1949, but an amalgam of all those things that has been on the vintage racing scene all its life and must surely be the most powerful and fastest of all vintage style racing cars. ‘Tiger’ is an entity that has never left our view, even though it bears little resemblance to ‘Tiger’ when some of us first saw it. The schoolboy of 1926 looks a lot different 64 years later, so it is not surprising that the Sunbeam has changed over the years.

Everyone hoped that the new owner would keep the car in the vintage racing scene and use it like it has always been used, but the problem was that the auction world put a price on it that was beyond the imagination of most VSCC members. It was so high that even the expensive catalogue did not dare to mention the price in figures, or even in words, but merely put ‘Refer Department’. When the results of the auction sale were sent out the Sunbeam was not on the list of the lots that were sold, from which one infers that it did not sell, either because there were no bids, or it did not reach the price that the auctioneers, and the owner, required. A report in one of the monthly specialist ‘old car’ magazines said that quite a fight ensued to acquire the car between VSCC member Alex Boswell and car dealers Coys of Kensington and CAR Howard, and that Howard eventually bought it for a little below the one million pounds reserve that was on the car. Yet the auctioneers did not list it as having been sold, and certainly no price was mentioned in their published results.

It transpired that the car was sold after the auction in a bit of straightforward ‘street trading’ and that one of the dealers did acquire it for £860,000. If that figure is ‘a little below the hoped for £1,000,000 then I wouldn’t mind having just the ‘small difference’ of £140,000 because with that I could make. . . .I mean, I could buy quite a nice old car, like a Chummy Austin or a Humber.

In the bad old days the second-hand car trade was openly dishonest, and it was nothing to be ashamed of. It was a ‘profession’ like horse-coping, but we always spelt profession with a small p. Around the time when Second-Hand Cars became Used Cars, some people used to spell the word profession with a capital P, and that is when the rot set in. Nowadays it is not Professional to tell blatant lies, or to cheat, so you tell the truth (albeit, very sparingly) and do a straight deal. The old days may have been bad, but they were not as devious as they are today. Why does life have to be made so complicated?

Accepting that life has to progress, and that progress by its very nature brings about complications I try to keep up with times and was intrigued by the news about the American ‘Stealth’ bomber that even radar could not see. I queried whether something could be there if you could not see it, and was quietly pacified by the remark that ‘it is probably beyond you.’ When I started my Serendipity Championship earlier this year, for racing cars that were never built, I got a very good response and a lot of entries. Some cars that were entered I had to turn down because I could actually see them, or even a part of them. I made it clear that the prime action of scrutineering was that drawings, thoughts and ideas were acceptable but actually seeing the car was out. I had completely overlooked a group of American readers, working with knowledge gleaned from secret sources, who were building a ‘Stealth’ Grand Prix car. When I met their leader, John Bornholdt (a MOTOR SPORT reader of long-standing), he put an entry in for my Serendipity Championship which I had to accept. He showed me photos of the car, one of it being wheeled out of the paddock on test, with the driver sitting in it and five people around the back of it, and another of it on the starting line of a test run with the driver with his left arm raised indicating he was ready to go and the starter about to drop the flag. Now John Bornholdt is an American scrutineer of long-standing, and he assured me that the ‘Stealth’ car had passed scrutineering and was not only safe but also legal for my Championship because I had said if I could not see it then it did not exist and it came under my Serendipity classification.

I studied the photos with a powerful magnifying glass but, like the radar, I could not see the ‘Stealth.’ So if you don’t see something winning the sixth round of the Championship that isn’t going to happen, rest assured that you didn’t see the ‘Stealth’ Grand Prix car in all its glorious American colours of Stars & Stripes. Did the Hologram originate from America?

We have had a wonderful hot summer, haven’t we? Yours DSJ