A quiet life

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For most people, an End-to-End run stops at John O’Groats. Hamish Moffat, Bugatti racer and vintage flyer, plans to take his OM tourer to Tierra del Fuego and head north…

Lest there be any doubt, Hamish Moffat, the Malayan-born son of a rubber plantation manager, skilled aviator, accomplished amateur racing driver and long-time adventurer, is one of the Twentieth Century’s most colourful and sometimes controversial characters.

Described in his passport as ‘Gentleman’, this tough, swarthy swashbuckling pioneer of all things dashing-and-daring has been a familiar and engaging star in VSCC circles and beyond for more than 40 years; and now, at an age when most folk would be looking forward to a quiet life in retirement, Hamish is busy at his Herefordshire farmhouse planning the kind of adventures that make skiing down the northern slopes of Mont Blanc look like gentle exercise.

After spending the war years as a boy in Australia, Moffat returned with his family to Britain, settling on a hill farm in North Wales; but the constant and wearying routine of feeding, dipping and shearing woolly-coated Kerries didn’t really appeal to Hamish who, having been burdened with ‘itchy feet’ from birth, soon started plotting the first of his many adventures.

Never one to do anything by halves, he decided that Africa would be a fairly interesting sort of place to visit after the war, and set off alone for Cape Town: not in a robust four-wheel drive, a specially prepared military vehicle or a car purposely adapted for the inhospitability of a vast and largely unexplored continent, but in his 1923 1/2-litre Lagonda.

“Everything was going well on that trip until I reached Algeria,” recalls Hamish. “The engine’s main bearings, which by then were well past their ‘best before’ date broke up, and as one can imagine, garages in Africa with stocks of spare bearings for a 1923 Lag were pretty few and far between.” Undeterred by this ‘minor’ disaster, he visited a nearby car scrapyard and, working in the intense heat of the midday sun, dismantled a number of old engines for the purpose of extracting their bearings. Having collected sufficient, he melted them down. separated the white metal contained within and reshaped it to fit the Lagonda.

This extraordinary ploy worked, and his epic journey continued at unabated pace. But there was further trouble ahead, as Hamish explains: “I picked up a Dutch hitchhiker who was thumbing a lift outside a Colomb Bechar brothel. We shared the driving across the Sahara desert, but he managed to crash the car over the edge of a cliff, and I hadn’t bargained for that”.

The impact twisted the chassis, and the car suffered other superficial damage. Again, working in the blistering heat of one of the planet’s most inhospitable places, Hamish successfully repaired the damage. “There’s only one way to true up a bent Chassis frame in a place like the Sahara,” says Hamish. “You hit seven bells out of it with a bloody great hammer and a fair helping of brute force and ignorance.” By all accounts the rest of the journey was similar to riding a unicycle fitted with one pedal and the saddle turned back to front, but Hamish’s chosen destination was Cape Town, and there was never even a moment’s thought of turning round and heading for home. Today, that same Lagonda sits proudly in Moffat’s stable, the oldest car in the world to have crossed the Sahara desert.

Sitting alongside the venerable old Lagonda, Hamish keeps a Scott motorcycle which he occasionally races in vintage events, his trusty OM tourer, a 351 Bugatti, a 35B Bugatti and his beloved Brescia Bugatti. Long associated with the classic French marque, Hamish’s first Bugatti, the Brescia, was acquired by him for the princely sum of £12 10 shillings in the same year that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing conquered Everest and the Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen.

“I was attracted to the Bugatti initially for no other reason than the fact that it is a very beautiful car. The styling of all the better Bugattis is just wonderful and in my eyes has only been rivalled in the post-war era by the classic Ferraris”, says Hamish. “Despite its many faults — Ettore Bugatti was an artist not an engineer — the Brescia is undoubtedly one of the world’s best cars, a true all-rounder which can be used on the road every day, for all types of VSCC events, and is so rugged that it rarely breaks.”

But if the Brescia is the best all-rounder, his 35T, bought in the late 1950s, is, according to Hamish, the perfect Bugatti. “Being so much lighter at the front end than the 35B and without the vagaries of a supercharger, the 35T is wonderfully controllable especially on beaded-edge tyres, the handling so predictable and there’s always enough power to have fun.”

Through the 1960s and 1970s, it was Hamish’s considerable skill and talent behind the wheel of his Bugs, and Frank Wall’s ‘monoposto’ T35B, that not only won him more than 200 trophies, but was also responsible for some of the VSCC’s most epic duels. Year after year, the highlight of each vintage Silverstone and OuIton Park was a Bug-mounted Moffat scrapping with similar cars driven by Bernard Kain, Dr Richard Bergel, Geoffrey St John and Ian Preston, the 24-litre Napier Bentley of Peter Morley, and Keith Schellenberg’s monster Bentley affectionately known as ‘The Whale’.

Few who witnessed these scraps will ever forget them: the glorious sight of the Napier Bentley’s inside rear tyre ‘lighting up’ as it struggled desperately for traction on Silverstone’s Woodcote corner, with Moffat nipping past on the inside only to be overtaken by the Bentley on the pit straight again — and again and again. Magic!

And it was the same story when Hamish bought ERA R3A in 1965, a car which he shared for many years with Nigel Arnold-Forster. Suddenly, after many years, the ERA scene came alive. Along with the other great post-war ERA drivers, Pat Lindsay (R5B), Tony Merrick (R1A) and Neil Corner (R4D), Hamish Moffat displayed his complete mastery of difficult machinery. But despite his many wins, often against more powerful cars, he was never once tempted into the cockpit of a modern single-seater.

“I’m sure that contemporary Grand Prix cars are exciting to drive: after all nothing with upwards of 700bhp could ever be described as dull, but they are rarely beautiful and I have never seen the point in pounding around a track in something that, although honed for that purpose, looks as ugly as sin,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Hamish dismisses his trophies as mere souvenirs — true gentlemen always do — and cites his best ever race as one that took place in pouring rain at Oulton Park 20 years ago. “I drove my 35T, which was comparatively underpowered and spun out on two occasions, but recovered sufficiently well from the back of the field to finish second. It gave me immense satisfaction to drive that car to the limit in such awful conditions and I’ve never driven as well since.”

Many of his finest races towards the end of the 1960s took place against a background of marital disharmony, and when his first marriage finally broke up in 1967, Hamish found himself without anywhere to live. For the next six years or so, home was a borrowed MGB GT coupe, but as he points out “living in an MGB is a pretty dull business, so during that time I took the opportunity to drive around the world a couple of times in my Bugattis and the OM tourer”.

The 35T was called into service once again and, on one trip with his long-time friend, Sir John Venables-Llewelyn, Hamish particularly recalls traversing North America and being arrested by the police twice en route. “The fact that we were two Englishmen travelling in a French car with German number plates probably aroused their worst suspicions initially. They got very excited when I failed to produce for their inspection what they called a ‘document of reciprocity’, whatever that was supposed to be.”

Eventually, they were issued with this document, only to be arrested again a day later. “The policeman on that occasion pulled us in to the side of the road and said ‘this car does not move’, and having replied ‘Oh really? It goes rather well actually’, I soon realised that American traffic cops do not have a sense of humour,” grins Hamish, “We were given a good old-fashioned dressing down but everything was alright after I’d produced this wretched document of reciprocity, and we were on our way once more.”

Hamish had become fond of globetrotting, but decided on a more stable existence in 1971 and settled down in a magnificent old farmhouse which he largely restored himself and lives in today. His motor racing activities continued, of course, but flying vintage aeroplanes, of which he owns five examples, began to appeal more and more. With increasing quantities of traffic on British roads, Hamish takes to the skies from his private airstrip at every available opportunity.

“These days, I find flying much more rewarding than driving, for several reasons,” he says. “Motor racing, even at VSCC level, has been completely cocked up by the RAC who seen to delight in making up new and pointless regulations, and the amount of paperwork in making an application to drive 15 laps around Silverstone’s club circuit is laughable. Dealing with the Civil Aviation Authority in a similar capacity is much simpler.”

Despite his love of aeroplanes, flying not only brought him a now legendary brush with the law, but also very close to a Premature meeting with his Maker.

“A few years ago, I took off in my Gipsy Moth from Aberporth Airport after an air show,” says Hamish. “Everything was going very well until, after a little while, one of the exhaust valves broke. I was in serious trouble and immediately looked for somewhere to land. None of the fields I could see were suitable, being either too steep or too short, so, despite the danger of being booted into the middle of the following week by a passenger jet taking off or landing at Cardiff Airport, I had no option but to land on the main runway there using the three remaining cylinders.

“Naturally I hadn’t got a radio, so I couldn’t let the people at Air Traffic Control know that I was coming, but was sure that they would have picked me up on their radar screens. Anyhow, I started to lose height as I approached the runway and could see there was no immediate danger of air traffic movements.

“The Moth was difficult to control, but I eventually got down safely and was asked to report straight away to the chief Air Traffic Controller, whereupon I explained that I had been in an emergency situation and knew that, as he’d got me on radar, he could at least avoid a major disaster by preventing the big jets from taking off until I’d touched down.

The Air Traffic Controller lent a sympathetic car to Hamish’s plight, but quietly explained “The first thing I knew about your presence at this airport was when I saw you fly past my bloody window!”

On another occasion in more recent times, Hamish performed his well-known and eagerly expected party piece — bombing with bags of coloured flour the Verzons Hotel near Ledbury, Herefordshire, where the VSCC meets every New Year’s Day — just one time too many.

The last time he carried out this daredevil feat, he not only misaimed and bombarded a local resident’s recently tended washing line in the vicinity, turning her whites into an interesting technicolour mess, but also incurred the wrath of an RAF helicopter pilot who happened to be present at the Verzon’s meeting.

Seeing their chance for a ‘good story’, the daily press immediately jumped on Hamish and, in one long week, turned this very private man, who had been content to live life in his uniquely eccentric style, into a national hero.

Unkindly dubbed in some quarters as the ‘Bosbury Biggles’, after the village close to where he lives, Moffat was portrayed by the media as a Boy’s Own relic of an age gone by, a figure of joie de vivre, a role model for naughty schoolboys with high spirits and a zest for everything life has to offer. And most, but not all, of what Fleet Street wrote about him was true, and it captured the imagination of millions. Unfortunately, the local magistrates, not to mention the Civil Aviation Authority, took a very different view. The RAF pilot who reported Hamish’s post-prandial pranks to the authorities considered an air-raid on the Verzons to be inappropriate for an experienced pilot, and after being hauled in front of the beaks, Hamish’s bank account was relieved of £500, and he received a stiff rap over the knuckles into the bargain.

For the first time in his life Hamish was forced to toe the line or lose his precious pilot’s licence but, true to form, he had the final word on this episode at the same meeting a year later. Having left his trusty Moth snugly tucked away in its hangar. Hamish arrived at the Verzons Hotel in his Bugatti, and left a neatly penned note on the seat for the helicopter pilot who had reported him. Regrettably, there isn’t a magazine in the world, let alone a revered journal like MOTOR SPORT, which would be allowed to print that message. Suffice it to say that our hero voiced his discontent without equivocation in good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon.

Incidentally, Hamish Moffat’s Gipsy Moth is particularly interesting, as it has a small connection with the similar aircraft piloted by the late Amy Johnson, the first woman aviator to fly solo from England to Australia. After her pioneering flight, Amy Johnson’s craft was transported to the London Science Museum. One souvenir kept by her family after she died in 1941 was the famous aeroplane’s compass, and some years later, it was donated to Hamish as a gift.

“I know that the Science Museum would dearly like to have it back but, while I’m alive, it stays on my aeroplane,” laughs Hamish. That same compass stood Hamish and his wife, Bunty, in good stead when, attired in full evening dress, they flew up to Silverstone in the Moth for a celebration dinner.

We landed the old girl on the club straight, and when, after a heavy night. I went to collect it the following morning, the aeroplane had gone,” recalls Hamish. “As it turned out, it was in good hands; it was the day of the British Truck Grand Prix, and mindful of the damage a 1000bhp turbocharged Volvo might do to my diminutive Moth, a group of magnanimous marshalls had pushed it all the way to the safety of Copse Corner, from where we flew home.”

Despite his waning interest in motor cars and a still waxing obsession with his beautifully preserved aeroplanes, it is on four wheels that Hamish wants to make one last journey. “Keith Schellenberg and I competed in the World Cup Rally in his 8-litre Bentley a few years back, and because it was such a lot of fun, despite being overloaded and constantly having to replace spokes in the rear wheels, I really want to experience something similar again.”

With his American friend and fellow Bugatti enthusiast, Bob Seiffert, Hamish is planning a trip from Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America, up through Mexico, and on to the northernmost part of Alaska.

“I want to do the journey in my vintage OM tourer because I know it to be 100 per cent reliable,” beams Hamish, “but also because there is a particularly challenging 20-mile stretch of swampland in Colombia which, to my knowledge, has never been crossed by car.”

Most normal folks would naturally avoid such a place at all costs, but to describe Hamish Moffat as normal is probably to defame the man. To be perfectly candid, there aren’t many mortals who would choose to undertake such a journey at all but especially in a vintage car.

Hamish’s everyday road car is an ageing Saab, but it serves no purpose other than providing transport to local shops. It’s significant that for the past two years, the Saab has been without a reverse gear: for a man who has spent his life going forwards, and at a fair rate of knots, travelling backwards in any sense of the word just isn’t on the Moffat agenda… L M