Jenks and Oliver's home on wheels

Oxford Diecasts (of Swansea) is an enterprising specialist model company set up in 1993. Early last year it contacted us for any reference we might hold on an unusual prototype it wanted to reproduce in 1:43 scale. It was the Austin K8 ‘Three-Way’ van used by Eric Oliver and Denis Jenkinson when they were racing their Norton sidecar combination and solo motorcycles in 1949-1950. Rummaging among DSJ’s negatives I found one shot of it – I think at Monza – and Oxford Diecasts found another reference which resulted in a mysterious parcel arriving at my door.

I had forgotten the project, so unwrapping the model was a startling surprise… and an evocative one. This was the forward-control short-wheelbase 25cwt van in which Oliver – the long-armed, long-legged ‘spiderman’ who was in effect the Fangio of sidecar competition at that time – and his fearless passenger Jenks had pursued their gipsy itinerary around the race circuits of Europe through 1949.

If they’d had a good weekend’s racing and a lucrative payday they’d stay in hotels or boarding houses. If it hadn’t been so good but at least the weather was dry they’d park the van and pitch a tent alongside. If it was raining and cash was short they’d doss down in the cramped van, packed with the tools of their trade, cans of fuel and oil, drying leathers doubtless stinking the place out. For some 15,000 miles in ’49 alone the ‘Three-Way’ – so named after its dual doors on each side in addition to those in the tail – was transport, a base, a home, shelter itself. I have no idea how quick it was, but imagine it was hard-pressed to cruise far above 50mph. I know they averaged around 25 cross-Continent. But its 2.2-litre Austin ohv engine and short wheelbase should have made it nimble. I bet with that pair of hard-bitten racers urging it on, the chronically well-laden ‘ENJ 793’ must often have cried itself to sleep. And here she is in 1:43-scale for £11.95. Those adverts might have changed since he took his photo of her, but I feel DSJ would approve.

My first car was a Sunbeam-Talbot 80. It lay in my big brother’s front garden where I succeeded in brush-painting it ‘garden-gate’ green. McLaren later took a leaf out of my book by painting its Cooper-Zerex-Oldsmobile’s chassis much the same shade – but while it was capable of making that car run, and win, so far as I know my ‘80’ never ran again. Regardless, I have always had a soft spot for those handsome Rootes Group cars.

High summer in Europe was traditionally time for the Automobile Club de Marseilles et Provence’s International Alpine Rally. In period the 1952 edition was rated the toughest yet, run over five days that July, covering 2000 miles through the Alps and Dolomites. The target and average speeds were higher, and the controls closer together, than ever before. Only 23 of the 95 starters completed the course, among whom only 10 survived unpenalised to qualify for a coveted Alpine Cup. That was the year in which Ian and wife Pat Appleyard in Jaguar XK ‘NUB 120’ secured the first-ever Alpine Gold Cup for three consecutive penalty-free runs. The only driver who would ever match Appleyard’s feat – Stirling Moss – secured the first of his three Coupes des Alpes that year, as part of Norman Garrard’s famous Sunbeam-Talbot works team, driving a 90 saloon. But while his Alpine exploits have been very well publicised, those of a Coupe des Alpes-winning team-mate are perhaps too often forgotten. That team-mate was fellow circuit racer Mike Hawthorn.

In his autobiography Challenge Me The Race, Hawthorn dismissed the rally in a couple of lines, not mentioning his navigator ‘Chips’ Chipperton (above with Mike), nor Moss and his nav John Cutts, nor his other Coupe-winning team-mates – Glasgow tobacconist George Murray-Frame and John Pearman. All three crews finished unpenalised and jointly won the manufacturers’ team prize.

The first day of that 1952 Alpine had been rated the toughest of the lot, covering more than 600 miles from Marseilles to Cortina. The ‘Devil’s Loop’ of mountain passes near Aix-les-Bains “where the controls came thick and fast, caused more exhaustion and mental stress than anything else” according to Rodney Walkerley’s report in The Motor. Almost a third of the entry failed on that first day’s stretch from Bolzano to Cortina over “the steep, rough and narrow Pordoi, infested with traffic and motor coaches”. Sunbeam-Talbot’s George Hartwell and Leslie Johnson retired there, while the sister ‘90’ entrusted to American engineer/driver John Fitch would fail later at Innsbruck with a collapsed hub bearing, and Nancy Mitchell’s car snapped a stub axle at Castellane within 60 miles of the finish.

Rodney described how “it is difficult for the average motorist to visualise what this trial really means, but racing drivers of the calibre of Moss, Wisdom, Johnson and Hawthorn agree that it is worse than any Mille Miglia, more exhausting than Le Mans and more dangerous than any Grand Prix”. Citing a competitor driving “at 70mph on a road where 35mph would have been barely prudent, only to happen upon a steamroller in the middle of the narrow way…” then adding “…the loose, stony surfaces, the clouds of dust, the succession of blinding thunderstorms, hour after hour, mile after mile, with daily sections of 300 to 400 miles… all this and no time for food or rest, begin to take their toll of the stoutest heart and most robust machine”.

If today you tackle any of the former Alpine Rally cols – such as the Stelvio, the Allos, Pordoi, d’Izoard, du Frêne, Falzarego, Splugen and so many more – just spare a thought for those warriors of the early 1950s in their narrow-tracked, upright but shapely Sunbeam-Talbots… and – quite apart from the fêted Gold Cup winners Appleyard and Moss – never forget that future Formula 1 World Champion Mike Hawthorn was a winner there too. In fact, he had been quite fortunate in one respect, since he and navigator ‘Chips’ had been among a group which lost time hunting a listed route control in Arvieux – on the Col d’Izoard section – which in reality had not been set up at all. Penalties incurred there were set aside, which certainly disadvantaged some of the more experienced crews who had just shrugged and gone charging by. But that decision clinched a Coupe for The Farnham Flyer. Which was nice…

The three penalty-free works Sunbeam-Talbot 90s were promptly loaded onto a Bristol Freighter and flown home in time to appear in the following weekend’s British Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone. Hard-sell marketing is nothing new. But the real Alpine Rally remains much missed.