Hammer to fall

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Four beautiful racing cars from one incredible collection and they’re all for sale. With a fantasy budget to spend, which one would you choose?
Writer Andrew Frankel | Photographer Matthew Howell

On September 8-9, what is billed to be the most important private collection of racing cars ever to go on public sale will be offered by RM Auctions in London. The property of Lord Irvine Laidlaw, they are being made available because he has reached a time in his life when he no longer wishes to race them and believes they should be released to be enjoyed by others who do.

It is an admirable sentiment. Before they go however, Motor Sport was invited to Cadwell Park to sample a few of the finest.

Which to choose? The first was obvious. The chance to drive any Jaguar D-type is a rare and special thing, but this is far from just any D-type. Indeed, there’s much more to it even than its Ecurie Ecosse colours: in fact it ranks as one of the most important British sports racing cars of its or any era.

What next? The T61 Birdcage of course, the most famous of all Maserati sports cars. If its looks alone do not intrigue and draw you into that web of tubular pipes, you should perhaps get out more. But it worried me, just a touch. I’d read so many wonderful things, I feared I might expect too much of it.

A complete change of pace then seemed in order, hence the ex-works Porsche 904/6. The 904 will always occupy a significant place in history for lots of reasons that are technical and one that is not: to me at least, this is the prettiest Porsche ever made.

And that was going to be it. It was difficult to omit a Ferrari 275GTB/C, but there has been another on these pages recently. But the Maserati 250S has not been in this or any other magazine I can recall. Indeed and to my shame, I was only dimly aware of its existence. What I did know after one look at that Fantuzzi bodywork is that it needed to be driven.

1955 Jaguar D-type
Chassis: XKD0504
Estimate: £5.5-6.5 million

This car has so many claims to fame it should go on tour. It may sport Ecurie Ecosse colours today, but it was built not only as a works car, but the very first to carry the landmark long-nose bodywork.

It actually sat out the tragic 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours as the factory spare, should anything have gone wrong with the other cars, and was then used for testing fuel injection systems while racing sporadically, notably at Silverstone and the Nurburgring driven by the likes of Jack Fairman, Duncan Hamilton and Paul Frere. It was sold to Ecurie Ecosse at the end of 1956 and raced extensively by Ninian Sanderson, Ivor Bueb and Fairman, notably coming sixth at the famed ‘Race of Two Worlds’ Monzanapolis event in 1957, driven by Sanderson.

It did finally make it out of the blocks at Le Mans in 1958, but like so many D-types forced to run at 3-litre capacity, it succumbed to engine failure. Its last serious outing for the team was the Goodwood TT that year, where driven by Masten Gregory and Innes Ireland it came home an impressive fifth behind three state-ofthe-art works Astons and a factory Porsche RSK.

Thereafter XKD504 was campaigned with great success, firstly by Mike Salmon and then Peter Sutcliffe, before working its way through a galaxy of well-known owners and racers en route to its current stable.

Historics race ace Simon Hadfield has kindly warmed it up, but I’m not expecting a stellar performance at Cadwell, a track you could have designed not to play to a D-type’s strengths. Short of straights and long of tricky corners, plunging gradient changes and one famous jump, it’s just not intended for a car designed for straight-line speed and aerodynamic efficiency to win Le Mans. Fitted with a wide-angle 3.8-litre engine probably producing about 340bhp, I’m expecting a phenomenally fast and rather wild ride.

At first it chunters amiably behind the camera car for a couple of laps as I marvel at how an engine this old and powerful can also be so tractable. The gearbox is slow and heavy, Jaguar like Porsche eschewing the quicker straight-cut dog box option in favour of synchromesh less likely to be damaged by tired drivers at Le Mans. But when the photographer signals his work is done, the other side of its personality is there at the twitch of a toe. Even on Cadwell’s short pit straight, it’s through second and third and into top without delay, the noise and power all I’d hoped for and more. I’d like to say

I can feel the ease with which it slips through the air but I’m too concerned with the arcing uphill left now approaching. I brake but leave it in top, registering slight surprise at how obediently it comes onto line. It seems more accurate than greased-whippet agile, but it feels good.

I’d expected it to feel cumbersome in the slower corners, but it managed its mass very capably. So long as you turned in on a trailing throttle and then reapplied the power almost immediately, it would cope well with the worst Cadwell could throw at it. Even over the jump and through the curves before the hairpin — a combination guaranteed to find the flaws in any car — it was never less than composed, precise and reassuring. It would lock its front tyres a little too easily under braking and those at the back if you were not perfectly precise with your heel and toeing but nothing that couldn’t be mitigated by taking a little care. This is a beautifully set up ‘D’, which proves there’s far more up its sleeve than straight-line shove. Others of the era might have been sweeter to drive but few if any, then or now, would prove to be quite as quick or effective.

1960 Maserati T61 ‘Birdcage’
Chassis: 2464
Estimate: £2.5-2.75 million

Maserati may have withdrawn from Formula 1 at the end of 1957, but it was not quite prepared to walk away from all forms of racing. History had suggested that good business could still be done in sports car racing but, with the gorgeous 300S now at the end of its development potential, chief engineer Giulio Alfieri went to work on an all-new design whose innovative construction lent it perhaps the most obvious nickname in racing history.

Built up around a dizzying concoction of steel tubes, many exposed to the naked eye, it seems likely it was always to be called the Birdcage. Built initially with a 2-litre engine and named the T60, it made its debut in 1959 and went well enough — especially at Rouen, where Stirling Moss destroyed a less than world-class field — for Maserati to sanction a 2.8-litre version with which it hoped to do serious damage to the might of the Ferrari Testa Rossa.

Radical spaceframe chassis aside, the car was quite conventional with a four-cylinder twin-cam motor canted at 45 degrees to reduce the height of the bonnet, double wishbone front suspension, transverse leafs at the back, a De Dion axle and a five-speed gearbox mounted between the rear wheels. Apart from its disc brakes it was a configuration that mimicked Ferrari sports cars from the middle of the decade.

Now Lloyd ‘Lucky’ Casner enters the frame. A pilot by profession and car dealer by trade, he was so taken by the Birdcage he not only ordered three but started a brand-new team with Goodyear sponsorship, the Casner Motor Racing Division, known to all as Camoradi, to race them. This car, chassis 2464, was one of the trio. It failed at Le Mans in 1960 with Casner and Jim Jeffords driving, but came fifth at the Nurburgring with another of his Birdcages triumphant, a victory that would be repeated the following year. It came second in the Karlskoga Grand Prix with Casner and Jo Bonnier driving, before heading over the water for a successful American career in the hands of Alan Connell. It was fitted with a Ford V8 in 1964 before returning to Europe in the 1990s and being restored to original condition.

For reasons I cannot quite explain other than its obvious worth, the Birdcage is quite an intimidating car to just get in and drive. It might be the ugly blare of its big-banger motor blasting out of its drainpipe exhaust at your side, or the oddly offset driving position, or the fact I can’t actually see the gearlever hidden out of sight under my right leg, but I’m not as at ease in here as I’d hoped. Not at first at least. Actually I think it’s the sight of the thing, with its skeleton bared and bodywork draped like painted pastry over those wheels. It appeared, sounded and felt incredibly raw, even by the standards of its day.

But I can see even after a small number of laps why those who raced Birdcages also raved about them. For all its constructional complexity, it’s a viceless car, on your side from the opening lap. It feels fast, but not monstrously so. It should have around 250bhp and weigh a little more than 700 kg — which is a useful power-to-weight ratio — but you can see why it fared so well at a track like the Nurburgring that places such a premium on handling, and less wonderfully at Le Mans where the brute force of the V12 Ferraris would have proven unanswerable. It is a true driver’s car and it’s easy to see why today it is one of the most revered of all Maserati racing cars.

1957 Maserati 250S
Chassis: 2432
Estimate: £2.5-3 million

This is the rarest of the lot, so rare I confess to knowing relatively little about it. As a race car, the Maserati 250S was not a machine of great global significance. Just four were built, though it is claimed just one, this one, was constructed as a 250S from scratch, the others being 200SI models upgraded to 2.5-litre specification.

To my shame and noting the capacity, I even asked if it had a 250F engine, only to be directed to the clearly four-cylinder motor under the bonnet. This car was made for Carroll Shelby, who raced it in Sports Car Club of America events throughout 1958, sharing the driving with Jim Hall. It was also raced in the 1960 Cuban Grand Prix by none other than Dan Gurney. So while it may not have a stack of premier league results to its name, there’s no doubting the calibre of those who sat behind its wood-rimmed wheel.

And right now I care very little about whether or not it was successful in competition. For those looks alone it could be a basket case under the skin and I’d still forgive it. But it’s not.

In most regards including its suspension, engine and gearbox it is similar in configuration if not actual specification to the Birdcage, with the significant differences of running drum brakes and having a ladder frame at the core of its construction.

“Think this one is going to surprise you,” Hadfield says. Like the Birdcage the cockpit is tighter than it needs to be because of the unorthodox positioning of the pedals and steering wheel relative to the driver, with the former too close, the latter a little further away than ideal. But it’s easier to drive than its direct descendant and actually the most open and instantly understandable of the four cars here. More than any other, this is the one that most clearly wants to play.

I am quite sure the 250S would be substantially the slowest of the four but you might not mind when you’re having so much fun. I’d always known the Birdcage would be brilliant on the limit because I’d been reading about them since I was a small boy. But with no pre-loaded expectation, the way the 250S behaved was entirely unexpected. Despite its relative paucity of power, cylinders and brakes, it felt like an Italian Aston DB3S, infinitely easier, more wieldy and less challenging than the D-type or a Ferrari 750 Monza. The gearbox is perfect — there really is no other word for it — and the balance other-worldly. But it is the feel of the car and its instinctive ability to drift everywhere that finds me slinging this multi-million pound racer around Cadwell with an abandon that says everything about the constant flow of reassurance from the machine and very little about the limited talent of the man. In short, it was a revelation.

1965 Porsche 904/6
Chassis: 906 012
Estimate: £1-1.2 million

Only three years separate the last competitive year of the Maserati T61 and the first of the Porsche 904s. It feels closer to 20. Here you’ll find no lattice framework of tubes or crude rear suspension. In its mid-engined configuration, wishbones at each corner design and the use of its body to provide additional torsional rigidity, the concept of the 904 appears to owe more to a modern sports racing car than anything else on these pages.

Yet it is not the car’s technical configuration but its appearance that soaks up all your attention. Conceived in such a hurry there was no time to go through a committee process where its design might be at best diluted and at worst perverted, every last inch of it is how Butzi Porsche intended it to be.

And although more than 100 904s were built, with some serving as road cars, the factory raced only a handful. This is one of them.

In period 904s raced with four, six and even eight-cylinder air-cooled, flat-formation engines. This one is and always has been a six. It raced twice for the works during 1965, first at the Nurburgring 1000Kms, placing sixth overall with Gunther Klass and Peter Nocker driving, then at Le Mans when the progress of Klass and Dieter Glemser was terminated by engine failure early on Sunday morning.

It was sold at the end of the season and spent the next 30 years in America as both a road and racing car before returning to Europe and finding its way into Laidlaw’s hands. During the past 10 years he has raced it pretty much everywhere you could imagine such a car being raced.

It is tiny inside, but while squeezing all 6ft 4in of me through the door does little for the dignity, the cockpit is so well arranged it’s splendidly comfortable once you’re in. There’s no short-legged, long-armed driving position with which to contend, no offset seat or haphazard splatter of dials. The controls meet your hands and feet exactly where you’d want them while the dials are logically arranged and instantly familiar.

Like every Porsche racer from a 550 Spyder to a 962 Group C car, it starts on the twist of a key. And like every other Porsche from the mid-1960s, the 901-type synchro box is lousy. If its new owner is unfamiliar with the type, he might be shocked at its vague, soupy action but should be reassured: albeit to different degrees, they’re all like that, sir.

There’s nothing wrong with the 2-litre engine though, which is described as being tuned for torque and reliability though still puts out about 185bhp at perhaps 7500rpm. It fluffs and snorts at low revs on part throttle, but once the triple-choke Webers clear their throats there’s no stopping this featherweight, glassfibre 650kg jewel. Of all the cars here, it is by far the most suited to the particular challenges of Cadwell Park and, despite having the least power of the four, I’d back it to post the fastest lap time.

Brilliantly set up to be soft enough to use for road racing events like the Tour Auto as well as dedicated circuit work, it could not feel more in its element. It’s a car that commands you to carry speed into each corner: being an early mid-engined machine there’s a temptation to think it might be tricky on the limit, but it is quite the reverse. There’s not the power to reward a slow-in, fast-out approach nor any need to be so conservative with it. Often a little lift just to angle the nose in is enough to tuck the little Porsche into the curve whereupon it’ll corner so flat and fast it feels more like 15 than nearly 50 years old. As an all-purpose, go anywhere, do anything weapon, it is unrivalled in company even as illustrious as this.

So, and for the next paragraph at least, I’m imagining I am a very wealthy man in London this September, armed with a bidding paddle but with space in the shed for just one of them. If I were Hadfield or another world-class driver of historic racers and wanted to win, I’d choose the D-type because I expect it’s the most competitive car here. If I wanted an eventer, a car I could race, tour and even just use on the road, there’s none better than the 904. I’d have the Birdcage for more aesthetic reasons — it’s probably the least gorgeous of four gorgeous cars, but its shape, construction and place as the last truly great Maserati sports racer gives it a fascination of its own. But if you just wanted to have fun, the 250S celebrates the simple joy of driving better than any other here. All history and value issues aside, as merely a thing to drive, it is the one I would have. I should be so lucky.

Our sincere thanks to Lord Laidlaw, RM Auctions, Simon Hadfield and Phil Stainton for making this feature possible. All these cars will be auctioned by RM Auctions at the St James’s Concours d’Elegance in London on September 8-9.

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