Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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Air base action

Bombs and bullets brought aerial drama to Flywheel’s military and motoring weekend at Bicester

My first visit to Flywheel at the atmospheric Bicester Heritage, and I had fun. Sited at the one-time RAF base, its tree-lined avenues and period buildings carefully restored to crisp smartness as though awaiting inspection by the Station Commander, the meet brings together cars, aircraft and military hardware, complete with tanks clanking into action and aircraft landing and taking off right in front of you. It’s nothing like the crowd at Goodwood – the only major queue I saw was for Stirling’s autograph – but it was a busy and cheerful affair with historic competition cars demonstrating over a tight short course right alongside a parked C47 Dakota and a huge Catalina flying boat, both open for visits. 

Vehicles ranged from a spread of Moss machines, including the 4WD Ferguson P99, through racers such as the Kieft V8 GP, HWM, ERA R3A, Andrew Crisford’s 1922 GP Sunbeam, thundering aero-engined specials, a chunky US V8 Sprint car and a squad of Bentleys and Bugattis, to pre-war motorbikes and historic karts, looking alarmingly simple compared to today’s devices. Making its first public bow was the Atalanta, its classic sweeping wings concealing a modern composite chassis. 

If you’re used to the Red Arrows, the Tiger 9 display of DH Moths will cause a mental gearchange as they flutter by so slowly you can almost hear the creak of spars. Very tight display, though, while I was impressed by the Great War mock dogfight – nine (replica) aircraft including Sopwith and Fokker triplanes in a crisply choreographed aerial ballet complete with smoke trails, noisy ack-ack and bombs. 

If it hadn’t been for David Brazzell, who had brought the 1961 TT-winning Ferrari SWB and Le Mans second-placed Ecurie Ecosse D-type his firm looks after, I would have missed a rather standard-looking Mk2 Jaguar parked on the grass among the extensive clubs gatherings. But it turned out to be a remarkably original works race car, sent out new in 1963 to New Zealand for dealer and racer Ray Archibald. After a brief career it was simply stored, and now that it’s back here David enthused about its unmolested state. With D-type head, large HDA carbs, close-ratio ’box and fast steering ratios it is, says David, so quick that it’s more fun than an E-type. Yet only a worn XK120 bucket seat for the driver hints at its past. 

After resisting a cream tea from a vintage caravan, admiring the WWI encampment and shell-shocked, rusting but running Grant M3 tank and marvelling at how the tiny, skimpy SR Skeeter helicopter ever managed to take off, I hit the M40. As the traffic coagulated I thought with raw envy of David Brazzell, driving home in the Moss SWB. 

The waving of the green

Five Bentleys celebrate in Mayfair after doing Le Mans Classic the hard way​

Berkeley Square turned extra-green right after Le Mans Classic, when a quintet of Bentleys arrived hot-tyred from the event to be met by a squad of fellow machinery outside Jack Barclay’s Mayfair showroom, having driven down, raced, and driven back just as the works cars did in the Twenties. Onlookers cheered as the travel-stained machines made booming and crackling laps of the square, not far from ‘Bentley Corner’ where once so many Bentley Boys lived, before one special car backed into the Jack Barclay showrooms in pride of place. 

Jonathan Turner’s 3-litre was the marque’s first official entrant in the 24-hour classic, driven by Bertie Kensington-Moir and Dudley Benjafield in 1925, but fell out due to a fuel miscalculation. “And now it’s finally finished Le Mans, 91 years later!” grinned Jonathan, still on a high after their epic run. It was hoods that triggered that fuel fumble – in 1925 cars had to run 20 laps with hoods up, upsetting the figures – so Jonathan did the same, erecting the skimpy top as rivals sped away at the race start. “They loved us!” he says. “We were cheered all the way round even though it slowed us so much.” 

Co-driver and event host William Medcalf, whose firm restored No10 to its 1925 form, added proudly “and the car didn’t miss a beat”. 

Benjafield Racing Club overalls abounded as champagne sprayed, flags waved and taxis hooted, annoyed by the Bentley blockage (that’s what it feels like, guys) as Nigel Batchelor, Paul Carter and Jürgen Ernst shared the plaudits for doing things the old way, open to the elements from baking Sarthe to soggy Kent.

Chris Lunn also did the trip in his 41/2 “but it’s no racer so I raced my Lister-Jaguar. First time it’s been back since 1958.” Turner also competed in another first-time returnee to the famous track – a works Healey, sister to the Macklin car in 1955.

The Bentleys were never going to be winners – a super-fast Talbot-Lago ran away with their category – but the London return had a glorious bit of swagger that a paddockful of transporters never can.

Lister’s magnesium flair

Next run of continuation Knobblies will be super-light – and super-costly 

We like to think we have a track record here of ferreting out little-known racing facts, but at the RAC Club in June I learned something new about Lister-Jaguars, something that even Mr Moss didn’t know about it as he piloted one to victory at Silverstone in 1958. The event was the launch of a new Lister model, and if as Stirling pulled the covers off it in the Rotunda we thought it looked very like the previous Knobbly-shaped offering we were right. The difference is what it’s made of: magnesium alloy. In building the previous 10 ‘continuation’ cars Lister found evidence that that thorough gentleman Brian Lister fibbed a little about the works cars, saying they were aluminium alloy while in fact Stirling and Archie Scott Brown enjoyed the weight-saving of thin steel and mag-alloy. 

“I never knew that,” said the racing knight on the day. “I just got in and drove them.” 

Four people who worked on the cars in period were at the launch to confirm the construction – and the fact that the superlight cars were sliced up after Lister stopped racing. Now the new ‘Stirling Moss’ edition of 10 cars boasts mag body (a third lighter), plus sump, clutch and diff casings as well as lighter chassis tubes, though as you can’t obtain the sort of thin-wall tubing used in the 1950s Lister have to bore out heavier tubes for the same result. Older mag-alloys were a fearsome fire risk, but modern equivalents have solved that, so your investment is safe. With 335bhp Crosthwaite & Gardiner D-type power and an HTP race passport but also useable on the road, the strictly limited edition runs from £1m – but you do get dinner with Stirling thrown in. 

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