Historic scene: September 2018

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The wonders – both grounded and airborne – of Bicester Heritage’s Flywheel event, plus the Total Grand Prix of Farnham

There’s a different feel to the Flywheel event at Bicester Heritage now; most of the preserved WWII bomber base is open to the public, which lets the companies on site show off their wares. There are firms selling old cars, fixing them, trimming them and restoring and storing them – a stroll around is a treat for the classic car lover. But so is the event itself: a mix of car demonstrations round a tight course with good visibility, vintage village offering clothes, period cameras and Fifties-style afternoon tea, static displays notably of military matters – I was startled to hear a machine gun crackling – and aircraft parked and flying. You could investigate a C47 Dakota which dropped paratroops on D-Day, an Auster and early helicopters while overhead British aerobatic champion Lauren Richardson flung her Pitts Special biplane across the Warwickshire skies, before a fight broke out between Sopwith and Fokker WWI triplane replicas punctuated by bursting ack-ack fire and the odd bomb. BE2 and Avro 504 added Great War colour, and one of the special things about this place is that planes take off and land right in front of you. This year is the centenary of the RAF, so the Memorial Flight Lancaster and Hurricane flew by to honour seven WWII veterans who attended.

Not so many people wandered to the inaugural concours, placed a distance from the main action, where movie star cars included the AMC Hornet which made that spiral jump in the James Bond Man with the Golden Gun film and the Blues Brothers’ Dodge Hornet police car. Overall winner was Lee Choat’s E-type coupé, while the People’s Choice award went to Dale Sutter’s lovely 1960 Hillman Minx in the same white-over-green colours as one I practiced driving on all the way back when flares were still cool (2117 SR, if anyone still has it…).

Nearby, banners waved for London-Sydney 50 – an event at the Gaydon museum on Sunday, July 29 celebrating the 1968 UK-Australia marathon. Rally cars from the event and similar mammoth treks included BMC 1800 Landcrab and Triumph 2000PI along with Jean Denton’s high-riding MGB with tail-hanging jerry cans. The event itself will show off Marathon and World Cup rally cars and gather together crews from those daunting expeditions.

Oliver Chapman showed me over the Mercury V8-powered sports car his grandfather built back in 1956, with eight gargling ram intakes puncturing its shapely bonnet, and nearby the Stapleton brothers told me about wrestling with the welded-up differential on their HF Special, one of two Ford flathead V8 US single-seaters that they had brought along with them on the day.

A squad of De Dion tricycles from the turn of last century made a rare sight – amazing to think a pair of these spindly machines completed the original Peking-Paris challenge in 1907 across the roadless lands of Mongolia. On two wheels, I admired a Brough Superior, which was later loaded on a trailer behind a Brough car. That’s a rare pair. David Leigh’s gloriously scruffy GN Spider had a few children gaping at its razor nose and battered ally panels, a contrast to Tim Metcalfe’s smooth single-seater Lagonda Rapier, the one originally built for Roy Eccles to take Brooklands records, and Tony Bianchi’s bellowing Farrelac. Derek Bell was here too, flicking a Porsche 911 between the hay bales.

One way or another there was action most of the time, and even rides on top of a six-wheeled amphibious Alvis Stalwart and Sherman tank. Or in a Tiger Moth.

With a grass airfield on one side and its tree-lined avenues of historic RAF buildings, Bicester Heritage makes a singular venue, and Flywheel has a good vibe.

ALMOST FORGOT THE Double 12 meeting was running at Brooklands in June until a friend called up to ask where I was, so I climbed into the Mk2 and burbled down. Somehow we ended in the paddock as one of the exhibits – embarrassing as people looked at the rampant rust gnawing at my rear bumper. That’s been a ‘must do’ job for about 10 years. But it was another active day, with sprints up the Test Hill (including children’s running races), driving tests and the concours following the speed trials of Saturday. This forms one of the VSCC’s Speed Championship rounds, where Nick Topliss upheld R4D’s remarkable parade of victories with a new track record on the modern circuit beside Mercedes-Benz World, the ERA fending off Terry and Jamie Crabb’s R12C which took fastest pre-war and class honours ahead of Rob Cobden’s rapid Riley Special and the AC/GN Cognac of Tony Lees, fastest vintage entry.

On Sunday cars from Edwardian to the Eighties tackled five driving tests, Tom Thornton’s Frazer Nash-BMW 319/328 screeching to overall triumph, but as always it was the paddock that drew me. One Bentley crew brought a Chesterfield sofa for gentlemanly comfort between runs. Alex Pilkington lamented the broken supercharger on her 1750 6C, though it didn’t stop her competing. Colin Rogers proudly told me about how his Adro Special uses bed rails for its chassis, with a technically transverse V-twin – the cylinders are fore and aft, not side by side, a crank sprocket driving two consecutive long chains to the rear axle. As the French say about derailleur gears on a bike, c’est brutale, mais ça marche.

Standing by his Riley Ulster Imp, Tim Ely informed me that having owned the car since 1959 he feels it’s time to part with it. This was Mike Hawthorn’s first competition car, in which he won his class at the 1950 Brighton Speed Trial. It always sports a spotted bow tie on its grille in memory of the flamboyant world champion, and Tim purchased it direct from Mike’s mother after the racer’s untimely death, so letting it move on must be a wrench. Admirably, though, Tim says he won’t send it to auction. Instead he hopes for a private buyer who’ll keep it in England.

As I began to wander home a marshal stopped to say hello – Alan Winn, who last year as museum director ran the whole show and this year was happily directing cars around the paddock. Contentment…

TOTAL GRAND PRIX of Farnham. It may not be on the FIA calendar but on October 14 it will bring the Hampshire town to a stop while 50 or 60 sporting cars circulate to commemorate 60 years since local boy Mike Hawthorn’s 1958 world championship with Ferrari. In late June a group of enthusiasts gathered at the Barley Mow on Tilford green, one of Mike’s favourite haunts, to hear organiser Mike Ballard outline plans to run Grand Prix racers and sports cars connected with the Farnham Flyer around a town centre circuit.

Local councillors are supporting the event as is Total-ELF, hence the title, and cars will be based in The Maltings in Farnham. There were no Formula 1 Ferraris at the get-together, but as well as Hawthorn’s Riley Imp, Nigel Webb sent his replica of Mike’s MkI Jaguar, carefully reflecting every detail of his famous road car 881 VDU, and our own Doug Nye brought his alloy-bodied Proteus C-type replica in Ecurie Ecosse colours.

While talking cars I met Mike’s friend John Nicholson who recalled the two of them going to Goodwood as lads and trying to sneak in for free. Later they were at college together, where Mike devoted more time to enjoyment than study with inevitable (lack of) results. Start as you mean to go on.

Come October I’ll be heading down the A3 hoping to see a 246 Ferrari Dino snarling past Farnham’s traffic lights.

Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635