A salute to the King

There is a whisper that Richard Petty has decided to call time on his popular appearances at the Goodwood Festival of Speed after one last triumphant visit this year. At 81 years of age, it’s understandable that the man who has signed more autographs than anyone else in history should decide to throttle back a bit – but by gum he’ll be missed on this side of the Pond.

His rangy figure, diamond white smile and trademark moustache have aged well beneath the ever-present STP-branded sunglasses and Charlie 1 Horse hat. Thoughts of ‘King’ Richard abdicating the throne still seem rather abstract, and in an age when certain US – ahem – dignitaries have done their worst, he is a reminder of the very best that the American Dream has ever had to offer.

“We were living in a three-room house on a dirt road with no electricity, no telephone… you know, no communications,” the King remembered recently of his childhood in New Cross, North Carolina.

“You didn’t know that there was another world out there!  So you lived in your world and you was as happy as a June bug ‘cos you had as much as the guy next door… My mother and daddy, they were very stern, they had certain rules, you knew what the rules were and if you broke ‘em you got whopped!”

That daddy was of course the first real superstar of NASCAR racing: Lee Petty.  The family may not have had much as Richard and his brother Maurice grew up in New Cross, but his father’s gift with internal combustion brought home the bacon.

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During the prohibition era, nothing could help support a living scratched from the Carolina soil quite like running moonshine – at which Lee Petty’s tuning and driving skills put him in the top rank. As a side occupation, the bootleggers would race one another to see who had the fastest car, making serious money from the bets that were placed on these events.

After World War 2 the survivors of that generation of rowdy racers and tuners congregated under the NASCAR banner. They went at it on Daytona beach and other oval tracks across the south-east USA – and Lee Petty was one of the most successful drivers of his era, who backed up raw talent with a willingness to bend the fenders of his rivals in order to get ahead.

The elder Petty was a double champion and the most successful driver of NASCAR’s first decade. Meanwhile in 1956-57, you Richard took his first steps on the circuit… while brother Maurice learnt the dark arts of race tuning.

At the 1961 Daytona 500, the third running of the race on that mighty 2.5-mile banked oval, Richard Petty went over the Turn 1 barrier – fortunately without serious injury. His father, however, was pile-driven through the metal guardrail entering Turn 4 and suffered career-ending injuries. All emphasis went on the Petty boys’ careers, with father Lee presiding over the pit lane.

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The King ascends: the 1964 Plymouth and Richard Petty

It was a partnership that flourished as the motor manufacturers began to take an interest in NASCAR to promote their products. The Pettys received support from Plymouth, and the cars painted in their unique shade of blue were absolutely dominant. Young Richard won his first NASCAR Grand National title in 1964 with 9 victories, including his first Daytona 500 win, to earn an unprecedented $114,000 in winnings alone – that’s close to a million dollars in today’s money. You could do a lot of things in New Cross with a million dollars even today.

Petty’s success was attributed to the Hemi engine, which was immediately banned. Thus Petty went to compete in drag racing for 1965 in protest at NASCAR’s decision. Unfortunately, an accident resulted in the death of a six-year-old boy and the injury of several bystanders, but his successes continued despite the tragedy.

The Hemi was reinstated for NASCAR use in 1966 and a total of six more championship titles would be added between 1967 and 1979 – in a wide variety of makes and models. Whether he was in a Plymouth, Ford, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Buick or Pontiac, the King could be spotted in a heartbeat thanks to the family’s distinctive ‘Petty Blue’ paint, together (from 1971), with the fluorescent red of oil company STP.

A final total of 200 race wins was reached in a fever-pitch afternoon at Daytona in July 1984, when the delayed Ronald Reagan arrived in Air Force 1 in the middle of the race, becoming the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR event. Of course he witnessed what would turn out to be the King’s final race victory.

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The King’s 200th and final win came, fittingly, at Daytona

The King remained firmly in the driving seat of his blue number 43 car until 1992. He wasn’t competitive but he remained the fans’ favourite. The compulsion to stay was understandable although it nearly claimed him several times – not least his wild crash at the 1988 Daytona 500. When he bowed out after 35 years in the cockpit, there was a celebration like few others.

It’s unlikely that anyone in stock car racing – or anywhere else in motor sport – will have a career as gilded as that of the King. Yet there was no guile to it all, as he once said: “I just tried to win every week and if the math worked out at the end they gave me a big trophy.”

Nobody can escape the occasional controversy in a career of 60-odd years and counting. Petty was instrumental in the banishment and shameful silence that surrounded the dying days of NASCAR wild child Tim Richmond in 1987-89, when he developed full-blown AIDS. The two men were worlds apart and Richmond, the free-wheeling rich kid from Ohio who would fly to New York for a haircut, raised the King’s hackles just for existing.

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Dale Earnhardt, the King and Tim Richmond on the infield

Like all too many in the NASCAR firmament, the King wasn’t short of disparagement for Danica Patrick, either.

This latter point has some resonance at the S&G, where Danica was considered a friend during her early days in Britain and her pace, determination and willingness to bat prevailing sexism to the boundary were staggering. To the men of NASCAR, when one driver hits another on the rear quarter panel to put them in the wall, it’s considered an act of war. Fists fly and a race or two later the compliment is returned… but when it happened to Danica – and getting hit was the cause of most of her (admittedly many) NASCAR accidents – she was branded an ‘idiot’ every time.

When a woman driver eventually follows Danica’s lead and pushes on to Victory Lane, it will doubtless genuinely stun a man raised in the Bible Belt of the 1930s. Yet the King, to his enduring credit, is no caricatured Confederate. The family of NASCAR’s first black driver, Wendell Scott, remember that he would often find tyres, tools and even engines in his pit that had ‘accidentally’ been left there by the number 43 crew in what was otherwise a pretty unfriendly environment.

Today, Bubba Wallace is the first black driver with a full-time seat in NASCAR for more than a decade. He drives Richard Petty’s number 43.

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The King and Bubba Wallace have revived the number 43’s fortunes in 2018

Not since Petty’s last great run of success in the 1970s has the number 43 been such a hot property, with a hugely popular driver taking results like second place in this year’s Daytona 500. After decades in the wilderness, Petty has regrouped and his business appears to be thriving once again – thus there’s an air of contentment and completion about the King which is richly deserved.

Since 2006 he has been part of the Festival of Speed experience. Initially he was slightly taken aback by the fervour that the Brits met him with, and put his popularity down to being the only guy in a cowboy hat at Lord March’s garden party.

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Every time a different one of the treasures from his museum at The Petty Garage in New Cross has been fettled, primed and sent up the hill – although this year the King handed over driving duties, giving even more time for selfies and autographs. Goodwood will be all the poorer for his absence in future, but the S&G wishes the King many more good years, grateful that there is still a star of the 1950s who is still active in the sport to this day.

As testament to this remarkable man, here are some other lesser-known facts about Richard Petty:

  • The outfit worn by Burt Reynolds in Smokey & The Bandit was designed around the kind of off-duty threads worn by the King in the mid-Seventies – who is also namechecked in the script. He’s still not averse to busting out a red shirt, either…

 

  • Petty always refused sponsorship from alcohol brands, and never claimed cash awards that were sponsored by them, in deference to his mother’s wishes
  • He raced with a broken neck. More than once.
  • He’s signed in excess of 2 million autographs – having developed his bold, looping script for that purpose. In 2017, the King said: “Right early I looked in the deal and we had no sponsors at that time, and the purse didn’t come from the promoter; it came from the people sitting in the grandstand. So I said: OK, I’m gonna sign this, but when they get home I want them to be able to read who said ‘thank you’. Those are the people that put me in business and the reason why all (the media and sponsors) are here. If it wasn’t for the fans you’d probably have to go to work for a living!”
  • Of his 200 wins, 30 were on dirt tracks before NASCAR got all fancy and only raced on asphalt
  • He raced 307,836 laps on his way to those 200 wins, with 555 top-five finishes, 712 top-10 results and 123 pole positions
  • At Texas in 2017 a caution was thrown when a stetson blew onto the track. From the 43 car run by Richard Petty Motorsports, driver Bubba Wallace cheekily radioed his pit to ask if the King needed assistance. His spotter immediately replied that there were two things Richard Petty didn’t lose often: races and hats
  • Richard Petty and his wife Lynda provided the voices for the blue number 43 Plymouth Superbird and matching blue 1975 Chrysler Town & Country Station Wagon in the Disney/Pixar movie Cars
  • In 1967 he won 27 out of 48 races entered
  • He refuses to have any painkillers at the dentist as a reminder to take better care of his teeth
  • He is a walking quote machine, with such lines as: ‘When was the first automobile race? The day they built the second automobile,’ and ‘I don’t know how many laps I led, all I know is that I led the last one 200 times.’
  • He refers to people as ‘cats’ and habitually bids farewell with a shaka or ‘hang loose’ hand sign
  • His first top-10 finish in NASCAR was recorded on July 26, 1958 and his last was 33 years and 16 days later

Ladies and gentlemen: the King!

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Wing Commander T. F. Neil, DFC & Bar, AFC, AE

The name of Tom Neil crops up in several posts dedicated to the air war in 1939-45 on this blog. Since first encountering him, his stories and his writing, the S&G has been squarely in his debt for his passion to ensure that what the airmen of Fighter Command actually saw and did might be preserved without sentiment.

A print hangs on the S&G’s wall of three Hawker Hurricanes tipping over to dive upon a formation of Italian bombers high over Malta and the brilliant blue Mediterranean beyond. It’s a masterpiece by Michael Turner, an artist with whom it was a privilege to work on the 60th anniversary of the Formula 1 World Championship some years back, and the Hurricane depicted in the foreground is that of Tom Neil.

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The S&G’s treasured print

The future Wing Commander T.F. Neil was born in Bootle in 1920. His passion for flying was inspired at the age of 12, almost immediately announcing his intention to go to Cranwell and become a career officer in the RAF. This idea did not greatly please his mother and, decades later, Neil remembered that: ‘In the First World War, she said, she’d mixed with a lot of RAF officers and RFC officers and they were all drunks. And she had no intention of allowing her only son to go down that particular path!

Undeterred, Neil was still at school when he applied to join 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force – his local unit.

‘…the bald-headed squadron leader – positively senile – who interviewed me initially, pointed out that as i was still at school, did not own a car and lived some 30 miles away, I might not be much use to them. I disagreed, of course, but my protestations cut no ice. Why didn’t I join the Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, which would be forming a year or two hence? Or the local RAFVR (Volunteer Reserve) even? After five years of waiting and longing, I was appalled – crushed – and demolished. It had never occurred to me that I might not be welcomed with open arms. Furthermore I had never heard of a Manchester Auxiliary Squadron, nor did I want to know of one. And the RAFVR? What utter nonsense!’

Neil’s remaining school days saw him take a trip to Germany, where he had heard reports of state-sanctioned violence towards the Jewish population and the ranting behaviour of its ‘Führer’ but witnessed no such barbarity on the streets of Koblenz, where the school party was to stay. Instead he was impressed by the courtesy of his hosts, albeit whilst awe-struck by the vast number of military camps and aircraft overhead and by the ‘toughness and sense of dedication’ that had been instilled in the population as a whole. An ominous interlude.

Through his father’s connections, Neil left school and went to work in a bank, whilst also swallowing his rather bruised pride and joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Thus he was already a trained pilot when war broke out and was commissioned in April 1940, joining 249 Squadron. So began more than two years with 249 spent in the cockpit of Hawker Hurricanes, during which time he scored 13 victories during what Neil himself described as the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

This relationship with the Hurricane was somewhat love-hate. It was robust and a stable gun platform, but Neil found design issues like the location of the fuel tanks, which caused many pilots to be killed or maimed by fire, largely unforgivable. By the time that he and the rest of his detachment from 249 was transferred to Malta in mid-1941, he believed that the Hurricane was dangerously obsolete and that the RAF was simply using up old stock at the expense of the men who should have been in Spitfires if they were to stand a chance.

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A 249 Squadron Hurricane at Takali airfield, Malta 1941

Fortunately, the period in which Tom Neil was stationed on the besieged Island was May to December 1941 – in between the two most catastrophic periods when the Luftwaffe held absolute air superiority. The closest encounter that they had with the Germans turned out to be the morning after they had landed, when the all-conquering Joachim Müncheberg and his Messerschmitts from 7/JG26 destroyed several of 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes in a final strafing mission before they, and the rest of the Luftwaffe in Sicily, were recalled to join Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of Russia.

As a result, Neil and his colleagues were left to face up to the forces of the Italian Regia Aeronautica – a group of pilots steeped with skill and equipped with highly effective fighters, but whose bombers were second rate and generally did not press home their attack with anything like the same vigour as the Germans.

Most of the conflict and losses amongst RAF fighters on Malta at this time was internally-driven. The commanding officer on the Island, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, had no interest in defensive units: his only concern was to destroy Axis shipping in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile the fighter pilots were living and dying in worn-out aeroplanes, facing the perils of baling out over the sea or, worse, crash landing on Malta’s unforgiving warren of dry stone walls.

Tom Neil repeatedly badgered Lloyd about replacing the Hurricanes with Spitfires or even the Curtiss Tomahawks that were coming into RAF service from America, only to be told that the problem was ‘not the aeroplane: it was the man.’ In later years, former bomber crews would often drink a toast to ‘Hugh Pughe’ when they gathered, but to Neil he was remembered as ‘a bullshitter of the first order.’

Neil survived his tour and later wrote the remarkable book Onward to Malta based upon more than 600 letters that he wrote at the time. It remains the S&G’s favourite airman’s memoir, distinct even from Neil’s other works on the Battle of Britain (Gun Button to Fire) and his later life (The Silver Spitfire), because it is so clearly written in the voice of a witty and irascible young warrior.

After Malta, Neil was given desk jobs until becoming commanding officer of 41 Squadron, primarily escorting US Army Air Force operations over occupied France, and then became a liaison officer with the Americans for much of the duration. He remained with the RAF in peacetime, reaching the rank of Wing Commander and retiring in 1964 for a long career in commerce.

In recent years, Tom Neil became one of the most called-upon and popular veterans of both the Battle of Britain and Malta campaigns. There was never any wistfulness or whimsy about him, exemplified when he gave the keynote address at the RAF’s 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Britain in 2010 – opening with:

‘Well I’m almost 90 now, a couple of weeks, and I’m one of about 20 remaining veterans – I hate the word ‘veteran’ – still reasonably active. There are of course another 60 of us still alive but less able to get about and take part in such splendid occasions as this. Our average age during the Battle of Britain was 21. The age of us now remaining is 93 and we are dying off at the rate of 30 a year. Those of you with Oxford educations will realise that in three years’ time it’s more than likely that the rest of us will be up there with the fairies!’

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Prince Harry surrendered his seat in a Spitfire to Tom Neil for the 2015 Battle of Britain commemorations

Well, perhaps predictably, Tom Neil did better than that. He died late on 11 July 2018, three days short of his 98th birthday. In between times he was a regular face on TV, taking centre stage at Goodwood for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when he almost single-handedly saved Channel 4’s coverage of the commemorations from becoming a parody of itself.

Once again, it is remarkable to think how a life of all-but 98 years was defined by barely five of them. We are all fortunate indeed that the deeply personal way in which he spoke of those days has been so well documented; never once wavering or differing in details that will continue to amaze and inspire for generations to come.

S.E.5 competition – clues!

Right then, there seems to be some danger that nobody will win a signed copy of the S.E.5 book so here’s a few clues. When you think that you’ve got the correct answers go here to enter…

Factory 1: was a Vickers plant at the world’s first motor racing venue
Factory 2: is in Birmingham and could well be described as a ‘snakepit’
Factory 3: was on the grassy expanse that gets covered with tents for a famous air show
Factory 4: was later home to the Metro
Factory 5: was another Vickers plant – famous for munitions and in the south east of London
Factory 6: is where the flying Elephants hailed from (and later Lion paper)
Factory 7: was Blériot’s British base and later famed for its buses

The competition ends this weekend.

A white and silver anniversary

Everyone loves an anniversary. And a landmark achievement. F1 people are usually rather good at this sort of thing, as all the sponsors love a bit of Victoria Sponge cake with their logos on it and there are any number of websites that will run a photo.

If you’re lucky a crew from Sky F1 will come over and film each other dribbling jam on their shirts and doing emotive pieces to camera about your heritage. All the fun of the fair.

This year, Monaco has become Finland-on-Sea at Grand Prix time: the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg being shoehorned back into his title-winning Williams FW08 with his 2016 world championship-winning son Nico (officially German but…), rolling out alongside him in his victorious Mercedes.

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The Rosbergs, père et fils (Dickie Stanford)

Meanwhile Finn du jour Valtteri Bottas has chosen to wear a replica Mika Häkkinen crash helmet, to mark something or other we expect.

Perhaps this is all a bid by Formula 1’s new American owners to pave the way for a highly lucrative Finnish Grand Prix deal. That would be a popular move, if rather hard going on the kidneys.

Yet some anniversaries really are special. Last year, Ferrari marked 70 years as a constructor of racing cars – and perhaps more importantly as a constructor of the myths about racing cars. Here at the S&G we shall be cutting the cake next year on the 90th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s founding, but there were some nice moments in 2017 too.

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One anniversary appears to have happened without great celebration, however. It seems remarkable in this day and age that anything in motor sport can happen without a plinth being erected outside Lord March’s conservatory, a tribute crash helmet design or a commemorative piece of regalia – but here it is: in Spain, Mercedes achieved 110 race wins for its Grand Prix cars in 110 years of competition.

Now, S&G regulars will of course remember that Mercedes took itself away from Grand Prix racing as a constructor for 55 years on account of the Le Mans disaster, so it can hardly be called a continuous history in Grand Prix racing. Its attendance was also a bit patchy in the 1920-30s on account of many things (not least Germany’s international standing after World War 1), and was similarly banned after World War 2 until the 1951 season.

But take all of that aside – 110 years is a thumping period across which to have been winning Grands Prix. And an average of one per year for more than a century is a good story… two per year if you discount 1955-2010… and roughly three per year across the 40 season of Grand Prix racing that have actually been undertaken by Mercedes.

No mean feat.

Surely Monaco, the blue riband race of the year, should be playing host to the great snorting white beasts from the rough-hewn roads of Dieppe and Lyon, Caracciola’s SSK and the awe-inspiring Silver Arrows of the Thirties? Mika Häkkinen should be there in person, wearing his own helmet and tramping round in Fangio’s W196 (and complaining about its brakes again), rather than a bunch of beloved Scandiwegians.

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Why so shy? What have the patisseries of the Côte d’Azur done to deserve such a massive loss of potential earnings for silver-iced tartes tatin? What is going on here?

Perhaps Mercedes is fighting shy of claiming the 1937 AVUS-Rennen as a win for its Grand Prix cars because it is where they were dressed in extraordinary all-enveloping bodywork and hit more than 220mph. Perhaps victories like the Eifelrennen, Coppa Acerbo and Coppa Ciano are omitted from the total because, while they were for Grand Prix cars, they weren’t actual Grands Prix.

If that’s the case, then Mercedes has at least bought itself some time to actually put an anniversary party together. They are unlikely to win in Monaco but Canada is Lewis Hamilton’s fiefdom and that means – oh yes! – next up is France. So if Mercedes drops the mad 1937 race from its tally, it can claim 110 wins in 110 years in time for its return to the nation where it all began: France.

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Now wouldn’t that be an idea?

Win a signed S.E.5 Haynes Manual

The S&G achieved a lifetime’s ambition in writing about the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 – with considerable help and support from the likes of Sir Peter Jackson’s The Vintage Aviator Limited, The Shuttleworth Collection, the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust, author Derek Robinson and modern day S.E.5 pilots Rob Millinship and Richard Grace, among many others.

Apart from the offspring and a book that the S&G wrote behind the scenes at Ferrari many moons ago, probably very little will outlast this author once that cloaked figure with a scythe comes-a-knocking… but this one might. True enough it’s not exactly Harry Potter but it really is the most amazing machine that became part of some astonishing lives.

It’s the story of an aeroplane that survived the Machiavellian machinations of the British aircraft industry, inter-service rivalries, the whims of the Houses of Parliament and any number of other obstacles to end up as the fighter that created more aces than any other. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then why not have a crack at this little competition?

The following photos, taken from the book, all show factories where the S.E.5 was built as they appear today. Some have original buildings whole or in part, others are now home to much more modern monoliths – or even empty space.

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Factory 1:

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Factory 2:

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Factory 3:

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Factory 4:

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Factory 5:

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Factory 6:

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Factory 7:

 

To enter, simply name the factories in order by replying to this post as follows…

Factory 1:
Factory 2:
Factory 3:
Factory 4:
Factory 5:
Factory 6:
Factory 7:

The competition starts now and will end at 00:01 on June 23 2018. The names of those who successfully get all seven correct will be drawn from a hat by an independent name-from-hat-puller. There should probably be plenty more Ts and Cs but if you’re the sort of person who gets in a bait about such things then it’s probably best not to enter!

It’s just a bit of fun, after all…

In the meanwhile the book remains available from Haynes Publishing here, is on Amazon here and is available from all good book sellers.

America and the V8: a love story (from France)

Here’s an interesting little meander through time that takes us through the greater part of the past century – from the air war over the Western Front to Texan boogie rock.

In the 1900s, the design and development of internal combustion engines became a French speciality and in their bid to increase reliability and profitability the Monobloc engine was created. Effectively this meant that far fewer individual components were needed if the the cylinder block, cylinder head and crankcase were all forged as a single item.

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An early Monobloc design

Available as early as 1905 from manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, the Monobloc truly came of age in the hands of Swiss designer Marc Birkigt, whose Hispano-Suiza V8 was lighter and more powerful than any other aero engine in the Allied arsenal… becoming effectively the Rolls-Royce Merlin of World War 1.

The Hispano-Suiza first found fame in the SPAD S.VII in which Capitaine Georges Guynemer briefly became the most successful Allied air ‘ace’ of the war, then became the power plant for Britain’s S.E.5 – arguably the greatest fighter design of the war. When the Americans arrived, they opted for the later SPAD S.XIII as their front-line fighter and in these machines were written the legends of Eddie Rickenbacker, Frank Luke and Raoul Lufbery, among others.

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Eddie Rickenbacker’s patriotic SPAD – beautifully captured by Jim Dietz

As with all Monoblocs, even the Hispano-Suizas encountered some problems along the way. Primarily this was down to the outsourced manufacturing quality of components rather than the fundamental engine design – although most failures would serve to highlight any inherent weakness around the gasket and exhaust.

Nevertheless, the sophistication and power of the V8, together with the enthusiasm for ‘ace’ pilots in SPADs, set America thinking. If it could use its industrial might to iron out any kinks, then V8 power could become central to postwar living.

The most effective solution to the Monobloc‘s problems was to adopt side-valve design, reducing the stresses on the weakest links in the chain. It was with the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’ engine that Ford Motor Company took the motoring world by storm between the wars.

Having established the mass production of motor cars with the Model T of 1908, Ford was content to rest on its laurels for 18 years until the advances in engineering that emerged from World War 1 finally caught up with the old ‘Tin Lizzie’.

Ford’s belated response was the Model A, which was barely less Spartan in its simplicity than the Model T but was packaged far more elegantly and, unlike its predecessor, featured controls in the same layout as most other mass-market cars.

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The Model A Ford brought modern motoring to the masses

The Model A was a success, averaging almost a million sales per year, but the car buying market was growing ever-more sophisticated and demanding. Rivals such as General Motors were keen to offer an ever-increasing range of options based as much upon personalisation and comfort as they were to efficiency, while in Europe levels of style and sophistication were reaching their zenith.

Ford decided to try and outdo both.

The result was really only a single solution that went under many names, but for the sake of brevity it shall be called the 1932 Model B. As many major components as possible were carried over from the Model A but alongside the traditional 4-cylinder engine but alongside it in the showrooms was something rather special: a Monobloc V8 called the Model 18.

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Ford’s version of the Monobloc V-8: the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’

This was a Model B fitted with what Ford called its ‘Flathead V-8’. At a stroke, the Blue Oval could offer a smoother-running, more powerful engine for just $10 more than the standard 4-cylinder model. In total the Model B was also available with an array of 14 body styles, from standard sedans through roadsters, coupés, woodies and trucks… the very model of platform-sharing diversity.

The Model B and Ford’s Flathead V-8 became motoring icons overnight – and remained that way for decades. They were cheap to buy, relatively cheap to maintain and sold at a rate in excess of 300,000 units per year.

In 1933 the Model B was reworked again. As Ford’s motor won a following, so the car that it belonged to was given a longer wheelbase, a radiator grille shaped like a medieval knight’s shield and smoothed out styling on the inside and out. The Flathead V-8 was also tweaked; gaining better ignition to boost power. This would become the Model C, with the Flathead V-8 version being named the Model 40.

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The 1933 Ford put a stylish face on a wide array of bodies

 

The V8 took hold among all American automobile manufacturers thereafter, but thanks to its low cost and endless variety of cars, Ford produced arguably the greatest icon of American motoring between the wars.

Not only that, but there were now European Ford V8s being built in England and Germany, led by the Ford V-8 Pilot. It was a boon to moonshine runners during prohibition, and in this era of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, the whole world fell under the spell of these smooth American engines.

During World War 2, V12s were the weapon of choice in the air but in the late 1940s, Ford’s faithful Flathead V-8 was still a mainstay of post-war motoring. It became the focus of a cottage industry of tuners and tweaks – either those who wanted to race on the drag strip and stock car circuit or continue to keep one step ahead of the law.

The birth of the hot rod movement and the NASCAR stock car racing series ensured that Flathead V-8s remained at the forefront. Kids bought them, stripped them, tuned them and had a whale of a time in their Little Deuce Coupes and a whole host of other variations on the theme.

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The Beach Boys had their ’32 Ford – the Little Deuce Coupe

But then in the mid-Fifties, General Motors went and moved the goalposts with its ‘small block’ V8. This was a relatively fuel-efficient 90-degree V8 with overhead valves and pushrod valve train that would set new standards for light weight, compact size, general simplicity and remarkable durability.

After 40 years, the V8 Monobloc was history.

Chevrolet’s V8 became – and largely remains – the weapon of choice for America’s hot rodders and racers, who called it the Mighty Mouse for its ability to punch above its weight in the tuning shop – and colloquially the Mouse ever after. And among the legions of fans that the Mouse has won over the years was a man called Billy Gibbons, who is also among the world’s finest blues guitarists and one third of the boogie-rock band ZZ Top.

In 1976, Gibbons went to Don Thelen of Buffalo Motor Cars and Ronnie Jones of Hand Crafted Metal. The guitarist wanted to create the ultimate hot rod with the iconic looks of the 1933 Ford Model C and the refined power of a small block Chevy. It would take seven years to realise that dream – and the result was the legendary ZZ Top Eliminator.

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Billy Gibbons (centre), with Frank Beard (thank you Matthew Carter!) and Dusty Hill – ZZ Top

While the car was being completed, Gibbons just happened to be in the process of turning ZZ Top’s brand of gnarly Texan blues-rock into a powerhouse of radio-friendly unit shifters. ZZ Top created an album that was to become as much a part of the Eighties cultural experience as Tom Cruise, big hair and shoulder pads… and it too was called Eliminator.

The completed car became the basis for the album’s artwork. It also starred in all of the videos for the hit singles that it spawned – Gimme All Your Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. In fact the car provided the story in all the videos, in which young men were rescued from Cinderella-style drudgery by a bevy of beautiful women, who scooped them up and carried them off in the Eliminator to a world of good times, cheap sunglasses and bearded blues-rock.

Nice!

Now, there are few elements of the American Dream that are as instantly recognisable as the burble of a V8 engine. It’s a 90-year love affair that shows no sign of slowing down, for all the Elon Musks of the world. So just remember, next time you see a Hot Rod or watch a NASCAR race – or when your favourite TV cop arrives at a crime scene in a jet black Escalade – it’s as all-American as escargots de Bourgogne, fine champagne and fresh fougasse. Indeed, as all-American as the Statue of Liberty itself.

Vive les États-Unis d’Amérique!

56th Daytona 500

Blue skies at the Shuttleworth Collection

When the sun is out, there’s barely a whisp of cloud in the sky and the breeze wouldn’t trouble a house of cards there’s really only one place to be: Old Warden for a flying display.

While the rest of the nation was shedding a tear of joy or two over Prince Harry’s nuptials, a decent sized crowd went to Bedfordshire. They came to savour not only the regular field of aeroplanes from the Shuttleworth Collection’s unique array of vintage and veteran stock, but also the official return to flying duties of its unique Spitfire Mk.Vc after 12 years under restoration.

Given that it was an evening show, the S&G wasn’t able to linger and enjoy the undoubted stars of the show, the WW1 and Edwardian machinery, take to the air on such a still and clear night. Nevertheless, there is never a day when one feels short-changed by seeing even a portion of the schedule at Old Warden, so here are the highlights.

First of all: what was to be found on the ground:

 

And here’s what was seen during the air displays:

 

As the long days of summer hopefully stick with us until the new academic year and beyond, it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on at Old Warden, particularly with a brood to entertain.