Ken Miles: Part 2 – 1966 and all that

We’re going to venture beyond the S&G’s remit here, ladies and gentlemen. Part 1 of the Ken Miles story took us past the 1961 cut-off for our yarns so let’s blaze onward unrepentantly, in the manner of the subject of this double-header.

In 1963, the mechanics in Carroll Shelby’s workshops – the famous ‘Snake Pit’ – called the angular Englishman in their midst ‘Teddy Teabag’ because of the endless British brew-ups with which he sustained himself. Either that or ‘Sidebite’ in reference to his habit of speaking out of the corner of his mouth.

He was respected… although everyone agreed that kid gloves were needed to handle him on occasion. The man in question was called Ken Miles, and this is how the rest of his story went…

By the end of 1963, the AC Cobra that Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles had built was riding high. Fundamentally it had achieved all that Shelby had set out to do: it had beaten the Chevrolet Corvette to become the dominant force for outright victories in American GT racing. And it had done so with a Ford V8 under the hood.

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Miles competing ‘on loan’ to Comstock Racing for the Canadian Grand Prix

This in turn caught the eye of Ford executives like Lee Iacocca, who was about to launch the Mustang and a new way of thinking called ‘Total Performance’ that was intended to prove that Ford was not just the dour choice of cranky old American ladies who refused to buy a Volkswagen.

The final piece in the puzzle came in the form of Henry Ford II himself – known to most as The Deuce – who could see that America was almost fully mature as a market in which to sell cars but that Europe remained to be conquered. As the 1960s really hit their stride and the European years of post-war austerity finally abated, The Deuce wanted to revitalise Ford’s image at home and dominate the emerging European markets with his products.

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Lee Iacocca was the architect of Ford’s metamorphosis. “Speed sells.” he said.

First he had planned to buy Enzo Ferrari’s operation in Maranello and launch a range of high performance Ferrari-Fords (or Ford-Ferraris). Negotiations were held, but Ferrari puled up the drawbridge when the final contract lay on his desk. He threw the Americans out, so instead The Deuce decided to beat Ferrari at the most famous race of them all, the Le Mans 24 Hours – no matter what it cost.

Thus Ford embarked upon the GT40 programme in late 1963, after Shelby introduced the Ford executives to Lola’s Eric Broadley (who would design the car, together with Ford stylist Roy Lunn), and former Aston Martin team boss John Wyer (who would run the operations). Unfortunately, the GT40 programme went from one disaster to the next in its debut year of 1964.

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Shell forgets the 1921 Grand Prix-wining Duesenberg in its 1964 adverts

Meanwhile at the expanding Shelby American factory, the Cobra was also benefitting from Ford’s largesse and with a streamlined body designed by Peter Brock (no relation). The so-called Cobra Daytona Coupé was about to be unleashed onto the world stage.

By the end of 1964, the Daytona Coupé had provided the only ray of light in Ford’s season, beating Ferrari to the GT class at Le Mans. It would have won the World Championship for Makes as well, but for the decisive Monza 1000 km being cancelled at the behest of Enzo Ferrari. It was a low blow, but from behind those impenetrable dark glasses, Ferrari was able to see that he was having to play for time.

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With Peter Brock’s body on it, the Cobra squared up to Ferrari in Europe… and won

Meanwhile at home, Ken Miles himself finished on the podium in more than half of the domestic American sports car races that he entered at the wheel of one of the original and wild little open-top Cobras.

The GT40 remained a failure, though. Adding insult to injury, Chevrolet had begun to throw money at Jim Hall and his Chaparral operation to try and out-do the GT40, while the Bill Thomas Cheetah had become a GM-sanctioned rival for the Cobra. If Ford’s pursuit of Ferrari wasn’t troublesome enough, it now had to fight a rearguard action against The General.

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GM-backed Chaparral came after Ford’s motor sport programme with every resource at its disposal

This led to another concern for the men at Ford… one that grew through 1964. Not only were the GT40s struggling to be competitive, but also Chevrolet’s racing programme had an unalloyed American blood line. Both the Cobra and the GT40 were British cars with Detroit muscle, so a decisive move was made to ramp up the stars and bars attached to Ford’s racing endeavours.

Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles were given the GT40 project, lock, stock and barrel, to rework for the 1965 season under the Shelby American banner. The spending increased dramatically in the winter of 1964-65 when the decision was taken to freeze development of the original 4.7 litre GT40 cars and plough resource into a monstrous new 7.0 litre Ford GT Mk.II.

There was precious little improvement in Ford’s racing fortunes in 1965, despite the massive hike in engine power, but The Deuce and his men in Detroit gave Shelby the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile Miles and the engineers sweat blood to make the new car work.

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The first 7.0-litre Ford Mk.II appeared in 1965, developed by Miles

Miles himself spent countless days tramping around the circuit at Riverside, often with NASA-spec equipment to measure airflow and temperatures. He relished the abundance of new technology for data acquisition and processing, the astonishing computerised dynamometer that could recreated every lap of Le Mans for a full 24 hours.

And he loved caressing the wheel with his fingertips as the results came back in laps driven faster and more reliably than ever.

By the start of 1966 the work was almost completed – at a development cost of something like $15 million per year, or $116 million in modern currency… an unprecedented sum for the mid-Sixties. Not since the silver arrows had flown for Nazi Germany had any racing programme been so lavish – or indeed so political.

Perhaps in hindsight this was not the best environment for ‘The Hawk’. But without him the story would have been rather different. As it was, the highly-regarded engineer and development driver found that his racing speed was sufficient to cause some unwanted waves among the Ford men in 1966.

At the start of the season it was Miles and Lloyd Ruby who took the first international victory for the 7-litre car – and the first major race win for the GT40 programme – at the 1966 Daytona 24 Hours. There were scenes of pandemonium as they crossed the line and, finally, the promise that the GT40 had been shown in full to the public… and those hundreds of millions of dollars spent were about to find their rich reward.

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Miles (right) and Lloyd Ruby celebrate their Daytona success

Nobody at Ford cared who won at that point. They just saw the metaphorical blue oval on the nose and got on with shouting from the rooftops. Even Ferrari was generous in its praise for Ford’s tenacity in sticking with the programme until it came good.

Next came the 12 Hours of Sebring and, to enormous surprise, Miles and Ruby were the winners once again. However, this was the moment when the Ford execs took issue because the wiry Briton had blatantly disobeyed team orders and, instead of holding a comfortable second place, had pushed the leading Ford of Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant into speeding up and breaking its gearbox.

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Miles chased down Gurney’s leading sister car to win at Sebring

In the eyes of the Ford execs, Miles had committed an unforgiveable sin. Yet ‘The Hawk’ had no truck with any sort of request to hold station and was not inclined to trust ‘suits’ – even those spending upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars on the programme that he served.

Now came preparations for ‘the big one’ and the Fords arrived at Le Mans in force. In the meanwhile, Miles’ regular co-driver Lloyd Ruby had been badly knocked about in a ‘plane crash, so the burly and equally bullish New Zealander Denny Hulme was drafted in to share the number 1 car with him.

And so the race played out: the Miles/Hulme Ford setting the pace for most of the race while many of their stablemates and the pursuing Ferraris began to hit trouble.

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Miles and Denny Hulme kept car no.1 in front at Le Mans

Meanwhile, the black GT40 of all-Kiwi crewmen Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon had fallen back early in the race when their tyres began to fall apart. Both men were contracted to Firestone whereas the rest of the Fords were running on Goodyears, so the decision was taken that Ford would compensate Firestone if they switched brands… and this they did.

Famously, as Amon set off for his first stint on Goodyears, Bruce McLaren opened the door and yelled over the roar of the big V8: “Go like hell!” This they both did – although the intention was that they should complete an all-Ford podium rather than win the race.

In the closing stages, Ford’s man on top of the racing programme, Leo Beebe, suggested that their two leading cars – Miles/Hulme and McLaren/Amon – should close up and cross the line on the same lap in a dead heat. The Deuce was easily convinced and, as their final pit stops approached, Beebe gave Miles the instruction.

It is a colossal understatement to say that Miles, who was on course to become the first man to win the endurance racing ‘triple crown’ of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in a single season, was incensed. He tore off his sunglasses and hurled them down the pit lane. “So ends my contribution to this bloody motor race.”

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Photo finish: the Fords complete the 1966 Le Mans 24H

Only after he took the number 1 Ford back out onto the track for its final stint were the Ford team members told that a dead heat was all-but impossible, because the black number 2 car being driven by McLaren had started 60 feet further back than the blue car of Miles, thereby covering a greater distance.

Many hands were wrung. Should they tell the drivers? Should they cancel the stunt? In the end, the men from Detroit remembered Miles’ disobedience at Sebring and let history be written. The number 1 and 2 Fords crossed the line just ahead of the number 5 Ford in their wake.

At the finish line, McLaren gave a last blip of the throttle and pulled to a halt in front of Miles. The New Zealanders weren’t sure what was going on but Miles and Denny Hulme were sure that they had won. It was only when they tried to drive to the winners’ position and were turned away did the reality dawn upon them.

“I think I’ve been f***ed,” Miles said.

The slightly bemused pairing of McLaren and Amon, together with car number 2, went to the podium in the company of Henry Ford II and the suits from Detroit to hear strains of the Star Spangled Banner being played in their honour. They would soon be climbing aboard The Deuce’s private jet to a global whirlwind of parties, interviews and lavish celebration.

Before leaving the circuit, McLaren went back to the pits to collect his gear. He found Miles there, alone and in utter desolation. The two men looked awkwardly at one another for a moment before Miles stepped forward and pulled his team mate in for a congratulatory bear hug. To a waiting British journalist, Miles later said: “I’m disappointed, of course, but what are you going to do about it?”

Forty years later, Carroll Shelby remarked: “I’ll forever be sorry that I agreed with Leo Beebe and Henry Ford to have the three cars come over the line at the same time… Ken was one and a half laps ahead and he’d have won the race. It broke his heart.”

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Miles in happier times

Back at Shelby American, the successor to the Ford GT40 was being developed: the Ford J-car. This car looked more radical, with a square ‘breadvan’ rear end and a lobster claw nose. It was lighter and stiffer and most importantly of all it was all-American. It had been decreed that Ford would go back to Le Mans in 1967 and win with an American car and drivers.

Two months after Le Mans, Ken Miles was finishing another long day of pounding round the Riverside race track in the J-car. Coming down the back straight he lifted off, the engine note fell and he shed some speed while preparing to cruise back into the pits. But inexplicably, the J-car then speared off the track at right-angles.

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Ford’s all-American J-car as it appeared in testing at Le Mans

It took off, cleared the embankment and bounced end-over-end down an escarpment before bursting into flames. The following Saturday, Ken Miles was cremated and slowly slipped from the collective memory.

The J-car was meanwhile reworked to become the Ford Mk.IV which did indeed win the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours with an all-American crew of Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt on board. The sheer might of the Mk.IV caused the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to immediately ban cars with engines larger than 5 litres and the sleek ’67 Ford never raced again.

Ford flirted with a new sports car, the 3-litre P68, but this soon began to fly off the road with alarming regularity. There was little point in continuing at Le Mans officially, so Ford refocused on its Formula 1 engine programme with Cosworth, while putting showroom models out on rallies and touring car races to maintain its link back to customer product.

But this is not the end of the story.

Twenty years and more after the drama of 1966, a former police officer called Fred Jones, by then enjoying his retirement as a Cobra collector and Ford motorsport nut, went in search of some documents missing from his archive. He discovered not one but two death certificates for Ken Miles in the Riverside coroner’s office. This did not sit easily with a man who dealt with that sort of paperwork on a daily basis. He started digging.

He also found and was told several different accounts about the crash: variously that Miles was decapitated, that he was dead when the medics arrived, and he was still breathing when the ambulance doors closed. Doubtless he was intrigued by the testimony of Miles’s son Peter, who was there at Riverside in August 1966, and said: ‘I remember seeing the car burning but I didn’t see my Dad.”

Eventually the path that Fred Jones found himself on led to a little town called Scandinavia in Wisconsin, where he met a wiry, destitute old man with a large and crooked nose who lived in an abandoned school bus. He introduced himself as Ken Miles, the racing driver. He produced a drivers’ licence in the name Kenneth Henry Miles, born in 1918, as evidence and told many stories about life at Shelby American, about Le Mans and Sebring and Riverside and Daytona.

The dishevelled septuagenarian claimed that Ford had paid him $2 million to disappear. The obvious response at this point is either to shake one’s head or simply ask ‘Why?’ But hey, this was the Sixties, man. Just one more all-American conspiracy to sit alongside JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, LSD and that, like, totally fake moon landing!

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So where was the conspiracy to attach to Ken Miles? Well, it just so happened that in 1966 the road safety movement burst into vibrant life and the ethical premise of motor racing – i.e. selling cars with speed – was being publicly called into question.

The standard-bearer for this crusade for road safety was an academic and ambitious would-be politician called Ralph Nader. In his highly proactive anti-car campaign, Nader highlighted the fact that the death count on American highways was increasing exponentially.

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Nader’s research drew attention in the press and he played to the gallery, effectively accusing motor manufacturers that promoted themselves through speed of signing the death warrant of innocent road users. And he singled out Ford Motor Company as the biggest culprit.

Inertia was not an option for the US administration and swiftly the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted and the government took a direct hand in what its motor manufacturers were doing about road safety. There was grist to the mill when, even as the Act was being drawn up and passed, Ford’s motor sport programme suffered its first two deaths.

First, Canadian driver Bob McLean was burnt to death at Sebring in a GT40 owned by Canadian team Comstock Racing. Then at the Le Mans test, Ford works driver Walt Hansgen was killed just as Nader and the road safety reform wave had crossed the Atlantic from America and broke on the shores of Europe.

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Bob McLean was killed in this car when it struck a telegraph pole at Sebring and caught fire

Thus, 20 years later, the old man in Wisconsin told Fred Jones that while he, Ken Miles, had recovered as best he could from the J-car crash at Riverside, Ford paid him to go away and a cremation was held before a grieving Californian motor sport community. His ashes were not placed in any known grave or mausoleum. He vanished.

It has all the ingredients of a decent conspiracy but, let’s remember, this was America. In the Sixties. In fact, there were Ford employees in 1966 who went to their graves believing that Ralph Nader and the road safety lobby was a scam funded by General Motors to stop Ford’s motor sport campaign in its tracks. The old double-bluff conspiracy!

And if you want to know whether the American public has lost its taste for conspiracy theories, we humbly suggest that you check the incumbent President’s Twitter feed.

Eventually, Fred Jones went back to the surviving team members and reported the story that he’d been told. Most of them told him in no uncertain terms that the story was complete hokum – although why an old destitute living in a bus might claim to be Ken Miles and offer up a fairly convincing picture of life at Shelby American was anyone’s guess. A photo of the man who claimed to be Ken Miles can be found here.

Fred Jones’s journey ended when he presented his story of the old man in Wisconsin to Carroll Shelby himself while lunching in a hospitality suite at the Monterey Historics weekend. He claimed that the legendary Texan dropped the plate of food that he was carrying, but said nothing.

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It is an intriguing, infuriating end to the story of a man who was dedicated to motor racing like few others: a Renaissance man who drove, engineered and administered his sport, who was competitive right up until his late 40s and whose contribution to the American and European heritage of racing is almost unfathomable.

As an aside, at the time that Fred Jones ‘discovered’ Ken Miles in Wisconsin, his son Peter Miles was launching a career in motor sport engineering with Florida-based Precision Performance, Inc, taking part in the 1991 Baja 1000. He has since helped publish a beautiful scrapbook of photographs and magazine articles about his father, published by Brooklands Books, that is available here.

Ken Miles, 1918 – 1966

The S&G salutes you.

“He’d race his grandmother to the breakfast table.”

When somebody is given an epitaph of such utterly bonkers brilliance, it is unwise not to follow it up. Those words were not spoken with any great fondness, however. In fact, we are talking about a hard-bitten racer who managed to alienate most of his competitors, team mates and employers at some time or other. But in the long run he was often the right man at the right time.

His name was Kenneth Henry Miles, known as simply Ken or, more often, The Hawk. None of these is a name that ranks alongside such British success stories of the ‘Fifties as Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss or Jack Sears in today’s world but in terms of his impact on the history of motor racing, his career stood tall alongside them.

With his icebreaker nose and jutting jaw, Miles cut a distinctive figure in any paddock. He had been born in Sutton Coldfield, right in the heart of Britain’s industrial Midlands, just days before the end of World War 1. Like many young boys, he was enthralled by mechanical things and apprenticed with Wolseley, where he spent his pay on racing motorcycles.

All this ended with the war. Miles’ mechanical expertise kept him out of the firing line and he ended up engineering tanks until he was demobilised in 1946. After the war, Miles joined the Vintage Sports Car Club and campaigned a lot of what were fairly cheap ‘old runabouts’ like Bugatti T35s and Alfa Romeo Monzas.

Somewhat presciently, the first racing car that he built was a based on an old Frazer Nash into which he Inserted a Ford V8-60 engine and worked hard to turn it into a contender.

The problem was that the war had robbed Miles of his best years. He was in his mid-thirties and a new generation of young British drivers, more than a decade younger than he was, had begun its presence felt. Miles did not really belong with them, nor was he a member of the ‘in-crowd’ at Goodwood. He might well have remained a committed clubman, were it not for a cast-iron belief in his own abilities.

Instead of settling for a quiet life in Britain, Miles decided to head over to America. He found a blossoming motor sport community who wanted to campaign the European sports cars that they had fallen in love with – many of them while serving as GIs in the days after World War 2. Uprooting his wife Mollie and young son Peter, Miles moved to America and found work as the service manager for the Southern California MG distributor.

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The ‘Flying Shingle’ has been restored and polished to a mirror finish in recent years

While he was working on road cars, Miles built himself a ‘special’ – largely comprised of pre-war MG components. In 1953 he used it to win 14 straight victories in Sports Car Club of America-sanctioned races, building up funds to keep his family and build a second, more advanced ‘Special’ using his own bespoke racing chassis.

The resulting machine was extremely low, a little curvy and in its brownish-green paint it looked like a plaice on wheels. Miles’ wiry figure loomed out of this odd-looking car, his dark green helmet canted over as he worked the wheel, and he called it the ‘Flying Shingle’.

It might have looked like an ungainly homebuilt but Miles took the SCCA’s 1500cc class by storm throughout 1955, when competing against the new Porsche 356s and 550 spyders of wealthier drivers like Hollywood idol James Dean.

The ‘Flying Shingle’ earned Miles some recognition back home, and he travelled to Le Mans for the fateful 1955 race, campaigning the lightweight MGA EX.182 and finishing in 12th place overall. In the USA, he continued to be a thorn in Porsche’s side and so the man charged with selling these mid-engined wonders in America – an Austrian émigré called ‘Johnny’ von Neumann –invited Miles to drive for him rather than against him in 1956.

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Miles pressing on in one of Neumann’s Porsches during 1966

Miles duly won the first two races of the year and was a regular contender throughout the season, while Porsche relished not having to compete against his awkward little MG.

As well as driving, Miles got involved in race organisation. In fact, he assumed leadership of the Californian branch of the SCCA and managed every detail of race management, marshalling, ticketing and all else in between. He did so in an autocratic way that rubbed many people up the wrong way, but he also encouraged enthusiasts from all backgrounds to come and take part in motor sport.

American motor sport in the 1950s was as clique-riddled and elitist as it was in Britain. Miles hated that, and did his level best to encourage the local kids to ‘run what they brung’, to learn their craft and then to take no snootiness from the posh collegiate racers on the East Coast – or even from Los Angeles, for that matter.

Driving was fun and effective race management was important to him but Miles enjoyed engineering even more. In 1957 he mated the engine and transmission from a Porsche with an old Cooper chassis. These cars were known as ‘Poopers’ and became increasingly popular as more gleaming Porsche spyders got totalled in racing accidents and thereby more of their potent engines and transmissions became available to builders.

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Miles looks determined at the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours

Miles added some of his engineering savvy to the Pooper that he built for 1957 and not only dominated the 1500cc class but also scored regular podium finishes overall against cars with far more horsepower. Once again, Porsche took a dim view of this freelancing and being shown the way home by a homebuilt ‘special’ so Miles was quietly dropped and by the early ‘Sixties he was simply a hired gun driving an assortment of cars for whoever could pay him.

He was undoubtedly still fast – in total Miles had racked up 46 career wins in domestic American sports car racing to the end of 1962 – but he was now getting well into his Forties and seemingly a spent force. It was at this time that Carroll Shelby came back from England with a little 2-seat sports car and a big idea. He invited Miles to join him in turning this idea into a car to beat the all-conquering Chevrolet Corvette.

The result was the AC Cobra.

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Miles at speed early in the Cobra’s racing career

Ken Miles was the man who engineered, test drove and raced the car that would not only carve a mighty legend in motorsport but ultimately lead the corporate might and muscle of Ford Motor Company into motor racing. In the laconic Carroll Shelby, Miles had a boss that he respected and for whom he was happy to knuckle down. It was to lead to an astonishing career twilight – of which there will be more in Part 2…

Historic Motorsport International

Londoners tend to treat motor sport as something that pro-Brexit hillbillies from the countryside are interested in. This is a grave error on their part, which is being addressed this weekend at the inaugural Historic Motorsport International, which is part of the annual Classic Car Show at London’s ExCeL.

Yesterday the event was opened by Jacky Ickx, winner of eight Formula 1 grands prix, six Le Mans 24 Hours, the Bathurst 1000 and the Paris-Dakar rally, to name but a few achievements in a career that is, by any standards, rather special. Apparently, Jacky never considered motor sport to be a viable career and wanted to work in horticulture as a lad – at which point compère Henry Hope-Frost invited him over for a few laps of the lawn with his ride-on mower.

“Honestly, Henry, you can’t afford it!”

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Amid such good cheer the gleaming paintwork was admired, the dazzling array of products and services was digested and many an interesting confab occurred. The ExCeL is a sea of wheels and oils and panel shapers and engine fettlers – all with a display of their wares to be found and dribbled over .

Of particular note was a panel discussion on the eligibility of historic cars and policing the numerous ways in which owners will try and gain an unfair advantage.

Let’s be frank: if you can afford to own and drive a historic racing car then you’re not the sort of person who likes finishing second. At anything. And if you’ve also spent a small fortune on hospitality with which to entertain and impress people, you want to finish in front. Which means that all sorts of clever engineering is being funded, from high performance Honda pistons in a Mini-Cooper to traction control on a Jaguar E-Type.

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The effect that this is having upon the sport is potentially profound. Are fans being cheated? Do they care? Is it dangerous? Can the circuits cope? What about insurance? The session was led by former Le Mans winner and GT impresario Jürgen Bärth, who now tries to keep order over such matters on behalf of the FIA Historic Commission. The result? Inconclusive.

There are so many variables to consider – not least the quality of the drivers. Some owners will only drive themselves, with variable results, while others will happily pay a young up-and-coming hotshoe or veteran professional to get in and have a thrash. Equally some cars that were race winners are now worth eight-figure sums and driven with a degree more caution than more modest equipment of less value.

It made for a fascinating conversation revealing sufficient parameters and variables to make one’s head spin. Results were inconclusive, save for all scrutineers pledging to be more rigorous when Adrian Newey’s name appears on the entry list!

Still more such discussions were to be had for event promoters, driving standards officials and other key elements behind the organisation of historic motor sport events. All of them raised strong points and were well worth the asking price. How big can events become? How many events can the global calendar sustain at the present time? How can owners be tempted to keep bringing these cars out when their value increases by telephone numbers each year?

Now, though, the show has kicked fully into public mode, it can be enjoyed at leisure. There’s even a very suitable bar for yarning further about the why’s and wherefore’s of running a historic motor race… the cheeky beggars!

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So get on down to the ExCeL, it’s February and there’s nothing happening on track for months to come so why not make the most of what is a very entertaining weekend. Here’s a little preview of what’s in store…

That time at Sandown…

Here’s a little something that pops up every so often – the racy demonstration of Sir Jack Brabham in his Brabham-Repco and Juan Manuel Fangio in his 1955 Mercedes-Benz W196. Both cars had been recently restored by their owners in Australia, and as a support to the 1978 Australian Grand Prix at Sundown they were to be reunited with their original drivers.

All the hype and Fangio’s own insistence was that this was not a demonstration by two champions but a race. Perhaps it was, but it’s worth remembering that, in their heydays, there was a full minute’s difference between the two cars over a lap of Spa-Francorchamps and 13 seconds at Monaco.

Nevertheless, while Black Jack is the perfect gentleman and makes a show of it, it’s clear that Fangio is properly ‘on it’ for a recently-restored car that was worth a major sum of money even 40 years ago. And both men clearly wanted to be first past the chequered flag.

Incidentally, the Australian Grand Prix was a Formula 5000 race, won by Graham McRae in his self-built Chevrolet-engined car in a highly attritional race that saw two drivers hospitalised.

It’s thanks to this sort of enthusiasm for old cars, so clearly on show at Sandown that day, that the Silverstone Classic, the Goodwood Revival and the Nürburgring Old-timer exist as some of the best-attended motor sport events in the world. This is why…

Top Gear, 1958

The death of AA Gill last December robbed the world of one of its great chroniclers – and also one of its great double-acts. As readers, we were allowed to share in the fun that was to be had on Gill’s (ir)regular outings with Jeremy Clarkson through their resulting field reports – and one can only imagine how sorely he is missed by his chum.

Such writings are there to be treasured and will, as with so much of both men’s work, long outlast the pair of them. As evidence there follows a gem of a piece that was written by Ian Fleming for The Spectator that has an extremely familiar feel to it for Gill-and-Clarkson devotees.

Before we travel back in time and allow Fleming to let rip, a word of warning: the mindset of the 1950s cannot be applied to today’s world… so the easily offended and the righteously indignant should probably look away right now. Tales of these two sons of the empire in their Caribbean bolt hole do not make comfortable reading for anyone who subscribes to The Guardian or works for the BBC.

Gill was credited, usually by his detractors, with having founded the ‘me’ school of journalism. This overlooks the entire canon of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill for one thing, but even they were blushing wallflowers in comparison with Fleming. With all of that in mind, therefore, welcome to what most likely have been the look and feel of Top Gear 1958, featuring the late Ian Fleming and Noel Coward:

‘Dig that T-bird!’ I had cut it a bit fine round Queen Victoria’s skirts and my wing mirror had almost dashed the Leica from the GI’s hand. If the tourists don’t snap the Queen, at about 10 a.m. on most mornings they can at least get a picture of me and my Ford Thunderbird with Buckingham Palace in the background.

I suspect that all motorists are vain about their cars. I certainly am, and have been ever since the khaki Standard with the enamelled Union Jack on its nose which founded my écurie in the ‘Twenties. Today the chorus of `Smashing!’ ‘Cor !’ and ‘Rraauu !’ which greets my passage is the perfume of Araby.

One man who is even more childishly vain than myself is Noel Coward. Last year, in Jamaica, he took delivery of a sky-blue Chevrolet Belair Convertible which he immediately drove round to show off to me. We went for a long ride to épater la bourgeoisie. Our passage along the coast road was as triumphal as, a year before, Princess Margaret’s had been. As we swept through a tiny village, a Negro lounger, galvanised by the glorious vision, threw his hands up to heaven and cried, `Cheesus-Kerist!’

‘How did he know?’ said Coward.

Our pride was to have a fall. We stopped for petrol.

‘Fill her up,’ said Coward.

There was a prolonged pause, followed by some quiet tinkering and jabbering from behind the car. 

‘What’s going on, Coley?’

`They can’t find the hole,’ said Leslie Cole from the rear seat.

Coley got out. There was more and louder argumentation. A crowd gathered. I got out and, while Coward stared loftily, patiently at the sky, went over the car front and back with a toothcomb. There was no hole. I told Coward so.

`Don’t be silly, dear boy. The Americans are very clever at making motor-cars. They wouldn’t forget a thing like that. In fact, they probably started with the hole and then built the car round it.’

`Come and look for yourself.’

`I wouldn’t think of demeaning myself before the natives.’

‘Well, have you got an instruction book?’

‘How should I know? Don’t ask silly questions.’ 

The crowd gazed earnestly at us, trying to fathom whether we were ignorant or playing some white man’s game. I found the trick catch of the glove compartment and took out the instruction book. The secret was on the last page. You had to unscrew the stop-light. The filler cap was behind it.

`Anyone could have told you that,’ commented Coward airily.

I looked at him coldly. ‘It’s interesting,’ I said. `When you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.’

‘Don’t be childish.’

I am not only vain about my Thunderbird, but proud of it. It is by far the best car I have ever possessed, although, on looking back through my motley stud book, I admit that there is no string of Bentleys and Jaguars and Aston Martins with which to compare it.

After the khaki Standard, I went to a khaki Morris Oxford which was demolished between Munich and Kufstein. I had passed a notice saying ‘Achtung Rollbahn!’ and was keeping my eyes peeled for a steamroller when, just before I crossed a small bridge over a stream, I heard a yell in my ear and had time to see a terrified peasant leap off a gravity-propelled trolley laden with cement blocks when it hit broadside and hurled the car, with me in it, upside down into the stream.

I changed to the worst car I have ever had, a 16/80 open Lagonda. I fell in love with the whine of its gears and its outside brake. But it would barely do seventy, which made me ashamed of its sporty appearance.

I transferred to a supercharged Graham Paige Convertible Coupé, an excellent car which I stupidly gave to the ambulance service when war broke out.

Half-way through the war I had, for a time, a battered but handy little Opel. One night at the height of the blitz I was dining with Sefton Delmer in his top-floor flat in Lincoln’s Inn. A direct hit blew out the lower three floors and left us swilling champagne and waiting for the top floor to fall into the chasm. The fireman who finally hauled us out and down his ladder was so indignant at our tipsy insouciance that I made him a present of the crumpled remains of the Opel.

After the war I had an umpteenth-hand beetle-shaped Renault and a pre-war Hillman Minx before buying my first expensive car—a 2 1/2-litre Riley, which ran well for a year before developing really expensive troubles for which I only obtained some compensation through a personal appeal to Lord Nuffield.

I transferred to one of the first of the Sapphires, a fast, comfortable car, but one which made me feel too elderly when it was going slowly and too nervous when it was going fast. I decided to revert to an open car and, on the advice of a friend, bought a Daimler Convertible. Very soon I couldn’t stand the ugliness of its rump and, when the winter came and I found the engine ran so coolly that the heater wouldn’t heat, I got fed up with post-war English cars.

It was then that a fairly handsome ship came home and I decided to buy myself a luxurious present. I first toyed with the idea of a Lancia Gran Turismo, a really beautiful piece of machinery, but it was small and rather too busy—like driving an angry washing machine—and it cost over £3,000, which seemed ridiculous. I happened to see a Thunderbird in the street and fell head over heels in love. I rang up Lincoln’s. Apparently there was no difficulty in buying any make of American car out of the small import quota which we accept in part exchange for our big motor-car exports to the States. The salesman brought along a fire-engine-red model with white upholstery which I drove nervously round Battersea Park.

I dickered and wavered. Why not a Mercedes? But they are still more expensive and selfish and the highly desirable SL has only room beside the driver for a diminutive blonde with a sponge bag. Moreover, when you open those bat-like doors in the rain, the rain pours straight into the car.

I paid £3,000 for a Thunderbird. Black, with conventional gear change plus overdrive, and as few power assists as possible. In due course it appeared. My wife was indignant. The car was hideous. There was no room for taking people to the station (a point I found greatly in its favour) and, anyway, why hadn’t I bought her a mink coat? To this day she hasn’t relented. She has invented a new disease called ‘Thunderbird neck’ which she complains she gets in the passenger seat. The truth is that she has a prejudice against all American artefacts and, indeed, against artefacts of any kind. 

She herself drives like Evelyn Waugh’s Lady Metroland, using the pavement as if it were part of the road. Like many women, she prides herself on her ‘quick reactions’ and is constantly twitting me with my sluggish consideration for others in traffic. She is unmoved when I remind her that in her previous car, a grey and heavily scarred Sunbeam Talbot whose interior always looked as if it had just been used as dustcart for the circus at Olympia, she had been guilty of misdemeanours which would have landed any man in gaol. She once hit an old man in a motorised bathchair so hard in the rear that he was propelled right across Oxford Street against the traffic lights. Turning into Dover Street, she had cut a milk cart so fine that she had left her onside door-handle embedded in the rump of the horse. Unfortunately, she is unmoved by these memories, having that most valuable of all feminine attributes—the ability to see her vices as virtues.

I have now had my Thunderbird for over two years. It has done 27,000 miles without a single mechanical failure, without developing a squeak or a rattle. Its paintwork is immaculate and there is not a spot of discoloration anywhere on its rather over-lavish chrome, despite the fact that it is never garaged at night and gets a wash only twice a week. I have it serviced every quarter, but this is only a matter of the usual oil-changing, etc. The only time it ever stopped in traffic was carefully planned to give me a short, sharp reminder that, like other fine pieces of machinery, it has a temperament.

The occasion was, for the car’s purposes, well chosen—exactly half-way under the Thames in the Blackwall Tunnel, with lorries howling by nose to tail a few inches away in the ill-lit gloom, and with a giant petrol tanker snoring impatiently down my neck. The din was so terrific that I hadn’t even noticed that the engine had stopped when the traffic in front moved on after a halt. It was only then that I noticed the rev. counter at zero. I ground feverishly at the starter without result. The perspiration poured down my face at the thought of the ghastly walk I would have to take through the tunnel to get the breakdown van and pay the £5 fine. Then, having reminded me never again to take its services for granted, the engine stuttered and fired and we got going.

The reason why I particularly like the Thunderbird, apart from the beauty of its line and the drama of its snarling mouth and the giant, flaring nostril of its air-intake, is that everything works. Absolutely nothing goes wrong. True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine—a huge adapted low-revving Mercury V-8 of 5-litre capacity—never gives the impression of stress or strain.

When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going over the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have an extra twenty. m.p.h. in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the four-barrel carburetter come in, at around 3,000 revs., it is a real thump in the back. The brakes are good enough for fast driving, but would have to be better if you wanted to drive dangerously. The same applies to the suspension, where rigidity has been sacrificed slightly to give a comfortable ride. Petrol consumption, using overdrive for long runs, averages 17 m.p.g. Water and oil, practically nil.

There is a hard top for the winter which you take off and store during the summer when the soft top is resurrected from its completely disappeared position behind the seat. The soft top can be put up or down without effort and both tops have remained absolutely weatherproof, which, after two years, is miraculous.

One outstanding virtue is that all accessories seem to be infallible, though the speedometer, as with most American cars, is a maddening 10 per cent. optimistic. The heater really heats; the wipers, though unfortunately suction-operated, really wipe; and not a fuse has blown nor a lamp bulb died. The engine never overheats and has never failed to start immediately from cold, even after all night outside in a frost. The solidity of the manufacture is, of course, the result of designing cars for a seller’s market and for a country with great extremes of heat and cold.

Cyril Connolly once said to me that, if men were honest, they would admit that their motor-cars came next after their women and children in their list of loves. I won’t go all the way with him on that, but I do enjoy well-designed and attractively wrapped bits of machinery that really work—and that’s what the Thunderbird is, a first-class express carriage.

A belated welcome to 2017

Friends, Romans, fellow imbibers of the heritage of our times – welcome back. Firstly an enormous vote of thanks to every visitor in 2016 – 31,003 of you. It’s not J.K. Rowling territory but it was an honour and a pleasure to share with each one of you what we hope was an enjoyable respite from the daily grind.

What’s coming up this year? Well, quite a bit. The late start aside, there should be much to entertain you over the next 49 weeks or so. Perhaps even a new serialised piece of entertainment that’s unique and bespoke to the S&G. We shall see about that.

There is another book due for release in March: the Haynes Manual for the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5.

It is a rather prosaic title for the thing that the S&G is proudest of beyond our offspring. It looks like a car manual but reads a bit like a thriller (or a series of thrilling short stories, anyway). That’s the plan. It is down to others to see if the plan worked!

Since all of that was finished last year, it has been time to try and shore up the rest of life. 2016 was rather a trial for many people on a personal level and the S&G was not untouched by this wave of misfortune that we seemed subject to. Hopefully all of that is behind us now, to be left for 80-odd years until some other blogger pores over it. Poor devils!

Meanwhile, let us stick to what we know best here: back in the 1890s-1960s.

For those who might be interested in the stats that are put out by WordPress at New Year time, the most popular stories of the past 12 months were, once again, The Racing Driver’s Bride, What Hope for Faith? and The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave. After that all the stories on the Mike Hawthorn road trip came next. The top three has been the same every year since starting this blog, which says everything and nothing, I suppose! The most popular of the new stories were James Dean in 11th and the Malta Spitfire in 13th.

Note to self: more nazis and film stars if you want to get circulation up. Then again, that’s what most other history sites are doing.

New stories will be arriving erelong, they will be as big a surprise here as they are there and thank you for your patience. Enjoy the rest of the year and come back soon.

Ferrari 312T now available in French

Some mornings offer a surprise or two, so you can imagine that the rafters were rattling at the S&G when the Ferrari 312T manual appeared on Amazon in French.

‘Nothing to worry about’, sayeth Steve, the wise man of Haynes. Apparently it’s a badge of honour for Michel to wish to translate someone’s work… so we’ll take it as such!

If anyone is interested in expanding their French vocabulary into the realms of ground-effect versus horsepower or low opinions of McLaren, as expressed by former Ferrari men, then you are in luck. Equally, anyone with a French friend who has a particular yen for Mauro Forghieri’s masterpiece can now read about it from the man himself in their mother tongue… so please visit Éditions du Palmier or pick one up on Amazon.

The English language version is also still available. Here’s what’s been said about it:

‘Riveting stuff.’
– Octane

Book of the Month: ‘…this is an excellent guide to one of the most charismatic series of Grand Prix cars.’
– Classic & Sports Car

‘For those who consider the ’70s as the golden era of Formula 1, this is the book for you.’
– Historic Racing Technology