Birkin biopic back in circulation

Rather terrifyingly, it is now more than 20 years since the BBC screened Full Throttle, a film that many people have fondly remembered as an excellent biopic of the celebrated Bentley Boy and Brooklands ace, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin.

Birkin was played with some panache by Rowan Atkinson: a (relatively) straight role for a lifelong fan of all things on four wheels… who was doubtless drawn to the part like a moth to a flame. There is also the a strong presence for Michael Burn, Birkin’s ghostwriter. But for two decades this little gem has been a mystery to all but those with a grainy VHS recording stashed away somewhere because Full Throttle simply vanished.

Now it is back.

It is an enormous pleasure to report that, for its time, Full Throttle, has aged very well… the lavish lighting makes it look like modern digital quality in a lot of places and in general few corners were cut, save travelling to Le Mans of course.

Somewhat nervously, we put it on the S&G laptop half expecting it to be nowhere near as good as we remembered. Fortunately it was, if anything, even better. The newspapers at the time called it ‘Blackadder goes racing’ but that does the film – and themselves – an enormous disservice.

Enjoy!

A splendid enterprise

Christmas shopping need be a chore no longer, thanks to Marlon Foakes. Well known in the model car racing world for his exquisite scratch built Grand Prix machinery, Marlon is now letting people share in his glory by producing a range of kits and ready-to-race slot cars representing some of the finest cars of the 1920s and early 1930s under the name Shadowfax.

For those not versed in Tolkien, Shadowfax was Gandalf’s chosen steed: the Lord of all horses from the race of the Mearas, the greatest horses of Middle-earth, who was said to run faster than the wind. So there you go.

The bare bones: a Shadowbox Alfa Romeo P2 in kit form

First out of the blocks are a trio of Portello’s finest offerings: the Alfa Romeo P2 in both 1929 and 1930 guise and, for fans of the Thirties, there is the 1938 Alfa Romeo 308 – sleek, streamlined and the best non-German car of the 3-litre era.

Not only has Marlon carved and cast the bodies, details and drivers but he has also developed an adjustable chassis that can allow the models to sit correctly and steer with the front wheels turning in harmony with the guide. As a result, your miniature Varzis and Nuvolaris will be able to drift correctly around the track.

The Shadowbox chassis can be adjusted to fit various cars

A raft of new types is expected to follow shortly – these include Bugattis, Delages and Maseratis of the kind that graced grids from Brooklands to Buenos Aires. For further information, contact Shadowfax here.

The finished product! Achille Varzi’s 1929 Alfa Romeo P2

The real thing to compare with its new replica

Can ‘Carradale’ be saved?

There is dire news from leafy Surrey with the notification that the former home of British engineering hero Sir Sydney Camm could be bulldozed as soon as this coming Monday (April 20 2015), according to the local press. Sir Sydney was the principal designer of Hawker Aircraft Limited, whose most valuable contribution to history was the Hurricane fighter, which effectively saved the free world on two occasions.

Although the property developers, Shanly Homes, have been denied permission to demolish the property at 29 Embercourt Road in Thames Ditton, the level of vandalism already carried out in preparation for destroying the house is evident in the pictures. The house was known as Carradale when Sir Sydney Camm lived there from 1930 until his death in 1966.

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Camm’s career as an aviation engineer began with biplanes and ended in the jet age. He was born in Windsor in 1893, the eldest of 12 children, and earned a scholarship and free clothing in order to attain education until the age of 15 before he became an apprentice engineer.

The burgeoning aviation industry had captured young Camm’s imagination completely, and he employed his younger brothers in building model gliders, which were then sold through various means to the well-heeled schoolboys at nearby Eton.

He became a founder member of the Windsor Model Aeroplane Club in 1912, earning an honourable mention in Flight magazine for his handiwork. With the onset of the First World War, Camm got a job as a carpenter – his father’s trade – at the Martinsyde aircraft factory at Brooklands. His skills were soon spotted, and he progressed rapidly to the design office, where he would serve out the war.

Camm with a glider during World War 1

Camm with a glider in 1915

In 1923, the ambitious Camm was taken on by H.G. Hawker Engineering – the firm built from the ashes of the Sopwith company at its original factory in Canbury Park Road, Kingston. Harry Hawker, Sopwith’s test pilot and leading light, had been killed while flying and Camm’s appointment was set to galvanise the still-shaken company into a new era.

The aircraft that Camm developed at Hawker evolved into a range of powerful military types, including the elegant series of biplanes that formed the backbone of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm through the 1930s: the Hart, Audax, Demon, Hardy, Hind, Hector and Osprey two-seat bombers and their single-seat fighter siblings, the Fury and Nimrod.

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Camm was a hard taskmaster. His successor at Hawker, Dr. John Fozard, once recalled that ‘he would brook no irreverence or argument from his men. His ability to give an instant and bowel-loosening dressing-down to an errant draftsman became well developed.’

As with so many tyrant engineers, Camm only valued quality workmanship – and rewarded it richly. Among the inner circle of management a very different man emerged for whom, as one put it: ‘Prime ministers were a mere temporary nuisances and Chiefs of Staff were to be pitied for their boring clerical jobs. But if you designed fighters for Sir Sydney Camm, you were a prince among men.’

At home in Carradale, a warm-hearted family man emerged. He enjoyed reading Evelyn Waugh, playing operatic and orchestral records (his daughter Phyllis later recalled a distaste for solo singers and violinists) and variously fettling his golf clubs, repairing furniture or fixing the family’s shoes – a luxury item, in Camm’s view, that required maintenance rather than replacement.

The rebirth of German militarism in the 1930s led to grave misgivings in some quarters that Britain was completely unprepared for any potential conflict. In 1934, the Royal Air Force’s fighter strength was just 13 squadrons of biplanes, while the German industrial heartlands were starting to churn out metal monoplane aircraft that were superior in every aspect of performance and armament.

At first Camm submitted a design for a new and more powerful biplane but this was rejected by the Air Ministry – as was his first monoplane design. He returned to his desk and sketched out an aircraft to house a new Rolls-Royce engine, the PV-12, which would later to become famous as the Merlin.

The new aircraft featured retractable undercarriage, carried four guns and had an enclosed cockpit. In August 1934, a one-tenth scale model was made and a series of wind tunnel tests confirmed the aerodynamic qualities of the design. This time the Air Ministry was satisfied and a prototype of the “Interceptor Monoplane” was ordered

Camm’s hard work was almost undone when, in November 1934, the Air Ministry issued Specification F.5/34 which called for fighter aircraft to be armed with eight guns. Work on the modified prototype airframe was completed at the end of August 1935 and the components were taken to Brooklands for final assembly. On 6 November the silver monoplane took to the sky in the hands of its trilby-hatted test pilot ‘George’ Bulman, leading to an intensive programme of development until, in June 1936, the type was approved and the name put forward for it was given Air Ministry approval: the Hawker Hurricane.

The first of the many - Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The first of the many – Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The Hurricane was immediately ordered into production as it was unclear if the more advanced all-metal Supermarine Spitfire would enter production smoothly. The Hurricane was also significantly cheaper than the Spitfire, requiring 10,300 man hours to produce versus 15,200 for the Spitfire.

In stark contrast to R.J. Mitchell’s stressed-skin metal Spitfire, the Hurricane employed traditional manufacturing techniques and could be rapidly built in the factory. No less importantly, it could be stripped and repaired quickly by squadrons in the field whose engineers who knew the technology inside-out.

The demand for eight guns played to one of the Hurricane’s key strengths: a thick and strong wing section. Four guns sat snugly close to each wing root, making the Hurricane a stable gun platform while the Spitfire – whose slender, elliptical wings forced Mitchell to splay the guns out – would shudder like a wet dog when the guns were fired.

The first four aircraft to enter service with the RAF joined No. 111 Squadron in December 1937. By the outbreak of the Second World War, nearly 500 Hurricanes had been produced, and had equipped 18 squadrons. Production continued to rise and developments such as a metal-skinned wing to replace the original fabric covering and the switch from a wooden two-blade propeller to a de Havilland metal airscrew with variable pitch served to increase its performance.

87 Squadron scrambles to meet the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France, 1940

87 Squadron scrambles to meet the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France, 1940

The Hurricane was the only RAF fighter in action during the Battle of France and despite the legend of a whitewash by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg tactics it took a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe – with German records showing the loss of 299 aircraft destroyed and 65 seriously damaged.

This record of achievement carried on into the Battle of Britain, in which Hurricanes accounted for 55% of all air combat victories – although in a battle that was in itself a PR exercise, the seductive beauty of the Spitfire was what inspired people to believe that Hitler could be beaten.

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

The Hurricane was not perfect. Its wood and fabric cockpit was cold and drafty for pilots operating at up to 35,000 feet – although in the main it struggled above 20,000 and was thus at a disadvantage to the high-flying Messerschmitts. Its main fuel tanks were to either side of the cockpit and if they caught fire the most natural path for the flames was towards the cockpit, resulting in the majority of early ‘guinea pig’ burns patients being Hurricane pilots.

Yet despite these faults, in the early years of the war, the Hurricane was undoubtedly the best solution to meeting the onslaught of Nazi Germany.

While the Battle of Britain raged, Benito Mussolini decided to try and win back the old Roman empire in the Mediterranean – and to do so he needed to secure the island fortress of Malta. At first his bombers were repelled only by a flight of hastily thrown-together Gloster Gladiators, but soon the Hurricanes arrived.

By the winter it was clear that Mussolini had bitten off more than he could chew in the Med, so Hitler reluctantly intervened. He dispatched an army to North Africa to sweep the British out of Egypt and, while licking its wounds from the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe pounded the Malta mercilessly.

Yet even in the depths of despair for the Maltese there were Hurricanes that held out and offered resistance. Hitler once again had to concede, and in the summer of 1941 turned his attentions towards Russia.

He would return at the end of the year, when Rommel had come within an ace of reaching Cairo and the Suez canal – only to have the supply lines to his Afrika Korps virtually severed by RAF bombers and Royal Navy submarines operating from Malta. When the Russian winter forced the armies to dig in, the Germans returned to punish Malta. The plan was to annihilate resistance and allow Rommel to take Cairo, Suez and the oil fields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia – fuel for the Reich and a back door into Russia.

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Without Malta, British overseas forces would have been forced to flee to a toehold in India, where they would soon have been overrun by the Japanese. With Britain thus neutered, America would have had little alternative but to make terms with Germany and adjust to a new order in the Old World – one in which Hitler was an emperor over all that he surveyed.

Yet throughout the summer a stream of Hurricanes had been flown in to the island. Outnumbered, outpaced and outgunned but nevertheless potent, they endured five withering months in which more bombs fell on the tiny island than anywhere else on earth. Finally in the spring of 1942 the Hurricanes were relieved by supplies of Spitfires – the first overseas posting for the all-metal fighter after nearly three years of war.

The Hurricane continued to serve throughout the war in the Far East, Middle East and Europe, both on land and at sea. Meanwhile Camm had developed the muscular Typhoon ground attack aircraft and its high altitude sibling the Tempest. Both aircraft were to play their part in finishing the job that the Hurricane started.

After the war, Camm and his team developed new jet aircraft. The Hawker Hunter became the mainstay of the RAF’s defensive forces, but it was the P.1127 vertical take off and landing fighter that was to be his final triumph. Taking to the skies in test flights over Dunsfold in 1960-61, the P.1127 would become the Hawker Harrier, which served mightily until its premature retirement in 2011.

The sixth P.1127 prototype today stands outside the Brooklands clubhouse

The sixth P.1127 prototype today stands outside the Brooklands clubhouse

Sydney Camm stepped back from work after the P.1127 programme was running steadily. His final years were spent enjoying life at Carradale, playing golf and driving his prized E-Type Jaguar. He died after collapsing on the golf course in 1966 at the age of 72 – leaving behind his latest project: the design of an aircraft to travel at Mach 4.

This year we are marking the 80th anniversary of the Hurricane, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the 70th anniversary of VE Day and VJ Day, and the 55th anniversary of the Harrier. Today Camm’s beloved Carradale sits in its leafy suburb, surrounded by similar properties which sprang up around Brooklands, Addlestone and Kingston. There is no need for it not to do so for many years to come.

No need except for the greed of the Shanly Homes company.

If you wish to register your support to preserve this handsome building you might wish to contact English Heritage’s relevant department in the south east. Alternatively Dom Raab is the MP for Esher and Walton who should be made aware of the contemptible actions of Shanly Homes – who are themselves available here.

Tazio’s first TT winner

The 1930 Alfa Romeo 6c 1750 GS with which Nuvolari tamed the Ards circuit

The Royal Automobile Club has decided to accord the opening round of this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship with the world’s oldest motor racing title. The Tourist Trophy dates back to 1905, and has seen some of the most celebrated cars and drivers in the sport’s history put their name on the roll of honour.

One of the most evocative names etched into the TT legend is that of Tazio Nuvolari, who made his debut on the event at the fearsome Ards circuit on 23 August 1930. This race told a story of of Italian passion and British pride which hinged around Fred Stiles, a British dealer for Alfa Romeo.

Throughout the run-up to the TT there was considerable friction between the Alfa Romeo factory at Portello and the British racing community. This was caused by the relentless hounding of the Italians by wealthy British drivers, including Malcolm Campbell, Edgar Fronteras, and Lord Howe, who believed that they should be given the chance to add a TT victory to Alfa’s many racing achievements.

By all accounts their persistence brought about considerable frostiness in Anglo-Italian relations, which in turn was damaging to Stiles’ business. He was ultimately forced to speak out in the international language of cold, hard cash – going to Alfa Corse and purchasing three of its 6C 1750 GS models with the latest race-prepared and strengthened chassis and fitted with the very latest 102 brake-horsepower Testa Fissa engines previously only available to the works team.

The trio of Alfas at the start of the 1930 Tourist Trophy - Nuvolari closest

The trio of Alfas at the start of the 1930 Tourist Trophy – Nuvolari closest

The cars arrived complete except for bodywork, because the Gran Sport was only made in two-seater form, and the TT regulations stipulated that four-seater bodies with full touring equipment were required. One of the cars received a body fashioned in duralumin alloy by Hoyal – a body which had previously contested the Brooklands Double Twelve – while the other two were fitted with less exotic coachwork by by James Young.

Having invested so heavily in his cars – and doubtless to the further annoyance of Campbell, Howe and company – Stiles also secured the services of Alfa’s ‘crack’ squad of works drivers Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, and Giuseppe Campari. The duralumin-bodied car was given to Nuvolari and it quickly proved to be one of the fastest on the entry list – only Birkin’s 4½-litre ‘blower’ Bentley and Howe’s supercharged seven-litre Mercedes-Benz were able to lap faster.

The race turned out to be very wet, and this helped to level the playing field for the Alfas against their high-powered British and German competitors. The big Mercedes was particularly afflicted by the wet weather, while the main challenge to the Alfa team disappeared when Birkin’s Bentley crashed at Ballystockart.

This left the three Stiles Alfas to romp away from the field, entertaining the crowds with a mesmerising show of skill from these three heroes of the Grand Prix world. The lead changed several times during the race between the trio but it was almost inevitable that Nuvolari, the ‘Flying Mantuan’ would prevail with an average speed of 70.88 mph, slightly faster than Campari’s average of 70.82 mph, followed by Varzi at 70.31 mph.

The Anglo-Italian squad celebrates its 1-2-3 finish, hoisting Nuvolari aloft

The Anglo-Italian squad celebrates its 1-2-3 finish, hoisting Nuvolari aloft

Following the race, the eight bearing Testa Fissa engine was retained by the factory and a standard detachable head five bearing engine replaced it with matching numbers to the chassis. In order to sell the car, a very attractive two-seater James Young drophead coupé body was fitted, which reused original front end parts of the original racing body. GK 3481 was exhibited at the October 1930 London Motor Show and the first private owner was H.H. Prince Aly Khan, followed a year later by racing driver Whitney Straight.

After World War 2 the car passed through owners in Devon, Notting Hill, Kent and Dorset – where it remained until 1996. It was then sent to Italy for restoration, where the drophead body was replaced with a replica of the Hoyal duralumin racing body with which Nuvolari had won the TT. The car was sold by RM Auctions at its 2012 London sale for £784,000 ($1.2m) – quite a bargain, really.

$1.2 million gets you the chance to see the world from Nuvolari’s seat