Donington Collection to close

The collection of historic racing cars amassed by the late Tom Wheatcroft is to be closed to the public from Monday, 5 November. It is hardly unexpected news, but nonetheless rather a sobering thought that this, one of the world’s finest collections of racing cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, will soon disappear.

Wheatcroft fell in love with motor racing as a child in the 1930s, when he visited the recently-opened Donington Park circuit. As an adult at the helm of a highly profitable construction company, Wheatcroft indulged himself by collecting cars and then becoming the backer of rising British talent Roger Williamson, seeing him all the way through from Formula 3 to Formula 1.

After the death of Williamson at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Wheatcroft walked away from such a close involvement with the professional sport and put Williamson’s cars in pride of place in his new museum. Then he set about restoring his beloved Donington Park circuit, which had been used as a depot during World War 2 and subsequently fell into disrepair.

Ever since the venue reopened in 1977, a visit to the Donington Collection has been an essential part of the experience for many people. Thanks to the loan of additional cars by other collectors, and a decent chunk of the McLaren historic car collection, a truly incredible array of machinery has awaited every visitor.

7. Replica of 1937 Mercedes Benz W125 Grand Prix Car (24 Sep 2014)

Originally there was a genuine Mercedes W125 in the Collection, brought back from behind the Iron Curtain by Colin Crabbe. This is a toolroom copy that replaced it from Crossthwaite & Gardner

Some of the cars had astonishing stories. There was the ‘1939 Auto Union’ that Wheatcroft brought back from Russia (in fact a Cisitalia 360, the post-war realisation of what the Auto Union engineers were creating for the abandoned 1940 Grand Prix season).

There was also what could well be statistically the most successful chassis in the history of the world championship: Alberto Ascari’s primary Ferrari 500 F2 from the 1952-53 seasons (pictured at the header). As a child, this was a particular favourite and, later, the sight of it being driven with a wildly enthusiastic grin by McLaren principal Ron Dennis in Bahrain will live long in this author’s memory.

After Tom Wheatcroft’s death in 2009, the Collection passed to his son, Kevin. It has been an open secret that his wish has been to reduce the number of racing cars that he has to look after, replacing those that have been sold from the museum with his own collection of prized military vehicles and other militaria.

The closure and, most likely, the dispersal of the Donington Collection is a sad prospect for those who appreciate the extraordinary passion for motor racing that flowed through Tom Wheatcroft’s every fibre. But by goodness it was a remarkable achievement.

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There once was a girl called Elly…

It had passed the S&G by, but a made-for-TV biopic was made of the life of Elly Beinhorn a couple of years ago by the German channel ZDF – and seems to have received some fairly glowing reviews. Most of the glow appears to have been targeted towards the Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps, who played the feisty aviatrix – which seems fitting enough.

Surely for any actress, filling Elly’s flying boots would be a fairly daunting prospect. On this occasion it seems that the all-female team of producer Ariane Kampe and director Christine Hartmann picked a winner.

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Vicky Krieps as Elly Beinhorn in ZDF’s movie Alleinflug

Elly’s story itself is the stuff of legend: a middle-class girl from Hannover falls in love with the idea of flying and defies her family’s wishes to make record-breaking solo flights to Africa, around Mount Everest and all the way to Australia. The media made her a newsreel star and celebrated photojournalist – although when she was at her zenith that media was the state-controlled propaganda machine operated by Josef Göbbels.

In 1935 Elly meets the love of her life: the Grand Prix racing driver, Bernd Rosemeyer. There is a will-they won’t-they romance while she wrestles with fears of losing her hard-won independence, but then the couple are joyously united to become the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the Third Reich.

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Bernd and Elly in their recreated courtship

The couple welcome their first child, Bernd Jr., in late 1937 but then Rosemeyer is killed on a blustery morning in January 1938 during a foolhardy record breaking run on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. Our girl Elly is bereft but still she rises, with her little boy and her love of the skies. Fine stuff, indeed.

It’s all very beautiful and glamorous and there is much to savour, from Elly’s time stranded with the Tuareg in the Sahara to the sight of her Klemm and Messerschmitt aircraft floating artfully through the sky.

Interestingly, the good folk at Audi Tradition were obviously brought in to support the film with their Auto Unions and pre-war paraphernalia.  This is interesting because they usually fight shy of placing their silver arrows anywhere near a period setting, for fear of the dreaded swastika appearing in shot with what is the centrepiece of Audi’s worldwide heritage PR programme.

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Audi Tradition weighed in with a V16 (not sure about the modern pit trolley, though!)

Perhaps it is Audi’s presence that puts the government of the day so far out of the spotlight in the film, when in real time the swastika was plastered all over the exploits of both Bernd and Elly – whether they liked it or not. In Elly’s own accounts they did not like it one iota… although subsequent research by German historians certainly calls Bernd’s reluctance into question.

Nikolaus von Festenberg, reviewing the film in der Tagesspiel, felt that this was the one important element missing from the film, saying: “The apolitical celebrity couple served, whether they knew it or not, the Nazi regime. Today’s filmmakers need to make clear the traces of brown in the shadows… it is not silenced when the hero remains silent.”

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It was pretty hard to avoid the swastika at a German team in the Thirties

All things being equal, however, it’s a well-deserved film of a woman well worth naming one’s daughter after, if an adventurer she be. The real Elly Beinhorn lived to 100 years of age, feisty to the last and an inspiration to many.

Should the chance arise, do treat yourself to an evening with Alleinflug. The DVD is available on Amazon but it hasn’t yet made it on an overseas release so there are no subtitles. No doubt some enterprising soul will put it out on the internet before long, though. In the meanwhile here’s a rather nice picture of Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the actors who played his parents… a nice touch, I thought.

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Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the leading man and leading lady

Fitting AVUS into the living room

Flat-out in Berlin – and in miniature

We love a bit of slot car racing here at the S&G – be it Scalextric, Carrerabahn or anything wild and wacky. Not much can compare with this layout in the latter stakes – a recreation of Berlin’s mighty AVUS circuit in its 1930s prime.

At the time of opening, AVUS was 19½ km (12 miles) long – each straight being approximately half that length. Before the 1937 AVUS-Rennen the North Turn was rebuilt to become a towering banked curve made of bricks and tilted at 43 degrees in order to maximise the speed of the cars. As the AVUS race did not count towards the championship, the use of streamlined cars, similar to the cars used for high speed record attempts, was permitted.

Given their vast weight and speed, all of the streamliners had holes cut into their bodywork to allow drivers to check on the condition of their Continental tyres. Blowouts were one risk to life and limb but so too were the aerodynamic forces at play – in practice Hermann Lang’s streamliner was fitted with covers over the wheels and, while doing roughly 390 km/h on the straight, enough air became trapped under the to lift the front wheels lifted from the ground.

While Mercedes struggled to configure its cars appropriately, the Auto Union team had a much less dramatic time and Bernd Rosemeyer set a time of 4m 4.2s (averaging 284.31km/h or 176.7mph). Such feats and glorious spring weather prompted a crowd estimated at 400,000 to witness the races – staged in two heats and a final – from which the overall winner would pocket 12000 Reichmarks. The winners of the heats would get 2000 RM, second place 1000 RM.

That prize ultimately fell to Lang for Mercedes in an event that has rightly been set into legend – and now it has been recreated – in spirit at least – for smaller scale racing.

The daunting North Turn at AVUS in 1937

There’s clearly still some work to do on the scenery, but even at this early stage it’s clear that a masterpiece is taking shape.

The view from Howe’s Corner

Almost all of the various Brooklands circuits remain, despite the passing of years. Motor sport gave way to the aerospace industry in 1939, and since BAe left it has been absorbed into the urban sprawl with light haulage, out-of-town shopping and the gigantic Mercedes-Benz showroom now crowding the space that lies within Brooklands’ concrete-banked perimeter.

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

As such one can always dig out a little something to take home – a snapshot beyond the fabulous Brooklands Museum tour. One such is Howe’s Corner and the smaller crossing of the River Wey made by the Campbell Circuit – see map below.

The Campbell Circuit today - Howe's Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit today – Howe’s Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit was built as an answer to demand for more of the European-style ‘road racing’ with circuits which were formed of closed roads, such as Spa-Francorchamps or Brno. All motor sport on the British mainland had to take place within private land and, by the mid-1930s, the circuit around Crystal Palace was enthralling Londoners while nationally the picturesque Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire was attracting racers and crowds with its twisty parkland layout – and even had its own Grand Prix.

Brooklands was under threat and as a result this new layout was debuted in 1937, which saw runners thunder round the steep Members’ Banking and down the Railway Straight as usual, but then brake sharply for a hairpin left, Railway Turn, back into the infield just before they reached the main part of the aerodrome.

Railway Turn effectively doubled back on the Outer Circuit along Solomon Straight before entering a long, looping right-hander called Aerodrome Curve. The bulk of this bend still exists; the frayed old concrete now ringing the Mercedes-Benz skid pan and display area before setting off down Sahara Straight, which is now used by Mercedes as part of its young driver training course.

Howe’s Corner was a left-hander towards the river (taken looking back towards Sahara Straight)

Sahara Straight led into a ninety-degree left-hander: Howe’s Corner. It was then a quick squirt on a narrow straight, incorporating a second crossing of the River Wey, on a service bridge before crossing the Finishing Straight of the main track and joining the parallel Campbell Straight. The straight turned sharp right at the Test Hill Hairpin and swept away uphill into the left-hand Banking Bend – this now acting the members’ entrance to the Museum, rejoining the Members’ Banking in what is now the Gallagher HQ car park.

In the picture above the white B-Class of the Mercedes-Benz driver tuition fleet is just driving around the outside of Howe’s Corner in the wrong direction, about to join the Sahara Straight. Nevertheless it is easy to imagine Prince Bira hammering towards this vantage point in one of his sky blue ERAs, elbows working away against the kick in the steering as he powered onto the short straight that included the river crossing, shown below.

The bridge over the Wey is currently blocked off and broken but remains in 1939 trim

The bridge itself was hugely important as it allowed aircraft built at the Vickers works to cross over the Wey to reach the aerodrome for onward flight. Now it is, like much of the rest of the Brooklands site beyond the Museum, a little careworn and lying in the shadow of The Heights business park, which now covers the Vickers/BAE works as well as the returning Campbell Straight from this road course.

The bridge over the Wey as it looks today

To reach Howe’s Corner and the bridge, one simply needs to take a stroll down to the bottom of the Museum car park to the end of the gravel path. It’s a fairly restful spot now, as the traffic heading to and from the A3 is carried on an overpass at this point. Well worth a visit and to conjure up a little spot of the sport’s rich heritage.

Howe’s Corner and the bridge in their heyday

Now that’s some locomotion

Doing a little more about trains seemed to be a good idea. So what could be more in keeping of a place at the S&G than the beautiful, streamlined LMS Coronation Class locomotives – the most powerful ever to have turned a wheel on the British network…

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Power is one thing – and that came in the form of around 3,300hp twinned with astonishing torque from its four cylinder engine, which saw the valve gear driving the outside valves directly and the inside valves via rocking shafts in William Stanier’s design. But it’s the fabulous art deco lines of these locomotives, from the pen of the chief draughtsman at the LMS works at Derby, Tom Coleman, which really defined the type.

The first five locomotives, Nos. 6220–6224, were built in 1937 at the LMS works in Crewe. They were streamlined and painted in the rich blue of the Caledonian Railway with its rakish silver piping to match the coaches of the Coronation Scot express service from Euston to Glasgow that was to be the principal service for the breed.

The speed with which express services could make the run from London to Scotland delivered enormous prestige to the two competing lines – LMS to the west and the London and North Eastern line to the east. LNER had hogged the limelight with the Flying Scotsman but the sleek new Coronation class attained 114mph on test and would complete its scheduled journey in just six and a half hours, stopping just once at Carlisle for crew change and to pick up and set down passengers.

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

Impressive though the speeds attained by the Coronation class were, they also ended the era of high speed demonstrations after it proved rather difficult to rein in the big beasts in order to negotiate mundane but potentially treacherous sections of track. A white knuckle ride awaited passengers on the 114mph run when they reached Crewe and were unable to slow down to the required 50mph, staying on the rails but causing chaos in the restaurant car and kitchen.

The second five locomotives of the class, Nos. 6225–6229, were also streamlined but their elegant lines were not painted blue and silver, but rather the traditional LMS hue of crimson lake with gold horizontal stripes. The problem was that the benefits of the wrap-around streamlined body of the Coronation class were only felt above 90mph. At normal speeds and in the maintenance sheds, the fabulous styling was simply a hindrance.

The Coronation class eventually totalled 38 locomotives, which served through World War 2 and through until the last was retired in 1964. They were shorn of their beautiful streamlining and painted in rather more plebeian liveries – wartime black without coachlines and later black and green under British Railways operation – but their character endured and enchanted successive generations.

After the abandonment of steam, three of these fabulous engines were preserved and one, No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, was recently returned to her full streamlined glory. She resides in the National Railway Museum in York and remains a thrilling sight more than 75 years after her debut.

The Duchess of Hamilton today

The Duchess of Hamilton today

Back in business…

The S&G office is now ready to go, complete with a signed photo of Manfred von Brauchitsch smiling beatifically out upon one’s workspace and an art deco cabinet for putting PR samples of automobilia in… hint hint.

At home with Manfred von Brauchitsch and Ian Fleming

There are also some vintage Pan covers from some of James Bond’s greatest adventures lining the wall. It’s the blind, you see, that gives the place an air of… well, of Goldeneye I think.

That's the way to write... now, where's my cigarette holder gone?

That’s the way to write… now, where’s my cigarette holder gone?

Gladiator Survivors #1 – RAF Museum, Hendon

The Gloster Gladiator was the first aeroplane to really get my attention. I don’t actually remember the occasion, being rather young, but my parents took me to The Shuttleworth Collection where my particular excitement about the ‘Gladys’ – Gladiator being a bit of a mouthful – entered family folklore. I’ve also sought out as many as possible of the survivors…

This old stager has sat in a corner of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Hall since the day it was built. Two squadrons of Gladiators were sent to France in 1939 and not one aircraft survived the Luftwaffe’s assault when Hitler finally pushed west in May 1940. A further two squadrons were on the strength of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, hence the longtime presence of K8042 in the Hendon display.

The RAF Museum's Gladiator, K8042

The RAF Museum’s Gladiator, K8042

Delivered to the RAF in 1937, K8042 immediately went into storage, where she stayed until 1941. Gladiator aircraft were meanwhile making a name for themselves elsewhere in the world – most famously in the defence of Malta but also in Greece, North Africa and the bizarre but vicious little battle for control of Iraq’s oil fields where British and Iraqi forces both flew Gladiators against one another.

It was at this time that K8042 emerged from storage to try out some of the improvised ‘enhancements’ being made in the field, such as recreating the six-gun ‘Bloodiator’ that was hastily thrown together in a desperate bid for more firepower on Malta. This was not a success – in fact spent bullet casings from the extra guns caused considerable damage!

Thereafter the Gladiators were mothballed once again, although K8042 was used briefly for a propaganda film about British heroism in the defence of Greece. In this fictitious scheme she was stored for most of the next 25 years, save the occasional appearance for ceremonial duties, before being restored to pre-war colours in 1968 and then put on display in the new Battle of Britain Hall at Hendon in 1978.

The RAF's first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

The RAF’s first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

For more information on the Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Hendon, go to the website.