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.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

It’s that time of year when classic car magazines come up with lists of the most beautiful/desirable/important/valuable cars on the face of the earth, and a pound to a penny says that two cars will feature well up the order in every one: the Jaguar D-Type and Jaguar E-Type.

Both cars deserve their iconic status, of course. The former for its brilliant run of three consecutive wins at Le Mans and the latter for being one of the most enduring designs and fabulous investments known to man.  Seriously: gold has dropped 45% of its worth in the past four years and oil has plunged to a third of its price per barrel while an E-Type is worth as much as 300% more than it was over the same amount of time.

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Jaguar’s D-Type and E-Type often top the lists of desirable cars… but what of the car that inspired them?

So after due consideration, the S&G humbly puts forward the ultimate classic, the thing of such beauty and such finely-honed engineering that it inspired Jaguar’s celebrated designer, Malcolm Sayer, to reach such peaks of achievement. The car that beats all does not come in British Racing Green, however, and it hails from Milan rather than Coventry. It is the fabulous 1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante.

To give it its proper name, the Alfa Romeo C52 was in fact a concept car designed to put a spring in the step of Alfa Romeo at a time of great uncertainty and change. Even while its Alfettas had dominated Formula 1 racing, including winning both of the first two World Championship titles in 1950-51, the company had been struggling to maintain its prestige position in the marketplace.

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The Alfa Romeo C52 is wheeled out to amaze a generation

It was short of funds and had elected to start building more cars at a lower price such as the 1900 Berlina in order to survive the years of austerity that were dragging on after World War 2. This was all well and good, but Alfa Romeo was special, and it needed to remind itself of that as much as the outside world.

The staff at Alfa Corse, having tearfully packed away the Alfettas, got hold of a 1900 Berlina engine and chassis and thought of something to do with it that might act as a hero car for the new generation of Alfas.

The engine that resulted was ostensibly the same design, an inline four cylinder with double chain-driven overhead camshafts, but it was forged in aluminium rather than iron, with sleeves in its bored-out cylinders.  It was a high compression engine running on the methanol fuel mix of its all-conquering Grand Prix predecessors through a pair of twin choke sidedraught carburettors to produce 158 bhp.

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Beneath the skin, the Disco Volante looked similar to Alfa’s road products… but with particular refinements

The standard chassis proportions were retained but the tinware was thrown away in favour of a delicate, lightweight tubular spaceframe.  This confection was then sent to Carrozzeria Touring, where an extensive wind tunnel programme was launched to try and encourage the slipperiest shape for the little Alfa engine to push along.

The result was astounding.  It was formed of a series of convex curves, each flowing into one another to produce a bewitchingly sensuous and utterly unique shape. Those feminine curves positively dripped over the wheels, half enclosing them at the front, and soon the new car had earned an enduring nickname at the factory – Disco Volante: the Flying Saucer.

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The Disco Volante looked other-worldly in 1952

The C52 had a 0.25 drag coefficient – a figure few cars can claim to this day – and proved to be extremely stable even in crosswinds while it reached speeds of up to 140 mph. The three completed cars caused an absolute sensation when they first appeared but then the momentum began to flag somewhat.

In 1953, Alfa Corse followed up on the original work by modifying two of the three cars: one into a coupe and the other into a more traditional-looking sports racer known as the fianchi stretti  (Italian for “narrow hips”). None turned a wheel in anger, the remaining competition programme was given over to the more conventional 6C 3000 CM, with which Juan Manuel Fangio finished second on the Mille Miglia. Two more Disco Volante spyders were built in 1953 and fitted with the 6C’s 3,495 cc, cast iron block, double overhead camshaft straight-six engine, adding another 10 mph but still no competition career was forthcoming.

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The coupé version of the Disco Volante looks rather E-Typey

In the end, the Alfa Romeo C52 remains one of the great ‘might have beens’ of motor sport legend. Of the five cars built, the original 1.9-litre fianchi stretti, coupé and spyder all still exist, as does one of the 6C engine spyders. Their legacy, however, is much greater than the sum of their parts – it is to be found in the classic Jaguars that they inspired and the achievements won thanks to Carrozzeria Touring’s experimental curved coachwork.

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Disco Volante: we salute you, you gorgeous creature. 

Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 2: The Members’ Trail

Hawthorn went fast to enjoy more time for beer...

Hawthorn went fast to ensure more time in the day for beer…

If one is preparing to follow in the wheeltracks of Britain’s first Formula One world champion, Mike Hawthorn, around his stamping grounds in Surrey then a stout constitution is required. The villages in this part of the world are thick with hostelries, which were the number one choice of entertainment for the young racer and his gang of friends known amongst themselves as ‘the Members’.

At the age of 17 Hawthorn was apprenticed to Dennis Bros. in Guildford – the renowned manufacturer of trucks, ambulances, fire engines, buses and military vehicles. It was while here that he gathered the Members around him – like-minded souls who would share Hawthorn’s passions for the ‘three Bs’: Bikes, Boozing and Birds.

The former Dennis Bros. factory site is now an anonymous business park

Although Hawthorn had inherited plenty of engineering savvy from a childhood spent in his father’s workshops, this brought precious little benefit to Dennis Bros. in exchange for his salary. More often than not Hawthorn was to be found riding his motorbike around the perimeter wall or planning his next expedition with the Members. He once took off in a brand new truck only to discover that none of the panels were actually bolted in place, causing the thing to disintegrate around his ears.

Not very much would detain Hawthorn in this neck of the woods today

Playtime was altogether more interesting to Hawthorn. It was never really agreed what his gang were Members of, but there were one or two badges of belonging. The first was that everyone addressed each other as ‘Bo’ and the second was that they all wore ties. Hawthorn took to wearing a bow tie gifted to him by a girlfriend, prompting one of the Members to ask if they should all adopt similar accessories.

“No, you bloody fool,” Hawthorn was reported to have said in Mon Ami Mate. “It’s a bow tie, not a Bo tie!”

After a week at work (and providing that there was nothing going on at Goodwood, where they would eagerly head and squeeze through the fence and enjoy a free day out), the Members would convene on a Saturday at The Bush hotel in Farnham town centre.

The Bush Hotel in Farnham was the Members’ meeting place

The Bush was a handy, central spot to be but perhaps the number of ‘ordinary’ folk about in town on a Saturday morning curtailed the Members’ hi-jinks somewhat, so they would saddle up their motorbikes and head south.

Driving out past the railway station, their aim was for Tilford. Here you will find an idyllic little village with a generous green over which presides the Barley Mow pub. The friendly locals and sparse traffic which typify the place today mean that it is all too easy to imagine the Members coercing their favourite landlord to stay open all afternoon as they sat around discussing the three Bs over yet another round.

Small wonder that the Members could spend whole days at the Barley Mow

There’s a collection of Hawthorn-related photos and cuttings outside the Gents’ loo, although there’s no mention of the fact that this was the place where his beloved boxer dog, Grogger, met his maker after bounding out to welcome a car.

A mile or so down the road from the Barley Mow is the Duke of Cambridge Hotel, which is actually across the border in Hampshire and thus offered slightly later closing time for the rambunctious regulars. Today the Duke of Cambridge has one of the best pub menus in the area and getting a table can be a problem unless you book far in advance.

Hawthorn’s second home, the Duke of Cambridge, is a gastronomic delight today

Even the doting Bishops would not always flout legal closing time, however, and Surrey had a much earlier finish to the evening than neighbouring Hampshire. So it was that the Members would wobble unsteadily onward for a nightcap. Quite often this would mean traversing the woodland lanes to get down to the Frensham Ponds Hotel, where they could usually sweet talk the staff into pretending that they were residents.

The Frensham Ponds Hotel enjoys an idyllic setting with plenty of boats to enjoy

If getting down to Frensham was a bit of an issue then the final destination for the Members would be The Bluebell in Dockenfield, today nestling near the fantastic Alice Holt adventure forest on the road back up to Hawthorn’s home in Rowledge. Organising a lock-in at this secluded spot would have been a doddle, and the snug little bar is more than welcoming to this day.

The Bluebell feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere – but is full of friendly faces

From there, Hawthorn would have gone back to the family home, Merridale, in Rowledge – usually with a Member or two in tow. It’s a challenging drive today, uphill on a single-track road with a surface which resembles Passchendaele at its worst, but if the Members were feeling any bumps in the road then probably they would feel that it had been an unsatisfactory day’s drinking.

I followed their path back to the village but at that point drew a blank. Nobody in the Post Office, the village shop or the butcher’s could recall a house being called Merridale – or ‘Merry Hell’ as Hawthorn preferred it. There was a reason for Hawthorn’s black humour – and, perhaps, the wild roving and companionship he created among the Members. It was the wrench of his parents’ separation.

Leslie Hawthorn was a racer, a drinker and a ladies’ man and as Mike reached adulthood his mother called time on family life. She moved in to a flat in Farnham and then took a job as a receptionist in London and Merridale was clearly anything but merry – often empty as Hawthorn Sr enjoyed his second bachelorhood – meaning that his son doubtless felt the need to take his mates and a dose of good cheer home with him.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that of the seven founding Members, four of them didn’t live to see their 30th birthday. Simon Hayter died first in a road accident on the A3 not far from where Mike Hawthorn himself would perish. Another road accident claimed ‘Black Mike’ Crossley while in Germany and Peter Poppe went on to fly jets in the RAF, being killed while flying a Gloster Javelin while supporting a Search & Rescue operation over the sea during the Malayan emergency.

But in the early ‘Fifties, Hawthorn was on the cusp of life as an international jet-setter… and while the Members and their haunts would remain central to his life whenever he was in England, he had many more adventures in store.