Vintage Aviator takes a pause

The Vintage Aviator Limited, which produces toolroom copies of First World War aeroplanes that are 100% authentic down to the type of engine and bracing wire, has halted production while an internal investigation takes place. It is understood that the investigation relates to sales of aeroplanes made by TVAL since mid-2016.

The company was begun by movie director Sir Peter Jackson more than a decade ago after he fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition of buying an airworthy Sopwith Camel replica – ostensibly for use in his remake of the movie King Kong. Although the Camel was never used in the film, which instead uses scale model and CGI US Army Air Force biplanes, it set Jackson off on a new course.

By joining forces with Gene de Marco, a leading display pilot and restorer of WW1 types from his time at Old Rhinebeck aerodrome in New York State, TVAL has acted as an airborne ‘Jurassic Park’ that has brought types not seen in the skies for almost a century, including the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and F.E.2, the Sopwith Snipe and Albatros D.V.

IMG_4575

This TVAL-built Albatros D.Va has starred in WW1 centennial activities in the UK, France and Belgium

Sir Peter has ploughed back a good deal of the money made from his films, particularly his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, into restarting production of extinct aeroplanes – both in full-scale and with his 1/32 model kits, sold under the Wingnut Wings label. He also has two museums dedicated to WW1. Employing more than 50 craftsmen and women to build the exhaustively-researched replicas for both static and aerial use, the order to cease work has made big news in the community around Wellington in New Zealand.

Neither the production of Wingnut Wings kits, nor the current airshow season is thought to be affected by this hiatus in aircraft production.

PA291038.JPG

A completed S.E.5a ‘Hisso’ from Wingnut Wings

Several TVAL types have been based in the UK in recent years, based at the WW1 aerodromes of Bicester Heritage and Stowe Maries, and many of the team have been involved in bringing to life the number of World War 2 de Havilland Mosquitos that have appeared in the skies over the past couple of years.

Like many thousands of enthusiasts around the world, the S&G hopes that the investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion for all parties and that TVAL is soon back to doing what it does best: bringing long-forgotten aeroplanes back from extinction and flying them as they were meant to be flown.

The mysterious ‘DBIII’

Following on from musings about Ian Fleming’s wild ride with Donald Healey in the 1932 International Alpine Trial, it has brought to mind the sale last summer of what is claimed to be the very Aston Martin that inspired Ian Fleming when writing the 007 novel Goldfinger – the mysterious ‘DBIII’.

“James Bond flung the DBIII through the last mile of straight, did a racing change down into third and then into second for the short hill before the inevitable crawl through Rochester. Leashed in by the velvet claw of the front discs, the engine muttered its protest with a mild back-popple from the twin exhausts…”

1oct_244_39

Could this have been the view intended for Bond?

There never was a DBIII road car, and we can be fairly certain that Fleming never got his hands on a DB3s sports prototype, but this moniker was often informally given to owners of the DB2/4 series in the mid-Fifties.

Last year, headlines were made when Coys announced that it had the Aston that had inspired Fleming consigned for its Blenheim Palace sale. The car in question was a DB 2/4 Mk I Vantage, chassis number LML-819, was delivered new on 4 July 1955 to the Honorable Sqdr. Ldr. Phillip Ingram Cunliffe-Lister, DSO.

Just like Donald Healey before him, Cunliffe-Lister had been a wartime pilot – albeit in WW2, rather than WW1. He had flown Spitfires with Fighter Command and, later, joined 1409 Flight to gather meteorological information for Bomber Command and the USAAF in the twin-engined Mosquito. In July 1943 Cunliffe-Lister had been taken POW after he, along with Pilot Officer Pat Kernon, had taken off from RAF Oakington in Mosquito IX LR502 on a met flight over Holland.

MosquitoPRmarkIX

A 1409 Flight Mosquito Mk.IX on ops around D-Day, 1944

The aircraft ran out of fuel following a navigational error, but Cunliffe-Lister got the aircraft down and managed to evade capture for four days. Eventually the airmen were rounded up and sent to a transit camp for Air Force Prisoners of War before going to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan, where he remained until his peacetime repatriation.

It seems that the former pilot found civilian life something of a trial, leaving his wartime bride and children in 1947 and remarrying soon after while taking part in international rallies as a means to find the adrenaline rush he clearly craved. A decade later, Cunliffe-Lister took delivery of the latest source of excitement in his life: a gunmetal grey Aston Martin.

While there is no record that Cunliffe-Lister and Fleming ever knew each other, both of their fathers had been close friends of Winston Churchill. Cunliffe-Lister’s father, Lord Swinton, was also head of MI5 during the Second World War while Fleming had been the bright young star of Royal Navy Intelligence. It has even been suggested the character of M may have been owed more than a little to Lord Swinton.

Ian Fleming

Fleming at his desk in Goldeneye – concocting another thriller

So far so tenuous, but Cunliffe-Lister used to go on regular trips to see the Royal portrait painter Dennis Ramsay and his wife Rose at Hope Bay Studio, the house next to Fleming’s in St Margaret’s Bay near Deal, Kent.

It is of note that Fleming used Hope Bay Studio as the inspiration for his character Hugo Drax’s property where he kept a rocket in the novel Moonraker. Doubtless he would therefore have taken note of the rather beautiful motor car outside, and his interest would have been still further piqued by its rather unique specification.

1oct_244_133

The Cunliffe-Lister Aston pictured on its return to Deal in 2014

This was no ordinary DB2/4: it had reinforced steel bumpers, concealed lockers, a heavy-duty anti-interference ignition system, driver’s seat connections for two-way radio and a Halda Speed Pilot… gadgets which bear a passing resemblance to those on Bond’s car in Goldfinger.

“… the DBIII had… certain extras which might or might not come in handy. These included switches to alter the type and colour of Bond’s front and rear lights if he was following or being followed at night, reinforced steel bumpers, fore and aft, in case he needed to ram, a long-barrelled Colt .45 in a trick compartment under the driver’s seat, a radio pick-up tuned to receive an apparatus called the Homer, and plenty of concealed space that would fox most Customs men.”

JBW974-010_1024x768

Everything that the well turned-out spy might require

Much of the real Aston Martin’s history is as mysterious as anything that Fleming ever conceived. Philip Cunliffe-Lister committed suicide in 1956, and the car changed hands – and colours – several times before it was seemingly parked in a shed and forgotten about for many years.

A local engineer who had worked on Channel hovercraft eventually heard about the car and bought it as a father-and-son restoration project. As soon as they set to work on the car they realised that this was no ordinary Aston. Fortunately, their craftsmanship on the restoration coincided with much of the background on the Cunliffe-Lister family history in espionage coming to light at the end of the 50-year rule, which put a few jigsaw pieces in place.

B2msAuQCUAAViqk

Under the gavel: the Goldfinger Aston Martin awaits its fate

The valuation and sale did raise some interesting questions. This was an amateur restoration of a basket case that had no significant competition history, whose first owner had some unproven links to Ian Fleming and wartime espionage and parked outside a house he once wrote about. As far as provenance goes, this was all rather new territory.

Surprisingly the car didn’t sell but afterwards it did elicit an offer of more than £275,000 from an interested party – a healthy 150 per cent premium compared to a similar car in standard trim. Whether or not it was sold remains a mystery – one that will doubtless be continued the next time LML-819 is consigned for auction.

James Bond will return…

GF15

Munro, a Mossie, a Star and ‘the N-Word’

Last week I happened across a couple of rather heart-warming photographs of Les Munro, the last surviving pilot from the Dam-Busters raid 70 years ago this May, climbing aboard the world’s last flying de Havilland Mosquito, soon after it got back into the skies over New Zealand last autumn. Like many pilots, Munro flew both the Mosquito and the Lancaster during World War 2, and was happy to get reacquainted with his old charge.

Les Munro back in the cockpit of a Mosquito

Les Munro back in the cockpit of a Mosquito

Getting into a Mossie was never easy for the two-man crew, who had to clamber up a vertical ladder and through a hatch only a fraction bigger than they were. That this gentleman, now well into his nineties, should attempt the feat and then clearly relish the chance to get airborne was rather special, I thought.

This in turn reminded me of another special old gentleman I met at Grantham railway station back in the summer of 2009. I turned around and there was none other than Richard Todd, wartime paratroop leader and star of countless matinees from the 1950s which, like any child of the Seventies, I would watch on the sofa when home from school.

Wearing what was clearly a ‘uniform’ of smart tweeds with a mustard-coloured waistcoat, he was still instantly recognisable as the hero of those monochrome adventures. We were also the only two people on the platform, and he seemed to welcome a bit of company.

Richard Todd - in typical 'uniform'!

Richard Todd – in typical ‘uniform’!

We got chatting about this and that – he was waiting to collect a friend who was coming to lunch – when conversation turned quite naturally towards his best-loved role: that of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, leader of the Dam-Busters raid. And what, I asked, did he think of the forthcoming remake of the film by Lord of the Rings maestro, Peter Jackson?

“Nothing printable!” he chuckled. “Did you know that he’s building these Lancasters out of plastic… in China? You simply can’t tell that story the way it was any more. We didn’t have computer effects but we did have real Lancs – and of course there’ll be no Nigger!” At that moment the train arrived, and the great man beetled off in search of his friend. He died that same December from a cancer that he was already no doubt confronting when we met, although he was not the sort of person to let such an affliction show in public.

Mr. Todd would be astonished that we are still awaiting Peter Jackson’s remake of The Dam-Busters, some four years later. Much of the delay is because his retelling of The Hobbit has swollen to become a trilogy of high-tech movies, but there have been other reasons… not least in finding the best way to deal with Nigger – the name that Gibson, like many thousands of others, gave to his beloved black Labrador and which plays such a key role in the Dam-Busters story.

At long last, however, Jackson has built up one of his ten full-size Lancasters in all its Chinese plastic glory on a New Zealand airfield and is testing new camera equipment on it for his film. Meanwhile the script writer, British wit and Dam-Busters fanatic Stephen Fry, has indicated that a compromise has been reached on renaming Gibson’s dog. It seems that Guy Gibson himself would often shorten it to ‘Nigsy’ and this will be acceptable to all parties, so the Dam-Busters may well return in time to mark 70 years since VE Day in 2015.

Jackson's first Lancaster in pre-production shooting

Jackson’s first Lancaster in pre-production shooting for The Dam-Busters