Farewell to 2017

Well, that was a year. It was called 2017. It’s over now – although its ramifications may well carry on clanking through history for some considerable time.

Once again the S&G observed fairly limited opening hours due to a number of factors, not least a rather frantic year of book-writing. After 30 years, the longest and dearest-held dream of writing a book about the S.E.5 came to fruition. We also spent a welcome few days with the ancestors of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which may well bring forth some stories.

A new record was set in the number of visits and the number of people coming through the door and settling into the snug. At almost 35,000 we should probably get a bigger sofa. These were the people’s picks for 2017 A.D.:

  1. Gladiator Survivors #3 – What Hope for Faith?
  2. The Racing Driver’s Bride
  3. Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: the final journey
  4. Beyond the British Grand Prix
  5. Visiting the TT Garage, Farnham
  6. The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave
  7. Setting Sail with Errol Flynn
  8. Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last
  9. Ken Miles Part 2: 1966 and all that
  10. ‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

It’s gratifying to see a number of Malta-related stories bubbling up to the top 10 (as well as the inclusion of fresh stories like those of the post-British GP world and Ken Miles’s finest hour). History was not kind to Malta’s supreme importance in the story of WW2, both in Europe and in Asia. Gradually and belatedly this campaign, and the uncommon valour that it produced among the armed forces and civilian population, is receiving more attention. There can never be enough.

Interestingly, the movie Dunkirk was released in 2017. Apparently it inspired and infuriated both experts and the uninitiated in a very even-handed way. The S&G has yet to see it, although the absence of a single cigarette among the soldiers and statesmen in the trailers was notable and leads one to question its commitment to history. Apparently, depicting tobacco usage is a no-no to Fox, which produced the film, because of the evil weed’s risk to human health.

Dive-bombers are less of a problem, apparently…

In other news, one publisher to whom the S&G spoke declared that books on subjects pre-1966 were now ‘commercially dead’.  This may come as a startling revelation to Lord March, who continues to maintain about just about the only viable racing venue in the UK based upon a rather different business model! It is remarkable that people are considered unlikely to shell out £10-20 for a book on the era when the classic cars that they describe continue to rocket in value.

We now live in a world where it is possible to spend in excess of £30,000 on a mid-Eighties hot hatch, like a Peugeot 205 GTI (£38,000 being the new record for such a car). The white heat of inflation in values continues to astonish, to the point where the S&G was informed that there is now a queue of around a dozen investors with ‘a minimum of $30 million cash’ waiting to be spent for any Porsche 917, irrespective of condition or racing history, provided that it was built in Zuffenhausen.

Wowsers.

2017 was a slow year for aviation-related stories at the S&G, for which we apologise and promise to make good in 2018. Our air-minded regulars are the most loyal and enthusiastic imaginable and there have been lean pickings for them. This will not do.  We did manage to get the S.E.5 book out successfully, and despite one or two issues with getting the right pages to the printer it was an emotional moment to see 30 years of research and passion take the chequered flag.

There will be much to-do about the centenary of the Royal Air Force in 2018. The S&G will do its bit, with one aim: encouraging the powers-that-be to give its missing VC his name back. July will see the 100th anniversary of Edward Mannock’s death and we all know where he lies. It’s time for him to rest up.

So that’s what to expect when crossing the hearth at the S&G in 2018: more aeroplanes, some valuable reminders for racing folk and a bucket full of derring-do. God knows we need the latter above all else.

A safe and peaceful 2018 to you all.

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James Dean goes racing, 1955

Here’s a rather lovely little bit of film for fans of the grassroots sports car racing promoted by the Sports Car Club of America in the 1950s – breeding ground for practically every American driver to make a splash on the international scene. This particular film shows the May race meeting of 1955 in Santa Barbara, California and it shows one of the locals getting involved in the action – Hollywood heart throb, James Dean.

Santa Barbara’s circuit was a temporary affair at Goleta airport – a wartime airfield that became the regional airport and hosted both drag racing and circuit racing – the SCCA having events each May and September.

The May race was a two-day affair on Memorial Day weekend but Dean had missed all of the action on Saturday because he was getting his hair done. Such was the studio system at the time that, with filming barely complete on his seminal Rebel Without a Cause, the newest hot-shot in Hollywood was already in for duty on his next feature, Giant.

Presumably rather frustrated at the delay, Dean left as soon as he could without bothering to inform anyone involved in the film where he was heading. He charged up the Pacific Coast Highway to be reunited with the car that he would be racing the next day – his white Porsche 365 Speedster.

Dean qualified only 18th but drove a strong race, climbing as high as fourth until the Porsche burnt a piston, putting him out of the weekend’s action. In the film shot at the event, the slight, bespectacled figure with a cigarette permanently drooping from his lips seems quite at ease – even posing quite happily with a couple of fans.

What the weekend had shown Dean was that, as a racer, his Porsche 356 could no longer make the grade. He had to find something faster if his talents were going to be rewarded. Before then, however, there was another movie to made and when it was made clear to Warner Brothers and the production team on Giant how their star man was spending his weekends, a memo was sent banning him from competition for the duration of the shoot.

With a difficult cast headed by Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, motor racing would have seemed like an uncomplicated oasis that was frustratingly being kept out of reach. Dean apparently spent his down-time on set pondering the virtues of cars like an Offenhauser-powered Lotus until he bit the bullet and ordered another Porsche – in this case a 550 Spyder.

The cost was reportedly his old 356 in part-exchange plus $3,000 – which was a vast sum of money. But a new car to the specification with which Porsche was cleaning up in the smaller engine classes of sports car racing worldwide seemed like the obvious choice.

In September, with filming on Giant complete, Dean brought his 550 – chassis 550 0055 – back to his garage and began learning how it performed on the roads near his home. This ended up needing one or two repairs – so that when the next available meeting came up at Salinas, Dean decided to try and get more miles in the car by driving it there instead of trailering it.

And it was on the way to Salinas that Dean, driving hard, told his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, sitting in the passenger seat, not to worry about the 1950 Ford coupé that was trying to turn across their path at the intersection on California Highway 466. “He’ll see us,” he said over the roar of the engine and the battering wind. And the rest is history…

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Norisring under threat?

The future, or rather the character, of one of Germany’s most popular racetracks is under threat. The venue in question is the Norisring, the Bavarian street circuit which was first used in 1947 and provides Germany’s biggest race series with their most tumultuous and atmospheric amphitheatre.

The 2.3km circuit is built around a vast concrete edifice, measuring 360 metres in length, which acts as the main grandstand. When a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) touring car event really lights up, it is when there are tens of thousands of passionate fans backing their chosen brand – Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Because the Norisring is a street circuit with a colossal grandstand towering over it the atmosphere becomes like a cup final, with hooting and hollering and intensity the like of which is seldom seen in motor sport.

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The Norisring brings a crowd and an atmosphere like no other in Germany

But then, this is a venue that was built for just such pyrotechnic displays of bombast. The Norisring has a unique bit of history attached as well…

The Zeppelinfeld upon which the Norisring exists was not designed for motor sport. The colossal grandstand is in fact the ‘Führer’s Rostrum’ designed and built by Albert Speer from which Adolf Hitler would lead the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg rallies.

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When the Zeppelinfeld was built, it had an altogether different purpose

Speer’s handiwork is now beginning to crumble. At the back of the gigantic structure there is considerable netting and signs that warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.

“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” Daniel Ulrich, Nuremberg’s building maintenance department chief, told The Independent this week. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”

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The 1,000 year concrete probably didn’t have a lifetime warranty

Speer claimed that he had used special building materials and that the complex – which featured a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the tribune with its balustrades and ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas – would last for 1,000 years. As it turns out, Speer’s calculations were a little bit optimistic.

When the Norisring was first in use as a circuit, the entire Führer’s Rostrum was virtually intact, minus the most obvious Nazi motifs but retaining the quarter mile of balustrade upon which Speer built his ‘cathedral of light’ by mounting 150 searchlights to bring a bit of extra ‘wow factor’.

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Speer ‘turned it up to 11’ with his Cathedral of Light

Today all of those pillars have gone, leaving the tribunes where once the Party faithful flanked their leader to look out over an endless sea of banner-carrying and flag-waving members of the Master Race. Today these are the most celebrated seats in German motor sport; looking out over the temporary pits and main straight of a circuit that always delivers fast and frenetic action.

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These days the view is of the pit lane, with this vast area lying as scrubland covered in parked cars, VIP hospitality and temporary grandstands

In the beginning, the Norisring was primarily used for motorcycle races – not least due to the severe restrictions that were imposed upon Germany’s automotive industry and motor sport the defeat of 1945.  Cars and motor sport were major tools of Hitler’s social order and the level of suppression was extraordinary when viewed from today.

22B  Pit area at Noris Ring, Nurnburg.

The thriving paddock of a Norisring bike meeting

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Cars returned to action in the 1950s

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Much more of the Führer’s Rostrum was in place in the circuit’s early years

Eventually, in the 1950s, German cars returned to action on a regular basis. New German-made Formula 2 cars, Volkswagen-based ‘specials’ and the emergence of top quality machinery from Porsche reinvigorated the national racing scene. The Norisring flourished, and in the 1980s it even hosted frenetic and spectacular sprint races for Le Mans machinery, joining the World Sportscar Championship in 1986 to provide spectacle such as this:

The venue is now best known as the most popular round of the DTM, and the series’ own website describes the Norisring thus: The spectacular street circuit – incidentally the last surviving racetrack of its kind, in Germany – is popular with drivers and fans in equal measure and winning here counts slightly more than winning elsewhere.

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Victory at the Norisring is a unique highlight for German racers

There is no doubt that the Norisring is a special place and for many reasons. Should the old tribunes be torn down? At the S&G, the feeling is that they should not. For one thing, what would replace them?  Certainly it is unlikely that Nuremberg council could create a grandstand that could rival it, or that was designed to generate the sort of fervour that this one does. Students of history and lovers of motor sport cannot fail to marvel at the place in all its insane pomposity.

It is impossible to understand something unless it can be witnessed, and the giganticism of the Norisring tribune, just like that of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, offers a beacon to navigate history: to understand the means by which Germany was so catastrophically seduced in the 1930s. If we do not understand the threat that humanity can pose to itself then we are failing as a race.

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How do we explain and learn from what we cannot witness?

Meanwhile as a sporting venue, the tribunes would be utterly impossible to replace and losing them would rob motor sport of a unique asset. While the past of the Zeppelinfeld is an abomination, the heritage of the Norisring is anything but. Bringing joy to a place like this, through the very best in motor racing action, and creating a new history of almost 70 years of achievement, is something well worth preserving.

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23B  Pit area at Noris Ring.

One legend among many at Le Mans

Maison Blanche today – walled off from the modern circuit but still full of charisma

The Circuit de la Sarthe is one of the few active circuits in the world with more than 100 years of history under its belt and, in the Le Mans 24 Hours, it is without doubt home to the world’s most famous motor race.

Like all the great circuits, it has evolved through the decades – but its spirit is entirely untouched. That indefinable thing that makes Le Mans special has been jealously preserved by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest against much of the ‘progress’ that has afflicted other classic venues. Indeed, this race couldn’t – and arguably shouldn’t – happen anywhere else in the world. But since the country that created Grand Prix racing fell off the Formula One calendar, the Grand Prix de l’Endurance at Le Mans has taken on still greater importance in the national psyche.

As far as the circuit goes the one real concession to safety standards over the years has been the abandonment of the run through Maison Blanche, which once provided as stern a test as any to be found in motorsport. On today’s Circuit de la Sarthe cars exit the banked left-hand turn at Indianapolis and right-hander at Arnage and then have a quick squirt before turning sharp right into the vast chicane known as the Porsche Curves.

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This is the only section of track that really resembles a modern Grand Prix venue – with its acres of gravel and run-off (although it is still somewhere that gigantic accidents can and do happen). All of that takes place on the other side of a wall that would not have looked out of place in Potsdamer Platz during the 1970s – and it means that the historic Maison Blanche section is there to explore at any time one might fancy doing so.

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

After arriving for the full modern Le Mans experience, the S&G found an opportunity to do a little motoring on the original circuit. The public roads that make up so much of a lap at Le Mans – from Tertre Rouge up the full length of the Mulsanne straight being the N138 to Tours, for example – remain open for as long as possible, giving one the opportunity to recreate that fantastic film of Mike Hawthorn’s lap in 1956.

This is the fast, tree-lined run from the exit or Arnage curving gracefully over the crest that was lowered as a concession to safety after the 1955 disaster and which still exists just as Hawthorn described it in his film. One then keeps barrelling downhill until just past the right-hand diversion into the Porsche Curves, where a roundabout now breaks what was once the long, long run towards the start/finish straight.

From the roundabout (which offers the main route in for the majority of the infield car parking at the 24 Hours), one then accelerates through the gentle right-hand kink up towards the fabled left-right around the old White House itself, visible on the left in this video, before the old circuit runs out and the Berlin-style wall cuts one off before rejoining the modern start-finish straight.

Impressions of driving down this stretch are primarily that it’s bloody narrow. Whether at 80mph in a Bentley 3-litre, 140mph in a Jaguar D-Type or 190mph in a Porsche 917 it would require superhuman courage at any time of day… never mind what it must have been like at night in the rain – as was so often the case.

Visiting Le Mans is essential to make one’s motoring life complete. Drinking in the sights and sounds of the 24 Hours is enough of a feast in itself, but when there is the opportunity to go and explore such riches as Maison Blanche at the same time, it becomes quite the most amazing location of its kind in the world.

‘Scalextric’ cars with a difference

Lovespeed's exotic slot cars

Lovespeed’s exotic slot cars

Yes, it’s a trio of 1/32 scale model cars. Yes, they’ve each got an electric motor that picks up power from a slot in a track through metal braids and a guide flag to steer it round. But this is, as you will already have noted, far from being a standard ‘Scalextric’ car – or Carrerabahn, for our German readers!

This is a long-since deleted series of models by a German company called Lovespeed. It’s a faithful reproduction of that rarest of beasts, the Porsche Typ60K10. This was intended to take part in – and win – the proposed road race between Berlin and Rome in 1940.

These sleek two-seater sports cars were built by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and his team at Zuffenhausen from standard Volkswagen parts and some exotic extras such as larger valves and higher compression in the motor and plastic windows to save weight. The aluminium coachwork was by Reutter and proved to be more efficient than any future Porsche for several decades.

The Porsche family's wartime runabout

The Porsche family’s wartime runabout

Although the celebratory Berlin-Rome race never happened, three of the cars were built. Chassis 1 became the Porsche family runabout and was written off during the war. Chassis 2 was used as a development vehicle, but destroyed by US soldiers in the immediate post-war period. The final car survived the war and was used to develop the Porsche 356 before being sold to a private racer who won his class on the 1959 Alpine Rally with it.

If not quite as rare or valuable as the real thing, the Lovespeed models are without doubt some of the most sought-after slot cars in the world. If the baby Porsche doesn’t quite do it for you then how about the 1940 BMW 328 coupe? If you can find one, you generally need to have more than £200 to hand even for a rough example of Lovespeed’s brilliance.

Money well spent, I’m sure you agree…

Lovespeed also made the glorious BMW 328 coupe

Lovespeed also made the glorious BMW 328 coupe