If there was just some way to work it out, the old race cars should be telling this story. They're the ones who know what really went on back in the glory days. Ideally, they should meet at the Garrick Club in London. Over a balloon of brandy, a Maserati, say, might lean back, light a cigar and confide, "I'll never forget the 1955 Mille Miglia. Or my Le Mans in 1957, remember? If memory serves, I finished 12th. In any case, there I was at White House Corner when...." Just across the table would be this shining blue 1948 Talbot-Lago, surely the David Niven of automobiles, still heartbreakingly handsome even without its original eyebrow fenders. The Talbot-Lago gets around much better now than when it was brand new, and the mellow hum of its engine is as smooth as a fine Courvoisier. "Would you believe," the Talbot would say, "that when Fangio and I were at Le Mans in 1951...."
These days the Maser and the Talbot are part of a troupe of splendid old cars that have risen out of scrap heaps, garages and museums to go racing again, in a British series called The Return of the Spectacle.
The Spectacle isn't confined to the competition; the men who restore and race the cars comprise a somewhat dotty British subculture with a passion for elegant old iron.
Consider Sid Hoole, at 38 surely old enough to know better, who races a spotlessly restored 1957 Cooper Grand Prix car, its four-cylinder Coventry Climax engine a power plant that evolved from one used on fire trucks to pump water. Hoole owns four other Coopers, all of them hugely valuable. Hoole also owns a fish-and-chips shop in Sandy, about 50 miles from London—his racing pals call him Sid the Chip or Sid Frite. A few years ago Hoole bought a thatched-roof cottage in Bedfordshire, north of London. The place is maybe 400 years old and stunning, with lovely little rooms and thick whitewashed walls. Sid the Chip attached a garage about as big as the house, the better to shelter his Coopers. He also has a bumper sticker, which his wife won't let him put on the family estate wagon: I LOVE MY CLIMAX. "Listen," Hoole says confidentially, leaning in closely at a cocktail party to whisper, "Every time I get into that race car of mine and start it up, suddenly I'm old Jack Brabham himself going racing."
Or take Alain de Cadenet, a hip Londoner and Le Mans racer (he's finished seven of the last 12) who models jeans, watches and sunglasses and is a stamp dealer and tracer of lost sports cars. Every year de Cadenet throws a birthday party for his Alfa-Romeo P3 type B, the first single-seater made by that company—the very car that was driven to victory in the 1932 French and Italian grand prix by none other than Tazio Nuvolari. At party time de Cadenet sweeps out his tiny garage at Queensgate Place Mews and hangs balloons, bunting and Nuvolari posters. "The car's friends are invited," he says, "and we have huge waitresses, all of them topless, serving wonderful pasta and bottles of good Italian wine, and we occasionally spill a little bit on the car and everybody gets swizzled out of their minds." If there was room in the garage, de Cadenet would have a blown Bentley jump out of a cake.
Well, the old Alfa deserves such a salute. After Nuvolari, it was handed over to a driver who later would make a few race cars himself. The young hotshoe's name was Enzo Ferrari, and he tore up several events with the P3. Just before World War II, the Alfa was mysteriously spirited off to Argentina. There was dark talk that, later on, it fell into Nazi hands. In any event, de Cadenet finally located it, in pieces in Rio, and brought it back to England in 1974.
And here is Bruce Halford, a well-known Formula I driver of some years back, appearing in his pristine 1959 Lotus 16, once the factory works car of the late Graham Hill. (Hill was still well back in the pack in '59, but he would be world champion in 1962 and again in '68.) "Imagine," Halford says, "a silly old man like me going racing. I'm 51 years old. Good heavens, I retired from all this back in 1961. And yet...and yet, I get into that cockpit and suddenly the years melt away and I'm young again." He nods vigorously to affirm that fact, tufts of wiry white hair puffing out above both ears. "And, you know, I still seem to have all the moves."
For every car owner eager to show some moves, the racing series attracts thousands of fans delighted to see cars and drivers the way they once were—drivers upright and visible, not supine and sardined, cars without wings or other present-day warts and excrescences. There is obviously something that stirs the blood in the sight of a car skidding around a corner with the driver hanging half out of the cockpit. Handsome crowds are turning out for these historic-car races. True, the events usually are staged as a companion attraction to a grand prix or other major race, but they've recently drawn crowds of 10,000 to 100,000 on their own. The sponsors claim that in Britain the histories have now become No. 2 in box office appeal to Formula I cars. As a further sign of that appeal, consider the annual race of the rather snooty Aston Martin Owners Club at Silverstone. Strictly a "clubbie," as they say, with no advertising or publicity outside the club itself. Yet crowds of 7,000 or so show up to watch, many buying paddock passes to be able to wander among the race cars and kick tires, in a manner of speaking.
One other key statistic sort of lies there unstressed, perhaps because of typical British reserve about such things. There are 24 cars in a typical Formula I race. The same number starting one of the historic races could be worth roughly four times as much. It's an expensive game that these chappies are playing. Two years ago, the British monthly Motorsport estimated that the asking price for a Lister-Jaguar in reasonable shape was $80,000; for a Maserati 250-F, about $220,000; while an ERA (English Racing Automobile) might fetch as much as $140,000. Since then, prices have gone even higher.
Hoole's collection of Cooper-Climaxes is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The car he raced in the Spectacle this season was a star of Tommy Sopwith's 1957 Equipe Endeavor Team. But when The Chip acquired it in 1972 for about $300, "it was in nahsty shape, with not even the proper engine and it had been...it had been sand-raced." But Hoole put it right—he works four days a week on his cars while the wife takes care of the fish and chips—and now it's picture-perfect. Setting a precise dollar value on these machines is difficult, but Hoole recently traded one of his Coopers for a Cherokee 140, which says something.
A 1954 Maserati 250-F single-seater is raced by the Honorable Amschel Rothschild, a thin, ascetic son of the third Baron Rothschild, head of the British branch of the legendary banking family. "Now this is proper racing," says Rothschild. He bought the car in 1976 for an undisclosed, though reportedly hefty, sum, and he loves it so dearly even Rothschild-deep pockets couldn't pry it away from him. He has had it completely restored, so that the Maser is every bit as elegant as its owner. "One could invite it into the house for tea," says Rothschild in perfect seriousness.
One of the most gorgeous ERAs in the world is a B-type nicknamed Remus, the car in which Prince Birabongse of Siam won the 1936 French Grand Prix. It's now owned by the Honorable Patrick Lindsay, 53, well-known as an art auctioneer and a director of Christie's, a doughty chap who tends to stand on it when he goes racing. Lindsay has told associates that he wouldn't take $350,000 for the car—even though he and it crashed heavily in a race last June in a spectacular end-over-end, both of them breaking ribs. At the moment, both are being restored.
In this mixed bag of serious collectors cum racers there is one genuine cult figure—Nick Mason, drummer for the Pink Floyd and the object of teeny-bopping adulation worldwide. But when Mason, who is 37 and a millionaire, gets ready to race his 1936 ERA or his 1957 Maserati 250-F, he has something close to anonymity, which pleases him mightily. He has a consuming ambition, which is to get his hands on every pre-World War II Aston Martin ever built. He has files and he has scouts, and he knows where most of them are. As he collects, and carefully restores them, he says, he will consider selling one or two a year—but only to those who fully appreciate the classic qualities of the marque.
The Spectacle series was launched in 1979 by one Bert Young, silver-haired and debonair, whose previous experience in deep promotional waters had been limited to the training of Channel swimmers. Young was coach of Bermuda's swim team at the 1952 Olympics in Finland (it sank with nary a bubble) and had been a race driver of considerable kidney. He holds—here comes one of the great arcane statistics of all time—the record for the fastest lap ever turned by a Lister-Jaguar at the Zolder circuit in Belgium: 80-plus mph. You could look it up, old top.
It was Young who sold the series to Lloyds & Scottish, a financial house not unlike the General Motors Acceptance Corporation. L & S had been casting about for something automotive that would lend a special cachet to the firm—and Young convinced it that if anything had cachet up to here, it was historic race cars in action. L & S came up with an annual $100,000 budget, beginning in 1978, and suddenly, says Young, "Our privateering days were over. Old race cars began emerging from everywhere, from tumble-down garages and from underneath haystacks; years of cobwebs were blown away."
Some 65 cars may be race-ready at a given time, and each one has been authenticated as fully as possible by the Royal Automobile Club's Historic Car Committee, a bunch of sticklers. Assuredly, a 100-G series (for which there were six races in 1982) isn't calculated to make anybody rich. Indy spills that much. But a sponsor and appearances at courses around the U.K. have given the racers a sense of, well, identity.
Young has divided the cars into five age groups from "three great decades of racing," 1930 to 1960, but all the classes compete together in one jolly mélange, Grand Prix cars hub to hub with sports cars. The racers must qualify for the available starting positions, and the starting grids look as if someone has turned an automotive museum upside down and shaken it over the track.
At the grand finale of the '82 season at Silverstone, the pole position was won by John Harper, 45, and his 1954 B-type Connaught, a great brute of a racer that had turned a 101-mph lap on the 2½-mile course. Eleven rows back, and easily 20 mph slower, sat Peter Walker in his 1959 works Lola MK 1 (chassis No. 3, folks—how's that for historic?) and Richard Dunham in his venerable Alvis Brooklands. Venerable? Listen, that car was built on order in 1938 for Dunham's grandpa, who raced it with great distinction, and then it was handed down to Dunham's dad, who won the International Manx Cup on the Isle of Man in 1951. And now young Richard's got it. The Alvis, dignified humpback and all, is still as debonair as can be. But it may be, well, just the tiniest bit too long in the tooth. Dunham didn't finish.
But who really cares about finishes? To the race, the race! Lloyds & Scottish pays each entrant a modest $300 fee collectible if the driver gets his car on the grid and runs one full racing lap—and the winner gets a mere $100. At the end of the season, most of the racers take home a handsome trophy for winning something, and whatever is left of the $100,000 goes for cocktails.
What the spectators get is a memorable afternoon: 10 laps of wheel-to-jowl racing unlike anything else today—awfully different from the show put on by the low-slung Grand Prix and Indy cars, which all look alike and hide their drivers so effectively that you begin to suspect that they just might be oversized radio-controlled racers. By the way, the old cars are all running faster than when they were brand spanking new—in some cases a lot faster. Better tire compounds, brakes and track surfaces are responsible.
Look! Here comes a passel of cars, every damn one of them sliding through the corners, with the drivers sitting upright, the way the Good Lord intended. There's a tricky chicane going into Silverstone's main straightaway, and any driver worth his silver blazer buttons comes blasting out of it with his arms crisscrossed, fighting the wheel, looking this way while the car drifts that way. It makes hearts leap up. Perfect little balloons of smoke puff from many of the cars each time they downshift, leaving a scent of castor oil, and there's—do you hear that?—the squeal of tires. Nowadays, race cars look and sound as if they're on rails.
Watching intently from the paddock is Stirling Moss, England's ace of aces in the late '50s and early '60s. Moss is 53 now, and he hasn't raced for real since his crash at Goodwood 19 years ago, but from the gleam in his eye you can tell he'd like to be out there mixing it up. "The only thing historic around here is me," Moss says. Clearly he believes the old cars will never lose their fascination. "You say, 'This isn't the work of some modern engineer. I'm balancing the ruddy thing all by myself.' "
There's no time for pit stops in a 10-lap race, but here comes Hoole's Cooper-Climax down pit road, with Sid the Chip looking grim—one can actually spot expressions beneath those vintage helmets—and holding the car in gear with one hand. "It's very worrying to drive like that," he says, dropping out on the fourth lap. Pole-sitter Harper drives his own peculiar race in the giant Connaught. "It's very, very, very fast in a straight line," he says, "but otherwise a bit clumsy. So I barrel down the straights and absolutely creep around the corners." Fine, but what makes that scary is that Harper still cranks out a dazzling 102-mph lap. Harper will eventually finish second to a Cooper 51, driven by Willie Green.
Based on the season's points, the overall series goes to sixth-place Mike Salmon in a 1955 Aston Martin DBR-1, which has one of the more impressive pedigrees in the field. It's fully certified as having been raced by Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby and Stirling Moss; it has been everywhere and done everything. The darn thing ought to be covered at night with a trench coat, collar turned up.
Me? I'll take that shining Lotus 11 over there, the open-cockpit, two-seater Le Mans model. It's not powerful enough to win anything, what with its little old Coventry-Climax engine featuring a golden medallion of Lady Godiva, but the tiny car is dashing enough to turn any devotee's head. Owner Dr. David Springett owns six Lotuses—"When you own six, they're called Loti," he says—and what he lacks in trophies, he more than makes up for in the almost sensual pleasure he gets from racing his cars. "You look down that bonnet," he says, "and you know that this is what driving a car should feel like."
Well, sure it is. And after 10 lovely laps, just 29.32 miles, the drivers end their day with a civilized glass or two. Another race, featuring more contemporary vehicles, is going on, but they pay it no heed. They gather around one of the trailers in the infield, sipping fine white wine and nibbling little munchies. Parked all around them are the shining bolides of yesterday, and in the late afternoon sun, with dust motes dancing in the air, there's a sense of a more golden and better time.