It’s been quite a time for nostalgia lately, with contact from old friends and new enthusiasts. Firstly, Ken Richardson’s CO, Paul, paid me a visit here on Molokai and we spent a great day “talking story,” as the locals here would say. His dad was one of the most successful competition managers of the ’50s, was responsible for developing the Triumph TR2, and was a test driver for BRM race cars. He was also a pioneer engineer with jet engines, and drove not only Formula One cars, but also won in International Rallying. A hard act to follow, but Paul worked for the Triumph Company, is a tremendous enthusiast, and produces one of the finest one-make magazines, simply called Triumph over Triumph. If you are even remotely interested in this make, Paul has so many great connections with the old factory employees that he can fill each issue with rare photos and even rarer stories. Well worth getting hold of if you can.
The Editor of your favorite Moss Motoring magazine, Ken Smith, and his charming wife Barbie, also came for a visit to Molokai. I hadn’t seen Ken since the Moss 50th “do” so we had lots to talk about. We had previously met at a Goodwood Motoring Press Day many years ago, when we were both journalists for motor magazines in the UK. The Goodwood day was always very popular, and you put your name down to drive your choices from a very broad range of stuff provided by the brave manufacturers. People used to spin off in all directions, but there was rarely any real damage, and the unwritten rule of confidentiality prevented one’s rivals from writing about these misfortunes in their columns.
I am delighted that Goodwood is finally open again for racing, and the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, Charlie March—a real enthusiast if ever there was one—puts on his annual vintage races. All the cars, and most of the drivers, are from the wonderful years of Goodwood racing. You have to wear clothes of the time, the ambulances are all ’50s vintage, and even the policemen wear uniforms of the time. There isn’t a sign of Armco steel barrier, gravel traps, or the like, and advertising is very restricted. Remember that all these decals on cars were not permitted until 1968! The racing is truly wonderful, and it gives everyone a chance to see what four wheel drifts, no ground effect, no wings or spoilers motoring was all about. Hey—you can even see the drivers and what their arms are doing!
I have been in fairly regular contact with Pete Lovely, the Tacoma resident who drove for the Lotus factory in Formula One cars in the early ’60s. He went on to privateer with two ex-works Lotuses (Loti?), and one of them was the car with which Jimmy Clark won a Grand Prix using the first of the Ford Cosworth engines. He has just returned from racing this car in Australia when he had great successes in their Vintage Formula One series. An Australian pal has sent me an e-mail amazed at how seriously these senior citizens tackle racing today. Pete and Jack Brabham must both be in their seventies, and the cars must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet no one gave any quarter and the television commentators were far more excited than they ever get at modern Grand Prix meetings! Now that Bernie Ecclestone has virtually stopped our regular channels from showing GP races, I rely on Pete to send me videos of the Speed Vision coverage, so that I can keep up with the World Championship.
Denise McCluggage is another of the ’60s drivers with whom I recently spoke. She is well-known as a motoring author, regular contributor to Autoweek, and also as a Pebble Beach Concours Judge. We were both driving Minis in races and rallies during the car’s heyday. Her recent article on rolling a Mini at Brands Hatch Circuit blamed the accident on the sudden null of fuel through the large bore pipe connecting the twin gas tanks in the boot. This did remind me that the cars we prepared in those distant days relied very much on modifications such as thus, and without the zillions of dollars which now go into motorsport development, bits of plastic and jubilee clips were often the imperfect solution to everyday problems.
Another visitor to my tiny island was Mike Hughes, who co-drove with me on a couple of events in the very first Competition Department Mini. By the time we got our hands on it, Abingdon had transformed it into the prototype Mini Cooper, with a larger, twin carb engine and other modifications. At the time I was selling and modifying Sebring Sprites and we beat three of our customers with the Mini—which was not perhaps the best publicity for my business. We had a few splendid days of chatting about the past, and Mike reminded me that he was with Peter Harper when their Sunbeam Tiger “won” the Alpine Rally outright against the might of all the European Championship Factory ‘beams. They were disqualified for having undersized valves in the engine because Ford had changed the specification of their production motors without telling anyone at the Sunbeam works. I remembered this very underrated car as quite a delight, with tons of reliable power in a simple, though efficient, chassis, and a pleasant two-seater sports body. What could have developed into a Healey-beater was sadly stopped when Chrysler bought Rootes-Sunbeam, and they were obviously reluctant to have competitor Ford supplying engines for their top sports car.
I had a super, though sadly too short, trip to New Zealand—the land of the long white cloud—to celebrate the Austin Healey Club’s 25th anniversary. It seemed a little cruel for me to point out that 25 years ago seemed an odd time to start a Healey club. The old works at Warwick’s Cape had long closed, the later headquarters in that fine old cinema were sold, as was the business, and Donald and Geoff kept only their small Cornwall facility. Geoff had gone to Rover’s Development Department, where his great talents were mainly under-used, while Donald spent his time either with Healey Club activities, or working on radios (his first love) and windmill power generation.
The once-famous Abingdon Competitions Department was dosed down, and the only activity was through Special Tuning, where a Triumph Dolomite was fun for the sole “works” driver, a well-known Sprite driver and an ex-employee of mine called Brian Culcheth. Although he later was incredibly successful when factory rallying was resumed, I seem to remember that in that year he didn’t ever finish an event with the Dolomite! Anyway, apart from the unfortunate choice of founding date, the New Zealand classic British car scene is thriving.
The Healey Club had a splendid selection of cars at the concours and on the various sporting events which took place over the Easter weekend, and a couple of evening dinners gave me a chance to chat and answer questions from a truly wonderful bunch of enthusiasts. I was also “rented” out to the MG and Morgan Clubs gathering, where an even wider range of British cars was displayed, from a very old three-wheeler Morgan to an MG F. At the dinner session, the inter-club rivalry was really entertaining; obviously someone had done a great deal of research, and the questions gave me a chance to recount some experiences which I had almost forgotten about. The three days of nostalgia were accompanied by superb weather, and it was only the end of the week that showed me the “long white cloud” which seemed to cover the country. An old friend did manage to fly me about for a bit of sightseeing over this magnificent scenery before the rain well and truly set in. I was sad that John Ohlson had recently died—one of my great Kiwi mechanics of the ’60s, he later joined Carroll Shelby’s team, and was responsible for much of the panel work on those competition cars.
New Zealand has well engineered roads, although they are twisty and narrow, and without large freeways. With all the hills and curves, motoring was truly a delight, even in the holiday traffic, and it was fun to see so many really old British cars in everyday use. I drove a Healey 3000 for the first time in 35 years over a section of the club rally, and it certainly reminded me of the sheer fun that this great car provided. The rest of my travels were in a modern BMW, and I hardly need to point out the huge progress that has been made in automobile engineering.
One of the special thrills on this trip was the sight of a perfectly restored Ariel Square Four motorcycle, which turned up for the gymkhana among all the Healeys. My motor sporting career began just 50 years ago, with a Red Hunter Ariel, in what is now called a motocross race meeting, so this was my turn to think back to those golden years of our sport.