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ISSUE NO 4 – SUMMER 2018

Published in early July, it includes a first-hand account of the notorious 1975 Spanish Grand Prix drivers’ strike and its tragic ending, Gavin Green’s love-letter to Citroen’s ground-breaking Traction Avant, Douglas Blain’s wittily incisive run-off between Pontiac and Ferrari GTOs, an epic journey across the Andes in an Austin Chummy, Colin Goodwin’s droll account of American Muscle Cars in late-1970s Woking, a thought-provoking reflection on industry legends Colin Chapman and Edward Turner, eminent old rogue George Bishop‘s fond memories of five decades of French motoring, eating and drinking, Rod Ker on Reliant’s underrated Scimitar, a trans-European odyssey in an ancient Lagonda and so much more…

NO MOUNTAIN TOO HIGH

John Coleman, a respected teacher, vigorous anti-EU campaigner and intrepid if eccentric adventurer, was inspired by a 1925 account of Swiss writer Félix Tschiffley’s journey from Buenos Aires to New York on a pair of Creole horses. So inspired, that after leaving Oxford University in the 1950s, he rebuilt an abandoned 35-year-old Austin Chummy and retraced the route. Having cannily secured the support of parts suppliers, oil companies and British civil servants, he arrived in the Argentine capital in 1959, and in this extract from his book, Coleman’s Drive, motored from Buenos Aires across the fertile flatlands of Mendoza and up into the forbidding Andes mountains. Coleman’s eventual triumph, in the face of vertiginous heights and drops, earthquakes, floods and predatory wildlife, was celebrated – a fraction late – by cheering crowds when he lapped Silverstone in the Chummy just five years before his death in 2016, aged 81… while at the wheel of his 40-year-old Morris Minor

AFTER ONLY A COUPLE OF HOURS OF ANXIOUS SLEEP, I ROSE at 4.30 to begin one of the most exciting if frightening days of my life. The first rays of sunshine were beginning to spread across the foothills ahead and, with the exception of a few outcrops of bare rock across the plains which looked as if they had been thrown there by some powerful giant as a warning of what lay ahead, the landscape was barren and stony but still fairly level. I seemed to hear two conflicting voices within, one telling me that my attempt was madness and to turn back before it was too late, and the other just saying, ‘You can’t, you just can’t.’ As these doubts and fears passed through my mind and I was wondering exactly what I’d let myself in for, I saw a little hut by the roadside and a notice ordering drivers to stop and have their documents checked before proceeding up into the Andes.

The guards couldn’t believe their eyes, but were helpful and told me I was very brave. Was it, I wondered, just the polite South American way of telling me that I was attempting the impossible?

I was suddenly jolted from these thoughts by the realisation that the engine seemed to be rapidly losing power despite the road appearing almost level. I was forced to change down to second gear in which I continued for some way, following the road round as it veered towards the little village of Villavicencio at the very foot of the main climb into the first range of the Andes. I stopped and took out my big ex-naval binoculars and my heart sank at what they revealed. Winding up in a tremendous zigzag, the track comprised countless hairpin bends along precarious ledges of mountains to a position in the sky where one would only expect to see aeroplanes. In a flash I realised the meaning of what the geographers and members of the Buenos Aires vintage car club had told me prior to my departure, and I said to myself, ‘I’ve already had to change down to second and the road still seems to be flat, so I don’t stand a hope in hell of getting up there.’ But shaking off this sudden depression, I then thought, ‘Well I’ve come six thousand miles by sea and crossed Argentina to get here, so I may as well have a try.’

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A VERY DIFFERENT PRAGUE SPRING

In August 1968 Soviet tanks rumbled into the narrow streets of Prague to quosh those democratic reforms the rest of the world called the ‘Prague Spring’. Somewhat less momentously, and 22 years later, two innocent British adventurers rolled far less aggressively into town in a 1937 Lagonda, admittedly one powered by a huge diesel engine originally intended for a British armoured car, and carrying a payload of excellent single-malt Scotch

SURPRISINGLY, THERE IS A CONNECTION BETWEEN THOSE two entries into Prague – a connection called Berthold ‘Berty’ Hornung. An architect and town planner, he was born in 1925 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, and survived Auschwitz before studying architecture and engineering. In 1950 he became a planner under the Soviet regime, and played a key role in the design of Prague’s metro system. Never a yes-man, however, he had the temerity to send back 20 train-loads of Russian rolling stock because they were the wrong gauge.

Now marked as a trouble-maker, he was forced to flee the city during the 1968 invasion along with his wife Hana and two daughters, carrying only whatever possessions would fit into suitcases. Berty then settled in Edinburgh where he became a respected town planner, devising a transport layout for the city, after which he headed the British Council team that in 1972 helped to replan Jerusalem. He also became firm friends with Pip Hills – an authority on diesel engines and Scotch whisky – in the Scottish capital. But what Berty could not do was revisit Prague – until 1989 that is, following the collapse of the Soviet regime.

In 1990 Václav Havel was inaugurated as the new President of Czechoslovakia, and the first free elections to be held there were scheduled for June 8 and 9. Berty was invited to visit the city and have his achievements recognised, and it was Pip who offered to drive him there in style in his magnificent, unique, classic Lagonda.

Now read on…

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MAYHEM AT MONTJUICH

In 1975 a young Australian journalist, Peter Robinson, arrived in Europe eagerly anticipating his first-ever grand prix. Exhilarating… traumatic… doesn’t begin to do the experience justice

‘THE CIRCUIT IS NOW OPEN FOR FORMULA 1 PRACTICE.’
You’ve come halfway round the world to hear those nine magic words boom out across the pits. But now you wonder if the announcer can really be serious because, just minutes earlier the world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, with Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt and Graham Hill, took the Grand Prix Drivers Association out on strike. The condition of the guard rail barriers surrounding the track is the problem: unless they’re fixed there’ll be no practice and no race.

The first session has already been cancelled but now, at 4.30pm, as the drivers return to the paddock, the circuit is officially declared opened for practice. It’s almost a joke. In the pits Formula 1 cars are lined up and ready, except the cars are silent and there are no drivers. So you sit and wait and watch as the afternoon slips by. Every couple of minutes your eyes turn, hopefully, up the pit straight hill that leads to the paddock wherein are the transporters, tents, caravans and trucks of the F1 circus. Now it also holds the drivers.

The spectators opposite the pits grow restless as journalists and photographers wander among the cars, talking to the mechanics who wait patiently, cleaning their spotless charges once again or fiddling pointlessly with mechanical bits. Talk that the race will be cancelled grows until you begin to believe it’s true. With the coming of spring, the Spanish sun is warm so it’s not unpleasant to sit and admire the cars. But it isn’t what practice is all about and the hum of a dozen languages isn’t the noise you expected to hear on this day in Barcelona. Suddenly there’s a change in the mood of the crowd. All faces are turned, straining hard towards the paddock entrance. Then you understand. A solitary, white-clad figure, helmet in hands, walks quietly down beside the Armco that is causing all the trouble. It’s obviously a driver, but who? He’s too far away to distinguish at first. Finally an English voice, attached to a large pair of binoculars, spells it out: ‘It’s Ickx!’

The photographers rush to get their first positive shot of the weekend, journalists hurry to get a word with the one driver who is defying the GPDA. The spectators don’t understand the politics, but they do understand that Ickx has come out to practise. There’s spontaneous clapping and cheering. Ickx passes through the throng and has a few words with Lotus boss Colin Chapman. Later you’ll discover that Chapman had advised him not to go out. But Ickx insists, pulls on his helmet and slides down into the cocoon-like John Player Special Lotus, to be strapped in by the mechanics. His face has been expressionless from the moment he began his long, emotion charged walk before hiding behind the anonymity of the helmet.

Chapman, kneeling on the ground, whispers in his ear. The Lotus is fired up, the roar shattering the still, expectant air. The incredible world of Formula 1 racing is about to burst open as Jackie Ickx accelerates through the pit crowd and onto the track. As he disappears over the hill a voice from the crowd says it all: ‘This one is different.’

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THE LAST AMERICAN (CAR) HERO…
IN WOKING

In deepest suburban Surrey there are still some true believers whose mantra is: ‘There’s no substitute for cubic inches.’ Colin Goodwin is one of them

BIG FRANK MARRIED AN ITALIAN AMERICAN AND MOVED to Cincinnati. Twin boys, big house, six-car garage and a basketball net out front. Big Frank living the American Dream. And a Volvo C70… Which wasn’t part of my dream for one of my oldest mates.

I’d assumed that, as soon as he got off the aeroplane at Cincinnati airport, he’d be straight round to the nearest muscle car showroom and snap himself up some serious horsepower. Perhaps a 1973 Pontiac Trans Am with the Super Duty 455 engine option. With a manual gearbox, of course, because Big Frank was always a stickshift man. His Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible back home had a Muncie manual. A man’s transmission, as slow as a truck’s tranny and just as strong.

Home had been Woking, in Surrey. In 1979, when I was 17, everyone I knew drove an American. Big Frank and I were at a crammer in Guildford. A crammer is a school to which your parents send you as a last throw of the dice. I was there for another stab at the O-levels I’d failed the year before on account of my excessive enthusiasm for Mike Hailwood’s return to TT racing. In retrospect I shouldn’t have bothered taking the exams and should instead have gone to the Isle of Man for the racing.

Also at the crammer was a chap called Billy, who had a mate called Joe, who had a 1969 Buick Skylark convertible. When I first saw Joe’s Skylark I thought it was on fire. As he pulled out of the junction next to the school one of the rear wheel arches underwent a limited nuclear explosion. It was my first experience of the combination of a heavy cowboy boot, 350 cubic inches of iron-block V8 and 70-profile General Scrambler tyres.

Billy also had a Buick Skylark, a 1968 two-door coupe that sat outside his parents’ house in Woking. The fact that it had a mangled front end and no engine never stopped Billy from saying, ‘When I get my Buick going…’ whenever we talked cars. Which was all the time. In truth, Billy’s Buick never ran and eventually biodegraded in a field. It didn’t matter though because Billy had by then bought The Judge, a ’69-’71 limited edition of Pontiac’s GTO, the daddy of the muscle car breed (see page 82). The Judge came with a rear spoiler, a
bonnet-mounted tachometer, a functioning ram-air system and, for 1969 only, bright orange paint. Pontiac named it after the catchphrase ‘Here comes da Judge’ from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in TV show.

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