Monterey may have the sunshine and Goodwood may have the ultimate ‘timewarp’ feel, but it’s the wide open expanse of Silverstone that plays host to the world’s largest historic motor racing festival. This year’s Silverstone Classic, running from 29-31st July, promises to bring together an unparalleled number of classic competition cars, ranging from the rolling thunder of 1,000 hp Can Am machines to the waspish fury of Historic Formula Junior.
The media preview day alone is quite a spectacle, with around 150 cars taking to the Silverstone Grand Prix track – much to the delight of the assembled journalists who get to blag a ride.
As it turns out, there’s nothing like a mouth-watering array of classic cars to make you feel spoilt. At these sorts of events I have an uncanny habit of reaching the front of the queue just as the one Isuzu Bellet in the entire field rocks up amid a sea of Aston Martins and Ferraris. But not this year.
I should probably be a bit blasé about these things, but the fact is I went a bit weak at the knees when I saw a Lamborghini Miura waiting for me. It was even in Italian Job orange (although I’m fairly sure that’s not the official term).
On days like these
Miuras are quite a rare sight on the track. This particular example is a road car and its owner was not aware of any having been used for serious competition in-period. It was also there for a shakedown following a recent rebuild so, he warned, it wouldn’t be the most vigorous ride.
Getting in was surprisingly easy and the view from inside was pure sixties supercar. The Miura is not an especially big car, but the wide and impossibly low dash seems to stretch out for miles. You sit well reclined with the windscreen swept right back and the Bizzarrini-designed V12 churning away behind.
Circuits – particularly wide open grand prix tracks – have a habit of zapping road car performance, but the Miura still feels quick half a century after it was produced. There’s a surprising amount of low-end torque accompanied by a deep, mechanical howl. Presumably it would have carried on for another couple of octaves had we not been running in, but even so the soundtrack was sublime.
The twists and turns of the grand prix circuit were despatched with a reasonable amount of grip. There was a touch more body roll than you’d expect in a modern performance car, but it seemed to respond quite delicately to changes in throttle input. The owner would later explain that Miuras are a bit like Ferrari Daytonas – they get better the faster you go.
There are a couple of persistent criticisms you hear of the Miura (aside from the fact that hardly anyone can afford one any more). The first is that they suffer from aerodynamic instability, but even at the end of the Hanger Straight this example felt absolutely rock solid. “Maybe if you’re doing over 160 mph,” the driver would later comment. It’s certainly not going to put me off investing my lottery win.
Another is the early cars’ tendency to catch fire. This stems from a problem where fuel would collect around the carburettors as the car sat idling, only to ignite when it drove away. Funnily enough, a friend had been telling me about this just minutes before I was offered the ride of a lifetime in one. As we’d accelerated down the pit lane, one of the first things I’d noticed was a strong smell of petrol. It made the first few moments in the car somewhat unnerving, although this quickly evaporated (presumably much like the super unleaded) as I fell under the Lamborghini’s spell. It didn’t help that there were wisps of white smoke drifting out from the engine cover as we returned to the pitlane, but fortunately the Miura – and its occupants – would live to fight another day.
Two worlds collide
Having climbed out of the Lamborghini, still slightly in awe, I did what any self-respecting petrolhead would have done and sneaked back round to the start of the queue. By that point the Great British weather was starting to show its sense of humour and the blue skies had turned to flurries of snow.
Once again I lucked in. Not only had the mini-blizzard stopped by the time I reached the front of the queue, but I ended up in one of the most fascinating cars at the event.
The cigar-shaped aluminium body of the one-off Lister Monzanapolis looks like a single seater, but in fact there’s a reasonably habitable passenger seat squeezed to the left hand side of the transmission tunnel. It was this that I into which I climbed – stepping over the driver’s side to avoid the exhaust pipe running down the left hand side of the car.
If I’m honest, I didn’t know a great deal about the car as clambered in. In front of me, the tachometer red-lined at 7,500 rpm suggesting this was no homebuilt special. In fact, it was built by Lister Cars in 1958 for Ecurie Ecosse to enter into the Race of Two Worlds on the old banked oval at Monza. Running a full works-spec Jaguar D-Type engine in a Lister chassis with a streamlined body, it was effectively Cambridgeshire’s first – although by no means last – IndyCar.
The Lister was something of a flop in the 1958 race for which it was conceived, comprehensively outgunned by the Indy roadsters of the USAC. These days, however, it competes in the HGPCA trophy for pre-’61 grand prix cars with some success – and that gives you an idea of the performance on tap.
“Let’s see how slippery it is out there,” commented current owner (and coachbuilder extraordinaire) Rod Jolley as we headed onto the track. The answer it turned out was ‘very’. Exiting the first proper corner – the tight right hander going into the new complex at Village – the back end wriggled immediately. After a few more corners it became clear that Rod was doing this very much deliberately, riding out each bend with an indulgent tweak of opposite lock.
Sitting on its tall crossply tyres, the Lister seemed to be a huge amount of fun.
You could feel it responding accurately and obediently to inputs, but without the slightest hint of nervousness. Having an accomplished historic racer behind the wheel clearly helps, but it seemed incredibly docile for a machine that now routinely out-qualifies Formula 1 cars of the same era.
The straight line speed was predictably impressive and the noise from the 3.8-litre straight six remains indelibly stamped in my memory. The term ‘snarl’ is a somewhat overused adjective when it comes to car sounds, but in the case of the Lister it seems entirely apt. I swear if you looked close enough you would have seen it bearing its teeth.
Going down the old pit straight Rod gave me an inquiring thumbs up. I returned the gesture to confirm that I was indeed enjoying the ride – rather than simply hanging on for dear life – and we attacked the final lap with renewed vigour. The Maggots/Becketts complex flew by at impressive speed as I attempted to wedge myself deeper into the Lister’s bucket seat. There’s no safety harness on the passenger side, but mercifully the seat provides plenty of support and you sit very much in the Monzanapolis rather than on it.
Exiting Chapel, Rod demonstrated what the car can really do, finding impressive traction despite the slippery conditions and making a clean getaway onto the straight. Normal service was resumed as we swept round Stowe, with a slide so exuberant that I almost wondered if we’d straighten up in time for the pit lane. My hopes of an extra lap were dashed as the car settled back down and we cruised back to the pits. It was an incredible experience and almost certainly the closest I’ll ever get to a 1950s grand prix car.
The real action, though, will be the racing. Later this summer the Monzanapolis will take to the track in anger, as will some 1,100 other cars over the course of the weekend (and no, that’s not a typo). No wonder the Silverstone Classic claims to be the world’s biggest historic motor racing festival.