Friday dawns clear once more and we’re back on the road. We have a leisurely four-hour drive south to Florence and we’ve planned a number of diversions to add some spice to an otherwise fairly uninspiring journey. It’s somewhat troubling to leave Lake Como behind; not due to its otherworldly beauty – though that is undeniable – but because the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este is taking place mere kilometres from our base. Mercifully, scruffs like us are not permitted entry until Saturday but the presence of special cars in the vicinity, yet just out of reach, is traumatic.
Given the mania around the MotoGP at Mugello, we elect to avoid the legendary Futa and Raticosa passes this time and instead head to the epicentre of the Italian supercar industry: Modena. Those legendary roads can wait until next time.
Our first stop is Sant Agata and the Lamborghini museum. The local roads offer their fair share of interesting machinery and we spot an undisguised Maserati Levante out testing. We never seem to be far from an old Porsche or a 90s Ferrari. The countryside is agricultural and lacking much character or visual stimulation: it’s not unpleasant but it’s slightly barren and rather flat.
Nestling on the Mount Panorama outfield just before Murray’s Corner sits the National Motor Racing Museum. For a country steeped in proud racing tradition, this is a significant building housing a fine collection of cars, motorcycles and associated automobilia.
The museum’s location is a crucial aspect of its status and it was originally founded in 1988 by the Bathurst Light Car Club before being subsumed by the Bathurst Regional Council. The museum’s mission statement is simple: “The…conservation and preservation of material relevant to Australian motor racing history, and to enhance the understanding and significance of motorsport within Australia.”
While strolling the paddocks of the 2012 Goodwood Revival, I was struck by the enormous presence of the famous Bluebird K3 record breaking speedboat. As something of an enthusiast for record breaking, and the Campbell family in particular, I was delighted to learn this was not a freshly created replica, but instead the actual boat Sir Malcolm had used to set three World Water Speed Records during the 1930s. I had no idea this special craft even existed still.
Fast forward a few months and I once again found myself staring in wonderment at K3’s patinated hull; this time back at its home in East Sussex. K3 is the major centrepoint of an intriguing collection of cars, boats, motorcycles and assorted motor racing ephemera which forms the Filching Manor Motor Museum. It was a privilege to enjoy a rare peek inside this personal treasure trove.
While notionally a museum, the collection is informal and very personal – proprietor Karl Foulkes Halbard opens the lid of his toy chest to the public as scheduling allows, and when there is sufficient interest. The collection was started by his late father and enthusiastically carried on by Karl today. The site comprises the historic Filching Manor itself, as well as several sheds containing the museum pieces and a challenging karting circuit for the adrenalin-seeking visitor.
Our morning tour starts in the Manor itself. A dwelling has existed on the same site for a thousand years, with the current house dating back to the 15th Century. A fascinating medieval building, it has been variously extended over the years but remains a family abode, and retains a homely informality. A brief tour of the oldest section of the house serves as an introduction to the site before proceeding to the first shed to meet the remarkable automotive collection.
The shed is a dense Aladdin’s Cave of automobilia from a lifetime dedicated to collecting the unusual and the special. The Campbell family features strongly, with many of the objects carrying a link to the family and their many record breaking boats and cars. The items are far too numerous to attempt to list but the many personal effects include the steering wheels which Donald clutched as he sped to records on both land and water. Models, posters, signs and pedal cars abound. There are even a couple of engineer’s vices cast with the Bugatti logo emblazoned on the front. Despite the obvious Campbell theme, the collection is hugely varied. When did you last see a Beryl jet next to an Austin J40 pedal car?
The Campbell family connection – and the source of much of the memorabilia – was Paul Foulkes Halbard’s close friendship with legendary Bluebird mechanic Leo Villa. Even a pair of Villa’s spectacles resides in a cabinet in the shed. It is so fortunate that the items from Villa remain open for the public to enjoy.
The most significant Bluebird items are the wonderful K3 boat, its original Rolls Royce R engine and the Beryl jet which powered the K7 jet-powered boats to multiple water speed records, before Donald shifted to Orpheus power. These three were purchased as a set from – and you couldn’t make this up – Thorpe Park, the amusements park, where K3 had been exhibited outdoors for many years. Following the path up to the next shed and I was able to probe Karl to learn a little more about the remarkable items in his possession.
K3 was sold when it was superseded by K4 – a bigger, faster boat with a far more advanced hull. As an out-of-date model K3 was sold to a used car salesman who used her as a gate guardian outside his forecourt on the North Circular. There she remained for the entire Second World War, remarkably. Having been saved from scrap, she later ended up at Thorpe Park where she was simply a display item in the park. She was purchased by Paul Foulkes Halbard in the 1980s, with restoration always in mind.
Today this important boat exists in dry dock in her own workshop on the estate. The restoration has been a long and painful one, but K3 lives and she took to the water last year for her first runs in 50 years. Today, the all-conquering R37 has been replaced by a much less powerful Meteor engine – though this is still fearsomely powerful by any usual measure. The restoration employed the use of what Karl estimates is 70% of the boat’s original parts – quite amazing when one considers the life it had lead.
Equally satisfying is the sight of its monstrous original R engine adjacent. I confess to a certain fascination for this awesome powerplant. The R was devised in the 1930s as a pure racing engine to power Schneider Trophy seaplanes. In its most powerful form it was kicking out well in excess of 2,500bhp; awesome for the time. That it ended up in record breaking machinery is hardly a surprise.
Karl owns R37 – one of 19 built and of only three known to exist today. Of those, one sits without celebration in London’s Science Museum – it having been half of the extravagant powertrain which hurled George Eyston’s Thunderbolt to the Land Speed Record in 1937. The other is in the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon. Karl’s engine has a very significant history, however, having set Land Speed Records and Water Speed Records in Sir Malcolm’s hands. In Bluebird it became the first engine to power a car past 300mph. At the risk of resorting to hyperbole, it must be one of the most important engines in the world.
Karl retains a twinkle in his eye whenever the R is discussed and it’s evident he one day intends to see R37 run again – and maybe even in K3. It would no doubt be the only time an R would run again and with six hours between rebuilds, it’s hardly surprising that he isn’t rushing to get that particular project off the ground. It’s an honour to be in the company of these special items and it’s so comforting to know they are in the hands of a genuine enthusiast who treasures them and is committed to their enduring legacy.
Further fascination awaits us in the next shed. These old chicken sheds lined with asbestos sheeting are an earthy and incongruous home for such an important collection – and all the better for it. The collection comprises mainly pre-war motors and includes racers and sporting road cars. A giant chain-driven Mercedes Benz sits adjacent to stately Alvis and impossibly low-slung Cooper-Jap 500. It’s a heady and eclectic mix. Fans of motor racing couldn’t fail to be moved by Bugatti Type 35 – very much an original and still campaigned in sprints and VSCC events, as it should be. It sits next to a Brescia Bugatti which appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2009.
Perhaps the most intriguing car in the shed – and apparently the one Karl is most keen to discuss is the Alesso. This is Juan-Manuel Fangio’s own racing car, designed and built wholly in Argentina. Looking something akin to Frankenstein’s vision of a Mercedes Benz W125, it is a big single seater racer powered by an enormous 7 litre flat-12 engine. That big engine is a huge lump, reminiscent of the flat-12 Tecno F1 units of the 1970s – but significantly larger. The car was intended for Argentinian unlimited racing of the period, hence the sizeable displacement. It apparently only competed three times, with limited success, but remains a fascinating tale of ‘what if…’ Karl is keen to see the Alesso run once again and moots that once the K3 project is complete he may turn his attentions back to Fangio’s racer. It’s possible we may yet see the Alesso out at Goodwood and other events. One can only speculate on what its vast engine might sound like at speed.
I won’t share every exhibit at Filching Manor – readers will be well served exploring the place themselves. It’s a wonderful collection and a great morning out. Walking back down from the sheds back to the car, one passes a gallows inscribed from 1640, a ground to air cannon and the undulating kart track. It’s an eclectic, eccentric museum and one to be savoured.
For information, head to: www.campbellcircuit.co.uk
The British winter can be an unsettling time for the motor racing enthusiast. As the circuit racing season comes to an end and only the bobble-hatted rally fans dare venture out. The 2010/2011 winter seemed only to further discredit itself with virtually unprecedented levels of snowfall drowning the country and leaving sportscars safely garaged but under-used. When early January presented a break in the weather, it was time to re-enthuse oneself with all matters automotive – a boys’ trip out in a proper sporting motorcar.
A 6.00AM alarm call is never really welcome, especially when the January dawn is still some hours away. But slumber was soon rejected in favour of excitement, for today we were heading first to Prodrive in Banbury and then later to the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, and doing it in dad’s rather special new car; itself dormant for several weeks.
A little about our conveyance: Despite Ford’s claims during the last Century about the Capri, I suspect for most men, an Aston Martin is “The car you always promised yourself”. Collected in October, but sadly little used since then, the V8 Vantage is as beguiling a motorcar as I have yet experienced. Blessed with a remarkable extruded and bonded aluminium chassis and motivated by a magical 4.7L V8 engine, there was never a moment on our south-bound journey when one might have wished to be sat in any other machine. The coarse yet crisp timbre as the revs rose through the gears leaving the toll booth on the M6 seemed worth the financial sacrifices in itself.
The decision to take the Aston on this particular trip carries a little more depth than simply the pleasure derived from the car itself. Prodrive is owned by David Richards, who himself heads the consortium which owns Aston Martin Lagonda, sited at Gaydon. There exists a delightfully symbiotic relationship between the two companies, with Aston Martin Racing working out of the Prodrive workshops, which prepare its many race cars.
Prodrive takes the business of its fine racing history very seriously and has recently taken the step to open up its own Heritage Centre to the public. This is a remarkable series of cars, which offers a glimpse of what this company has achieved in its 27 year history, on road and in the various disciplines in competition – GT, rally, Formula 1 and touring cars. It is here where we start our tour of the premises, led by Jackie, a lady who bubbles with an enthusiasm for her employer which verges on the obsessive. She clearly adores working there and her knowledge for her subject is remarkable. The collection changes depending on the cars which are available, but for our visit we were treated to Subaru World Rally Cars from McRae and Burns, Le Mans winning Aston Martin and Ferrari GT1 cars, the revolutionary P2 prototype road car, one of Jenson Button’s BAR F1 weapons and the 2000 British Touring Car Ford Mondeo, of the kind which took Alain Menu to championship glory, as well as iconic Rothmans sponsored Porsche 911 and Metro 6R4 and Bastros BMW E30 M3 rally contenders – a diverse group which serves only to scratch the surface of the group’s proud heritage.
What is remarkable about this start to the tour was that we were left entirely to our own devices in the Centre and told to properly explore the cars, take photos and even sit in them if we wanted. The conceit of the Lotus owner has never bitten so hard. Figuring that the contortianism required to access and egress an Elise would be sufficient to allow graceful progress into and out of the glorious GT1 Ferrari 550 was a significant mis-judgement. While I savoured the experience of sitting in a car I had seen pounding the race tracks in the FIA GT Championship for many years, there came a kind of rising panic that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to emerge from my temporary carbon fibre haven. With dignity thrown out of the window, and muscles used which I never realised I had, I was deposited on the ground unceremoniously, but with no little sense of triumph. What a machine though – unutterably beautiful and powered by a mid-front mounted V12, this car still displays its ALMS scrutineering stickers from a works campaign in the States. The very chassis on display took GTS class victory in the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hour race.
A break for coffee and biscuits was welcome after unexpected exertions before we accompanied Jackie into Prodrive’s engineering heart. First to the development area where gearbox, engine and damper assembly and testing takes place. A privileged opportunity to explore Subaru WRC boxer engines and gearboxes and a chance to chat to the technicians and engineers who make it all possible. Housed in the same area are the engine test bays and we were taken into the control booth where computers monitor and govern racing engines. Here they are able to program entire races into the computers and test the motors over the full range of stresses they will experience over a race. The engines are started with a mouse click, before the throttle openings for the race track are perfectly rendered and repeated for a race distance. There are two test cells, with one control booth, and we were able to see the very readings and parameters the engineers themselves use to observe behaviour. Before we entered, the blinds came down on the viewing panel into bay number 1. This, apparently, is housing the engine for the brand new Aston Martin LMP1 car, which Prodrive hopes will take the fight to the might Peugeot and Audi diesel prototypes next year. Its configuration has yet to be announced and despite some light-hearted probing, there was no way we were going to be allowed to find out. Despite the remarkable open access on our tour, there were to be no secrets shared, sadly.
Next stop was Aston Martin assembly. A small workshop housed V8 Vantage racers in GT4 and GT2 specification – all painted white. The GT2 machine has progressed well enough to take class victory in last year’s Silverstone 1000kms and it was fascinating to explore the car and chat to the guys who make them. With oil tank over the rear axle, huge cooling for the transaxle and an impossibly low engine mounting, this is a very serious car, and so it must be to take the battle for class wins to the likes of Chevrolet – with its mighty Corvettes – BMW’s M3, the evergreen Porsche 911 and Ferrari’s new 458. Of particular interest was the final checking and assembly of a GT4 Vantage race car for a customer. The hand-over ceremony was due the following day in the Heritage Collection and technicians were working through an exhaustive list to ensure the car was perfect. It certainly looked the part, though much work remained for the busy team.
Into the adjacent workshop and it is a feast for Subaru enthusiasts. Prodrive (with a little help from McRae, Burns, Sainz and Makinnen) created the cult of Subaru in the UK and a variety of WRC and Group N Imprezas were available for us to explore – from a bare shell ready for transformation to a remarkable early WRC car which was recently shipped over from Uganda. This grubby and tatty machine had lain dormant for 10 years, only the warm, dry climate keeping it from rotting to dust. It had come back home for a total rebuild – and it needed it. There was some banter about emerging spiders and scorpions, though one suspects this might become rather real when the technicians commence work.
And so the tour continued, allowing us remarkable access to the facility. We inspected the new LMP1 wiring harness, welding on the new Mini Countryman shells, a bare V8 Vantage chassis – a chance to savour that same aluminium network of extrusions which makes the road car such a delightful companion – the fabrication workshops, suspension turrets formed from single billets of magnesium in enormous computer-controlled lathes and even David Richards’ own Morris 1000 nestling in a corner. Apparently his AM Rapide (which was visible, and utterly filthy elsewhere on the site) doesn’t suit Cornwall so he purchased the Moggy and allowed a group of apprentices to refurbish it to his exacting standards for use around the lanes of the South West. All the while, we were fed information and allowed very privileged access to one of the UK’s great enginering success stories. In fact, motor racing doesn’t even tell the full story – you’ll have to attend yourself to learn it all!
And so we were back to the Heritage Centre for a few final photos and a nose around the small shop. In total, we were on site for three and a half hours and enjoyed Jackie’s undivided attention for that time. It really was a wonderful way to enjoy a peak into what makes one of the world’s great engineering concerns tick. We’ll be keeping all digits crossed in the hope that the Mini and the new LMP1 cars enjoy success next year.
By now it was lunchtime and we were ready to press on to our next destination. Only a junction up the M40 from Banbury is the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. During the Second World War, Gaydon was a bomber base, and continued to be so after the end of hostilities, housing the V-bombers. Following decommissioning, it was purchased by British Leyland, who formed a test facility to match that of General Motors at Millbrook. The site now houses Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, as well as the old BL collection of cars – now the Heritage Motor Centre. Unfortunately dad’s own car wasn’t able to visit the Aston premises itself, but it felt right that the car was back where it was first created, and perhaps the opportunity to visit the AML factory will prevail in the future.
The HMC is an enormous, circular, mock-Art Deco building which houses not only a remarkable collection of static exhibits, but also workshops and significant conference facilities for lucky delegates. Following much-needed refreshments, we explored the sizeable collection of cars. Being born in the 1980s, the history of British Leyland is a virtually impenetrable maze of take-overs, mergers, acquisitions and industrial action – with some car production thrown in along the way. So much potential and yet for someone of my age, it sometimes feels like there is little to get excited over in terms of actual output. It wouldn’t be over-stating things to say, however, that we are enjoying something of a purple patch in British car production at the moment. This country can claim world-beating products from Jaguar, Morgan, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, Lotus and Aston Martin.
The HMC celebrates these current success stories, as well as innumerable previous triumphs and flops from history – from the mundane to the remarkable. There is a tremendous selection of relatively ordinary family cars which illustrates a timeline of British car production, which even allows the inclusion of a Toyota Carina, due to their production facilities in the UK. Photos of the enormous Longbridge plant seem almost spooky, but clearly there is also much to celebrate today – with the monumental Rolls Royce Phantom produced at Goodwood in Sussex and a fascinating selection of modern Aston Martins, including the V12 Vantage RS prototype which shoe-horned the DBRS9’s 600bhp racing engine into the svelte Vantage bodyshell as a prelude to the road version on sale today.
Of most interest to an enthusiast for racing history is the competitions area. This is a disparate selection of racers from the UK. From that great flop of the last decade – a Jaguar R4 F1 car – to a TVR T440 GT2 racer, this isn’t exhaustive, but highlights some fascinating vehicles. The two most significant displays of BL competition history are the MG record cars and the Monte Minis. The MG record cars driven by Capt. George Eyston, Sir Stirling Moss and Phil Hill are akin (as one might expect) to scaled-down LSR cars – junior Railton Mobil Specials, if you will. They set records which still raise eyebrows today: 250mph in the 1950s with just 1500cc. All three of the Monte Carlo winning Mini Coppers line up as well. These tremendous little cars too victory in the arduous, snowy rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 in the hands of luminaries Hopkirk, Makkinen and Aaltonen. The 1966 Monte was won on the road by another Mini, before the entire podium, and the fourth placed Lotus Cortina was disqualified on a lighting technicality, allowing Citroen to win. You couldn’t write the script…And so it will be fun to see how the new BMW Mini we saw down the road at Prodrive is able to compare to the illustrious record of Issigonis’ iconic BMC original.
In an adjacent area sat some of the great prototypes and show cars, from the BL era, as well as more recent efforts. From the Triumph Lynx to the strangely alluring Rover SD1 estate – so many oddities history has almost forgotten. A brace of gas turbine powered Rover prototypes caught the eye. Having recently inspected the famous JET 1 in London’s Science Museum, this pair offered Whittle’s jet engine a more practical home. These were numbers three and four, including a vaguely rakish coupe profile. A snapshot of a time when jet travel looked to be the future of personal mobility on the roads, as well as in the sky.
By late afternoon, we were sated; bristling with automotive fact but also aware that slowly the museum lights were dimming and the staff there were ready to shut up shop. The prospect of hitting the mad Midlands’ motorway network at rush hour didn’t seem quite so arduous knowing we were to be doing it in the glorious Vantage. A day to take stock of the UK’s place in automotive history and consider the future – it looked pretty good from where we were sitting.
While visiting the much-vaunted Le Mans Classic event, we found themselves with a couple of hours to kill before the commencement of racing action so decided to take the opportunity to visit the circuit’s museum. It transpired to be an inspired decision – a rarity in itself. The museum was air conditioned, virtually deserted and had a decent dining area with all wares half the price of the stalls outside. What a chance to further immerse one’s self in the circuit’s rich history, while avoiding the rigeurs of the midday sun.
The museum, for those who have not already been, is predominantly focused on the history of racing at the famous Circuit de la Sarthe, but it also features exhibits illustrating a little general automotive history as well. There are some wonderful displays, particularly those featuring scale models. The cars inside vary from pre-war road-going commercial vehicles to a recent Pescarolo LMP1 weapon. All fascinating stuff and a very pleasing way to pass a couple of hours away from the heat of the midday sun. Perhaps the highlight for me was the Peugeot 905 Evolution 2.2 – now known as the Supercopter due to its wild (for the time) aerodynamics. This car and the awesome Allard J2X would look to have set the template for sports prototype aerodynamics moving forwards. Hard to believe it is over 15 years old now. A real privilege to finally see in the flesh.