Mini, McLaren, Jaguar and Range Rover are easy leaders in Autocar’s list of Britain’s best-ever 100 cars. I’ve no problem endorsing the first couple of dozen but, notwithstanding Gordon Murray’s ingenious contribution, the Yamaha Motiv.e at 5 looks like lip-service to greenery-yallery. The Jaguar XJ220 also poses a question. It was neither a commercial nor technical success and needed a lot of fettling before it reached reality. Driving it was like looking at the world through a letterbox. The Aston Martins in the list are an odd bunch with no ground-breaking DB2, elegant DBS or Ian Callum DB7. Similarly it’s difficult to include a D-type Jaguar – OK on the Mulsanne straight but a bit of a handful on corners – and leave out the C-type which was more precise and exciting.
McLaren F1 (above): Collected daughter Joanna from school during my road test. She’s older now, still beautiful.
Austin-Healey Sprite. 71st. This was my second one at Turnberry. Wonderfully crisp, precise car.
Lotuses are questionable on grounds of quality and reliability but I’m surprised there is no Elan Plus2S. It was beautifully proportioned. I once did 300 miles in three hours with one. There you are the older I get the faster I was. I would not include any TVR; all I drove were just brute force and ignorance. Blower Bentleys were something of an aberration. I suppose they were glamorous but never won anything like the unsupercharged cars. Derby Bentleys are missing from the list. Surely the Silent Sports Car deserves better. Jensen-Healey – delete. Not well made, hastily modified and really quite dull. Same goes for the Daimler Dart SP250. The Edward Turner engine was ok but Daimler was so strapped for cash it had to cobble up a horrid plastic body that creaked and cracked.
One of my first drives in an E-type; Scottish Motor Show after introduction at Geneva in 1961 (below), with Jaguar apprentice Clive Martin.
No Bristols please. Except for the BMW-based 400 and the beautiful 404 they were heavy and lugubrious. I never went for the mystique so assiduously promoted by writers like the matchless Leonard Setright. Triumph Stag? I thought it was rubbish when I went on the press launch. Hillman Imp? I owned one and when it went it was OK; I drove it to Maranello where I had lunch with Enzo Ferrari, but it was not made very well. Same goes for any Avenger, even the Avenger Tiger. The press launch was on Malta where we couldn’t drive them far enough to grow suspicious of unreliability. The Morgan 3 wheeler or Plus 4 were fine, but the Plus 8 was where Morgan began to lose its way and power outstripped handling. I wouldn’t include a Delorean in any list except perhaps one on how not to develop a sports car. It was terrible. Reliant Scimitar? A definite maybe. Triumph TR5 - not bad until they put a wiggly independent back-end on making it pitch and curtsy. Triumph 1300 absolutely not. And why relegate the MGA to 95th? Shame
Range Rover. Deserves its place. Took this on the press launch by Goonhilly Down, 1970.

Love lists
Hillman Imp. On road test for The Motor with Penny Duckworth by door. Pre-launch picture so badges taped over.

100.Range Rover Evoque 99. Ginetta G40R 98. Vauxhall Astra 97. Marcos TSO 96. Honda Civic 95. MGA 94. Vauxhall Chevette HSR 93. Triumph Dolomite Sprint 92. Allard J2 91. Honda Jazz 90. Sunbeam Tiger 89. Nissan Juke 88. Invicta Black Prince 87. Noble M12 86. Lotus Carlton 85. Caterham Seven 160 84. Caparo T1 83. Rolls-Royce 10 HP 82. Triumph TR5 PI 81. Radical RXC 80. Triumph 1300 79. Daimler SP250 Dart 78. Morgan 4/4 77. Renault Megane RS 225 76. Noble M600 75. Lotus Sunbeam 74. Morgan Plus 8 73. BAC Mono 72. Gordon-Keeble 71. Austin-Healey Sprite 70. MGB GT 69. Bristol Fighter 68. Ford Cortina 1600E 67. Bowler EXR 66. AC Ace 65. Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 64. Austin FX4 63. Napier-Railton 62. Caterham Supersport 61. Triumph 2000 60. Jaguar F-type 59. Morgan 3-wheeler 58. Reliant Scimitar 57. TVR Sagaris 56. Ford Escort RS2000 55. Bentley Continental GT 54. Ford Capri RS3100 53. Delorean DMC-12 52. Aston Martin V8 51. Ascari KZ1 50. Aston Martin V12 Vantage S 49. Subaru Impreza WRC 48. Hillman Avenger Tiger 47. Triumph Stag 46. Hillman Imp 45. Lister Storm 44. Rover P5B 43. Lotus Evora 42. Rover P6 3500S 41. Nissan Qashqai 40. Ariel Atom 39. Vauxhall Prince Henry 38. Aston Martin One-77 37. Rover 75 36. Jaguar XJ 35. Austin Seven 34. Bristol Blenheim 33. Lotus Cortina 32. Austin-Healey 3000 31. Aston Martin Vanquish 30. Lotus Seven 29. Land Rover 28. Jensen-Healey 27. Lotus Esprit 26. MG Midget 25. McLaren 12C 24. Morris Minor 23. Lotus Elan 22. TVR Speed 12 21. Rover SD1 20. TVR Chimaera 19. BMW Mini 18. Bentley Blower 17. Jaguar XF 16. Ford GT40 15. Rolls-Royce Phantom 14. Lotus Elise 13. Jaguar D-type 12. Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 11. Jensen FF 10. Ford Escort Mexico 9. TVR Griffith 8. Aston Martin DB5 7. Jaguar XJ220 6. McLaren P1 5. Yamaha MOTIV.e 4. Range Rover 3. Jaguar E-type 2. McLaren F1 1. original Mini

Works Austin-Healey 3000 rally car test. I am the fresh-faced youth.

Gordon Wilkins Alan Brinton

Did Gordon Wilkins and Alan Brinton watch Fangio win the 1954 German Grand Prix? Bonhams’ picture advertising the sale of the Mercedes-Benz W196 Fangio drove shows them, I think, on the infield by the South Curve at the Nürburgring on 1 August 1954.
Brinton was motoring correspondent of the News Chronicle and chairman of the Guild of Motoring Writers in 1967. He wrote a few books, one ostensibly in collaboration with Jim Clark for a sponsor, but as he got older and commissions dwindled he grew embittered and standoffish. Gordon Wilkins (1912-2007) had a distinguished career of more than 70 years. On the way back from the 1939 Berlin motor show, he and a colleague attempted to achieve 100 miles in the hour in a Lagonda V12. “Sadly we couldn't quite make it, because Hitler hadn't made enough road. It was almost in the bag until right at the end we ran out of autobahn.” They achieved something over 98 miles in the hour.
Gordon went to the opening of the Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg in 1938 and remained active as a motoring writer well into his 90s. During the war he joined the research department of the Bristol Aeroplane Company and in 1944 worked with Sir Roy Fedden on an ill-starred and difficult car with a rear-mounted sleeve-valve radial engine. The Fedden project foundered in 1947 and Gordon joined The Autocar, where he became technical editor. In 1949 he drove a Jowett Javelin in the Monte Carlo Rally, and in 1951 driving a works Jowett Jupiter (as below) finished tenth overall and second in its class. At Le Mans in 1952 Wilkins won his class in a lightweight Jupiter. Fluent in French and German Gordon left The Autocar in 1953 for a prolific career in Europe, notably as English editor of the authoritative Automobile Year.
His career as a racing driver included driving at Le Mans in 1953 a Special Test Car Austin-Healey NOJ 391 – chassis No SPL 224/B with Belgian Marcel Becquart. Just after scrutineering it was rammed by a truck, suffering damage impossible to repair in time, so its engine, brakes and all scrutineer-stamped components were transferred to spare Special Test Car, NOJ 393 - chassis SPL 226/B, which the Healeys brought to Le Mans “as insurance”. They finished 14th. Bonhams is selling its twin NOJ 392 in the same sale as the Mercedes-Benz.
Between 1964 and 1973 Gordon was a presenter on BBC2TV Wheelbase. I count writing voice-overs for him and colleagues Maxwell Boyd and Michael Frostick as a career highlight.
From 1980 to 1992 Wilkins and his wife, the formidable Joyce his professional partner, moved to rural France. Afterwards they lived in a palazzo in northern Italy, thanks to their friendship with an Italian count. The Guild of Motoring Writers honoured Gordon on his 90th birthday and was treated to a somewhat rambling speech, which is remembered with affection. Affable, urbane and with an engaging modesty Wilkins was a doyen of the profession.

Bonhams puts it right

Following up to my recent post on the topic.

Bonhams was not concealing the history of the Macklin Austin-Healey. It just didn’t draw attention to its role in the Le Mans disaster straight off. Managing director James Knight points out its press release describing, “An extraordinary ‘barn find’ sports car with works racing pedigree, which survives today as an immensely significant reminder of an event that changed the entire course of international motor racing.”

It is more interesting than that. It illustrates how old racing cars, like a Tower axe (three new heads and five new handles but still the Anne Boleyn axe) have been taken apart and put together many times. A lot of this car competed at Le Mans not once but twice. Bonhams has gone to the trouble of engaging authority on Austin-Healey Special Test Car and 100S models, Joe Jarick to research its catalogue.

Donald Healey’s deal with BMC for the Austin-Healey 100 included producing Special Test Cars for racing and record breaking. They had to look exactly like production and while there was little time to modify the Austin A90 4-cylinder engine there were radical differences underneath.

For Le Mans 1953 journalist Gordon Wilkins co-drove Special Test Car NOJ 391 – chassis No SPL 224/B with Belgian Marcel Becquart. However, just after scrutineering it was rammed by a truck, suffering damage impossible to repair in time, so its engine, brakes and all scrutineer-stamped components were transferred to spare Special Test Car, NOJ 393 - chassis SPL 226/B - brought to Le Mans “as insurance”.

Registration and race numbers were repainted, so running as NOJ 391, in effect masquerading as the car that had just cleared scrutineering, Wilkins and Becquart finished 14th and third in the class. It says a lot for the solidarity of the British motoring press that none reported the subterfuge.

In 1955 entries by owner/drivers the factory regarded as mediocre made Donald Healey uneasy. He felt they could discredit his brand so the factory’s best driver, Lance Macklin and French Austin importer AFIVA persuaded the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) to accept a private entry. It was really a quasi-works entry, and the car selected was NOJ 393/SPL 226/B for its second 24 Hours at Le Mans.

BMC specialist Eddie Maher tuned 393’s engine, achieving 140bhp with high-lift, long-period camshaft and two SU HD8 carburettors. Formula 3 star Les Leston was taken on as co-driver. Geoffrey Healey explained: “We had no hope of winning with a basic production car, but had a good chance of a high placing with the train-like reliability of the big Austin four-cylinder engine…” Marcus Chambers of BMC/MG ran the pit, accompanied by Le Mans veteran and former Bentley winner, SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis.

The Austin-Healey was struck by Levegh’s 300SLR on the left rear, spun to the right, and bounced off the pit-counter before slewing to a halt. Macklin escaped but NOJ 393 was impounded by the Le Mans police. It was not until September 1956 that the Donald Healey Motor Company was able to negotiate its release. The worst damage was to the left rear and left-hand side, the impact against the pit wall having affected the same bodywork area struck by the Mercedes.

By 1957 Healey was busy with the 100-Six (this is a later 3000), so wanted rid of NOJ 393. It had been as advanced and fully-developed as any 100S but it was repaired in haste, so the left front wing, door and rear wing are steel, whereas the rest of the body is aluminium. It looks as though by 1957 Healey had exhausted its stock of alloy 100S panels and replaced the damaged wings and door with steel ones prior to selling.

Bonhams believes NOJ 393 retained the original engine SPL 261-BN as it has a rare works angled cylinder head along with evidence of scrutineering security measures to prohibit tampering. The original buff logbook records the Austin Motor Company, Longbridge, Birmingham as original owner, the first change date-stamped 28 February 1957 alongside Donald Healey Motor Co Ltd, The Cape, Warwick, made on completion of the repair following its return.

Big Healeys could be cads' cars. This 3000MkII belonged to Train Robber Bruce Reynolds

Bonhams' dilemma: Austin-Healey

Bonhams is curiously coy about an Austin-Healey it is selling. Presumably the boot lid of NOJ 393 has been fixed after hurtling Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz into the Le Mans spectators in 1955. Bonhams merely describes it as “The ex-works Le Mans Lance Macklin 1953-55 Austin-Healey Special Test Car 100S Sports-Racing Two-Seater,” without mentioning that over 80 died in motor racing’s worst disaster. In its booklet of forthcoming sales highlights it has a picture of No 26 at Le Mans, in the early stages of the race. Editor Richard Hudson-Evans concedes the car is “infamous” without really explaining why.
Understandable really. Describing it as 1953-55 is a bit of cop-out. All other sale cars are described by the year they were made; a 1937 Bentley, a 1965 Rolls-Royce, a 1912 Lanchester. Bonhams seems sensitive about 1955, which everybody in the business associates with tragedy. True the Austin-Healey 100S model was made between 1953 and 1955, but chassis number SPL226B is a described by Geoffrey Healey as a 1955 100S; “… specially prepared … NOJ 393 with the high-lift, long-period camshaft and two 2in SU HD8 carburettors.”

Yet there is no denying its role in the accident. Paul Frère, a Le Mans winning driver, contributed a detailed analysis of what happened in Andrew Whyte’s book on works racing Jaguars. It seems almost beyond doubt that the sequence was set off by two of the drivers looking in their rear-view mirrors instead of what was happening in front of them. Macklin was behind Mike Hawthorn pulling his D-type into the pits, but he was looking over his shoulder as it were, for Levegh’s Mercedes bearing down on him at maybe 150mph. Hawthorn quite properly braked with 600yards to go, surprising Macklin who pulled out to avoid colliding.

Levegh too was looking behind him. A French guest-driver in the Mercedes team he knew that Fangio, in the leading 300SLR, who had spent most of the first two hours of the race duelling with Hawthorn was close behind. Fangio had caught up an entire lap on the Frenchman (real name Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin and in his fiftieth year) who was anxious not to impede the team leader and established world champion driver.

Levegh seems not to have spotted the slower Austin-Healey. The silver Mercedes drove up its sloping tail and over the low fencing, breaking up as it flew.

Sensibly the race was not stopped. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest knew that the roads around would be choked, hampering the emergency services. Fangio was sharing the Mercedes with Stirling Moss and by midnight it was leading the Jaguar by two laps. In view of the accident however, Stuttgart withdrew the cars at 2am and Hawthorn and Bueb won a cheerless and melancholy victory.

The Austin-Healey was impounded for a year and a half while investigations into the accident went on. The track was completely rebuilt to prevent anything like it every happening again.

Wisely Bonhams will not be drawn on what the car is expected to make; it is billed “estimate upon request”. The sale takes place at Brooklands. At Mercedes-Benz World.

James Bond's Bentley

Ian Fleming, Studebaker Avanti, supercharged Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes, and Donald Healey feature in the latest Dove Digital anthology, The Complete Bentley. Fleming appears in connection with Healey, once owned a Studebaker Avanti I road tested for The Motor, and he memorably covered the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours race. The great duel between Bentley and Mercedes-Benz was so seared into Fleming's memory that he re-created it for James Bond.

Individuals who gave their names to cars, Rolls and Royce, Ferrari, McLaren and Healey tended to be clever publicists. Competition driver and Technical Director of Triumph well before Austin-Healey days, Healey gained outright victory in the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally as well as winnning six Alpine Cups, for outstanding performances in the International Alpine Rally.

Healey drove an Invicta in the 1932 Alpine, taking as co-driver a young news agency reporter. My World of Cars (Haynes Publishing, 1994) was a biography Healey wrote with Peter Garnier: “On one of the Alpine Trials I did with Invicta, I had Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, with me as navigator. At the time, he was with Associated Press, and had been sent with me to report the event. On many subsequent occasions, when I used to cross the Atlantic three or four times a year on the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, we would meet and recall our rally together. We started from Friedrichshaven, where the Graf Zeppelin was based, and one of the awards for a Glacier Cup was a free flight. We returned to Friedrichshaven for a 4am start, when there was no wind. It took 250 men to launch and land it, the only way to bring it down to earth being to fly it to within 50 feet or so of the ground and then release 250 ropes, which were grabbed by the landing party, who pulled the whole thing down on to a big, flat railway truck and made it fast. While in flight, we were able to buy postcards illustrating the Zeppelin, already stamped and franked with its own special postmark. I bought several of these to send home to the family and, when we were flying low over the post office square in Breganz, in Austria, a bag containing our mail was jettisoned, the cards being sent on to their various destinations. Ian, as a very young man on his first foreign assignment, obtained some valuable copy and it started in him an interest in cars that lasted right through his life, prompting him to buy the most exotic he could find. For me the flight was not without a few misgivings, for it was the year following the tragic loss of Britain’s R101 in northern France, on her flight from Cardington to India, with the loss of all but six of the 54 people on board.”

Fleming may have been with AP then, although he was certainly with Reuters on June 21-22 1930. From The Complete Bentley: “Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and a Commander RNVR in naval intelligence during the Second World War, witnessed Bentley’s fifth Le Mans win. Covering the race on assignment for Reuter’s news agency, Fleming watched the contest between the 6½ Litre Speed Six of Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, against the Teutonic splendour of the 7.1 litre SS Mercedes-Benz driven by Rudolph Caracciola and Christian Werner. Fleming was fascinated by the drama of the occasion. Even though it was an unequal struggle, the great white racer with its wailing supercharger and the basso profundo green Bentleys, made a deep impression on the young author. Six of them were ranged against the lone Mercedes until 2.30am when it retired. Fleming replayed the duel in Moonraker, when Bond’s 1930 4½ litre Bentley engaged in a thrilling chase with villain Hugo Drax’s Mercedes. Only treachery led to the Bentley being wrecked. Superchargers fascinated Fleming, and he enjoyed a long friendship with C Amherst Villiers, who engineered them.”

You would have thought that with family money and a good income from the Bond books, Ian Fleming might have acquired a better taste in cars. In 1954 he had an Armstrong Siddeley, nothing wrong with that, my father had one in 1956. There was a Ford Thunderbird in Fleming’s garage at one time, but then took leave of his senses and had a Studebaker Avanti. This was a particularly disagreeable car. Not, perhaps, the worst I drove on the road test staff of The Motor (that distinction went to a Fairthorpe Electron) but close. The axle tramp was like a nightmare Morris Minor 1000. It took extraordinary leaps and bounds on acceleration and braking, no matter how reverentially you treated brake and throttle. Everything seemed seriously out of balance. Even though the passage of time has softened Raymond Leowy’s lines, it can be imagined how bizarre the appearance was in 1964.

The family Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 236. The Avanti road test was never completed. I had drafted it three weeks before the Studebaker Corporation stopped making Avantis, so it only made the pages of the magazine on 29 January 1964 as Lament for a Road Test That Never Was. It had been a bad time for American car makers; Studebaker was the latest old name to vanish, following Hudson and Packard into history. There had been trouble with the Avanti’s plastics body, so when Studebaker abandoned car production in the United States, retaining only its Canadian assembly plant, the Avanti had to go.

Under “Handling and brakes” I wrote: “Even on dry roads, the Avanti was not a particularly pleasant car to drive because of the change of attitude it adopted when you applied power on a corner. In the wet, the throttle had to be used very sparingly or the back quickly became uncontrollable, the vast power generating copious wheelspin, even in top gear. Alarming, not to say dangerous, even for quite experienced drivers.

The original Avanti report described the understeer (the weight distribution was 59/41) commenting that although twisty roads could be taken at a cracking pace in the dry, “fast bends were all too often taken in a series of jerks as steering lock, throttle and then opposite lock were applied in quick succession.”

The steering was heavy and driving slowly over bumps there was a lot of kick-back. As with another very fast American we tested recently, there seemed to be a case for tyres with better wet grip. And the injunction, contained on a little plate inside the glove compartment, that the tyres were only for “ordinary motoring” did little for the driver’s peace of mind on motorways.”

The “other fast American” was a Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, which also features in Eric Dymock Originals to be published at the end of August.

MGB Twin Cam and Austin A30

Classic cars cost more than you expect. I loved my MGB and A30. They were fine in prosperous times but I am relieved, in a way, I don’t still have them. The A30 was pure nostalgia. The first car I ever owned was an A30 and recreating the noises and the feel of what you were driving as an early-twenty-something was enjoyable. I was late into having my own car. The A30 was a strong monocoque, it was quite sound when I bought it but keeping the dreaded tinworm at bay seemed never-ending. And I did like (see other blogs) to make a car feel like it was when new. I could do this with the MG. Pretty well all it got from its donor car was the chassis plate. As the accompanying piece from the Telegraph of 1998 shows, it was an attempt to create a Twin Cam MGB. Had it been more skilfully executed, it would have been a fine car. As it was, it proved troublesome but it looked sensational – perfectly period, and it was about as fast as my Z3, which meantime remains my regular everyday classic.

Austin A70 Hampshire Countryman

The Austin A70 Hampshire Countryman I discovered at Goodwood features in Colin Peck's British Woodies 1920s-1950s, one of Veloce's splendid Those Were the Days series. It is on the jacket and inside, complete with badges, which it has since lost. The period badge bar remains. There is no room for badges on the flush fronts of cars nowadays. Shame really. They did add a bit of personal identity to a car. Apparently Papworth Industries made 900 of these handsome estate cars between 1947 and 1949. Only seven are believed to survive, of which MAS 867 is the only one roadworthy. The main picture on the jacket is a Ford Pilot - the Austin is hidden by the folded bit on the picture above.