Within my circle of friends (and for me) this is a time of birthdays, and as our personal odometers click over, we inevitably think of times past. Usually it goes along the lines of “when was the Falklands war?” or “can you believe that song was 23 years ago?” Then there is the inevitable, “well, it was so much better in my day” from the older contingent in the tea room, “ the cars were better looking and the birds were faster!” This stylised view of the past has spawned Austin Powers and the retro styling of BMW’s Mini, but why all this looking back dewy eyed? Have you forgotten the bad bits, wars, rationing, recession, miners strikes, Labour governments, tax and spend, even the Mini 1275GT?
True remnants of the past remind us of the reality of the times without the veneer of nostalgia. Anyone who does a hundred miles in a GP Bugatti has to admire the drivers who competed in the Targa Florio, a warm up lap of Goodwood and you can see why it claimed so many cars in period. We must be careful that we don’t make the mistake of thinking that these relics of a past age are as anaemic as modern cars or circuits. We live in an age where risk is engineered out, about the only hazard we face as we set out on a thousand mile trip in our car, is that our credit card won’t work. Motorsport is taken up as an alternative to golf and treated as lightly. When we step into an old car we have to accept we have left our cosy world and gone back to an earlier time, a time of checking oil and water, flat tyres, broken copper pipes and imperfect design. An age where should our chosen sport bite it bit hard, at Disneyland you’re safe on a runaway train, but when we race in a theme park, real world rules still apply!
The passion that cars evoke is tangible and built on the characters of the time Bugatti, Bentley, Hawthorne, Ireland, Chapman and Clarke, how long would they last in the modern world? The corporate machine knows what we want and gives it to us in a carefully manicured and constructed way, even in politics, the bit Orwell got wrong was Big Brother was a capitalist. One thing is for sure in their day, Bugatti and Bentley never shared a floorpan or a common marketing strategy, theirs was a simpler age, we can’t add to their legacy only celebrate it.
Of course we can and do improve the cars; overdrives, electronic ignitions, modern materials and techniques, counterbalanced cranks, trick vibration dampers, hardened valve seats to deal with the lack of lead in petrol even two speed and park wipers! Modern niceties help the cars deal with the change in traffic conditions and driver habits that the years have brought.
With all these comparisons, it’s interesting to look at old issues of Motorsport. I just happen to have been looking at the May 1964 edition, the month before I was born. A Bugatti had just won the Pom, the Easter meeting at Goodwood was to see the debut of the Lotus 30 but it wasn’t ready. Jackie Stewart won the F3 race, Graham Hill’s GTO just beat Jack Sears in the Cobra and a subject dear to my heart, an Anglia beat all the Mini’s. There was a roadtest on the Reliant Sabre which cost £1,180, twice the price of the new Austin Healey Sprite, or you could buy a Frazer Nash AC and an SS100!
To come back to the present, how about the cost of running a modern BMW versus a Bugatti ? We chose a T44, as we had just fixed the gearbox on a customers car, (broken on Sunday) and it was back on the road Tuesday with new gears all in place. Labour rate, Us: £30 per hour, BMW: £66 per hour, Us: remove gearbox repair and refit £1,400 plus VAT (VAT, now wasn’t that a temporary measure?) BMW: remove gearbox fit recon unit £2,700 plus VAT. Us: oil and filter change, £45 inclusive of parts, BMW: £105 inclusive, and even better, the Bugatti goes up in value, how much for a three year old 330? On investment, a Type 51 in 1980: £125,000, about the same as a good three-bed semi, same car today; £600,000, the semi £350,000.
With the Goodwood revival coming up, I look forward to seeing great cars and drivers on a fabulous historic circuit, I hope as many go home unscathed as arrived. The last word has to go to a small ad in the back of that 1964 Motorsport… “ There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little more worse and sell a little cheaper and the people who consider price only are that mans lawful prey ”. Wise words in any decade.