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A peek into a long-lost world of build it and race it

Published March 18, 2011


If only in your wildest dreams, try to picture this:

You build your own sports car, a backyard special that costs you a few hundred dollars.

You enter a race and drive it from home to the track where, hearing that the car’s down on power, the boss of McLaren lends you a cylinder head.

You share the starting grid with Lewis Hamilton…

Sixty years ago, you wouldn’t have had to pinch yourself to wake up.

Colin Chapman, his Lotus engineering company in the embryonic stage of becoming an automotive icon, might well have lent you a racing head.

And Stirling Moss, already showing signs of his genius behind the wheel, was picking up competition experience in all kinds of cars and races.

It really was a different world. One in which a weekend sports-car racer could write that, as he competed in weather so vile the event was almost cancelled, his wife made him wear his raincoat.

She raced the car, their daily driver, too. They promised each other at the start of the season that they’d always wear crash-helmets, then optional.

I’ve been wandering through this world for a while, thanks to a bunch of old books, most of which can still be found and won’t empty your wallet.

I bought the first after a columnist in Classic & Sports Car magazine mentioned a 1957 biography of Alf Francis, who was in the thick of post-war grand-prix racing and became Stirling Moss’s chief mechanic. I checked on-line and found a decent copy on eBay. I was the only bidder and got it for 15 bucks.

A fascinating read. But better was to come. There was a list on the dust-jacket of other motoring books. My eye was caught by One Off: I Build a Ford 10 Sports Car by N.F. Havart.

A dry title for what turned out to be a hugely entertaining book (found, for less than $20, on the website) by an office-worker who shared a house in the London suburbs with a married couple.

Norman Havart began his car on Sunday, May 6, 1951, and registered it for road use on Friday, March 21, 1952 – good going for what was essentially a one-man project, building from the ground up and in the process teaching himself to weld.

The dust jacket of One Off led me, via, to Building and Racing My ‘750′ by P.J. Stephens (how formal they were back then; I never did find what P.J. stood for).

Like Havart, Stephens built a tiny sports car but, instead of a Ford, he based it on an Austin Chummy. It was he who became friendly enough with Colin Chapman to borrow a Lotus cylinder head. And to race against Chapman, too, though never to beat him.

Charles Mortimer who, in the Silverstone Healey he shared with his wife Jean (arguably the more successful of the two), raced against the likes of Moss, Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt. Hamilton and Rolt, co-driving a C-Type Jag, won the 1953 Le Mans 24-hour race.

At one event, Mortimer found himself up against Tazio Nuvolari. True, Nuvolari was nearing the end of his career but a legend is a legend, all the same. And yet Mortimer was a modest man, competing on a very modest budget in a car he and his wife chose for its dual-purpose potential – daily driving and weekend racing.

I found his book, Racing a Sports Car on the dust-jacket of Stephens’ book.

Then there’s Motoring is My Business by John Bolster. The pioneer auto-racing broadcaster learned the hard way, as a competitor, that if one JAP motorcycle engine in a light chassis made an almost unbeatable hill-climber, two were even better but four were pretty much uncontrollable.

I’ve gathered more than a dozen books so far and they’re endlessly fascinating. The latest is Wallsmacker, the autobiography of 1925 Indy 500 winner Peter de Paolo, who also had a short career in European grand prix racing and is in the U.S. Motorsports Hall of Fame.

When he set down his memoirs in the ’30s, he couldn’t find a publisher. So he brought the book out himself.

I, for one, am very glad he did. I’m even happier that its first owner, Ed Wadham, got De Paolo to autograph it. I think for $25 I got a bargain. It’s turning out to be a good read, too.