A 1954 Maserati 250-F single-seater is raced by the Honorable Amschel Rothschild, a thin, ascetic son of the third Baron Rothschild, head of the British branch of the legendary banking family. "Now this is proper racing," says Rothschild. He bought the car in 1976 for an undisclosed, though reportedly hefty, sum, and he loves it so dearly even Rothschild-deep pockets couldn't pry it away from him. He has had it completely restored, so that the Maser is every bit as elegant as its owner. "One could invite it into the house for tea," says Rothschild in perfect seriousness.
One of the most gorgeous ERAs in the world is a B-type nicknamed Remus, the car in which Prince Birabongse of Siam won the 1936 French Grand Prix. It's now owned by the Honorable Patrick Lindsay, 53, well-known as an art auctioneer and a director of Christie's, a doughty chap who tends to stand on it when he goes racing. Lindsay has told associates that he wouldn't take $350,000 for the car—even though he and it crashed heavily in a race last June in a spectacular end-over-end, both of them breaking ribs. At the moment, both are being restored.
In this mixed bag of serious collectors cum racers there is one genuine cult figure—Nick Mason, drummer for the Pink Floyd and the object of teeny-bopping adulation worldwide. But when Mason, who is 37 and a millionaire, gets ready to race his 1936 ERA or his 1957 Maserati 250-F, he has something close to anonymity, which pleases him mightily. He has a consuming ambition, which is to get his hands on every pre-World War II Aston Martin ever built. He has files and he has scouts, and he knows where most of them are. As he collects, and carefully restores them, he says, he will consider selling one or two a year—but only to those who fully appreciate the classic qualities of the marque.
The Spectacle series was launched in 1979 by one Bert Young, silver-haired and debonair, whose previous experience in deep promotional waters had been limited to the training of Channel swimmers. Young was coach of Bermuda's swim team at the 1952 Olympics in Finland (it sank with nary a bubble) and had been a race driver of considerable kidney. He holds—here comes one of the great arcane statistics of all time—the record for the fastest lap ever turned by a Lister-Jaguar at the Zolder circuit in Belgium: 80-plus mph. You could look it up, old top.
It was Young who sold the series to Lloyds & Scottish, a financial house not unlike the General Motors Acceptance Corporation. L & S had been casting about for something automotive that would lend a special cachet to the firm—and Young convinced it that if anything had cachet up to here, it was historic race cars in action. L & S came up with an annual $100,000 budget, beginning in 1978, and suddenly, says Young, "Our privateering days were over. Old race cars began emerging from everywhere, from tumble-down garages and from underneath haystacks; years of cobwebs were blown away."
Some 65 cars may be race-ready at a given time, and each one has been authenticated as fully as possible by the Royal Automobile Club's Historic Car Committee, a bunch of sticklers. Assuredly, a 100-G series (for which there were six races in 1982) isn't calculated to make anybody rich. Indy spills that much. But a sponsor and appearances at courses around the U.K. have given the racers a sense of, well, identity.
Young has divided the cars into five age groups from "three great decades of racing," 1930 to 1960, but all the classes compete together in one jolly mélange, Grand Prix cars hub to hub with sports cars. The racers must qualify for the available starting positions, and the starting grids look as if someone has turned an automotive museum upside down and shaken it over the track.
At the grand finale of the '82 season at Silverstone, the pole position was won by John Harper, 45, and his 1954 B-type Connaught, a great brute of a racer that had turned a 101-mph lap on the 2½-mile course. Eleven rows back, and easily 20 mph slower, sat Peter Walker in his 1959 works Lola MK 1 (chassis No. 3, folks—how's that for historic?) and Richard Dunham in his venerable Alvis Brooklands. Venerable? Listen, that car was built on order in 1938 for Dunham's grandpa, who raced it with great distinction, and then it was handed down to Dunham's dad, who won the International Manx Cup on the Isle of Man in 1951. And now young Richard's got it. The Alvis, dignified humpback and all, is still as debonair as can be. But it may be, well, just the tiniest bit too long in the tooth. Dunham didn't finish.
But who really cares about finishes? To the race, the race! Lloyds & Scottish pays each entrant a modest $300 fee collectible if the driver gets his car on the grid and runs one full racing lap—and the winner gets a mere $100. At the end of the season, most of the racers take home a handsome trophy for winning something, and whatever is left of the $100,000 goes for cocktails.
What the spectators get is a memorable afternoon: 10 laps of wheel-to-jowl racing unlike anything else today—awfully different from the show put on by the low-slung Grand Prix and Indy cars, which all look alike and hide their drivers so effectively that you begin to suspect that they just might be oversized radio-controlled racers. By the way, the old cars are all running faster than when they were brand spanking new—in some cases a lot faster. Better tire compounds, brakes and track surfaces are responsible.