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If there was just some way to work it out, the old race cars should be telling this story. They're the ones who know what really went on back in the glory days. Ideally, they should meet at the Garrick Club in London. Over a balloon of brandy, a Maserati, say, might lean back, light a cigar and confide, "I'll never forget the 1955 Mille Miglia. Or my Le Mans in 1957, remember? If memory serves, I finished 12th. In any case, there I was at White House Corner when...." Just across the table would be this shining blue 1948 Talbot-Lago, surely the David Niven of automobiles, still heartbreakingly handsome even without its original eyebrow fenders. The Talbot-Lago gets around much better now than when it was brand new, and the mellow hum of its engine is as smooth as a fine Courvoisier. "Would you believe," the Talbot would say, "that when Fangio and I were at Le Mans in 1951...."
These days the Maser and the Talbot are part of a troupe of splendid old cars that have risen out of scrap heaps, garages and museums to go racing again, in a British series called The Return of the Spectacle.
The Spectacle isn't confined to the competition; the men who restore and race the cars comprise a somewhat dotty British subculture with a passion for elegant old iron.
Consider Sid Hoole, at 38 surely old enough to know better, who races a spotlessly restored 1957 Cooper Grand Prix car, its four-cylinder Coventry Climax engine a power plant that evolved from one used on fire trucks to pump water. Hoole owns four other Coopers, all of them hugely valuable. Hoole also owns a fish-and-chips shop in Sandy, about 50 miles from London—his racing pals call him Sid the Chip or Sid Frite. A few years ago Hoole bought a thatched-roof cottage in Bedfordshire, north of London. The place is maybe 400 years old and stunning, with lovely little rooms and thick whitewashed walls. Sid the Chip attached a garage about as big as the house, the better to shelter his Coopers. He also has a bumper sticker, which his wife won't let him put on the family estate wagon: I LOVE MY CLIMAX. "Listen," Hoole says confidentially, leaning in closely at a cocktail party to whisper, "Every time I get into that race car of mine and start it up, suddenly I'm old Jack Brabham himself going racing."
Or take Alain de Cadenet, a hip Londoner and Le Mans racer (he's finished seven of the last 12) who models jeans, watches and sunglasses and is a stamp dealer and tracer of lost sports cars. Every year de Cadenet throws a birthday party for his Alfa-Romeo P3 type B, the first single-seater made by that company—the very car that was driven to victory in the 1932 French and Italian grand prix by none other than Tazio Nuvolari. At party time de Cadenet sweeps out his tiny garage at Queensgate Place Mews and hangs balloons, bunting and Nuvolari posters. "The car's friends are invited," he says, "and we have huge waitresses, all of them topless, serving wonderful pasta and bottles of good Italian wine, and we occasionally spill a little bit on the car and everybody gets swizzled out of their minds." If there was room in the garage, de Cadenet would have a blown Bentley jump out of a cake.
Well, the old Alfa deserves such a salute. After Nuvolari, it was handed over to a driver who later would make a few race cars himself. The young hotshoe's name was Enzo Ferrari, and he tore up several events with the P3. Just before World War II, the Alfa was mysteriously spirited off to Argentina. There was dark talk that, later on, it fell into Nazi hands. In any event, de Cadenet finally located it, in pieces in Rio, and brought it back to England in 1974.
And here is Bruce Halford, a well-known Formula I driver of some years back, appearing in his pristine 1959 Lotus 16, once the factory works car of the late Graham Hill. (Hill was still well back in the pack in '59, but he would be world champion in 1962 and again in '68.) "Imagine," Halford says, "a silly old man like me going racing. I'm 51 years old. Good heavens, I retired from all this back in 1961. And yet...and yet, I get into that cockpit and suddenly the years melt away and I'm young again." He nods vigorously to affirm that fact, tufts of wiry white hair puffing out above both ears. "And, you know, I still seem to have all the moves."
For every car owner eager to show some moves, the racing series attracts thousands of fans delighted to see cars and drivers the way they once were—drivers upright and visible, not supine and sardined, cars without wings or other present-day warts and excrescences. There is obviously something that stirs the blood in the sight of a car skidding around a corner with the driver hanging half out of the cockpit. Handsome crowds are turning out for these historic-car races. True, the events usually are staged as a companion attraction to a grand prix or other major race, but they've recently drawn crowds of 10,000 to 100,000 on their own. The sponsors claim that in Britain the histories have now become No. 2 in box office appeal to Formula I cars. As a further sign of that appeal, consider the annual race of the rather snooty Aston Martin Owners Club at Silverstone. Strictly a "clubbie," as they say, with no advertising or publicity outside the club itself. Yet crowds of 7,000 or so show up to watch, many buying paddock passes to be able to wander among the race cars and kick tires, in a manner of speaking.
One other key statistic sort of lies there unstressed, perhaps because of typical British reserve about such things. There are 24 cars in a typical Formula I race. The same number starting one of the historic races could be worth roughly four times as much. It's an expensive game that these chappies are playing. Two years ago, the British monthly Motorsport estimated that the asking price for a Lister-Jaguar in reasonable shape was $80,000; for a Maserati 250-F, about $220,000; while an ERA (English Racing Automobile) might fetch as much as $140,000. Since then, prices have gone even higher.
Hoole's collection of Cooper-Climaxes is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The car he raced in the Spectacle this season was a star of Tommy Sopwith's 1957 Equipe Endeavor Team. But when The Chip acquired it in 1972 for about $300, "it was in nahsty shape, with not even the proper engine and it had been...it had been sand-raced." But Hoole put it right—he works four days a week on his cars while the wife takes care of the fish and chips—and now it's picture-perfect. Setting a precise dollar value on these machines is difficult, but Hoole recently traded one of his Coopers for a Cherokee 140, which says something.