Money, cars and cowpats: Britain’s most glamorous vintage car rally
“You might want to think about braking round about now, I shouted above the hubble bubble of the Bentley’s engine, as we hurtled downhill at 50mph towards a t-junction with a dry stone wall at the bottom of the valley. “Actually I’ve been on full brake for about fifty yards now” shouted back Simon the driver cheerfully. “I’ll do the driving, you do the navigating”. Righty-oh.
T-Junctions may be bad news for ninety-year-old brakes but they are good news for navigators; in reading the complex, mile-by-mile directions supplied by the Flying Scotsman Rally organizers the day before, a t–junction means you only have two possibilities, one wrong and one right. Or perhaps left. As a novice navigator, I liked these odds.
The Flying Scotsman, now in its eighth year, is so called because the first run in 2009 followed roughly the route - from London to Edinburgh - of the famous Flying Scotsman locomotive, once the fastest way from the Metrop to the Highlands. Part Downton Abbey and Part Mad Max, this is a real test of endurance for cars that by rights should be pushing up daisies. Many of the owners should too. Lovingly maintained by their owners who spend a small fortune to keep them on the road and a much larger one to buy them in the first place. One spritely 1931 Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Spider last sold at auction in 2015 for £2.4 Million, yet its new owner threw it with unconcealed glee at every ford, hairpin and chicane the Flying Scotsman could lay in its path.
The route changes year-to-year but invariably involves a generally northerly tack along back roads, hill climbs, open moors, short bursts of race track and an awful lot of mud and rain. Our motor car, number 24 – a 4.5 litre 1928 Bentley - belongs to Simon Arscott, of Churchill Classics, a collector and dealer in rare British cars, mostly kept in upstate New York where he has also just opened a showroom selling all sorts of European gems from Astons to Porsches". But this one, his pride and joy, he keeps in a lock-up outside London. For 88 years old, she - I’m pretty sure she should be a she - is in remarkable condition, as are all 100 of the immaculate prewar cars in the Rally. Immaculate, that is, until they slip one by one through the official start line at Belvoir Castle, near Grantham, roar off down the rhododendron-lined drive and head vaguely north. In front of them - and us - lie 700 miles of open road, thousands of navigational calculations, too many cowpats and not nearly enough tea and biscuits.
Starts are staggered a minute apart throughout so you are racing your own time rather than the car in front. Speed is therefore less important than dash. To that end we were kitted out in a suitably epic wardrobe (in keeping with the period motors) that would also, we hoped, keep us warm and dry (and of course pukka). First stop Alfred Dunhill. The storied London brand’s long history began in 1893, at the dawn of the age of the infernal contraption engine. Its enterprising founder, Alfred Dunhill, quickly launched Dunhill’s Motorities, subtitled “everything but the motor” that at its peak numbered as many as 1300 products for daring adoptees of this terrifying new science.
There were dashboard clocks, windproof tobacco pipes, oil headlamps, capacious furs and waterproof overcoats. An early stroke of Dunhill genius were Bobby Finders, part goggles, part binoculars to help speed freaks detect concealed policemen at a distance. Fast forward 120 years and the Dunhill team came up with suitably heroic looking calf leather double-breasted knee length car coats from this Fall’s collection. Fully buttoned-up, with a vital bonded-wool lining and a detachable fur collar cocked at all times, they provided perfect cover from all the elements the North of England could throw at us. And man, did it throw.
Beneath our Dunhill coats we wore cotton mechanics overalls made by Manchester based Private White VC, a fixture in modern classic car racing as well as a burgeoning global fashion brand, its ethos rooted in utilitarian and military clothing. I went a bit overboard and purchased huge sheepskin lined gauntlets that proved as useless at driving as they were at manipulating the navigation book and stopwatch (but one stashed between the legs at least kept my phone dry).
To keep the wind out, stout lug sole boots, heavy duty knitwear and raffish scarves across nose and mouth were topped off with a matched pair of World War II RAF leather flying helmets found on eBay and accessorized with faceted glass pilot’s goggles. “You used to like dressing-up when you were a kid didn't you?” muttered team photographer Chris Floyd through his viewfinder as we sat at the start gate busting epic poses. Busted.
Mile after mile of asphalt gravel and dirt unrolled before us. The Bentley thundered up country never missing a beat until the electrics went. Fortunately there was always helping hands to bump start her until the pit crew could finally put the electrics right.
Wind in open cars is relative. Stationary it was spring, almost balmy at times. At speed it was cataracts and hurricanoes that bashed the eardrums and pummeled the cheeks relentlessly. Two pieces of chamois leather stowed between our legs took the place of windscreen wipers for regular mops of the goggles and the tiny, frankly ineffectual windscreens in front of us. The Bentley had a fold up roof but no sides. It took ages to get up so anyway we only used it overnight to prevent the car being rained in. In the day-time roof-up was considered rather soft and not come il faut, amongst drivers, witness the scores of bedraggled soaked driver/navigator teams staggering into every longed-for and all- too-short break for tea and cake.
On the last stage of day one, up and over the North Yorkshire moors into Northumberland, we fell prey to two hours of sleet, freezing rain and out-and-out snow whilst trying to navigate our way to the first night’s stop at Slaley Hall. “I still can’t feel my fingers” said Simon in the bar, as his lifeless digits grasped the first of several Glenmorangies by the roaring fire. Everything was wet. The coats weighed a ton each.
The waterproof paper of my navigation book had held up remarkably well in the deluge. Unfortunately the battery of highlighters and marker pens I had used to mark out in it the next day’s stages with key turns and vital directions had not held up at all. “Hard right at horse trough” and “slow through ford!” now read as a black smudges like drowned spiders. Dayglo green pen that had earlier highlighted out our precise route spread its sickly green glow across an entire map. I spread the pages like a fan in front of the fire and turned for solace to whisky. Back to the drawing board.
Interim results at the sopping, frostbitten close of day one put us at 72nd out of 100 (cough). Finals put us at 57th (better). On day two we crossed the border in to Scotland and finished in Cumbernauld in 50th which meant (hurrah) we were - but only just - on page 1, a psychological triumph. On day three, after epic runs through the Ochil Hills, we pulled across the finish line at the stately Gleneagles Hotel, and against hope and all logic, we had crawled our way up the rankings to a final position of 44th. Booze and elation all round.
Barside talk at Gleneagles was of triumphs and tragedies, the 1929 Bentley that lost its sump feed and blew its engine doing 90 on the Humber Bridge, an Aston making a right turn rear-ended and put out of the rally by an oik in a Nissan. The Scotsman is no jaunt in the countryside. What it is is epic bucket-list fun. Talk however was where next? “Are you signed up for Paris-Peking yet?” ”How about Madrid-Marrakesh or the Road to Mandalay?” Where do I sign?