Birth of a Vintage Sportscar

The Brooklands “Double 12” motor race is steeped in history and dates back to 1907. It initially started as a 24 hour race similar in concept to the LeMans race. Except that in the early days of motorsport, cars were extremely loud and the neighbours complained about their inability to sleep during the night. The event was therefore shortened to run across a weekend in two, twelve hour races – hence Double 12. These days the racing is a mere shadow of the original event with Vintage cars now only completing two timed laps around the Mercedes test track on day one and a series of driving challenges on the day two. It is the second day of the event, the ‘driving tests’ that are a gentle and polite entrance into the world of vintage motorsport.

Entering the car into a Brooklands event has been a dream since I first watched Vintage heroes thundering around the hallowed ‘concrete’ in old black and white videos. Sadly the Brooklands banked circuit is no longer complete and Tesco’s now sits where a steep banked corner used to be.

We have attended a number of the Double 12 events  over the years and I remember once pointing to a Riley and saying to my understanding wife that ‘one day, one of those is going to follow me home’. That one-day of course happened and this blog started when I found the car that I would re-construct to use in Vintage Motorsport.

Having the race date on the calendar was sufficiently motivating to have the car ready and a lot of hours were consumed fixing things, adjusting things, resetting things, tightening things up and in some cases – loosening things. Sunday 17 June 2018 dawned, an overcast day with a light drizzle. Bother! Not the sunshine I had hoped for considering the car has no real windscreen, no roof or no waterproof Tourneau to protect the interior and occupants from rain. A little thing like this wasn’t going to stop us though. The support car got packed with lunch, coats, a few tools and a supporting family and we headed out into the drizzle.

Straight away the car started miss-behaving, coughing and spluttering up the road with no real power to speak of. This had never happened before and my heart dropped. The car seemed to be better at higher revs and under a constant load but accelerating was awful. Twice we stopped on the way to Brooklands to look around the engine but nothing important was wet and I could not see anything amiss. I felt truly awful (and damp) but we decided to push on because the support car had a towing A-Frame in the boot as a just-in-case and even if we only managed to do one of the series of driving challenges, at least all the time and effort I had put in would not be wasted. Half an hour later we arrived and the car was directed straight to scrutineering. The ‘scroots’ poured over the car checking that it is safe to race and we were granted our first scrutineering pass. Hurdle number one crossed. Signing on and drivers briefing followed which was informative and both my wife and daughter were signed on as official passengers to join in the fun. My daughter would navigate for the first set of tests then hand over to my wife for the afternoons events.

As we had around one hour before racing started, I popped open the bonnet (again). This time I noticed that one of the ignition leads was touching the engine – could it be perhaps that the lead was sometimes earthing the high voltage spark meant for one of the four combustion chambers? Crossing multiple body parts, I relocated the lead and fired up the engine. It ‘seemed’ better but I had no real way to be sure. Unfortunately for me, the very first driving challenge was to be a run straight up the ‘test hill’. This is a 3 gradient hill that gets progressively stepper ending in a 1:4 slope. I have been nervous of this hill ever since we tried walking up it and seeing a few cars simply not make it. Would the Riley actually be able to make it up there? It should be fine but I had a miss-firing engine to contend with. With my heart thumping which I am sure all the spectators could hear, we joined the queue and awaited our turn. I can tell you that sitting in a Vintage car waiting to race up a historic test hill with crowds of people watching is an exciting experience, marginally dampened by my engineers fear of the car failing to make it.

Ooh, it was now my turn…

The marshal held a Union Jack in front of the car, asked if I was ready, counted down from three and raised the flag. I floored the throttle, wheels span, smoke plumed, the exhaust roared and we were off. Gradient 1 – easily cleared, Gradient 2 – easily cleared, Gradient 3 – easy then brake hard to stop astride the line as dictated by the rules. But what’s that awful noise? The engine or gearbox sound like a bucket of gravel – that cant be good. Instead of racing on to the finish line, we eased forwards to stop astride the line and collect our score. I handed it to my co-pilot without even looking at it, now I had a miss firing engine and a gearbox that sounded like someone tumbling small stones. On the plus side, even with the engine miss firing, the car had flown up the hill with no fuss at all – it was great fun as can be seen below:

We then drove carefully to the next test with me having constantly swapping emotions; extreme pleasure at being there in the car and competing with my daughter beside me, mixed in with ‘bother – I think I broke the car on the very first test’

Above we await the second challenge. Driving around a very small set of cones in a specifically prescribed route. Sound easy? Ha! Having less than 10 cones laid out in a (to the driver) seemingly random manner which we then had to navigate around several times based on a simple line drawing which swept in a spiral, the drawing advising we had to stop at some cones, going left of some, right of some then turning around and going round the same cones but following a different route is NOT easy. The whole route is completed against the clock and you are given a 10 second penalty if you touch a cone or <coughs theatrically> run one over. Far worse, if you incorrectly navigate around the course you are given a 1 minute penalty on top of your timed run which means you are now instantly last in your class for that particular test. There are 8 driving tests and your time for each one is added together to give you  a total time. The driver with the lowest time is declared the winner.

I think I mentioned that the car was miss firing and now had something noisily wrong with the gearbox so we had two choices, take it easy… or not… I chose not and subsequently missed a cone on two of the next three driving tests. I have to say, my Co-Pilot was very good, she had the routes nailed in her head and gave good clear instructions but I still missed that cone three times in the same test. What a laugh.

Below is an action shot as we navigate a cone and look for the next one. Its much harder than you think, all the cones look the same.

After test 4 we limped the car back to its parking area to have a spot of lunch in theory revisiting all the tests again later in the afternoon. The engineer in my head was screaming ‘retire from the race’, the racing driver in my head was screaming ‘nah it’ll be alright’. The two of them argued back and forth for a very long time whilst ‘friends’ wandered over to laugh and advise me that I had missed a few cones but offered no advice on how to fix the car. I like to think I remained a Gentleman throughout and we wandered off for a very emotional lunch. The Engineer in my head took advantage of this and convinced me to retire early from the competition. So because we only did 4 of the 8 driving tests – the penalty times for not completing each course added a huge amount of time to our already poor score so we were rather last. I would have preferred a status of ‘retired from competing’ but that’s not how they show in the club records.

I have to say the car has a lot of promise, it handled and stopped far better than I ever expected, it was also quite nippy (when it wasn’t spluttering) and I sense we will have a lot of fun over the coming years. I did have a lovely conversation with a fellow Riley owner who started off with a car fundamentally the same as mine but over the years he regularly upgraded the engine and in its current form it has TWO superchargers bolted together and his engine is putting out over 250 brake horse power (bhp). That is five times the output of my standard engines 54bhp. To make that worse the car had 54bhp when it was new eighty three years ago so lets be kind and say it currently has 45bhp. I can only imagine how much fun the car would be if it had nearly six times the power. I do rather suspect his engine cost more than my entire car though.

Next steps: taking a careful look at the engine and gearbox to see what is wrong/loose/broken – the engine and gearbox are both quite expensive to replace so fingers crossed, I can engineer a fix and be back on the road.

In summary, it was a great but exceptionally emotional day. Thank you to friends and family who turned up to support the birth of our Vintage Sports car. Just like a baby it has entered the world kicking and screaming and making a mess, people are saying it looks lovely and wishing us luck as we head down the new road of fettling.

~ Our Vintage Racing days – start now ~


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