New Series: Of Dogs and Dreams
By Anthony MacLean
I suppose that, in what I am shocked to have calculated will soon be 50 years of motoring, there are bound to have been a few dogs, lemons or whatever you like to call them. The great myth of collecting old cars has become that they are all in some way wonderful and immune from the ordinary rules of good, indifferent, bad and truly awful (otherwise known as dogs). The truth is that many were awful even when new and that most of us originally bought them because they were cheap and looked like being fun.
Early on came a Morris 8 which my father bought for my sister and me to learn to drive on the farm. It had an engine which started, a transmission, steering and a body but brakes were the vital missing ingredient. We discovered this by driving through a wooden five-bar gate at lowish speed. It was enough to reduce the gate to firewood without much effect on the car or on us, but then you can’t have everything for £5.
From the ridiculous to the supposedly sublime....A lovely looking 350GT Lamborghini bought in the mid-1970s from a Geneva doctor should have been wonderful but was truly awful to drive. Big glass areas and no proper ventilation systems meant freezing in winter and roasting in summer – and don’t forget the misting up in the rain (how many of us have been peering through a fogged up windscreen on narrow twisty roads with a Golf diesel on the rear bumper flashing to get past?).
Not long after came a rare right-hand drive Miura SV – looks to die for but as for the rest...Myth met reality on an early morning trip from Geneva to, I naively hoped, the factory at Sant’ Agata. The clutch felt a bit odd at the start of the climb to the Mont Blanc tunnel. It gave up the ghost half way up when overtaking a long line of lorries. An irate gendarme told me to get out of the car to explain myself. I pointed out (from inside the car) that the clutch had died, that I couldn’t get out because the hand brake didn’t work, and would he mind giving me a push because the starter motor had also stopped working? He muttered “Mon Dieu” and wandered off. The most suitable comment came from the adjacent lorry with a chorus of “baaas” from its live cargo.
We somehow limped down the hill, got the clutch mended and decided to give it another go, not stopping the engine or relying on a push from anyone. We roared through the Mont Blanc tunnel and into Italy as night fell. We were harried through the bends by two nuns in a small Fiat (who could see a lot better than us – even two of the factory fitted Fiat 850 headlights aren’t great but they are no help at all when one is up and the other stays stubbornly put, pointing towards the stars). The other thing which must have amazed the nuns was our irregular progress between corners. Huge lunges of acceleration left them a dot in the mirror but by the time I had wrestled with the evil gear change and stood on the pathetic brakes at the next corner the nuns were all over us again.
The achingly beautiful prototype Ferrari 166 Le Mans berlinetta was a joy to look at inside and out (gorgeous shape, lovely interior with Lucite knobs, beautiful instruments and brown fabric seats which Ascari might have sat in) but it was a pig to start, smoked like Krakatoa and the five-speed gearbox wasn’t much use because you couldn’t get into the dog-leg 5th without kneecapping yourself. A pretty Frua bodied Maserati A6G/54 coupé wasn’t much better – loads of spark plugs, camshafts and Webers but about as much go as Granny’s 12 inch ATCO mower.
A Maserati A6 GCS barchetta seemed like an expensive escape route from the Frua coupé. Like the 166, beautiful to look at, although if you and your passenger are much over 5’6” you look like a couple of giraffes out for an airing and I do mean an airing since your chest, head and shoulders will all be well above the tiny aero screen. The gearbox was a delight and I loved looking at the blue faced instruments, apart from the oil pressure gauge which read alarmingly low (they should print £ signs on oil pressure gauges as well as rev counters). Over the last few years lots of development work has been done by wealthy owners so that these little two litre cars now go indecently fast but mine was in standard form and pretty pathetic – lots of wonderful noises but not a lot of forward motion. And the brakes on my car, which were supposedly special order 250F items, left you eyeing alternative exits as the obstacle in front rushed towards you.
But there have been plenty of delights as well where myth and reality became one. The Lancia Aurelia Spider which I’ve owned for over 35 years is always a delight to drive – on a twisty, bumpy road (as long as it’s not too steep) you wonder where all the cars behind have disappeared to. A two litre Aurelia Coupe is just as good and even sweeter to drive. Everything they say about a Porsche 2.7 Carrera RS is true and the rather overlooked two litre 911S is almost as much fun and lighter to drive. A good Bentley R-Type Continental deserves all the praise which it has been given, as much for the way it goes as for its looks. Best summed up by veteran owner Nick Harley: “It’s a car that will get you home on its own after a good night out”. Top of the list for sheer pleasure was my reconstructed Lancia D24 sports racer with the big 3.7 litre four-cam engine. Very fast, absolutely reliable and handling to die for – and you could drive it down to the shops as well. We did six Carrera Panamericana rallies without incident, won the class twice, always finished in the top 20 overall and once in the top ten, and this against NASCAR-engined ‘silhouette’ opposition. Ex-Lancia team driver Gino Valenzano saw the car at a rally in the Dolomites when it was pouring with rain. Well into his 80s, he came over and smiled as he murmured: “The grip of a bar of soap but the handling was a dream”. Good to end with a dream and not a dog.
Anthony MacLean is a British-Swiss lawyer, co- founder of Brooks auctioneers and all-round ‘car guy’ with a particular weakness for Lancias. We’ve long thought it would be fun to invite collector friends to take an irreverent look at some of the cars they’ve owned which we read about in glowing terms elsewhere; after all, let’s face it, none are perfect and some of the most enduring relationships are a mixture of love and hate! We’ll be inviting other collectors to share their stories with us next.