Here on Speedhunters we're constantly striving to bring you new things, new cars, new events. But sometimes it's good to look back and appreciate just how we've got to where we are. It is easy to dismiss old cars as, well old. Odd-looking. Not exciting. But as soon as you get up close to something like this 1922 Aston Martin I think it's clear just how special and relevant they are. An invention that is now over 120 years old, the motor car quickly evolved to the stage where there are more similarities than differences between then and now. A century in pursuit of motoring perfection. I think we can all relate to that.
Upon its launch the motor car captured the imagination not just of the public but of the engineers and tuners of the day: after all, put anything into the hands of men and it'll quickly be turned into a competition. As soon as the car was born it started an arms race of who could be the fastest, who could survive this new invention – and many didn't, unfortunately. Britain soon caught the racing bug, and companies like Sunbeam were at the forefront of the efforts. Beaulieu is the place to experience first-hand over a century of evolution of the racing car, as well tamer, more road-going fare.
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu is a quintessentially English, understated place. Stuck away in the forests of rural Hampshire and situated just down the road from the picturesque village of Beaulieu and its impressive stately home (home to the Montagu family), the Museum was founded in 1952 with the grand total of five cars by the 3rd Baron Montagu Of Beaulieu. Montagu had opened the collection as a tribute to his father, a pioneer of motoring in the UK (viz the Daimler 12hp, further down). The collection quickly grew, was relocated and by 1964 over half a million people were visiting each year.
In 1972 the current building was constructed to house the growing collection – then over 250 cars. An unusual feature was the monorail system that goes through the inside of the hall and out around the sprawling grounds!
The only thing Beaulieu suffers from is a lack of space. It certainly doesn't have a lack of cars on display! At the time of my visit earlier this year the museum was undergoing a refurbishment to add in a new mezzanine floor, which should now be completed. The good news is that better use would be made of the existing space, the bad that the downstairs area could feel a little claustrophobic.
Karl Benz is widely credited as the inventor of the modern car: in the mid-1880s he toured his new vehicle, powered by an internal combustion engine of his own design. In the 1890s cars went on sale for the first time: other German engineers, such as Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach were also promoting their own versions of this new, noisy, exciting – fast – invention. A British off-shoot of Daimler splintered from the main factory in 1896 – and this 1899 Daimler 12hp is one of their early models.
The 12hp was manufactured by the Daimler Motor Syndicate in Coventry. This car was bought new for £775 (almost £50,000 today, showing how this was very much before cars became ubiquitous) by Lord Montagu's father: it was the first car drive into the House Of Commons Yard at Parliament in London and the first British entry into a foreign road race (the arduous Paris-Ostend trial, where it finished third in the Tourist class). It's also thought that the Prince Of Wales of the time (later King Edward VII) had one of his first motor rides in this car. The 3,053cc, 4-cylinder engine powered the Daimler to a modest 30mph: quite sufficient considering the state of the roads at the time.
The car was restored at Beaulieu and still regularly runs – as do the majority of cars in the collection. A drip-tray underneath to catch oil and dirt on the tyres is evidence of recent activity. It's an amazingly ornate car: the brass fittings, wooden spoked-wheels and detailing on the outboard headlights attest to its hand-built craftsmanship. Xenon these certainly aren't…
The 1903 Cadillac Model A was the the first Caddy to be imported into Britain from Detroit. This Model A was entered by FS Bennett in the Thousand Miles Trial, which it completed – not just once, but also in three further re-enactments of the event in 1913, 1953 and 2003! In the most recent run-out the driver was Julian Frederic Bennett, grandson of the original owner and the current owner of the car. Apart from catching fire in London's Berkeley Square, as Mr Bennett drove it through town to show off his new car-showroom, the other notable thing about this car was that it has been driven by Formula 1 champion Jim Clark. Its 1-cylinder, 1,609cc engine took the Cadillac to 30mph. In 1903, £200 would buy you this car (about £12,000 now).
Whereas cars had previously been raced in pretty much stock condition in scratch events, the stakes were being raised all the time and racing quickly became a professional business – if still driven by strictly amateur but very rich enthusiasts. This 1903 Napier 'Gordon Bennett' is one of Britain's oldest racing cars: Napier were the first British constructor to build cars explicitly for the purpose of competition. The cycle wings are gone and the car stripped right back to save weight. Its 4-cylinder, 7,708cc engine produced a top speed of 75mph.
The famous Gordon Bennett races had been held since 1900 – the 1903 running would be in County Kildare in Ireland (as racing was still illegal on British roads at the time) and Napier entered three GBs. This car crashed in the race – but was repaired and set the fastest time in the trials for the following year's race in Germany. Napier pioneered using the dark green that was then adopted as Britain's national racing colour. The complexity of the controls are bewildering: cars of the time had no convention for where the pedals were mounted (and what they did), and changing gear was a difficult and fraught affair – there was no synchromesh to help.
This Spirit Of Ecstasy is on the nose of a 1909 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, noted as 'The best car in the world' at the time. This example was originally a limousine supplied to a Colonel Ferguson of Dundee. It was later rescued in the 1950s – after being used as a breakdown truck! – and restored with reproduction bodywork.
From one evocative badge to another. Bugatti. This 1910 Bugatti Type 15 is the second oldest surviving Bugatti in the world and the oldest in the UK. The Type 13 was the first Bugatti made after Ettore's move to Molsheim in the Alsace in 1909 – the longer wheelbase Type 15 was produced in the following year.
This was a serious cruiser for the time: despite only pushing out 15bhp it was capable of 58mph, its high top speed a result of the advanced design of the overhead-camshaft engine. And what an engine: the 4-cylinder, 1,327cc block is a work of beauty.
£350 (£20,000 today) would buy a Type 15 at the time. You'd now need to add quite a few zeros onto the end. The wooden dash is punctuated with a range of brass-furnished dials, including the clock and pressure valves. Of course, you sit in (on?) an enormous leather armchair. 60mph, remember.
This model was brought to England in 1920 and rebuilt from a saloon into a 2-seat sports tourer. From 1939 it was entered – and winning – races, rallies and hill-climbs.
I think this is a beautiful car. A 1922 Aston Martin 1.5-Litre. The first Aston Martin was built in 1914, after hill-cimbing specialist Lionel Martin decide to pair his name with the Aston Clinton hill-climb in Buckinghamshire, where he'd achieved notable success in a modified Singer (not the sewing machine…). With financial backing from Count Zborowski of 24-litre aero-engined Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang fame (yes, the film was inspired by a real car) the first production cars were launched in 1922 – this is one of two cars made for the 1922 French Grand Prix in Strasbourg, its 4-cylinder 1,478cc engine powering it to a top speed of 95mph.
Moving from the mezzanine displays to the main hall, we enter into the thoroughbred racing arena. The 1920s is where things began to get serious – and fast, in every sense. In the early days of racing, Sunbeam – now a virtually forgotten name – lead the way in Britain's fightback against continental European domination. This 1924 Sunbeam Cub is a great example of cars of the period: sleek, simple machines, tall radiators up front cooling the bulky engines, national racing colours worn with pride.
Sunbeam were a winning Grand Prix team in 1923; this super-charged car of 1924 proved powerful but unreliable in racing trim. The Cub's in-line 8-cylinder, 1,988cc engine made 170bhp – enough for 130mph. However, later in the decade the car was run out again in speed trials at Brooklands, its banked track proving the perfect stomping ground for the Cub – it took over 20 international records in the two-litre class.
Advances in tyre technology brought their own challenges: handling stability and axle vibration pushed both the tyres and suspension to their limits. Bodies became more profiled as aerodynamic principles were begun to be understood. But what about actually stopping the car? Lack of braking power was always the Achilles Heel of early racers. It's only when you get close to these old cars that you see the detail on their construction: the efforts made to understand and tackle the emerging problems that speed brought.
If you see old pictures or film of inter-war races, one noticeable thing is the different in size between cars: the Cub on the right and Bugatti Type 35 on the left are dwarfed by a huge Sunbeam Coupe De L'Auto, from 1912 which featured a 4-cylinder side-valve 3,996cc engine making 74bhp and a top speed of 80mph. This was one of five Sunbeams built specifically for the Coupe De L'Auto race, held on a 47-mile road course around Dieppe in France. Sunbeam finished 1-2-3, with the winning car finishing at an average speed of 65.3mph over the 956 miles at the hands of Victor Rigal. This is 100 years ago, don't forget. These are incredible numbers.
A second part of the mezzanine shows off road cars of the post-war period, which proudly displays Britain's motoring heyday – with the odd foreign interloper interspersed.
Herbert Austin originally worked for Wolseley, a British car company founded in 1901 that was originally called the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company – giving some idea of how industry diversified to take on motor manufacturing! Austin set up his own manufacturing works at Longbridge in 1906, a site that would become one of the most famous car-manufacturing plants in the post-war world. The Austin A40 Somerset succeeded the A40 Devon in 1952, offering improved power, fuel consumption and interior trim – Dunlopillo upholstery no less, trimmed with leather! The A40 Sports cylinder-head from the successful circuit racer variant was used in the Somerset, and like many cars in the Beaulieu collection this car only had one loving owner before being donated to the Museum. Its 1,200cc, 42bhp engine could get you up to 69mph, and the Somerset cost £728 new (about £12,000 now).
I picked this 1960 Triumph Herald saloon next for personal reasons: both my mother and father owned Heralds when they met (my mother had the sporty version, which I think helped their courting). Built by the Standard Motor Company in Coventry, the Herald was styled by Italian design house Michelotti in Turin. It featured modern independent rear suspension and had the turning circle of a London taxi. It also had good reviews initially – but then it became apparent that the Herald was underpowered and prone to both lateral roll and understeer. This Herald cost £702 new (about £10,000 today) and has an in-line 4-cylinder 948cc engine making 38.5bhp, with a top speed of 71mph.
An economic downturn combined with rising fuel prices leading to the popularity of fuel-efficient micro cars? Sound familiar? 1962's Isetta 300 was designed by Iso in Italy (also known for their performance cars of the '60s and '70s), licensed by BMW and also manufactured in France, Brazil and the UK. The British models were built by Isetta Of Great Britain in Brighton, on the south coast of England. They were certainly cheaper to buy (the Isetta was £377 – £5,000) but initially no less expensive to run than a normal four-wheel car because of UK tax laws – which is why they were redesigned to become a three-wheeler. The Isetta's 1-cylinder, 297cc engine produced 13bhp and could achieve a hair-raising 50mph.
Ah, the Jensen Interceptor! The poster-child of its time, a minnow taking on the contemporary sportscar giants of Jaguar and Aston Martin at their own game. Carrozzeria Touring of – predictably – Italy, were responsible for its great lines. This is a very rare MkI, which extracted impressive performance numbers from its 6,276cc Chrysler V8: 330bhp and a top speed of 137mph, all for £5,300 (£55,000).
The Interceptor initially sold well at the dawn of the '70s, until the oil crisis hit and Austin-Healey terminated their contract subsidising the Interceptor's build. Jensen Motors closed in '75, though the Interceptor returned to very limited production between '83 and '92 and has recently been reborn as the re-built and re-engineered Interceptor R.
The Morris Minor was the British Beetle. It was in production for 22 years, and 1,293,331 were manufactured in many variants, from convertible tourers and saloons to pick-ups and vans. 204,279 wood-framed Travellers were built by the Austin-Morris Division in Oxford, part of the ill-fated British Leyland company, Britain's national car manufacturing firm. Its 1,098cc, 61bhp engine propelled you along Europe's emerging motorway system at an agreeable 73mph – and all for £793 (£8,000).
There's a fine collection of more performance-orientated post-war cars as well, like this 1965 427 Cobra: one of the highest performance road cars ever made.
The 7-litre 427-cubic inch Ford V8 produced 425bhp and meant 0-100mph could be reached in 8.8 seconds and 165mph at full speed if you held on tight. The chassis and bodies were shipped out to the USA from AC in England: surprisingly the Cobras were never marketed back in the UK. £2,700 would have bought you one though – about £35,000 now.
The entrance hall to the museum shows off a selection of off-road endurance and rallying weapons: some less expected than others, like this 1970 Austin Maxi. It was driven on the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally, one of the toughest routes ever: 16,000 miles across Europe, South and Central America. However, my memories of Maxis are not happy: my family owned one for about a year during the '70s, during which it didn't work for… about a year.
There's no mistaking the iconic lines of the 1983 Audi Quattro A2, 2.2-litre, 300BHP, four-wheel-drive rally monster. This A2 was driven to victory by rally legend Hannu Mikkola in the 1985 Hong Kong-Beijng rally (hence the unusual colour scheme).
Ari Vatenen was a childhood hero, from a time when rallying was worth watching. Ari drove this 2-litre, 255bhp RS to victory in the Acropolis, Brazil and 1000 Lakes rallies, plus finished second in the British RAC round – making him 1981 World Champion.
It's not all four- (or even three-) wheels at Beaulieu though: there's a large secondary mezzanine dedicated to bikes. Like the main area, this is a truly comprehensive collection, covering every era of motorcycles. This is not quite the Hog we think of now!
One of the best things at Beaulieu is the enthusiasm and knowledge of the guides. I took two guided tours whilst I was there – reading the info panels is all very well, but an explanation of the cars and added context takes the enjoyment to a different level. With the guides you can get behind the barriers and right up close to the cars. Even better for them, they often get to drive the cars! I now know what I want to do when I retire…
The main collection isn't the only motoring attraction though (and you can't help but love the monorail): I'll be following this introductory piece with some car spotlights and coverage from the other special displays at Beaulieu.