Sitting in the sunshine at Lincolnshire’s Blyton Park Circuit, the pretty TVR Grantura before us probably has more racing experience that all of the people here combined. One of only 90 Mk 3 cars manufactured by the TVR factory. Chassis Number: 9/686 was supplied brand new in 1963, to Motor Imports and the Peter Owen race team in Sydney, Australia. It was road registered as DJL 370. The story goes that Peter contacted TVR and was appointed the main distributor for Australia, though those who knew him feel that he was more interested in racing TVR than in selling them. Displayed at the Sydney Motor Show, DJL370 was also used for road tests for Sports Car World motoring magazine, Australian Motor Sports in October 1964, as well as Auto Sportsman in November 1964.
Peter then commenced racing the car with some success, including two convincing wins a second and a third in its first four outings at Warwick Farm and Oran Park during 1964. He then had it driven by Kevin Bartlett, or KB, one of the most notable Australian drivers from the 1960’s. An open wheel and touring car driver who went on to win the Macau Grand Prix in 1969, the Bathurst 1000 in 1973, and the CAMS Gold Star, twice. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the car was campaigned by a variety of well known Australian racing drivers before French journalist Christophe Wilmart bought the car in 2003 and shipped it to France. He undertook a comprehensive but sympathetic restoration, retaining the original chassis and panels and building it to FIA Appendix K regulations. In 2007, Colin and Helen Elstrop bought the car and brought it to the UK.
So here we are at Blyton, the pretty TVR sitting in the blazing sunshine, bright blue cloudless skies above. It looks more like Phillip Island, Australia, than Blyton Park, Lincolnshire. Colin snaps open the quick releases and the one piece front end folds forward, revealing the 1800 MG engine, with twin Weber carbs, authentic brass fittings and space frame chassis. Colin and Helen are here to give the car a shakedown test. In just two weeks time, they’ll be racing the TVR in the Le Mans support races, fighting other sports cars of the period. It’s something the pair have been lucky enough to do since 2008, when they were invited to compete at the Le Mans Classic, competing at each bi-annual event. Indeed, in 2012, the man responsible for building the car originally in Australia, Les Merrick, visited France and met Colin and Helen and was reunited with his car. In his seventies, he loved Le Mans and made sure of getting good value on his visit, staying away for the full duration of the event.
McKenna and I look on, Andy discussing with Colin and Helen the art of competing on Dunlop CR65 tyres, while I’m busy shooting the pictures. They’re done with the test and Helen says, “Would you like a few laps?” Open the door and the scent of hot oil, fuel and even hotter fibreglass bodywork makes the cockpit feel slightly claustrophobic at first. McKenna’s into the seat before you can say ‘Arnage’, leaving me to fold myself in half several times to fit into the tiny passenger seat, knees up around my ears.
McKenna has been banging on for years about the Dunlop CR65 race tyre, how he loves it and enjoys racing on it. After ten minutes around Blyton Park alongside him demonstrating just how much fun old racing cars can be, I’m won over. CR65 tyres have a construction that allows movement and flexing of the sidewall. Add in the block tread that twists and moves under cornering loads and you have a tyre characteristic that offers a creative driver the perfect tool for his craft. That iconic stance you see of black and white images of Lotus Cortinas, E-Types and Aston Martins, head on towards the camera, slight oversteer pose, but wheels pointing dead ahead in a lovely, balanced, drift is what the CR65 tyres is all about. Quite simply, once you’ve acquired the driving style, you could drive around all day long, it’s such a great feeling.
The little TVR’s 1800 engine pulls strongly, it’s current cam setup optimised for midrange. Shifting a little earlier than you may think actually gives very brisk progress. McKenna works to get the car set up early into the turn and establish that cornering balance, steering wheel rolling to the straight ahead by the time we’re at the apex, with just a suggestion of opposite lock on the exits. After ten minutes, we feel we could be overstaying our welcome in someone else’s racing car, so we roll into a cooling down lap before heading back in, a few more flies than before now established around the headlights.
With the value of historic racing cars becoming stratospheric, it’s good to see that there is still a way to compete in iconic events, at international level and be successful without spending a six figure sum on acquiring a car. Watch out for the car at Le Mans 24 Hours once more this year.
Sadly, in the days after we drove at Blyton, Colin and Helen received news that the cars original builder, Les Merrick, had passed away in Australia.
Thanks to Colin and Helen Alstrop and to Richard Usher of Blyton Park http://www.blytonpark.co.uk/
Words and pictures copyright Neill Watson. Additional input and driving by Andy McKenna