Steady rain is dripping down my neck as I swing the buckle of the ratchet strap over centre to release it. The webbing is soaked and dirty from the road spray it’s collected en-route to the track and I can feel the water being expelled between my fingers as I pull the reluctant, rain swollen strap through the slot, the final part flicking up past my face, spitting more dirty road water down my cheek. I love it when that happens.
The rest of the straps are now undone and the Frazer Nash is rolled gently down onto the paddock. If anything, the rain is increasing, dripping down my nose. What on earth are we doing? Good question. Because if I’d just parted with the required sum to become the owner, or custodian, of an authentic vintage, pre-war Frazer Nash racing car, then choosing a track with little run-off and a soaking wet day as my first familiarisation would not be my idea of fun. But new owner Paul Waine is undeterred. Unzipping the tonneau, he climbs into the cockpit and flicks the ignition. She starts immediately, after what seems like less than half a crank throw, Paul gently blipping her until she’s happy to idle, before shutting her off and climbing back out. The test track is Teesside Autodrome, the date is spring 2012, we’re enduring that horrible spring when it rained forever and we’re here with Paul and driver coach Andy McKenna to see what pre-war racing cars are all about.
Seventies F1 was my era. JPS Lotus, Yardley McLaren and ELF Tyrrell were the images I grew up with. Vintage racing has been something I’ve always viewed with a combination of mild interest and secret awe that in a modern age, people will still want to race a car with no crash protection or event seatbelts, meaning that you’re probably going to be doing starfish man impressions through the air in the even of a shunt. The tyres don’t have the sexiness of a seventies slick and there are no DFV’s, so I’ve tended to have only a passing interest. But standing here as the rain penetrates my footwear, I’m fascinated by the engineering.
The chassis is, shall we say, stout. That’s stout in a Forth Road Bridge context. A pair of ladder rails, suitably triangulated, webbed and spanned are in plain view beneath the bodywork. The body is hand rolled alloy, a long nose culminating in a beautiful hand brased radiator shell, bonnet covers louvred and secured by a leather strap of suitable patina. Where the brave driver’s right hand might rest, outside of the narrow cockpit, a steel shaft protrudes, with a vertical grip polished from the use of many racers across the decades. That’s the gearshift. We follow Paul around the car as he points out the salient aspects. The small aero screen is fitted for race use. On the roads, the car has a full width windscreen. Yes, she’s road legal.
“The gearshift is flipped, the opposite of a modern ‘box”, says Paul. “So first is where third is, second is forth, then across and inboard for third.” Add in the fact that it’s situated on the outside of the car, your elbow just inches from the rear wheel as you shift and you can imagine it focusses your attention. Pedals, thankfully, are the standard layout, brake in the centre. Paul reaches into the cockpit, lifts up the seat cushion and displays the gearbox layout. Not hidden away in a casing, the gears and chain drive are in full view. Chain drives, easily a half inch thick, are spinning just a few inches below the driver’s buttocks, being driven by stout gears. The gear level disengages one chain drive and engages another to change ratios. Lubrication is by the splash method, the gears and chains running in a spray of EP90 which today is creating some colourful patterns on the drip tray / floor of the gearbox it mixes with the rain spearing over our shoulders. I’m transfixed and fascinated by the mechanism, the whole stoutness of the engineering something more akin to the drive of a town hall clock that a race car.
Time to drive. No Nomex race suit today, you’d be soaked and a candidate for pneumonia in minutes. Paul struggles into some stout Musto Yachting wear before donning his full face Bell as the rain continues to pummel us. Magnetos on, starting again is instant, Paul heads out to see just how little grip there is today. The race tyres are ever so tall, deeply treaded and should, theoretically, cut through standing water admirably, which they do. They do not, however, have the grip required to put all of the power down. We watch as Paul gets his eye in, driving a few laps before pulling in to hand over to McKenna. He’s looking thoughtful. Petersen coloured Arai donned, jacket zipped up to the neck, he heads out to get a handle on the Nash. One lap, onto the back straight, he rolls to a halt. Broken? No, he’s thinking. He comments afterwards, “The gearshift just needed a bit of re-programming up top. Once you have the pattern mapped in your head, it’s actually very similar to modern dog-box for feel. The faster you move it, the better it feels.”
There’s no differential, of course. McKenna has ten minutes seat time in the Frazer Nash and he’s forming a viewpoint. “It really makes you think. The rear axle is solid meaning that inherent understeer must be overcome, then a rapid transition to oversteer is always incoming. Watch the fast guys who race these period cars today and you’ll see that the top runners let the cars go to oversteer, but then the subsequent correction is one that lets the car take a ‘set’, holding a slight oversteer attitude whilst cornering, steering inputs quite small. Catch the oversteer attitude completely and you go back to mild understeer, then back to oversteer. The corners take on a Thrippenny Bit shape, not the fastest or most elegant.”
The sting in the tail can be that the steering lock is restricted. Too much oversteer, you’re going to feel that ‘thunk’ through the wheel as you start going for Plan B and the brake pedal. McKenna and Paul talk in that animated racing driver style, holding the imaginary wheel, posturing the imaginary oversteer as they compare notes. We take a closer look at her. Built in 1935, AHX 389, chassis 2073 was deilvered new to Henry Porter-Hargreaves who already owned another Frazer Nash. In 1935, he ordered the car to be built as a TT replica, but chose light weight rather than a supercharged Gough engine, hence the car became known as The Elektron Nash. Many of the car parts were cast from Magnesium alloy. In the thirties, this was new and experimental and the big German foundry called Magnesium Elektron supplied compontents to many race cars, hence it’s name. One of the last chain driven Frazer Nash’s before the company moved over to the BMW engine and drive train, her first race was at Donington in 1935. The following year, she was to 21-year old Cambridge student Ivo Peters. Peters (nickname “Chip”) altered the tail of the car, fitting a downward curving shape from just behind the two seats which, together with the external exhaust that this car always had, gave it a more racy look. Ivo Peters was quickly seen to be a fast young driver. In the 1936 Leinster Trophy, held on the roads of Tallaght south of Dublin, he was fastest in practice in the Elektron Nash and broke the course record twice. However in the race the car selected two chains at once and instantly retired. A month later he was lying third in the Limerick Grand Prix until a conrod let go on the penultimate lap. Peters sprinted, hill-climbed and raced the car for the remainder of the year including at Shelsley Walsh, Donington and Brooklands. He was awarded the Twentyman Cup by the Frazer Nash Car Club for his efforts before moving on to an Alfa Monza for 1937.
After the war Ken Miles, later of Shelby Cobra and GT40 fame, purchased the car and fitted her with a 3.6-litre flathead V8 Ford engine. While a popular mod at the time, it must have been pretty fearsome in the wet. He campaigned the car for several years, known as the Miles Nash with the V8 fitted. Later, still with the V8 installed, she was sold to stunt man Barry du Boulay and was then rebuilt by Philip Begley with a 1500cc Meadows engine and returned to her original registration number of CMH 497 in the late 1960s. At some point, the original Gough engine was restored, which is the state of build she is in to this day. A racing car all her life, various scrutineering stickers and emblems from the Charente in France bear testimony to the stories she could tell across the decades of racing.
No sunflowers today. Jump in… It’s still raining, hasn’t stopped all day. How much wetter can I get? Why Not… Swing a leg over the low door, the cockpit is tight, I angle my body slightly to fit. No seat belts, no windscreen even on my side. McKenna drops into first and we launch down the soaking track. Spray from the front wheels is hitting my face, the rain hammers my forehead, wind into my mouth taking my breath away…. And we both get the giggles, laughing out loud. Even taking into account the enhanced sensation of speed from our vulnerable positions, the Elektron Nash is a quick old girl. The end of the main straight needs a big push on the brakes, we turn in, McKenna picking up the throttle, working to get that oversteer set and held, in a gentle drift, right around Teesside’s South Bank. You can feel the sweet spot and how it must be tricky to attain and hold. Chances are the more you relax with her, the better it will drive. Power out of the corner is still pretty quick by modern standards, not up there with a DFV, but certainly respectable and more than enough to make the chassis work.
We roll to halt. I see the addiction, the challenge in racing these old Vintage race cars now. They’ve been around for decades, often outliving their owners, passing from one racer to another. If you could sit them down with a glass of malt and a cigar by an open fire, you’d hear some amazing stories. We’re done for the day now, Paul’s achieved what he wanted. An experienced racer, he knows not to make the fatal decision of, “Just one last run.” We load the Elektron Nash back onto the trailer, squeezing the water from the straps, we secure her down and she rolls out of the car park. Hopefully next time we see her the sun will be shining and the Bell helmet will have flies on it, not road spray.