Sunday 7th January saw the first Sunday Scramble of the season at Bicester Heritage.
With our cars either tucked up for winter, in a million pieces or in the wrong country, Anders had decided to seek out alternative appropriate transport rather than use one of our moderns. Most of the journey down from Derbyshire is on dual carriageway and motorway so something long legged was called for, perhaps a grand saloon with space, grace and pace. Maybe we could source a powerful sports car with a touring capability far in excess of our requirements, so we could cruise down without breaking a sweat. Certainly, long range and comfort is all important for such a journey in the depths of a cold January. His solution was a car with a wheelbase approximately the same as his own extensive height; a Mini. The car in question is owned by Moray Wedderburn and has been previously featured on these very pages. There’s no doubt it’s a nicely presented Mini, a late Cooper Works with a 1275cc fuel injected engine and a modicum of sound deadening, but maybe not first choice for a 325 mile round trip with barely a corner to deal with. Still, if they won the Monte Carlo rally three times, we could deal with a hard Derbyshire frost…
The crisp winter sunshine had clearly enticed a large number of visitors out of their warm beds. For the first time in our experience we had to queue out onto the road whilst a menacing jet black Dodge Charger filled our tiny mirrors. We passed the time amusing ourselves by critiquing the surrounding traffic in a manner unlikely to ever make it to print. The Bicester site comprises of a large grass airfield and a maze of access roads between the old RAF buildings in one corner, and it was into this maze we threaded the Mini to park up outside the huge hangar occupied by vehicle storage specialists, Historit. It’s the very fabric of the environment that sets Bicester apart, and the high quality facilities are all housed within the beautifully preserved original buildings. So unusual is this level of preservation that instead of meeting the same fate as many surplus aerodromes and being bulldozed for housing, Bicester was designated as a Conservation Area which ultimately allowed a far more worthy second life to begin. The development undertaken since our last visit is noticeable but not intrusive, and future plans for entirely new buildings are unlikely to threaten the special atmosphere. So, with Anders carefully unfolded out of Issigonis’ finest, we had cars to see.
A strong turnout of Porsche 924s included the historic rally car of Chris Valentine. The 924 is often unfairly maligned by 911 owners as having humble VW origins and “the engine from a van”, but I‘m not entirely sure what they understand the origins of their own cars to be. The first front engined Porsche to be launched, the 924 is somewhat unbelievably 42 years old this year and is ageing well. It may be overshadowed by the 944 but the balanced weight distribution, bargain basement pricing and low running costs make it a good budget competition car and Chris has been rallying his for three years now. Only the handbrake being side mounted rather than centrally creates an issue for spinning around a tight hairpin, but I’d expect they would have been modified in period to sort that, thereby allowing the same today. Accompanying Chris’s car was a rare 924 GTS, an early indication of the 944 styling that was soon to evolve.
More German perfection was found close by in the form of a genuine left-hand-drive BMW Alpina B6 2.8. Although looking like an E21 3 Series with a few stripes, the Alpina is a proper piece of kit with the heart being a 2.8 litre straight six producing 218 bhp. This delivered 0-60mph in under 7 seconds which for a saloon in 1982 was not exactly hanging about. A total of 533 of these bespoke cars were built and the example at Bicester was a real stunner. If you’re not familiar with Alpina interiors of the era, then Google is your friend as strong sunlight and closed windows conspired against decent photographs, but suffice to say it’s not just the outside that’s stripey. We found a much older BMW in a nearby workshop. Launched in 1936, the original 328 had immediate success in motorsport and was a dominant class winner until the war intervened. All that engineering wouldn’t go to waste however as it formed the basis of the first post war Bristols, with the likeness clear to see. This one was sharing garage space with a BMC Landcrab – strange stablemates by any standards and more proof that you never know quite what you’ll find at Bicester.
One of 533 Buchloe built Alpina B6 and in amazing condition.
A couple of Japanese classics next, found lurking in the company of a Citroen 2CV and an Austin Seven. First of these was an immaculate Toyota Sprinter Trueno, the pop-up light variant of the more familiar AE86 hatchback. Never sold in the UK, this car was an import in full JDM tuning specification with ground hugging ride height and wide alloys. Having owned an AE86 previously I appreciate the handling and balance of the standard car and the lowering kit will have altered that, but you couldn’t argue with the condition and to a younger generation it would be very evocative of a thousand Playstation games. I sold mine many years ago when spares were getting difficult to find, but the Internet has now made it much easier to get parts from all over the world and there’s a lot of interest in keeping the survivors alive, and that must be a good thing. Alongside was a 1975 Nissan Sunny GX Coupe, sitting pretty on wide superlight style wheels in a fetching shade of light blue. Not quite a sheep in wolf’s clothing but looking more sporty than its 1171cc might be able to honour, it’s a clean design and utterly charming. There was a time when this era of Japanese car seemed to be completely extinct, but they’re gaining more recognition now and import agents are only a click of the mouse away.
Clean cut and stylish mini-coupé from the Land of the Rising Sun.
I’ve been in danger of Opel Manta overload recently, but I can’t miss commenting on the smart metallic blue Berlinetta we found. A pre-facelift car in coupé form, it looked stunning in the morning sunlight and certainly grabbed our attention away from the exotica all around. The only thing that made us hesitate from wanting to drive it home right now was the automatic gearbox, but we surmised that was probably the feature which contributed to its survival and kept it away from hooligans and boy racers (like me, basically). Keeping us company for the day was Tony Wawryk who had parked his Golf yellow BMW 2002 Tii with the BMW Car Club. Tony had actually brought three identical BMWs along, respectively in 1:1 scale, 1:18 and 1:76. That’s dedication to the cause! With my 02 in storage and Anders’ cars variously scattered, it was great to see Tony’s car out and looking as smart as ever. I’m not sure familiarity will ever breed contempt, but once in a while I realise again how good looking a car they really are, when all I do is fixate on keeping mine maintained and presentable. Sometimes it’s worth taking a literal step back for a better look.
We’re not big Ferrari lickers, but when did you last see a blue F40? Probably never as they were only officially available in red. This one was latterly white with various non-standard bits of body work which meant it could be bought at the right price. I suspect this term is relative. It was then put back to standard bodywork and painted blue to show off the carbon fibre weave. There’s no doubt that it’s effective and if the purists are appalled, all the better.
The challenge with Bicester is knowing where to focus. In the Pendine workshop sits a Jaguar Mk2 being taken back to a bare shell, a 1955 Long Nose D-Type on stands, a semi-lightweight E-Type, a 1950s era Ferrari grand prix car in an advanced state of stripping, and the spaceframe of a 1959 Aston Martin DBR4 single seater with all innards on display. In truth, it’s actually a recreation dating from 1982 built using period components and recently acquired as a box of bits again. It’s earned a history in its own right and is hiding nothing (quite literally on the day we visited). More importantly, it qualifies for a Historic Technical Passport so is eligible for competition and entry at all the best events. So is it a replica, an “evocation”, a copy? Call it what you want, but there is no doubting the engineering and skills that are going into getting it fired up again.
A more contemporary grand prix car was present elsewhere in the form of a Leyton House CG901. The short-lived team only lasted two years from 1990 to 1991 and results were less than impressive with frequent retirements being the order of the day. The one moment of glory came at the 1990 French Grand Prix at a very hot and sticky Paul Ricard circuit where an attempt to complete the race distance on one set of tyres almost paid off with a win. A huge upset saw Ivan Capelli hang on to second place with Ferrari’s Alain Prost, having been forced to stop for fresh rubber, only getting past again with three laps to go. The team never came close to repeating this success again, reverted to the March name in 1992 and folded a year later. The comparative lack of sponsorship meant a distinctive clean livery, and very photogenic it was too in the late morning sunshine. Back down to earth again and a fantastically sheddy Austin A35 trials car was maybe more relevant to our motorsport budget. With barely a straight panel, it told a story of hard use and lots of fun, no doubt having been given a new lease of life at the point when most people would have just thrown it away.
It’s always difficult to decide on your own “car of the day”. The Jaguar XJS TWR with the full fat 6.0 V12 was in with a shout, but missed out by not having a manual gearbox. The white Lancia Delta Integrale complete with Martini stripes was a nice change from the usual red, and I did like the mid-eighties Audi 80 sport wearing original Ronals, from a time before Audi lost all direction and self-respect. The right-hand-drive 1964 Pontiac Parisienne was pretty special too, a vast pillarless four door saloon with stacked headlamps. We’re not sure what the story is regarding right-hand-drive, but a bit of research indicates there was such a thing available from the factory, so perhaps it had Australian or South African history. If we see it again, we’ll try to find out more.
A chat with MD of Bicester Heritage, Dan Geoghegan confirmed that the day had been a great success with an estimated 4,000 tickets sold, 75% of them pre-sold. How many cars that translates into is difficult to estimate as the many nooks and crannies of the site can accommodate large numbers with ease, but our conservative assessment would be perhaps 1,000 classics but very possibly more, and that’s not counting the ones that live on site. On a freezing January day with the roads covered in salt, that’s impressive to say the least. As the crowds thinned out we walked back through the site and all was quiet except for a large happy dog with a small squeaky ball. We fired the Mini up and pointed North. Simple pleasures.
For more information on Bicester Heritage, visit their website: Bicester Heritage