It’s been many years since I last made the trip to the Isle of Man, but this year saw my return. We’d travelled over at the invitation of some friends who had been sufficiently organised to book a cottage during TT week; the centrepiece of the IOM motorcycle road racing calendar. I’m not going to cover the racing in this article, but if you’re reading this website there’s at least a 50/50 chance you like noise, speed and machinery. If so, the TT is a spectacle not to be missed with riders achieving speeds of almost 200 mph on the 37.7 mile Mountain Circuit, made up of closed public roads with lampposts, stone walls, curbs, grids and surface changes galore. We did have a few spare days scheduled after the racing for general tourist activities and I had earmarked a visit to the IOM Motor Museum. To be honest, some visitor reviews had sounded a little hyperventilating in their praise, but I figured it would be a good place to spend half an hour. I may have underestimated.
The museum is a fairly recent addition to the IOM’s tourist trail, having only opened in May 2015. Occupying a modern 70,000 sq ft building on the former RAF Jurby site, it is the creation of father and son Denis and Darren Cunningham, and they’ve clearly approached the project with the ethos of doing it properly. The museum houses around 400 vehicles, 150 from the Cunningham’s own personal collection and 250 on loan. To describe the result as merely eclectic doesn’t really do it justice. My fellow visitor mused that it’s almost as if the stocking strategy had been to go onto eBay, search for “odd vehicle” and click “buy it now”. About 400 times. In truth, you can pick up upon the themes running through the collection but almost every exhibit is somewhat out of the ordinary for one reason or another. At the risk of sounding a little hyperventilating in my praise, it is probably the finest car zoo I’ve attended in living memory.
It’s worth noting at the offset how well lit the place is, with plenty of natural light and no dark corners. Too often you can find yourself stumbling around in the gloom attempting to get a usable photograph of some old rammel, but not here. Everything is well laid out and whilst the hall is full to the brim with cars and bikes, there’s still enough space to stand and ponder. So, what shall we ponder first? It seems fitting to start with a local car, the Peel P50.
The Peel Engineering Company was based only a few miles away from the museum. Known for producing fibreglass marine hulls and motorcycle fairings, the company expanded into car production and in 1962 they launched the P50 onto an unsuspecting public. The market for tiny microcars was already well established but even in a world of Messerschmitts and Isettas the P50 was, well, microscopic. At just 134cm long by 99cm wide and barely even tipping the scales at the 56kg, it remains the smallest production car ever made. It’s so small that the lack of reverse gear is no impediment when caught in a tight spot as the P50 is equipped with a handle on the tail so it can be can be picked up and rotated like a wheelbarrow. Power came from a 49cc DKW engine which provided enough thrust to attain a top speed just short of 40 mph, but that looks like quite enough to be honest. For enthusiasts of statistics, the official power output is rated as 4.2bhp, and yes that decimal point is in the correct place. We noted the museum’s example appeared to be sporting EBC Green Stuff performance brake pads, but I expect choice may be limited in that regard rather than being any nod to land speed ambitions. I can’t imagine what else shares that brake pad fitment though. Peel sold around fifty cars before debuting the less successful Trident in 1965. After a short dabble making fastback bodies for BMC Mini mechanicals, Peel exited the car market in 1969. These days, a P50 could set you back six figures so considering an original list price of £199 it must have provided a better investment than virtually anything else on sale in 1962.
The Peel is small by any measure, but the museum counterbalances this with a number of vehicles which could almost fit a microcar within their luggage compartment. A fine selection of 50s and 60s Americana includes an ex-White House 1965 Lincoln Continental limousine, a 1959 Cadillac Miller Meteor ambulance and enough hearses and flower cars to open a moderately sized funeral directors. The eight-doored 1968 Oldsmobile Tornado AQC Jetway 707 needed an extra-large parking space to accommodate its length of 28 feet. Fifty two of these fifteen seater monsters were produced for airport transfer work by American Quality Coachwork (real name). The two-door Oldsmobile Tornado Coupé being chosen as the platform due to it being front wheel drive which allowed AQC to extend the body backwards without concern for the running gear. Keeping the vast Olds company is a GM Greyhound Scenicruiser coach, a vehicle which would actually accommodate the Peel P50 in its hold. Whilst we’re thinking America, don’t confuse the origins of the 1974 Dodge SE; it’s actually a right-hand drive car assembled in South Africa and has spent most its life on the Isle of Man.
Seeing as we’re celebrating 100 years of Zagato, I’ll give a nod to the awfulness of the Autech Zagato Stelvio all the way from 1991. Autech was a tuning subsidiary of Nissan and the Zagato Stelvio was an attempt to build a luxury specialist car for the Japanese market. Based on the Nissan Leopard and powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6, Zagato clearly had an off-day when it came time for their input, featuring such innovations as rear view mirrors clumsily faired into the bonnet and panel gaps you could ride a horse through. It bears a resemblance to the slightly earlier Alfa Romeo SZ, but whereas that car is genuinely striking, the Autech looks more like something the work experience student knocked up on a quiet morning. It didn’t sell well.
I recently spotted a rare Facel Vega Excellence at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, but the museum boasts of having three in their possession – or perhaps three and a half. Granted, they’re not all in museum condition as such, but it’s an impressive line-up and will keep the on-site restoration workshop busy when it gets to their turn.
French industrialist Jean Tastevin had an ambition to build a patriotic successor to the Facel Vega and two survivors of his failed Monica project were parked across the room from the Facels. Compromising on his Gallic principles he turned to British engineer Chris Lawrence of Deep Sanderson fame to develop the prototype. The result was an advanced design featuring a lightweight box section chassis, an aluminium body fabricated by Maurice Gomm, race developed suspension and a small 2.8-litre all-alloy V8 sourced from the Pearce-Martin F1 car. Finished in a deep aubergine colour, the first prototype was completed in 1968 and presented to Tastevin, who promptly hated it. Subsequent prototypes saw the aluminium body restyled and changed to steel in an effort to reduce costs, which increased weight. The unfinished shell in the museum is the last of the aluminium prototypes but close to the final production styling. Engine development was hampered by the sub-contractors going out of business and a requirement to enlarge the cubic capacity to cope with the increasing weight of the body led to head gasket problems. A decision to ditch the Martin V8 in favour of a proven 5.6-litre Chrysler engine should have solved the problems, but it was found to be poorly suited to higher European cruising speeds and required additional bespoke development. The adoption of the Chrysler engine led to the model being designated Monica 560 V8 and production finally got underway in 1972, just in time for the oil crisis to loom over the horizon. Sales never gathered pace and after a production run of only 40 cars, the company folded in 1975.
Talking of duplicates, you can also see a literal stack of FIAT Vignale Samanthas. Only around 100 of these stylish coupés were made by Carrozzeria Vignale, based upon the then well regarded FIAT 124 and 125 saloons. The Samantha featured the proven Fiat 100bhp 1.6-litre twincam engine and 5-speed transmission providing brisk but not startling performance, with the real honours going to the body. It’s unmistakeably Italian. The rear three quarters recall the Fiat Dino and the recessed pop up headlamps are slightly redolent of a Lamborghini Miura, if you squint a bit. Unfortunately, for all its prettiness and four seater practicality it was expensive to build and was never marketed as a mainstream Fiat model so sales volumes were low. Despite the exclusivity of only 100 units, survival rates are pretty minimal, perhaps due to its humble underpinnings failing to measure up against real exotica. The museum has four of the six right hand drive Samanthas produced and plans to restore three, though the remaining one is pretty far gone.
The Isle of Man is already home to a number of motorcycle collections, but the Motor Museum houses more and includes a small collection of TT memorabilia. We’re not noted for our motorcycle coverage on ViaRETRO and my own appreciation of them is more from an aesthetic perspective rather than having any particularly detailed knowledge. Nonetheless, even those with only a passing interest wouldn’t fail to be impressed with over 200 machines on display ranging from a 1902 Clement through to the almost present day. As you would expect, all the famous marques are shown from Sunbeams, Velocettes, Indians, and of course the Nortons which became synonymous with the Mountain Circuit. As beautiful as some of the old British bikes are, my eye is always drawn to the Japanese Kawasakis and Hondas from the 1970s onwards which brought riders a new level of quality and reliability, and I’m a shameless moth for a bright colour scheme. The bikes are largely found on two mezzanine levels which also serve as platforms where you can look around and goggle at the floor below. Anyway, goggling at cars is easier than taking photos of bikes which always seem to go semi translucent against anything other than a completely plain background. But you get the idea. Incidentally, one unexpected four wheeled piece of TT related automobilia on display is Joey Dunlop’s Austin Rover Mini; the former road racing champion clearly preferred a slower pace for his daily domestic duties.
My one concern with museums is that cars deteriorate if they’re just left to sit, so I was glad to learn that most of the exhibits here are in operational condition and they’re occasionally let out to stretch their legs. As a result, displays are rotated which would seem as good a reason as any for making a return visit. I could have stayed there all day, but my travelling companions were fractionally better adjusted members of society and reminded me that we had a plane to catch, or some such administrative detail. Next time I’m on the island though, I’d be happy to linger longer.