Mo­tor­ing Alan Judd


The Oldie - - NEWS -

The red bon­net is about five feet high, the wheels come up to your hips and it snorts and roars.

Flames shoot from the open ex­haust ports when you gun it, roast­ing any­one try­ing to pass on the near­side. It has four seven-and-a-half-inch pis­tons, two just-vis­i­ble in­stru­ments, down near the ped­als, and a hand­brake and gear lever out­side the body.

You grip the wide steer­ing wheel, inches from your chest, air pres­sure to the tank is pumped by a brass lever be­neath the pas­sen­ger’s legs, and the fuel cut-off is be­neath the driver’s legs. Cu­bic ca­pac­ity is about twenty-eight litres. For more than a cen­tury, it has been known as the Beast of Turin.

It is in fact a Fiat S76. They made two in 1911 to break the world speed record, achiev­ing it with 116mph over the fly­ing mile at Salt­burn Sands in York­shire. Af­ter a num­ber of other feats, on and off race tracks, the two cars were aban­doned and (al­most) for­got­ten about.

In 2002, a lover of vet­eran ve­hi­cles, Dun­can Pit­t­away, repa­tri­ated the rolling chas­sis of one Beast from Aus­tralia and spent the next decade mat­ing it with the re­built en­gine of the other.

Body, ra­di­a­tor and gear­box had to be re-cre­ated from orig­i­nal Fiat draw­ings and pho­to­graphs. Ev­ery­thing, down to the last nut and bolt, had to be stripped and re­paired or re-en­gi­neered. I’d like to be able to say, Reader, I drove it – but I can’t, not quite. But I can say I was driven in it by Mr Pit­t­away, and that it’s an au­to­mo­tive ex­pe­ri­ence un­like any other.

To start with, there are the sound ef­fects. It fires up like a re-run of the Sec­ond World War, a se­ries of ex­plo­sions echo­ing across the rolling land­scape of Good­wood, where we were play­ing with it. For­tu­nately, the win­dows of the house re­mained in­tact.

Be­fore set­tling down to what, in its terms, is con­sid­ered smooth tick-over, it shakes like a trac­tor bounc­ing across a frozen, ploughed field. You climb in by way of the cart-spring sus­pen­sion and rear wheel and sit lean­ing half out so as not to in­hibit Mr Pit­t­away’s mus­cu­lar con­trol.

If, like me, you ne­glect pe­riod leather head­piece and gog­gles, the wall of flame in your face on ac­cel­er­a­tion soon has your head al­most on Mr Pit­t­away’s shoul­der. If you hadn’t shaved that morn­ing, you’d no longer need to.

He ac­tu­ally races the thing at speeds well above 100mph. He drives it on the roads, too, re­cently tak­ing it to Cologne at a re­strained 85mph on the au­to­bahn, as­ton­ish­ing his Ger­man hosts who as­sumed that elf and safety would long ago have shot him. It must be won­der­fully, joy­fully pol­lut­ing.

On the Good­wood track he han­dled it with verve and skill, es­pe­cially as the foot­brake was play­ing up and he had only the hand­brake. Had he been fool­ish enough to let me have a go, we’d doubt­less have left the track and set the woods on fire.

It is im­pos­si­ble not to ad­mire the ded­i­ca­tion of men such as Mr Pit­t­away and his team. No price can be put on the Beast but, for Mr Pit­t­away and oth­ers of his ilk, that’s not the point; the Beast is his pas­sion.

He re­stores and drives th­ese old crea­tures as they were meant to be driven, for love of the things them­selves, not for re­ward or as a shel­ter for capital.

Such dis­in­ter­ested en­thu­si­asm for inan­i­mate man­u­fac­tured things is, to me, an en­dear­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the hu­man en­deav­our and ded­i­ca­tion that went into build­ing them. It’s en­gi­neer­ing as an art form.

Long may it thrive.

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