Su­per­sonic 1969 Test

James Wal­she gets funky with three Six­ties leg­ends and one sonic boom su­per­star

Practical Classics (UK) - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS MATT HOW­ELL

As­ton Martin V8, Bris­tol 411 and Ford Capri take on Con­corde.

If ever a year came to rep­re­sent a cul­tural and tech­no­log­i­cal leap in our life­time, it is 1969. Lead­ing sev­eral great bounds for hu­man progress, Monty Python was cleared for broad­cast on the BBC, The Bea­tles proved you could per­form mu­sic any­where by do­ing five num­bers on a Sav­ile Row rooftop and the death penalty was abol­ished in the UK. Mean­while, 350,000 hip­pies de­scended on Wood­stock, Boe­ing un­veiled the 747, Bowie blew our minds with the re­lease of Space Odd­ity and on that note, for the first time in its four-bil­lion year his­tory of so­lar or­bit, the moon re­ceived its first vis­i­tor in the form of one Mr N Arm­strong of Wa­pakoneta, Ohio.

And then there was Con­corde. Amer­ica’s Jumbo could fly more peo­ple fur­ther but… well… it was a bit of a dumpling to look at, wasn’t it? Con­corde made its maiden flight in 1969 and flew straight into the hearts of ev­ery right-think­ing baby boomer on earth. The wob­bly com­mer­cial re­al­i­ties are well-doc­u­mented but, for now, it’s 1969 and, hav­ing had a poke around a pe­riod car park, we’ve cho­sen three ex­tremely groovy cars launched in one ex­tremely cool year: the As­ton Martin DBS, Bris­tol 411 and the Ford Capri, for a trip from Brook­lands to Bris­tol.

Our planned route will be­gin at the home of an ‘ex-demon­stra­tor’ Con­corde, now housed at Brook­lands, be­fore pass­ing British Air­ways’ Heathrow base and then head­ing west­bound on the M4 – fol­low­ing the path Con­corde reg­u­larly took on its daily sched­uled flight to New York. After a few scenic stops along the way, we’ll end up at Fil­ton and the newly opened Aero­space Bris­tol com­plex – home of the very last of the su­per­sonic air­lin­ers to fly in 2003. So, throt­tles open, af­ter­burn­ers ig­nited and, in the words of ev­ery Con­corde cap­tain on the run­way thresh­old: ‘Brakes off, 3-2-1… now!’

Chocks away

Cov­ered in a film of dew, Con­corde ‘Delta Golf’ glis­tens in the morn­ing sun­shine at Brook­lands as pho­tog­ra­pher Matt How­ell and I sip cof­fee un­der­neath the wing. Our con­ver­sa­tion is in­ter­rupted by the ap­proach­ing re­ver­ber­a­tion of two thun­der­ous V8s and sure enough, our two su­per­cars ap­pear – Brian An­der­son’s As­ton Martin V8 look­ing re­splen­dent in Mada­gas­car Brown, while at the wheel of his ma­jes­tic blue Bris­tol 411 is the out­stand­ingly named John­nie Gal­lop. I am dis­ap­pointed to ob­serve John­nie is sport­ing nei­ther a sergeant ma­jor’s mous­tache nor fly­ing hel­met.

Hand­shakes are ex­changed and Jeff Co­hen’s im­mac­u­late 1972 Capri ar­rives to the sound of grown men coo­ing, its fine lines and pro­por­tions draw­ing im­me­di­ate ad­mi­ra­tion and nos­tal­gic in­ter­est from all those present. Mar­ket­ing and PR Man­ager of Brook­lands Paul Ste­wart is par­tic­u­larly keen: ‘My first car was a Capri!’ Mind you, as a lead­ing light at one of Bri­tain’s best mo­tor­ing and avi­a­tion mu­se­ums, these days he’s more into his 1947 Singer Su­per. ‘I love my big fat mud­guards and head­lights!’

Paul is par­tic­u­larly proud of the Con­corde ex­hi­bi­tion at Brook­lands. ‘Delta-golf’ was a de­vel­op­ment of the pro­to­types at Dux­ford and Yeovil, built for eval­u­a­tion test­ing. All through­out the 1970s, it was crammed with po­ten­tial cus­tomers and flown around the earth at Mach 2 to drum up sales to air­lines world­wide.

After re­tire­ment in De­cem­ber 1981, she be­came a spares air­craft, dumped on the air­field at Fil­ton where British Air­ways spent years pick­ing bits off the old bird. As a child on fam­ily shop­ping trips into Bris­tol, I re­mem­ber pass­ing by on the A38 and feel­ing sad as, pe­ri­od­i­cally, an­other chunk of it van­ished. It man­aged to avoid the scrap­man, though; and in 2001, Delta Golf was used to test the re­in­forced cock­pit doors re­quired for all air­craft after 9/11. Five years later, she was cut into five sec­tions and car­ried down the M4 to Brook­lands, where she was ex­pertly re­stored by vol­un­teers.

Brook­lands is a must-see mu­seum nowa­days and the su­per­sonic cen­tre­piece is tes­ta­ment to the work of all in­volved. Our farewells with Paul are drowned out by the en­gines of all three cars fir­ing in one colos­sal ca­coph­ony. By the time we’ve reached the main road, Con­corde would have used two tonnes of fuel to cover the same dis­tance – ex­actly what it glugged each day taxi­ing be­tween Heathrow’s Ter­mi­nal 4 and the run­way. We’re prob­a­bly not far be­hind it in our gas guz­zlers…

‘I feel a bit naughty in re­veal­ing the 411 is an ab­so­lute hoot to drive fast ’

Air­borne

Be­fore head­ing out to­wards the M25, there’s a brief stop at the mu­seum gates, where sits ‘G-CONC’ – a 40 per cent scale model of Con­corde that, from 1990, sat not here but at the main en­trance to Heathrow Air­port as an ad­vert for British Air­ways. De­press­ingly, by 2007 the cost of ad­ver­tis­ing there had risen to £1.5m a year so BA pulled out and Emi­rates plonked a 45-tonne Air­bus model in its place. We turn west­bound on to the M4, fol­low­ing the old Lon­don-nyc flight plan. Hov­er­ing off the tail of the As­ton Martin gives us the chance to en­joy that per­fectly pro­por­tioned rump (even the Hill­man Hunter lights look good). It looks sen­sa­tional thun­der­ing along the mo­tor­way, es­pe­cially when sur­rounded by more bul­bous mod­ern metal. A white Porsche Cayenne blud­geons its way past with all the el­e­gance of a high-ve­loc­ity fridge freezer.

The As­ton Martin DBS, as it was known at launch, was the fastest four-seater pro­duc­tion car in the world in 1969. Three years later it be­came known sim­ply as the ‘V8’ and evolved into the brawny grand tourer you see here. Cur­rent owner Brian bought it four years ago. ‘It’s one of those rare things – a car with both mus­cle and class.’ Brian pre­vi­ously owned a 1960 DB4 that, by his own ad­mis­sion, he sold at ex­actly the wrong time back in 2006. ‘They ab­so­lutely rock­eted in value after that. Still, mustn’t grum­ble!’

There’s a much-needed fuel stop at Mem­bury Ser­vices. Still, the econ­omy fig­ures could be worse. In the time it has taken us to travel be­tween Slough and Swin­don, by now Con­corde would have been some­where be­yond the Cor­nish coast at 1350mph, hav­ing so far swal­lowed an as­ton­ish­ing 60,000 litres. John­nie tanks up his Bris­tol with a smile. ‘It’s a great way to use lots of fuel!’ As you’d ex­pect, John­nie’s 411 has been owned by a num­ber of char­ac­ters. It was bought new in 1970 by an es­tab­lished mem­ber of the bird­watch­ing com­mu­nity who made his for­tune mak­ing au­dio record­ings of bird­song.

‘When you buy a Bris­tol, it’s a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. I love the fact it’s nar­row – per­fect when I’m driv­ing around Lon­don,’ beams John­nie. ‘All the parts are easy to source, and it’s straight­for­ward to ser­vice and re­pair too.’ As you’d ex­pect, no two 411s were the same and John­nie says it was nor­mal for the com­pany to take cars back for al­ter­ations. ‘My car wouldn’t have been equipped with elec­tric win­dows or head­rests from new for in­stance, but at some point, it would have gone back to have them fit­ted. That’s just how the com­pany did things.’

Given the firm’s re­luc­tance to al­low mo­tor­ing writ­ers free­dom to test their cars, I feel a bit naughty in re­veal­ing the Bris­tol is a thrill to drive. That 6.3-litre ‘B-se­ries’ Chrysler lump pro­pels it to quite alarm­ing speeds in ex­quis­ite sur­round­ings. It might not be as pretty look­ing as the As­ton, but there’s a very ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence in build qual­ity.

Posh pit stop

The con­voy stops briefly in the Wilt­shire vil­lage of Cas­tle Combe for lunch, where we thread through the pic­ture post­card streets and into a space out­side the Manor Ho­tel. Both As­ton and 411 look in­stantly at home in front of the 14th cen­tury façade and sur­rounded by flaw­less Ital­ian gar­dens but once again, the Capri steals the show with a flurry of ob­servers wan­der­ing over, keen to tell their sto­ries about their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences with the fast Ford. Jeff grew up on them and owns an­other three – plus two MKIIIS and an Es­cort Cabri­o­let.

‘They’re all full of such great mem­o­ries for me. I learned to drive in a Capri MKI and now I’m just try­ing to be young again!’

This ex­am­ple is a 3000GT with the throaty ‘Es­sex’ V6 and a pair of saucy bon­net bulges. There’s a fair bit of Cortina un­der­neath so the Capri is rel­a­tively crude to drive but who on earth cares, when a car goes and looks like this?

We re­join the M4 and re­alise that right about now – just over three hours since we left Brook­lands – Con­corde would have been touch­ing down at JFK (its record time was 2 hours and 52 min­utes in ’96).

The plane’s home in the UK was, and al­ways will be, Bris­tol. It was de­vel­oped and built at the former Fil­ton Aero­drome, whose mas­sive 8000ft run­way was ex­tended ex­actly 70 years ago for the maiden flight of the gar­gan­tuan but ill-fated Bris­tol Brabazon plane. Hav­ing first lum­bered into the sky in Septem­ber 1949, the dou­ble-decker eight-prop leviathan was scrapped just four years later. In­stead, men with pipes turned their at­ten­tions to a su­per­sonic fu­ture util­is­ing what had be­come

‘For the price, noth­ing else could match the ex­otic Capri back in 1969’

known as the Brabazon Han­gar, to which we’ve been given un­prece­dented ac­cess. Built in the late For­ties, it is colos­sal. We stand at the enor­mous doors and gaze into the heav­ens. Through­out the late Six­ties and early Seven­ties, this void was bustling with Con­corde con­struc­tion, work­ers swarm­ing over the planes as they took shape. At this point, the or­der books were full and a grand fu­ture awaited.

On the other side of the run­way, Aero­space Bris­tol is the im­pres­sive new home of Al­pha Fox­trot – the fi­nal Con­corde to be built and the last one to fly. We have the priv­i­lege of bring­ing the cars into its own im­pres­sive new han­gar, which is par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing for John­nie and his Bris­tol, also built here at Fil­ton. There’s a par­al­lel to the demise of both car and plane. By the turn of the cen­tury, su­per­sonic pas­sen­ger num­bers were fall­ing and with the ad­vent of in­ter­net con­fer­ence-call­ing, big ba­nanas on both sides of the pond could Skype each other in­stead of spend­ing £8000 for a re­turn flight aboard a plane that was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly old and ex­pen­sive to main­tain. Mean­while, the lux­ury car buyer’s de­sire for ‘hi-tech’ over ‘hand-built’ saw car man­u­fac­tur­ing at Fil­ton sus­pended in 2011 when Bris­tol Cars went into ad­min­is­tra­tion. The cus­tomer had changed.

Fi­nal reck­on­ings

All three of our as­sem­bled cars pos­sess real magic. The As­ton looks a mil­lion dol­lars, the Bris­tol is en­chant­ing and for the price, noth­ing else could match the Capri back in 1969 – and de­spite hum­ble un­der­pin­nings, it still looks sen­sa­tional to­day. By 1975, 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple owned ‘the car they al­ways promised them­selves’ and of the three, per­haps ob­vi­ously, it is the one you can most eas­ily just hop in and take for a blast.

Nowa­days, while be­ing safer, faster and more re­fined, high-end sports cars are all about the gad­gets while the af­ford­able breed of coupé is all but dead. It is the age of the SUV and tiny screens de­liv­er­ing a mil­lion mes­sages a minute on any­thing from di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal agen­das to recipes. A day spent at Aero­space Bris­tol re­minds us of the big­ger, more im­por­tant stuff: mankind tak­ing to the air and then ex­plor­ing the uni­verse – and a time when hu­mans could drink a cup of tea in com­fort, while cov­er­ing a mile ev­ery three sec­onds.

As with Con­corde, the As­ton Martin V8, Bris­tol 411 and Ford Capri were de­vel­oped in the spirit of smart, in­ven­tive think­ing and close, pro­gres­sive part­ner­ships with nu­mer­ous other na­tions. They rep­re­sent an era of in­no­va­tion and im­mea­sur­able, un­shak­able hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.

THANKS TO…

Aero­space Bris­tol, aerospace­bris­tol.org Brook­lands Mu­seum, brook­landsmu­seum.com, The Manor Ho­tel, Cas­tle Combe

Huge scale model was re­lo­cated to Brook­lands from round­about at Heathrow en­trance.

B-se­ries Chrysler V8 made 411 Bris­tol’s most po­tent car yet.

ABOVE Brabazon Han­gar got a set of the largest doors ever made.

ABOVE Chrysler-en­gined Bris­tol is a bit thirsty.

Cas­tle Combe pro­vides a wel­come break from the M4.

BE­LOW As­ton is a mix of lux­ury and the odd wob­bly switch. It does feel very spe­cial, though.

Es­sex V6 was made in Da­gen­ham and sent to Hale­wood for each Capri V6.

Sheer size of Brabazon Han­gar blows the mind.

Capri is just as recog­nis­able as Con­corde. Both have plenty of grunt too.

Mus­cu­lar trio turned heads wher­ever they went.

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