Supersonic 1969 Test
James Walshe gets funky with three Sixties legends and one sonic boom superstar
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!’
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 ’
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.
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.
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.