The smallest engine in the race. Huge Bentleys and missile-quick Talbots ready to gobble it up and spit out the bones. Bugattis with honour to uphold and no wish to be distracted by something so minuscule. But it’s the end of the first lap of the 2010 Le Mans Classic, Plateau 1 for pre-war Le Mans cars, and Austin Seven Speedy number 62 is by no means at the back of the field.
You can see it nipping through the corners, braking late, making up in nimbleness what it lacks in outright urge (there’s only so much you can do with 747cc and 35bhp). Its exhaust note is light, keen, crisp; its wheels are like gossamer. It looks like a toy.
But if cars have memories, it certainly seems to know its way round the track, even if the track isn’t quite the same as it was in 1935. For that is when this same Austin, entered by Harry Ferguson’s Austin Agency and Motor Works in Belfast (yes, that Harry Ferguson, he of four-wheel drive and tractor fame), last visited the circuit near the Sarthe river. Seventy-five years ago, CZ 6324 won the 750cc class in the 1935 24 Hours, John Carr and Jack Barbour driving, and they beat the works Speedy entry by three laps.
Today there is no 750cc class in the Le Mans Classic, and instead of one 24-hour race of (in the Austin’s case) 141 laps, there are three each of 43 minutes and (in the Austin’s case) five laps. But there is the Index of Performance, effectively an engine-capacity equaliser that rewards the cars that most exceed what was expected of them on the basis of the bigger the engine, the faster the car. Sounds perfect for the Speedy’s return.
This is an immaculately turned-out, well-prepared team. The whole project is the idea of Peter Butler, one-time Member of Parliament (he tabled the legislation that exempted cars over 25 years old from road tax) and long-time Austin Seven enthusiast, with two Speedys in his garage. He bought CZ in 1985, already well steeped in 750 Motor Club events, and the restoration began.
Initially it was rebuilt as a road car, but then the idea of a return to Le Mans took root. To race the Speedy there again, after 75 years…what a dream that would be.
Enter Andy Storer, racing-car builder and driver, Austin Seven expert, Le Mans rookie. He, fellow driver Chris Hudson and mechanic Graham Beckett set about making CZ into a reliable, speedy Speedy suitable for a reprise of its racing glory. ‘We put in hours and hours,’ says Andy. ‘There were various oil pressure problems and we had the engine in and out several times. Eventually I rebuilt the engine. Someone in the past had used some silicone sealant and it had got into the relief valve.’
Cars racing at the Le Mans Classic are supposed to be as true to their original specification as possible, but there is a little leeway. The Speedy, for example, has the usual fast-Seven fare of a remanufactured Phoenix crankshaft and connecting rods, still with just two main bearings. It also has a modern regrind of an original Austin Seven camshaft. ‘The Speedy camshaft had massive lift, three-eighths of an inch,’ Andy explains, ‘and very abrupt opening and closing ramps. The shocks would pull the studs out of the bottom of the block. It was never solved. A modern camshaft achieves the same gasflow but is much less aggressive.’
The Speedy certainly looks standard under the bonnet, right down to its simple but efficient Zenith carburettor and that intriguing, transversely mounted, gear-driven dynamo with the distributor on its end. The engine’s sidevalve design is never going to be the last word in gasflow but Andy reckons this one is good for 35bhp. And the entire Speedy weighs only around 400kg.
Racing cars need an oil catch tank, and the Speedy’s has a story of its own. It’s made from a can of Castrol Gas Turbine Oil 98, itself with a Le Mans connection because Andy is involved with the rebuild of the Rover-BRM Le Mans car from 1965. There’s a close-ratio gearbox, two front suspension dampers instead of one for better control and lateral axle location, plus flatter, stiffer rear springs. Racing adaptations from the Speedy’s first track foray include a 12-gallon petrol tank and special Le Mans headlights with a broad spread of light rather than a long-range beam.
We’re in the Le Mans paddock, the Speedy has satisfied the Classic’s thorough and knowledgeable scrutineers, and practice has gone well. ‘The water seems to have found its own level,’ says Ian Bancroft, sharing race-mechanic duties with Graham Beckett and Stewart Ulph. ‘And the brakes have improved now we’ve run them in. It stops in a straight line, which is unusual for a Seven. We’re averaging around 60mph for the lap, and there are ten cars behind us. The interest from everyone here is phenomenal.’
Chris Hudson takes the start for the first race, start time 21:24. There are six Plateaux and this year it’s the turn of Plateau 3 (1957-1961 cars) to start the 24 hours of racing at 16:00. So Plateau 1 has a bit of a wait. ‘Andy and I are both rookies here,’ says Chris, ‘and we’re both like schoolboys! To think that we’re racing the same car that raced here 75 years ago… it’s amazing.
‘It hasn’t missed a beat, even though we didn’t do any track testing before we came, just a few road miles. A damper bolt came loose but we fixed that and the handling is fine.’
Bang on time, the drivers sprint across the road for the Le Mans start, but this isn’t the real start because the cars then form up in grid order and drive round the short circuit back to the start/finish straight for a rolling start. It’s supposed to be a gentle formation lap, but it’s racing speed for the Austin. And here they are after the first full lap, and the Speedy is already killing giants.
The team, tightly managed by experienced race strategist Jeremy Batchelor, will manage five laps per race. Around halfway through, within a specified ‘window’ of time, the car must make a one-and-a-half-minute stop, which is when the drivers change over. It all works perfectly and the Speedy is speeding beautifully. By the end of the race it’s up from 57th on the grid to 45th, and the fastest lap of 9min 19.387sec is a massive 32sec faster than the best qualifying lap. It’s a time the Speedy won’t beat all weekend but it’s still around 3min 40sec a lap slower than the fastest cars in the Plateau, which tend to be the Talbots.
I return to the paddock on Sunday morning, to find Chris elated after the second race, which began at 05:52. ‘It’s that classic early-morning shot with the sun coming up over the Dunlop Bridge, and I was in it! The car is running beautifully – we’ve been up to 75mph on the straight, which is over 5500rpm, and it’s quick in the corners. We’ll back off a little now to get to the finish.’ Fastest lap this time is 9min 23.901sec, race position 39th.
The final race begins at 14:00, and Andy takes the start. It’s looking good, but after the first lap he’s into the pits. ‘A Bugatti spun in front of me,’ Andy blurts, ‘so I had to avoid it and I got onto the gravel, bouncing up and down and shaking the car about. I tried to get a gear but it was a box full of neutrals. I got going but it was jumping out of third, then fourth once. So I came in.’
Andy is too early for the ‘window’ so, as the Speedy is still working, he is sent out for another lap. And back in: ‘It’s OK now.’ Chris takes over and rejoins the race, but the episode has not been disastrous: it has lost the team only about 20 seconds.
Three laps later the race is over, the Speedy has done what owner Peter Butler has long dreamed it could do, and its final aggregate placing is 36th – nearly halfway up the field. It has scored 16th place in the Index of Performance, and Chris, adrenalin in full flow after the final race’s temporal disintegration, did the penultimate lap in a speedy 9min 19.555sec, one of the best of the race. So much for backing off.
A few days later I catch up with Andy Storer again. So, what was it like out there on the track, surrounded by all that heavyweight machinery? Was it just a case of flat-out everywhere and hold on tight? ‘Not at all, surprisingly. It’s a wide, very fast track but I had to drive the Speedy like a modern, braking at the same points, the limits reached in the same way. It’s all third and fourth gears, and sometimes I got to 80mph on the straight.
‘I had a great dice with Tony Dron in that Model T, passing a Bentley on the inside. In fact I passed a number of Bentleys. On the opening lap I drafted past two Bugatti T35s on the curve down to the Mulsanne Straight. One got me back, the other passed on the straight but I did him again. The Speedy is very nimble. I was braking after the 100-metre board, but some were braking even before the 200-metre board.
‘The car was brilliant. It used hardly any oil at all, and it was the heat [in celsius terms, the temperatures that weekend were in the high 30s] that caused the gearbox problem. It fixed itself once the airflow had cooled it a bit.’
Standing next to us as we talk is the Speedy, back home and still immaculate. Time for me to try it for myself.
First impression from within? It’s very small indeed. There’s no under-thigh support at all; didn’t the drivers get seriously sore bottoms? ‘We didn’t notice, actually,’ says Andy, ‘because there was too much else to think about.’ The drivers of 1935, with 24 hours to get through, may have had other ideas.
Everything is neat, light, delicate. Ignition on, pull the starter, hear the eager blare of an engine far crisper and revvier than a single-carb sidevalve should reasonably be. Sevens have a light, short-travel clutch and most people stall them on first encounter. I’ve driven Sevens before and, to my relief, I don’t.
The windscreen is folded down, of course, and Andy in the passenger seat is being blown to bits as we speed up through the gears. The scuttle cowl rises higher on the driver’s side, sending much of the air over my head, but eye protection is still vital.
It’s a fully-unsynchronised gearbox, obviously, but so small and light are the gearwheels and so quick are they to lose speed that swift, crunch-free upshifts are easy and precise, with no need for a pause in neutral. Downshifts demand a double-declutch, but again it’s a quick, effortless process because all is so light and inertia-free.
The engine’s throttle-keenness helps, of course, and is the gateway to a surprising turn of speed. The speedometer doesn’t work and the modern tachometer, fitted for Le Mans, has also gone on strike, but the hardening of the exhaust blare signals the passing of 5000rpm and the engine is in its element. Exceeeding 6000rpm would be unwise, but the engine itself appears blissfully unaware of that fact.
Speeding along bumpy Lincolnshire backroads throws up a snag not encountered at Le Mans, however. The bumps themselves aren’t a problem, but when combined with cambers and the Seven’s typically loose steering around the centre they most certainly are. The car keeps wanting to dive for the ditches, but soon I learn to guide it gently and not fight it. Fast corners show it off better, because now the slack is taken up and, once I’ve got past the feeling of precariousness, I can feel how easily the Speedy drifts on those skinny tyres. How eager it is to change direction, too, for the steering is extremely quick once past the play. On the bumpy, dusty surface of Le Mans in 1935 it must have been hilarious.
‘Start braking now,’ shouts Andy as if he’s forgotten those 100-metre board heroics. It’s true that the pedal needs a very firm prod with little to show for my efforts, but the tiny brakes work and we don’t T-bone the looming trunk road. That’s good.
Yes, after shining twice at Le Mans the Speedy now has an air of immortality. But I’m sure Peter Butler, trusting gentleman as he is, wouldn’t have wanted me to push my luck too far.
Thanks to Peter Butler, Andy Storer, David Morgan and all involved in the Austin Seven Speedy’s return to Le Mans.