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Jay Leno: The Collector

  • Jay Leno, December 2011 - 0
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The long, long journey to buy a Brooklands car...

I’m fascinated by Brooklands, especially the early years and the aero-engined cars that raced there. I always wanted to have a car that ran on the Brooklands circuit. Right now at the garage we are putting the final touches to a 1934 Rolls-Royce, which has a 27-liter Merlin aircraft engine in it. Using a 3D printer we were able to design and build a manifold at my shop to carry six Webers. I think it will be the only Merlin running with Weber carburation, at least in a Rolls-Royce on the street. But that car never ran at Brooklands.

And I have a 1915 Hispano-Suiza. It’s got a V8 engine in it out of a Spad aircraft; the Hispano V8 was the first V8 aero engine. It’s really the engine that won the war for the Allies. It was built in Spain as Hispano-Suiza, in England under the name Wolseley, in America under the name Wright-Martin. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, you could buy these engines for . Here in the States a lot of people cut them in half and ran them as enormous four-cylinder engines in sprint cars. Sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s those engines dried up, but I got one. It runs through a 1919 Delage bus transmission. It has 300hp and it’s a bit like driving a Gatling gun. But it never ran at Brooklands either.

Years ago I tried to track down one of the Chitty Bang Bang cars. Count Louis Zborowski built three; only one remains and it’s in a collection in Maine. About 14 years ago it went for something like a million dollars, which seemed outrageous at the time. So recently I was fortunate to find a car called Rabbit 1. I think it’s safe to call it a sister car to the Chitty Bang Bang cars. Rabbit 1 was built by a guy named Charles Scarsbrick as almost an exact copy of the CBB cars; it has a 1910 Mercedes chassis, chain drive, four-speed gearbox, dual chain-drive to the rear, four overhead valves per cylinder, six cylinders, 230hp. It weighs about 4000lb.

He named it after his wife. The car was never particularly successful at Brooklands; it raced a little bit on the Continent and went to America in the ’30s. It was thought then to be one of the CBB cars because it looked just like it, and was bought by Peter Helk – the greatest American automotive artist – who owned it for years. When it turned out it was not a CBB car, people lost interest. Helk, a real enthusiast, loved the car anyway.

Rabbit 1 was constructed in England by CH Crow & Co of London in 1921 and I first heard of it 15 years ago. As is usually the case with these things, you tell people you’re interested and you wait… When it came up for sale the guy called me first. The car was in Maryland and had been owned by an enthusiast, so it was in reasonably good shape. I needed to rebuild the clutch, the braking was abysmal and I had to make new water jacket cylinder liners out of copper. It runs now.

It’s fun, at last, to have a car with Brooklands history. One thing about the English, boy they write everything down. You call Brooklands and they say ‘Oh yes, Rabbit. You have that?’ It’s great to have a car that actually ran there. I can go to the museum and look through old newspaper clippings and see pictures of the car and men with big moustaches standing next to it.

You see that picture of John Cobb with all four wheels off the ground and you go ‘Oh my God!’ Just driving Rabbit 1 down the road, it’s like a ghost. Whooo-ooo-oo. Those chains just rattling in your ears at 60mph. I can’t imagine this thing at 120mph with no braking! This two-tonne beast flying around Brooklands; I don’t know how guys did it.

When this car was built you were only one generation from a horse and wagon. From the year 0 to 1900, people moved at about 5mph. Now you’re going 120mph. When they used to do the city-to-city races, which they soon outlawed, people would stand on the side of the road and a car would be coming at them at 70mph and they thought ‘Well, I’ve got plenty of time to move out of th…’ BANG! They’d get hit because the only thing they’d ever seen going fast was a horse, and that’s maybe 30mph at a sprint. They used to say that at any speed over 60mph man would not be able to breathe. It was just an amazing time. Speed is really the only new sensation.

Marrying car and plane on the ground is as far as my interest in planes goes. I have no interest in flying because the penalty is so much greater. When I think of all the times I’ve caught fire or had a wheel fall off on the road… Once I had all four wheels fall off at the same time, and I couldn’t help thinking: ‘If I were in an airplane, I’d be dead!’

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