Rediscovering dignity at Chelsea AutoLegends

Rediscovering dignity at Chelsea AutoLegends

There are few sights as mesmerising as a convoy of iconic supercars growling their way through the streets of London. Thousands of horses straining to be unleashed, clutches smouldering in frustrated anticipation; “look” I heard a young boy shout excitedly to his father, “an Enzo”.

But for all the millions of pounds of bespoke leather and hand-crafted carbon fibre, it was three solitary, elderly gentlemen who captured the essence of the day – all pensioners; all having lived incredible lives; all unassumingly gracing the grounds of The Royal Hospital simply by their presence.

I had missed last year’s inaugural event, so despite the spectacle of DTM visiting Brands Hatch, I was intrigued to see if Chelsea AutoLegends would live up to its promise and deliver a credible motoring show into the heart of London.

On balance, I’d say it did. Using the premise that first impressions count, the fact that I was able to park only a minute away from the entrance ticked the top box; to then be greeted by the stunning 1960s Bizzarrini 5300 GT made me realise that this was definitely the right place to be.

Bizzarrini 5300 GT

Founded by former Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and ISO engineer, Giotto Bizzarrini in the 1960s, the 5300 GT Strada was a street legal ISO Grifo A3C and was less than 40 inches in height - just like Ford's GT40 of the same period.

Credit needs to go to the organisers and their sponsors for assembling such an eclectic group of cars, especially in the face of fierce competition from the more established events such as Goodwood and Cholmondeley.

Marques such as Jaguar, Porsche and Ferrari were amply represented, spanning generations of automotive history. Uniquely British and having recently celebrated 50 years in our hearts, the range of E-Types was both impressive and endearing. Oh, if only…

There were other themed displays too.

The Italian classics demonstrated why, despite all their failings, young men would dream at night, not of young ladies, but of red-bodied beauties instead.

And then there were the Rally Cars and Le Mans “heroes”. For me, the Rally display was disappointing. I’m not sure if this was due to its location (in the midst of the trade exhibitors), or because of a lack of interaction from those looking after their charge. Whatever the reason, I felt an absence of might from the Group B era.

But where the Rally cars failed, the Le Mans feature shone.

Starting with the iconic, pre-war, 1920 Bentleys – cars immense in both stature and achievement, here, you could truly sense the epic battle of man and machine against men and machines. Twenty-four hours of life-challenging effort from drivers, teams and automobiles; each pushing ever harder and faster to reach their ultimate goal.

Now we’re talking legends.

1932 MG J-Type 4C

The MG J4 was a pure racing version of the J-Type with light-weight body work and a supercharged 746 cc Straight-4 engine producing 72 bhp. Just 9 cars were made and this one is immaculate.

And as I moved along, past the Jaguars, MGs, Triumphs and Fraser Nash of the 1950s and ‘60s, past the Cooper, the Ferraris, past the 1995 BMW-engined “Harrods” McLaren of Andy Wallace, Derek Bell and Justin Bell, past the #8 Audi of Biela, Kaffer & McNish, and finally onto the #7 Peugeot of Wurz, Davidson and Gene, I could see why these cars were so important, compared to their Supercar counterparts across the lawn – they had duelled and they had lived. They weren’t just a part of history, they are history.

For me, this is what Chelsea AutoLegends was all about. It’s the story of how talented young men built beautiful cars and then how brave young men had the courage to race them.

One of these was stood at the far end of one of the Hospital’s boulevards. The man was Norman Dewis and he was presiding over a recreation of the Jaguar X13, possibly the greatest car of its kind.

Responsible for 25 Jaguar incarnations over a 36-year period, Norman Dewis not only engineered cars, he raced them too, and here he was, at 91 years of age, at 9am on a Sunday morning, stood outside and happy to talk about his life, his work and his thoughts on the future. There was no posse of minders, no anxious PR person, just him and me and my notebook.

If this was Heaven, it wasn’t a bad place to be. We talked about developments in technologies, about the influence of big-business in the business of motorsport and most of all, about an era when you took risks, shook hands and had a pint or two afterwards. I left Norman to talk to talk to his next devotee – he won’t remember me, but I will always remember him.

Sometime later, I was awaiting the arrival of the Supercar Parade. There, strolling towards a podium was another legend, Sir Stirling Moss.

As the V-engined monsters made their arrival, he happily dropped the chequered flag, greeting each participant with a nodding smile. And as the Supercar Paddock filled, he ambled over to the Autoglym Stage and over the whine of over-worked fans and intercoolers, recounted tales of glory and mishaps to an audience spellbound by this most admired of our gentlemen.

1965 Ferrari Dino 206 SP

The Ferrari Dino 206 SP was fitted with a 2.0-litre V6 engine (with a 65 degree 'V') producing around 218 hp at 9000 rpm. It was originally built to take part in the Campionato Europeo Montagna (European Hillclimb Championship).

It would be wrong to attempt to make comparisons with today’s crop of driving talent, after all, in fifty years time, perhaps Jenson Button will be equally well received, but somehow I don’t think that the tales of his escapades with Lewis will be quite so enchanting or captivating.

After four hours of auto-lust, I left. I’d met with some old friends, and met some new ones. I’d smiled seeing cars that I last encountered 40 years ago and I’d day-dreamed of cars from a time that I could only wish I’d known. This is clearly an event with an underlying quality, and to have it in such an accessible location is a big “plus”.

Trying to be constructive, it would be nice if for next year, the organisers look at how they can better manage the Supercar parade, and importantly, park these show cars in such a way that they are more accessible. It would also strengthen the feature to have some smaller parades through the day – an auto event like this needs to be able to showcase the beauty of the noise, not just the designs and heritage, but this aside, I would say that Chelsea AutoLegends is a worthy addition to the calendar and I hope it grows and continues.

And so as I walked towards the gate, I noticed the third dignified old man. Resplendent in red tunic with polished brass buttons and black cap, he stood straight, not stooped, and held an open bucket. He smiled acknowledgingly to the crowds. He didn’t shake the bucket, he had too much pride to do that but it was a fitting reminder that this show, with all of its nostalgia, was being held at the home of those who also had lived.

Angie Voluti was driving this Jensen Interceptor R

Angie Voluti was driving this Jensen Interceptor R built by Jensen Automotive International in the Pistonheads Supercar Run. The Interceptor R is fitted with a thoroughly modern GM LS3 V8 engine delivering an impressive 429bhp (and 25mpg). The stunning picture was taken by Kevin McGlone of Red Square Images