The Heritage Motor Centre contains some incredible cars – absolute icons mingle with odd prototypes and immaculate examples of cars the world didn’t necessarily take all that well to. I got to drive some of them last Thursday, as you can read in this week’s Classic Car Weekly (7th May issue).
That article gives you the background for why it happened, but here I’m going to focus on the vehicles that really stood out for me. One is HUE 166 which, as any Landy fan knows, is Land Rover Number 1. There’s some debate about exactly what this means – some reckon Huey is the first production Land Rover, others that he is in fact a pre-production one. It also must be said that a thorough restoration (Huey was sold by the factory and used as a farm hack for several decades) in the 1970s included the fitment of quite a few non-original items. Such as the rear body. And trafficators.
I couldn’t care less. Huey remains one of the most significant vehicles in our motoring history. He’s one of the most famous too, and is very often wheeled out for events and TV programmes. I seem to recall that Dick Strawbridge drove him around on a beach in North Wales as it’s where the concept of the Land Rover was conceived. But, this was my chance to get behind the wheel. I was thrilled.
For a start, I’ve never driven a Land Rover older than a Series III and have always loved the cute looks and earnest appeal of the super-basic Series 1. As I clambered aboard, my 2CV began to feel almost luxurious! It’s rare to see quite so much exposed metal on a car. I gave the starter a shove, and the 1.6-litre, inlet-over-exhaust engine fired promptly into life. This was it. I was going to do it!
So, it was a shame that I pulled away in third gear really. The gearing is so low that this didn’t really seem to matter, but down-shifting to second for a particularly nasty speed bump confirmed my error. I had my suspicions by this stage! Huey felt quite sprightly really, and eager to stop too. Noisy, certainly. Not just engine noise, but the rattles and bangs of many metal panels. I got a chance to go back to third, and did a beautiful double-declutched downshift into second for a tight roundabout. There is no synchromesh on first or second.
Then I got a good run down towards the Centre and managed to get up to fourth. I was having the time of my life! Not only was I driving a Series 1 Land Rover, but this was the most famous of them all! Sadly, they wouldn’t let me take a trip around the off-road course.
Other iconic vehicles were present, but sadly while I got a short drive of the first Morris Minor – NLW 576 – the brakes had failed, so I had to be somewhat careful. Happily, I’m an expert at driving vehicles with no brakes… The Rover P6BS was an astonishing opportunity too, though sadly tainted by a hideous misfire. I doubt more than five cylinders were working.
My next choice was a Range Rover that has fascinated me since I was a child. In 1971, two Range Rovers drove the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Cape Horn. Most of the 18,000 mile journey was no problem at all, but the Darien Gap was the tricky bit – a chunk of rainforest and swamp that joins North to South America. Through here, they averaged just 2.5 miles a day. I’ve read many features about these cars, both of which survive. One is part of the incredible Dunsfold Land Rover collection, the other was retained by Rover and is a car I can remember from when I first visited Gaydon back in 1993. I remember standing next to it wondering about the adventures this car has undertaken and being struck by the contrast between jungle-battling and standing silently in a museum.
Therefore, I was overjoyed to get the opportunity to actually drive one of these famous vehicles. I wasn’t the first – it seems it was taxed in 2012 at some point. That probably explains why it was so joyous to drive. It felt absolutely spot on. Top heavy, yes. It still wears the ladders they used to cross the forest and they make it top heavy! So overloaded were the cars that the rear differentials developed a habit of very often breaking on the trip. Experts were flown out from Solihull to pinpoint the problem and the vehicle loads reduced.
Some cars were only available for passenger rides – such as a 1904 Rover and an MG Metro 6R4. Time didn’t allow for such pleasantries, but I did drive a mix of other vehicles, including an Alvis TE21 and an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 346. These were very pleasant indeed, but neither really stood out. After all, they were just classic cars albeit rather nice ones. It’s amazing how historical context makes one car feel so much more special than another.
Which brings me to the Triumph Lynx. I almost didn’t get to drive it, as it spectacularly blew a coolant hose after a couple of drives. Hats off to the Heritage Motor Centre mechanics though, because it didn’t seem to take them at all long to get the hose changed.
The Lynx is actually a pre-production example. They got that close to actually building it. The styling is an odd mix of Harris Mann’s TR7 and a Canley designed rear. Not the happiest rear end it must be said. The platform is extended TR7 but with a Rover SD1 rear axle set-up. It’s a Capri-rivalling, US-pleasing V8 four-seat coupe. Sadly, industrial relations were so bad at the TR7 factory in Speke that management shut down that factory, and with it the hopes of the Lynx. The project was shelved before tooling could be put in place and this vehicle remains a remarkable one-off.
What a shame too. It is a lovely car to drive, with delightfully-weighted power-assisted steering, and the lusty grunt of the V8 that arguably should always have powered the TR7. I was very pleased to secure a drive in this almost-production car. What a day.
I know this is already a very long piece, but I really must thank the mechanics, management and volunteers at the Heritage Motor Centre for making this incredible day a reality. It was pretty much unprecedented to have so many important cars out and actually working and it made for a true spectacle. It was truly heart-warming to see how much everyone involved – from volunteer right up to the management team – absolutely loved the day. I wish them all the best for the new Museums Collections Centre, which will allow the reserve collection to be displayed for the first time. Exciting times indeed.