Mike Hawthorn

The first British Formula One World Champion, Mike Hawthorn has become something of a legend.  He loved to drink and carouse.  He was known for breaking into song while out with his friends in the pub.  A commanding presence he was an athletic 6’2” white-blonde haired man with a huge smile and a big laugh.  He lived a fast, short life with more than it’s fair share of tragedy.

Born in Yorkshire, England in 1929 Mike Hawthorn had cars and racing in his blood.  His father, Leslie, owned the Tourist Trophy Garage where, among other things, he tuned cars for racing.  Mike spent as much of his time at his father’s shop as he could growing up.  The older Hawthorn would take his son to Brooklands race track where he would watch the races as his father worked the pits.

a young Mike with his father at the original location for The Tourist Trophy Garage. via mike-hawthorn.org.uk

Not particularly academic, but very athletic, Mike left school in 1946 at age 17.  By the next year he was showing success racing motorcycles.  At the urging of his father he began to race cars.  By 1951 he was driving in Formula Two races.

In 1952 Mike’s abilities behind the wheel were getting him noticed by all the right people.  Mike was racing a Cooper Bristol when Lofty England (head of Jaguar’s racing operations and possessor of one of the world’s great names) came to see him drive.  To say Lofty was impressed would be an understatement.

“I saw him drive at Boreham, and it rained like hell in the afternoon. He passed and led Villoresi in a 4.0 litre Ferrari – in the wet – in his little Cooper Bristol. I thought,’this is my boy’. So I rang his father Leslie on Monday morning and told him to bring the lad to Silverstone on Wednesday, which he did. We put him in an upgraded, specially prepared C-type and within five laps he was under the lap record.”  –Lofty England

Unfortunately for Lofty, Ferrari had also taken notice of 23-year-old Mike Hawthorn and offered him a contract to race for them in 1953.  Mike agreed.

In his early days of racing Mike would wear his everyday clothes–a suit and tie–the epitome of a gentleman racer.  Shortly into his career though he opted to change to more standard racing clothes, though he still wore a bow tie.  The ever present bow tie lead to his nickname “Le Papillon,” which is French for “the butterfly.”

1954 was a tough year for Mike.  He suffered a crash while racing at Syracuse that left him with burns on his arms and legs.  Later in the year he would have unsuccessful surgery for a kidney problem that had been plaguing him for a number of years–and was, in fact, the reason that he did not serve in World War II.  His father was killed in a car accident the same year.

Mike crashes at Syracuse

Then a silver lining to 1954 appeared.  Jaguar offered Mike the position of team leader for the 1955 racing season.  Mike decided to accept this honor and did not renew with Ferrari.

While racing Jaguar D-Type number 6 in the 1955 Le Mans race Mike would find himself at the center of controversy when he inadvertently cut off another driver while heading into the dangerously narrow pit lane.  Jaguar was the first racing team with disc brakes, which were new at the time making Mike’s D-Type slow rapidly as he braked to make the pit lane.  The driver of the Austin Healey he had just passed braked hard and swerved to avoid hitting Mike, putting the Healey directly in the path of the traffic coming up from the rear.  The Healey was hit hard from behind by Pierre Levegh who had been approaching at approximately 150mph in his Mercedes 300 SLR.  Levegh’s Mercedes was launched into the air, showering debris and fire into the grandstands.  85 people were killed and another 120 were injured in what is still considered the worst accident in racing history.  Mike was convinced to continue the race, which he won.  Many people have accused him of having caused the accident, though he was cleared by the official investigation.


Hawthorn after winning the ill-fated 1955 Le Mans race in a Jaguar D-Type

Mike would race for Jaguar again in 1956.  By the end of the year Jag decided to end their involvement in auto racing and Mike went to Ferrari.  He continued to have a close relationship with Jaguar however, assisting them with testing of new models.  At the end of 1957 Jaguar gave him a Mk I sedan with a 3.4 liter engine as a thank you for his successes.  Mike’s new Jag wore the number plate VDU 881 (in England the plates go with the car and cars are typically known by their plates).  Mike had his mechanics at the Tourist Trophy Garage set about making a number of changes to VDU 881 turning it into a serious road burner.  His penchant for speed off the track was well known by those close to him and he was often seen driving his hotted up Jag near the Tourist Trophy Garage, reportedly sometimes racing his friend Rob Walker who had a Mercedes 300 SL.


Mike keeping the lead. this was the only time he ever raced VDU 881

Nigel Webb's exact replica of VDU 881. Unable to convince the government to give him the correct number plate, he reversed it.

Mike raced alongside his best friend Peter Collins while at Ferrari.  They had known each other for several years but became very close during their time at Ferrari.  It was a friendship that held strong despite the competitive nature of Ferrari, where drivers were often pitted against each other in an attempt to ensure a win for the car maker.  It was a happy time for Mike and he had great success, winning the Argentinian Grand Prix and clinching the title of World Champion for him in 1958.

at the Argentinian Grand Prix, 1958

Sadly, Peter Collins crashed in front of Mike’s eyes while the two were racing at the German Grand Prix in 1958 and was killed.  Mike was devastated by the loss.  He finished out the season but immediately after winning the World Championship he announced he would be retiring from auto racing.  He had seen too much tragedy during his short time in the sport.

Mike with his good friend Peter Collins at the wedding of fellow racecar driver Sir Stirling Moss

On January 22, 1959 Mike was driving VDU 881 on the Guilford Pass–then a four-lane road–not far from his Tourist Trophy Garage.  He was seen by witnesses who stated that he was driving at least 80mph.  There is some evidence that he may have been racing his friend Rob Walker, though given his penchant for driving very fast in general it cannot be said for certain.  It had rained earlier in the day and the roads were still wet.  For reasons that have never been fully explained, on a long right-hand sweeping turn Mike lost control of his car,  striking a low concrete post causing the the rear of the car to come around.  It was not a correctable slide, even for Mike.  He crossed the road, clipped the back of a truck, and then continued off the far side of the road before going hard into a tree.  Mike’s Jag was nearly broken in half and he was killed almost instantly.  He was 29.

Mike made this short film in 1956.  In it he takes us around for one lap of the Le Mans track.  (Le Mans is run partially on normal roads which explains why there are people all over the place.)  It is a fascinating look at the attitudes of the era–when racing drivers did not wear seat belts and practice laps were taken while the roads were still open–and an opportunity to listen to Mike explain his skill to us in his own voice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lamborghini Espada

By 1968 Ferruccio Lamborghini had already established himself as a maker of radically exotic automobiles.  Though only in the auto business for five years he already had success with his first two cars, the 400GT and the Miura.  The latter–most certainly a car for a later post–had proven to be a major success with it’s mid-mounted V12 and flashy lines.

Ferruccio Lamborghini

Lamborghini chose the coachbuilder Bertone to design his next car based on the Marzal concept car shown in 1967 at the Geneva Auto Show.  The design was also heavily influenced by the Bertone rebodied E-Type Jaguar show car called the Pirana.  To Mr. Lamborghini this new car was an ideal GT car–an excellent merger of practical need with the style and speed of the futuristic new cars he was making.

The name Espada comes from the name of the blade used to kill the bull at the end of a bullfight.  (All Lamborghinis are traditionally given names that relate to bullfighting.)

via flickr

Designed by Marcello Gandini, who also designed the Miura, the car was very low at just 46.7” high, and wide at 73.2”.  (To put that into some perspective a new Toyota Camry is 57.7” tall and 71.7” wide.)  The engine was a 4.0L quad-cam V12 with six
twin-throat Weber carburetors that put out an impressive 325hp.  A top speed near as makes no difference to 160 mph and a 0-60 time of around 6.5 seconds made the Espada the fastest four seat GT of the day.  With 4-wheel disc brakes, a fully independent suspension, and ZF worm and nut steering the Espada handled well.  Period reviews praise it’s tendency to understeer and tailhappy nature as well as it’s soft ride.

via iedei.wordpress.com

A manual transmission was the only option until 1974 when a Chrysler automatic became an optional extra.  The automatic transmission is to be avoided however as it shifts at 4800 rpm, almost 1000 rpm before peak torque hits (5500).  Only around 50 were built with the automatic transmission.

There were three series of Espadas built during their decade of production.  Series I cars were made from 1968 to 1970.  Series II cars from 1970 to 1972 got a revised grille, vented brakes, new steering wheel, new dash, and 25 more horsepower from the engine.  Series III cars were built from 1973 until the car went out of production in 1978 and again got a revised grille and dash, revised suspension and brakes, and more horsepower.  Power steering and air conditioning were standard in SIII cars as well.  In 1975 changes to United States car safety rules forced the addition of large rubber “impact” bumpers that do nothing for the design of the car.  Given Lamborghini’s tendency to make changes during the run of a model there are many cars that may seem to span two different build series.  1224 cars were built in all.

In a March 1972 road test Sports Car World praised the softness of the ride and it’s ability to happily cruise along at speeds of 120 mph all day without any sense of drama from the handling.

Love it or hate it styling has kept the Espada in the cheap seats over the years.  Cheap only applies to the price of entry though as upkeep and maintenance for these cars is still in the stratosphere you’d expect for an Italian GT car.  The Espada is a car that grows on you the more you look at it and think about what it actually does.  Four adults, 10 cubic feet of luggage space, 120mph+ in relaxed, luxurious style.  That’s hard to beat.

“But don’t misunderstand this impression: this Espada is not a feminine thing. Rather, it is like a superb Italian gentleman; gracious, softly spoken, impeccably polite — but capable, when called upon to respond to the most dangerous duel. And win.”
–Sports Car World, March 1972

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Ferrari 250 GTE

pic via hemmings

Well here we are.  I am writing this blog as an expression of my love of all things automobile.  My interest in cars began young (read my bio for more info on that) but it didn’t really get going until I was in my early 20s when I discovered vintage and classic cars.  I think it’s fitting then that I begin this blog with a post dedicated to the car that sparked my love of classic cars, the Ferrari 250 GTE.

Enzo Ferrari

First, a very brief history of Ferrari.  The founder of Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari, decided to set up his own car racing business after leaving Maserati in the mid-1940s.  Mr. Ferrari was building race cars and having some good successes by the late 1950s, but was still producing very low volume cars–meaning that he would produce a very small number of examples of each car he produced.  By the very late 1950s he saw a new market beginning to open up.  Maserati and Aston Martin were both building luxury sports road cars with slightly detuned versions of their racing engines and having some success at selling them.  (This is the highly simplified version of events…purists and jerks, please don’t write to me to explain all the details of racing homologation regulations.  I’m trying to keep things simple here.)


Ferrari had been building two-seater sports cars for about a decade when Enzo Ferrari decided it was time to branch out and build a 2+2.  Enzo Ferrari’s son Piero has stated that Enzo liked 2+2 cars as it allowed him to travel in comfort with a driver and a dog.  (A 2+2 is a fancy way of saying it’s a car with a backseat.)  Ferrari had already been having success with the 250 series of cars–and that success would continue well into the 1960s.  The automotive designer Pininfarina was selected to design the new GT car.  It was the first series-produced 2+2 for Ferrari and the first design for them to be tested in a wind tunnel.

pic via hemmings

The GTE debuted as a marshall vehicle at Le Mans in 1960.  It was officially unveiled to the public at the Paris auto show that same year.  The new Ferrari was more luxurious than other Ferraris had been at the time with a high quality full leather interior featuring more padding for the seats and a good sized backseat that would fit adults.  The wood rimmed Nardi steering wheel and Veglia gauges rounded out the look on the inside.

pic via Paul Vaarkamp

Outside the car has an understated elegance but look closely and its sporting attitude is evident.  Sitting on Borrani wire wheels with a raked rear window and tail the GTE looked like it was in motion while sitting still.

pic via hemmings

Ferrari used the Gioacchino Colombo designed V12 engine (Tipo 128E–the “E” was tacked on to the Gran Turismo designation which gave the car the GTE name).  Producing 240hp the car would hit 60mph in 7 seconds and keep pulling up to it’s 140mph top speed.  Racing driver Phil Hill took the car from 0-100-0 with 3 people on board in just 25 seconds!  The chassis was the short-wheelbase format with the engine moved forward a few inches to make room for the rear seats.  It utilized an independent front suspension, 4-wheel disc brakes, and a 4 speed transmission with overdrive.

The GTE stayed in production for just 3 years but during that time it became the most commercially successful Ferrari up to that time with 955 made.  Though it was successful for Ferrari it did not best its rivals in sales.  With an $11,000 price tag (at a time when the average new home in America cost $16,500) the Ferrari sat between the $10,500 Aston Martin DB4 and the $11,400 Maserati 3500 GT.  Though it was competitively priced and well-matched the performance of the other two cars the GTE was unable to outsell its rivals.

The GTE underwent minor cosmetic changes twice, creating what are now known as Series II and Series III cars.  Series II cars were built only in 1962.  The difference was only a minor revision to the interior and dash.  Series III cars came in 1963 and had more substantial changes including a revision of the rear suspension to improved handling, and changes to the rear taillights (now one unit) and the driving lamps were moved from the grille to below the headlights.

Series III tail lights

In 1962 the Italian police commissioned Ferrari to build them two suped up GTEs to aide them in capturing members of the Roman mob who had been able to embarass the police by using Ferraris to outrun them.  The first car was totaled–reportedly broken in two!–in a road accident during testing.  The second car was delivered and is still in the possession of the Roman police today.  It was used successfully for a decade and was involved in several legendary police chases.

Polizia 29444--pic via omniauto.it

In 1963 the last 50 GTEs were given the new 4-liter V12 engine from the 400 Superamerica.  In slightly detuned spec the engine now gave the car 300hp.  These 50 cars only were badged as 330 Americas.  They are the most desirable of the GTEs–for obvious reason–and are quite rare with only 25 thought to still exist.

It is believed that of the 955 GTEs built only around 500 still survive today.  The GTE was not a particularly well-loved model as time passed–and to a certain extent they still aren’t, which is a real shame–and in the 1980s it became popular to buy them and chop them up into replicas of other more valuable 250-series Ferraris (like the GTO).  In the last couple of years values for GTEs have risen, though mainly this can be attributed to the overall rise in prices for all 250-series cars.

via Paul Vaarkampt

I can’t really explain why I love the 250GTE.  There is something about the car that just seems exotic.  The shape of the body, the chrome, the dash…all of it could not have come from any other time.  It invites daydreams of a bygone era when a gentleman’s express like the GTE would whisk a man in a well-tailored suit and his elegantly attired lady friend along to the kinds of locales and soirees of la dolce vita.  In the end the fantasy of these classic cars is part of their allure.  Vintage Ferraris always seem to live up to the hype.  They’re impossibly glamorous.  The 250GTE is an excellent looking car that happens to go fast and sound great as well.  It’s a shame that it hasn’t gotten the attention and respect that it deserves.  Here’s hoping that changes.

via topspeed

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments