Category Archive '“Backfire”'

27 Feb 2010

Alan Clark’s “Backfire”

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The late Alan Clark.

Alan Clark, 1928-1999, eldest son of the art historian Kenneth, Lord Clark of Saltwood, had a significant political career, rising to the post of Minister of Trade under Margaret Thatcher. He was also a novelist and a historian, and his diaries are ranked high by admirers of that particularly English genre.

Clark was, in his private life, an automotive enthusiast and a life-long collector and seller of automobiles. Clark was once admonished by the Sergeant at Arms of the House of Commons for using the British Parliament’s parking to house some of his stock.

It is nice having private means. Alan Clark was able to purchase a Jaguar XK-120 from City Motors in Oxford in 1950, when he was an undergraduate; and he enjoyed boasting fifty years later of being probably the only person extant still possessing his own teeth and hair and the 120 Jaguar he had purchased new.

I was recently reading Backfire 2001, a posthumous collection of Clark’s automotive articles, and thought I ought to share a couple of gems.

Buyer Beware

The great thing about any engine made by Rolls-Royce is that unless you actually put a hole in the crankcase (quite difficult) they will always keep running — for a bit.

I well recall a fine summer afternoon at Saltwood when we had just induced the engine of a magnificent Phantom II tourer, bought very cheaply, to tick over after thirty years in storage. The great creature stood on the lawn, puffing gently, while dives cooed. Idyllic, really.

Then, one of my sons, idly scratching with a screwdriver at he flaking paint on the cylinder head below the header tank inlet, caused a jet of water to spurt out with great force. Water was distributed generously over the entire engine bay from huge fan blades, rotating at 450 rpm. The coil and distributor began to malfunction and the plug leads shorted. Yet thanks to a mouthful of chewing gim and a tiny squirt of aerosol matt black, the car was sold four days later.

Caveat emptor, old boy. About a year later I saw the car in a showroom, looking magnificent, and offered at exactly ten times what I had sold it for. I doubt the head had been changed and, anyway, would the new owner ever have noticed? Once ‘restoration’ passes a certain point people seldom drive the cars, except for that tiny distance — which chewing gum on a crack will usually cover — from the trailer to the judging line-up at a concours.

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Topped!

Do you also find, in July and August, the pedals get very hot? It’s heat transference, of course. But not a very good sign even if, like me, you enjoy driving in bare feet. Not long ago at some posh dinner I sat next to a very beautiful woman who inflicted on me one of the best motoring put downs I have ever suffered…

She told me how in her youth she had loved, best of anything at all, a Bentley 4 1/2 litre. Bought from Jack Bond for £130 during the Suez War forty years ago. It had been ‘cut’ and lowered [suspension-wise –JDZ], and would do the ton [100 mph –JDZ].

Patronizingly, I asked if she had ever mastered changing gear without the clutch…

‘Without the clutch? One summer was so hot that I drove the whole way from Falmouth to Anglesea (a beautiful route of 170 miles across the Welsh Marches) without touching the pedals, and kept my feet cool by hanging them over the side.’

Try it sometime.


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