Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Readers' letters

1985 Ford Sierra RS Cosworth

The Guardian readers’ letters were the rudest. I covered motor racing for the newpaper in the 1960s and 1970s. Pioneering stuff. Motor racing seldom made sports pages. John Samuel, sports editor recently presented with the Doug Gardner Award, wanted to be “inclusive”. He asked Adam Raphael, the motoring correspondent who went on to be a notable political writer, to cover racing. Adam didn’t want to and asked Barrie Gill, of the new (1964) Sun who might. Gill kindly suggested me.

I enjoyed The Guardian. It was demanding on writing style and I did the motoring column sometimes as well. I didn’t know about newspaper writing, had no formal training; I made it up as I went along. By good fortune John Samuel was patient. Just as fortunately perhaps, he had nobody else on hand who knew anything about motor racing.

There was a broad church of student readers with whom I got on well. But when I was critical in the motoring column of the 70mph speed limit Guardianistas were furious. Prejudiced and abusive the roundheads went after me. They seemed to suspect that not only did I not share their dirigisme, but also (probably alone of Guardian contributors) I was never a member of a trade union. They, and readers of The Obsever, nevertheless stuck by me for 15 years.

It was The Grauniad when I started with it. Compositry was a weakness on a small patch of floor in Grays Inn Road. Losing £120,000 a day now, they say. That’s what happens, you see...

Sierra Sapphire. Cosworth 4x4 was a development.

Sometimes it was as well not to tell readers absolutely everything. I did not disclose, even to my broader-minded Sunday Times readers in 1990 how, testing the Sierra Sapphire Cosworth in Spain, my former colleague from The Motor, Roger Bell in the passenger’s seat, pointed skywards. We were directly under the flight path to an airport and he was indicating a Boeing 747 overhead, seemingly stationary. We were both doing 150mph.

The Boeing was getting down to its landing speed approaching the runway. We were enjoying racing car speeds on an open road. Roger had been with the test team for the E-type Jaguar. In 1961, 150mph was so rare for a production car they put on crash helmets and used racing tyres. Here we were, on a sunny day, doing it in a production saloon Ford. Safe as houses at twice what the hapless Tom Fraser, Minister of Transport thought so perilous in 1965.

I didn't do 150mph in this E-type, one of the first I drove, at the Glasgow Motor Show following its introduction in Geneva. That's me on the right, with Jaguar apprentice Clive Martin outside the Hamilton newspaper that ran my first motoring column.

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