A delightful account by Karl Ludvigsen
Published in Hemmings Sports and Exotic cars
Though it started badly the trip was going well. The bad start was my fault. Chris Whitehead completed a lot of good work on our 1937 Cord 812 Beverly and we were off to France to join members of the Vintage Sports-Car Club for a tour of the Burgundy region. We’d planned to cross the Channel by Eurotrain but by the time we got through all the checks and customs controls, stopping and starting, the battery cried “enough!” And they won’t let your car on the train unless they’re sure it will start—which I wasn’t and they weren’t.
So there was nothing for it but to truck the Cord back the 143 miles to Suffolk and set out again the next morning in our 1952 Riley “RMS” sports car. We drove straight though to Beaune, skirting Paris, and enjoyed a great week touring the vineyards and testing the wines and restaurants in the company of an Invicta, Sunbeam, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Bugatti, Alvis, Bentley and Lagonda and their enthusiastic and knowledgeable owners.
Our Riley’s trunk isn’t all that big so to make room for the wine we’d been given I poured the last of my spare engine oil into the sump before departing for home. Having survived monsoon wind and rain we were half-way to our planned overnight stop when I spotted suspiciously low oil pressure. A sump check showed precious little oil, vanished somehow and somewhere from an engine that didn’t usually use much oil.
Karl Ludvigsen’s Corvette—America’s Star Spangled Sports Car, has been completely revised and updated…and grown to 784 pages! This exhaustive work covers Corvettes from 1953–1982, and will be the subject of an upcoming Dean’s Garage book review.
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I headed for the nearest small town in search of oil but hadn’t found any when, to my dismay, I heard the Dreaded Rattle. Our trip was over. I parked next to the town hall and got on the phone to the AA. They came quickly, which was just as well as the town hall’s parking lot was filling up with guests for a wedding that was just about to start! The photographer had already set up his portable grandstand and the bridal party was marshaling down the road when we were towed away. We were spared the embarrassment of sitting in the middle of a marriage celebration in our broken-down Riley.
I haven’t heard the Dreaded Rattle all that often. The Cord once expired in a spectacular plume of steam thanks to a warped head/block joint. Two new heads and a new block later she’s good as new. Many early problems with hot starting and front-end shimmy—typical Cord maladies—have been fixed. And she shifts like a dream.
When I was editor of Car and Driver I borrowed a Lotus Elite from the Detroit distributor. I was humming along in this buzzbox to the GM Proving Grounds when its Coventry Climax engine let go in a big way. Only later did I learn that Lucas considered the Climax-powered Elite to be the most demanding vibration tester for its equipment. That brief trip proved costly because the distributor demanded compensation from my publisher, who was not thrilled, to say the least.
Hitherto I’ve thought of myself as hard on drive lines. The rear axle of my Triumph TR2 was one victim. So was the transmission of my 1951 Porsche 1300, which failed with a grinding growl when I was visiting my friend Axel Rosenblad in New Jersey. In Trenton I swapped its original early-VW crash box for a later synchronized transaxle.
The grinding growl was heard again in 1959 when I was driving in Michigan in my Mercedes 300SL gullwing. Its gearbox threw in the towel, which wasn’t surprising as the car had been raced in a previous life, including the Mille Miglia.
Otherwise I don’t recall any major blowups. The Lancia Stratos was always exciting, with wiring that was apt to start smoldering without provocation. At least the smoke helped identify the source of the problem. Its ignition box failed when my son Miles and I were visiting the Fittipaldis in Switzerland, but we got a fair substitute from the local Fiat dealer, the box they used on the Type 130 V6.
My 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans was also prone to the occasional electrical failure, but it was so simple that these were easy to fix. I did have an engine stoppage with the Aston when the scavenge pump of its dry-sump system failed. Luckily no major damage resulted. The Aston’s main continuing problem was one shared with many early cars: keeping its magneto sparking adequately. When it works it’s fine but when it doesn’t you’re comprehensively stuck.
Of course problems aren’t limited to exotic cars. I went to start my 1993 Mazda Xedos 6 the other day—my personal daily driver—only to find that the alarm system had decided to immobilize it! I had an appointment to visit Colin Chapman’s son Clive at Classic Team Lotus near Norwich, so I hopped in the Cord and drove up there. The battery seemed to be coping but I had a spare with me and a new one on order. Clive was intrigued by the Cord and I enjoyed seeing the Formula 1 Lotus of various vintages in his racing shop.
Meanwhile the Riley is with Chris Whitehead and I’m awaiting his verdict. If it’s the white-metal rod bearings—as I suspect—Chris has all the equipment needed to renew them. It’s reassuring to have that kind of capability in your neighborhood if you insist on running these oddball cars.
1933 Aston Martin Le Mans
Many thanks to Karl Ludvigsen.