Wet feet and no brakes in a Beetle
APRIL 27, 2011
I didn't see a single racing car over Easter. I mention this because it used to be a given among family and friends that I would never be home during Easter. There was always a race somewhere; usually a Grand Prix. But this year, by taking a break, I was able to muse over some of the crazy schedules of my youth.
Forget, for a moment, Easter holidays spent following the Circuit of Ireland; mad weekends, it seemed to me, that consisted of four days and one night during the rally's heyday in the 1960s. I'm thinking of a more extreme escapade during Easter 1972, a few years before I became a full-time motor sport writer.
Having moved from Northern Ireland, I was keen to embrace everything the English racing scene could throw at me. There was quality on offer that year thanks to Formula 2, which was the equivalent of GP2, but with knobs on.
The beauty about this era was that top drivers didn't have much to do between Grands Prix. So they raced where they could. This included F2 even though F1 drivers were not allowed to score points in the European F2 Championship. But the knock-on effect gave young bloods an opportunity to compete with established names on a prestigious and reasonably level playing field.
In 1972, for example, you had hopefuls such as Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter and Carlos Reutemann showing their worth against Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi and Graham Hill; the equivalent today of having Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher run in GP2.
The F2 cars were much more varied than GP2 thanks to interest shown by Brabham, Surtees, McLaren and March - to name just a few of the 12 different chassis manufacturers. So you can understand the excitement when the Easter schedule presented F2 races at the fabulous Oulton Park in Cheshire on Good Friday and Thruxton in Hampshire on Easter Monday.
The plan was to quit work on Thursday evening, join the holiday mob heading north, sleep in the car, watch the race at Oulton then return to London for a night in bed before an early departure to travel south-west in time to see first practice on the Saturday at Thruxton.
It didn't seem to matter that the Oulton race was not a round of the European Championship and therefore had a relatively sparse entry at such an early stage in the season. And neither did it seem to be a problem that the heavens remained open throughout Good Friday, giving me and my mate, John, a thorough drenching.
We watched Lauda skate to an impressive win in the works March before hanging our saturated rain gear in the back of my VW Beetle in readiness for the five-hour trek to London. It took that long because the 1200cc Beetle had a top speed of 73mph (77mph downhill with a following wind). It was an elderly model with a 6-volt battery. When night closed in, your passenger would shout: "For God's sake, put your lights on!" And, almost apologetically, you would confirm that, in fact, that the lights were on and this was as good as the illumination was going to get.
But that was to be the least of our worries as we trundled down the M1 motorway, being slipstreamed by articulated trucks and enduring unkind fellow travellers making rude gestures as they sped past in their Ford Capris and Cortinas with go-faster stripes.
The one good thing about the Beetle was that it was completely air-tight with a flat floor covered from front to back by a fitted rubber mat. This being relatively traffic-free 1972, I had my foot to the floor all the way. The first time I touched the brakes was when we reached the roundabout marking the London end of the M1.
Suddenly, John let out a yell and whipped his feet off the rubber floor. Water - lots of it - from our dripping garments had gathered in the rear foot wells. The shift in centre of gravity under braking - even the modest retardation of a Beetle's drum brakes - had sent a tidal wave forward and up the trouser legs of my front-seat passenger.
I knew little about this. Those of you familiar with a VW Beetle will know that the brake and clutch have raised positions above the floor thanks to the pedal shafts feeding down and into a centrally-mounted cluster on the floor. I was nice and dry above the swirling, muddy mess beneath my heels.
We bailed out the trusty VW in readiness for the Thruxton trip the next day and I spent the rest of the weekend winding up John about his wet feet and socks. He was to have the last laugh.
A few days later, the pedal cluster seized due to the corrosive effect of the water that had entered on Good Friday. Suddenly I had no clutch and no brakes. You find you need them when coming off London's Hammersmith Flyover at speed. In the dark.
Flashing my lights in warning was pointless as no bugger would see them. Fortunately the handbrake did its job and the poor Beetle finally jolted to a halt.
Just as well I avoided contact with the driver waiting innocently at the traffic lights. If I'd had to explain the full story, he'd have thought I was completely bonkers. Didn't seem so at the time. Nor now, come to think about it.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.