It was one of those phone calls after which you sit back and think, `Did that really just happen?’ Well, yes it did and the call was from the Jaguar press office asking if I’d like to drive one of their heritage cars at the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill-climb.
Well, come on, what would you say?
This gives you an idea, from the driver’s seat of just how challenging the hill-climb is:
The day dawns
And so it was, that a few weeks later, I found myself slipping behind the large four spoke steering wheel of what is undoubtedly the most famous and probably valuable XK120 of all, the ivory coloured car known simply by its famous registration, NUB 120.
Driven to success by the husband and wife pairing of Ian and Pat Appleyard (daughter of Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons) in so many of the great continental rallies in the 1950s; this car, among other things, proved the brilliance of the new 3.4 litre XK engine which set Jaguar on its path to greatness.
I can’t say I felt entirely at home that Saturday morning, in fact I felt distinctly nervous and out of my depth. Nervous because the Goodwood Festival of Speed is the greatest live motor show on the planet, attracting the most incredible cars, legendary drivers and seemingly several hundred thousand spectators.
If you’re driving there it’s very easy to make a prat of yourself and cream your car into the unforgiving stone walls which clearly define the narrow hill-climb course. Look it up on You Tube and you’ll see countless examples of many who’ve done just that and I didn’t fancy returning a very bent car to those nice and trusting people at Jaguar; you try thinking of an explanation…
In the presence of greatness
Out of my depth because, well come on, how often do you get someone at the driver’s signing-on desk asking you to hurry up; you turn round to tell them to wait their turn, only to discover yourself face to face with Rene Arnoux, ex Ferrari F1 driver and just behind him in the queue was Emerson Fittipaldi, two times World Champion and my boyhood hero. It’s just that kind of event.
Once I'd signed-on, the scrutineer, who’d checked our safety kit, affixed the little sticker to the side of my helmet (and by god, didn’t I feel a fool getting into a 1950’s rally car wearing the modern, fire resistant overalls and full face helmet I use for my own amateur racing) the Jaguar mechanics who tend to the treasures in the Heritage Centre made me comfy in the car and at the appointed time I took my place in the queue of cars heading down from the paddock to the starting line.
Just ahead was a BRM V16 with its driver ripping the air apart with that unearthly engine note as he blipped its throttle warming it up, an Auto Union D-Type was a few cars behind with its deep rumble and Murray Walker was leaning into the cockpit as he said `What a lovely car, I remember Ian and Pat very well’ etc, I wasn’t sure what to think. Had I died and gone to heaven, because I’m pretty sure that’s what it must feel like.
Those few minutes waiting in that narrow lane, shaded from the trees overhead, are seared into my memory like few other experiences from my life.
Edging towards the start-line, as the other cars ahead set off in a blast of rubber smoke and max revs, (is there a nicer noise than a V16 given the full beans?) I got my front wheels onto the white line. You’re asked by the officials if you want to do a timed run or a demo run and I was definitely for the latter!
On your marks...
So, what’s it like to drive NUB 120 and what about the Goodwood hill-climb? Well, the three things which soon struck me about the Jaguar were (a) it had enough torque to pull the Queen Mary (b) it had the worst, vaguest gear change I’d ever used (c) brakes would’ve been a handy addition. How the Appleyards mastered the Alpine routes, as they did, is a mystery to me.
The hill-climb introduces itself gently as to what lies ahead, with an easy right hander not far from the start line and then it’s as fast as you want to go, past Earl March’s stately home to your left, and in whose grounds the whole fantastic spectacle takes place.
So far so good and you might be wondering what all the fuss is about, until you get to the next corner, a left hander, called Molecomb, which is tighter than it first appears and is the scene of so many accidents where drivers arrive too fast and go straight on into the straw bales. Embarrassing, one imagines, in front of several tens of thousands of spectators…
The brakes on NUB 120 may fall foul of the Trades Descriptions Act and the gear selection be a matter of sticking it somewhere, and hoping it’s in the right cog when you let the clutch back in, but by luck, rather than judgement, it was in second instead of fourth as I slowed for Molecomb and the engine braking was impressive.
From Molecomb the course starts to climb up what’s called Pheasant Hill and there it gets really interesting. On your left is a flint stone wall, on your right a hedge and public enclosures. The gap between them looks ridiculously, sadistically, narrow, but it’s where you must thread your car. I was happy to leave NUB 120 in third gear and give it the full beans, using the endless supply of torque to reach what I thought a respectable, but sensible speed.
Still climbing, you go through another left hander to the finish, after which you turn around into a holding area and where, on that occasion, Jochen Mass, one time team mate to Fittipaldi and 1982 World Sportscar Champion, came over to ask me what I thought of this lovely car.
Once the last car has arrived you all trundle back down the hill before being directed off into the paddock, and in my case, the waiting Jaguar crew, grateful no doubt, to see their car returned in one piece.
Engine off, silence in my head, except for the blood pounding in my ears and just a private moment of reflection on what I’d just been a part of.
And for the second time in a few weeks I asked myself, `Did that really just happen?’
And yes; yes, it did.