worthing history


Kings of Speed
Spitfire Special
The Spitfire Special being driven by its maker, Michael Wilcock, in the Brighton Speed Trials.
THERE are many who are convinced the best days of motoring are over and that we shall never again enjoy the freedom of the road that was possible back in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
     It depends, of course, on the kind of motoring you prefer. Given freedom of choice, would you go for a car that is large and luxurious, small and conservative or fast and racy? Or in today’s environment, you may prefer a vehicle that is frugal, utilitarian and has predominantly “green” credentials.
     Freddie Feest recalls three unique vehicles that never fitted into any of the above categories but got local motorists of all ages extraordinarily excited back in the “good old” 1950s and 1960s.
     THE Swandean Spitfire Special was an outrageous car.
     It had the biggest and most powerful engine anybody had ever seen in a road-going car up to that time – a 27-litre supercharged V-12 cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin XXV lifted straight out of a World War 2 Spitfire fighter aircraft!
     As you could imagine, the noise when it eventually started up was shattering.
     This monster was the brainchild of Michael Wilcock, who – in the nicest possible way – could be described as a Spitfire “nut”. He loved everything about the fighter plane that had been credited with playing a major role in winning the war.
A Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engin
A Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engine producing 1,610 horsepower was used to power the Spitfire Special car
Michael was to eventually buy one of these planes from the RAF for the scrap price of £150 and place it on the forecourt of the Swandean Garage that he owned and ran beside the Arundel Road at Durrington. But that’s another story.
     One day, in the early 1950s, Michael acquired “for a few pounds” a war surplus Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 Spitfire aircraft engine, having dreamed up a plan to put it into a racing car that would out-drag everything that ever entered the Brighton Speed Trials.
     These annual trials were hugely exciting, even in those free-and-easy motoring days. They attracted thousands of spectators and entrants from all over the country to the straight stretch of Brighton seafront road known as Marina Drive.

There was one major problem (though it proved to be one of many before the job was complete). There was no car chassis in existence that could accommodate the giant Merlin power plant.
     Mike would not be beaten. Somewhere he found two wartime Daimler Dingo Scout Car chassis, married them up, built a skeletal car body and – hey presto! – had a (near) perfect workable “cradle” to accept his beloved Spitfire engine.
     The end product was a 21-ft long two-and-a-half ton giant car that at the time I hailed in print as “the most uneconomical car in the world”, for it consumed fuel at the phenomenal rate of one gallon every two miles!

It was fitted with drilled truck wheels, had coil springs and was only ever meant for straight-line outings.
The car actually did run on public roads, but to my knowledge, only once. This was when, for its first test (on trade plates) Mike Wilcock drove it along the Arundel Road and turned right up Long Furlong towards Findon.
     On Long Furlong, a police car came up behind the Spitfire Special and after “clocking” the leviathan being kept down (with great difficulty) to 30mph, told its driver over their loud hailer: “Good lad”.

1902 De Dietrich racing car
Michael Wilcock with another of his unique cars – a magnificent five-litre 1902 De Dietrich racing car
Worthing lost one its real characters when Michael Wilcock and his wife, Valerie, sold their garage and went to live in Jersey. They took a collection of seven cars, so it was hardly surprising that Michael ended up as managing director of the Jersey Motor Museum.
     The giant Spitfire Special did not go to the Channel Islands. It had already been sold to an American collector in St Louis, Missouri, who planned its complete restoration. So far as I know, it remains there to this day.
     Forty-six years ago this month, another giant of the auto world came to this area in secret. To this day, few people know that Donald Campbell’s very first “Bluebird” contender for the world’s land speed record made its first “live” run around the circuit at Goodwood – only to be smashed up in a dramatic accident during a world record attempt on the Utah Salt Flats in America less than two months later.
     I was fortunate to be one of only a handful of journalists invited to see the first outing of this astonishing car in 1960.
     Thirty feet long, weighing 4.2 tons and powered by a 5,000 horsepower Proteus gas turbine aircraft engine, this first of Donald Campbell’s two “Bluebird” cars was the one without the vertical tail fin. At 365mph during its second trial run in America, the car slewed and rolled over four times, Campbell suffered a fractured skull.
Donald Campbell’s world record attempt “Bluebird”.
An aircraft engine – a Proteus gas turbine – also powered Donald Campbell’s world record attempt “Bluebird”.
A tail fin to give greater stability was added when a second car was built and in this Campbell did break the world land speed record at 403.10mph, in 1964.
     There was never a dull moment whenever I went motoring with Worthing racing driver, Ken Rudd, in the 1950s and ‘60s. But in November, 1960, I hardly expected to end up going round in tight circles with him on the first-ever motor-scooter hovercraft.
     Ken, who was then based in Chatsworth Road, Worthing, but later moved to Ford, thought the hover scooter was a great idea, based on the principle of the British-invented Hovercraft and riding on a cushion of air six inches above ground.
Donald Campbell, wife Tania and mechanic Leo Villa
World record trio Donald Campbell, wife Tania and mechanic Leo Villa
In contrast to sitting in the (admittedly very tight) cockpit of Campbell’s “Bluebird”, the hover scooter had “standing room only” as the tiny 250cc two-stroke motorcycle engine worked hard to produce enough air to lift it off the ground.
     Lateral movement was obtained by tilting the machine in the direction one wishes to travel and, much to my surprise, steering the machine proved somewhat similar to that of a conventional motor scooter.

The inventor’s idea was that it could be invaluable for rescue purposes at coastal resorts and inland waters, believing it could be sold at “something between £300 and £400”.
     A nice thought but, sadly, and for all sorts of technical and financial reasons, it was never – as they say in the inventing business – a “goer”.