Meet the marathon runners refusing to slow down
Chess, crosswords, memory games and jigsaws are fine. But little compares to dealing with a near-100-year-old Rolls-Royce breaking down – or “failing to proceed”, in Rolls-Royce parlance – in the middle of France, then working with a septuagenarian friend and a Polish car mechanic to get it back on the road because you’ve agreed to secretly recreate one of the toughest car–endurance tests of its time…
Vintage car racer, aviator and engineer Allan Winn, 73, relishes a problem to solve, which is just as well, because that breakdown was definitely a problem. And it needed solving, fast.
Earlier this summer, Allan and more than 30 other vintage–motor enthusiasts took part in one of the world’s most historic and prestigious road expeditions. But first, he had to get there.
“I was driving from Surrey to Salzburg with my friend Charles Cross, in his 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost,” says Allan. “We were taking part in a 110-year anniversary recreation of the 1913 Alpenfahrt, or Alpine Trial, an endurance event for motor cars, which, back then, Rolls-Royce entered as part of proving it made the best cars in the world.
“We’d been making good progress across France, trundling along at 55mph, when the Ghost just stopped. A local mechanic, a Polish chap living in a village down the road, stopped to help, then went off to get his recovery truck and took us to a nearby town where we found a hotel, set up base, and fixed the problem (which was the fuel pump).”
The recreation of this iconic rally, organised by the super-exclusive 20-Ghost Club – named after the 20-horsepower Silver Ghost, and formed in 1949, with the aim of preserving pre-1940s Rolls-Royces – was staged in secret, with no publicity before or during the event because of the value of the cars and the wealth of the remaining-nameless participants. While Allan wouldn’t count himself among the uber-wealthy entrants, he has certainly had a rich life of experiences, much of it involving vintage–car collection, preservation and events.
The 1,600-mile (2,575km) route follows the 1913 original, taking in the stunning valleys of Austria and the heights of the 2,743m (9,000ft) Stelvio Pass in Italy. It was originally conceived in 1910 to challenge the endurance of cars vying to become known as the best of the era, and nowadays, on key anniversaries, the punishing gradients and challenging driving conditions attract enthusiasts with the same passion for adventure.
Some participants had their cars delivered to Salzburg but a few, including Allan and Charles, drove theirs. That meant 600 miles (965km) through alternately raging mid-France heat and torrential rain, before they even started the fortnight-long Alpenfahrt recreation.
“I hadn’t actually driven the Ghost until a few weeks before the trip, but that was another challenge to overcome, along with a crash course in essential daily maintenance,” says Allan.
The challenge of driving a 1925 Rolls-Royce should not be underestimated. Until they reach a steady speed, it’s a battle between man and machine: they don’t like being put into gear; they don’t like changing gear; they don’t stop very well (Silver Ghosts weigh about two tonnes (4,409 lb), and some have brakes more akin to those found on a bicycle); and they don’t like changing direction.
“Ours had very good brakes, but steering it on the steep Alpine roads and hairpin bends is like having a serious upper-body workout,” adds Allan. “You’d always know you’d done a day’s driving.”
Mixing with these enthusiasts confirmed something many of their partners will say: men and women quickly become children when absorbed by car-based hobbies.
“I don’t think of myself as a 73-year-old bloke,” Allan, originally from New Zealand, tells me. “I’ve been driving vintage cars for well over 50 years. I’ve owned my own vintage Bentley for 38 years, I do demonstration drives of a 1933 Napier–Railton racing car for Brooklands Museum [a motoring and aviation museum in Surrey], I drove heavy trucks for a living. It’s just all part of the continuing adventure.”
Allan’s entire life – whether that’s his career in journalism, his chairing of Aviation Heritage UK or his vice-presidency of Brooklands Museum Trust – has revolved around industries and interests for which problem-solving is key.
“Get or maintain a hobby or interest, or keep on working,” Allan insists. “All the better if it involves problem-solving. As long as you’re physically fit and able to do things, you should be doing them.”
Allan is clear testimony.
“I retired from my last full-time job five years ago, and I just don’t have time to do all the things I want to do. Running around doing things you enjoy keeps you physically fit, but also mentally alert.
“If you’re letting the TV do the thinking for you, then you’re going to waste away. You’ve got to be sorting issues out, solving problems, having your brain working all the time.
“I’m involved in lots of organisations where everybody seems to be busily involved. I could have easily retired from, say, Brooklands Museum, but I wanted to stay involved. I enjoy being surrounded by people who are like-minded.”
Allan is clear that whatever your passion, remaining close to it in some way is better than nothing at all. He explains: “If I’m not racing a vintage motorcar, I’ll be standing on a marshal’s post. If you haven’t got a car to race, then you could help run the motor race meeting, because without volunteers doing that sort of thing there wouldn’t be any vintage racing.”
Allan moved to the UK on a journalism scholarship in 1974 after gaining his engineering degree. “I never even imagined I could get anywhere near these things when I was a teenager in New Zealand,” he says. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in getting the opportunities from being in the right place when the door opened. I did once get a redundancy cheque, which paid for my vintage Bentley back in 1985. And my late wife, Jacqueline, was extremely supportive in letting me do all the things I wanted to do.
“But I’ve also had this amazing career in which I’ve said to management that I’m going to do something, and they let me do it. And that’s what I’m still doing.”
Allan’s next problem-solving challenge? How to shoehorn enough hours into his day.
The original Alpine Trial
Written by Iain Macauley
Iain started working for the Sunday Mirror as a freelance sports reporter before he even received his A-level results. That was in 1979. Between then and now he worked in both newspapers and broadcast in news and sport before “defecting”, as his senior journalist father described it, to public relations, and then reputation & crisis communications – his current “day job”.
However, throughout and in parallel he has maintained his journalism connections, ghost-writing in the likes of The Times and Metro on behalf of a range of clients, but in recent years as a by-lined contributor to the likes of the Financial Times HTSI magazine, GQ magazine, various county “Life” magazines, and, of course, Saga Magazine and Exceptional.
He mainly writes about his self-indulgent interests of classic and collectable cars, motorcycles and aircraft, as well as the people and personalities in those fields. He has raced cars, restored classic cars and motorcycles, flown around the Arctic Circle in a 1940s Douglas DC-4, gets around on a Honda 1000, and keeps a rare Yamaha 50 in his dining room to the bemusement of his wife, Pam, and ginger cat Darcy.