The daftest thing

cerbera3_2_493fb31ddb1af-lightboxIn the summer I met a new girlfriend who lived in Somerset so I started clocking up the miles as Kate and I kind of lived between houses 130 miles apart. The great thing about the journeys was that I often did them in the dead of night. Quiet clear roads, crisp air, and the advantage of headlights allowing me to read the bends ahead means: Night time = Cerbera time. I like listening to loud music in cars and my choice of tunes was dictated by whether I used the journey to reflect on the preceding week’s doings or make an unofficial Land Speed Record attempt. For the latter, favourites included ZZ Top albums, Tom Petty’s “Runnin Down a Dream” or Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.

Occasionally, I’d do the return run very early on a Monday morning. I’m not a morning person but a decent drive in a Cerbera, watching sunrise, has an amazing effect on my ability to respond to an alarm clock. Again, the tunes are part of the experience …except for lane-running in the West Country between high walls. A Cerbera’s own music is all you need for that. The characteristic rasping acceleration and machine-gun fire popping on overrun is heavenly – or should that be ‘hell-ly’? Then I’d hit the M4, crank up the hi-fi and hit ‘Launch’ with my right foot. Yee har! “Black Betty had a child, bam a lam the damn’ thing gone wild!”

At the end of 1999, I took Kate to the TVR Tuscan Challenge Annual Dinner in Blackpool. Obviously, she’d heard plenty about my race car and had also developed a passion for the Blackpool Ballistics Works. What left her speechless was the highlight of the Annual Dinner: the video compilation of crashes since the Challenge opened in 1989, set to the soundtrack of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. This audio visual feast of concentrated ‘Spirit of Driving’ antics ought to hit the shelves of HMV because, quite frankly, it’s about as entertaining as a motion picture can be. Having seen it, Kate encouraged me to get the race car back out [had you named her as beneficiary?!-ed] so I signed a sponsorship deal with Japanese electronics giant TEAC Corporation and was out to play for the 2000 season.

Kate’s a sculptor and that year I commissioned her to sculpt ‘Cerberus’, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hell. We brought a ‘proof’ copy of the piece to Silverstone which led to Peter Wheeler buying one and Cerberus being officially unveiled in the VIP lounge of the TVR Stand at the 2000 Motor Show. The 2000 Motor Show was significant for two other reasons: it was where two ‘threats’ to my Cerbera were to rear their heads.

Mr Wheeler reckoned something that would get me out of my Cerbera was going to be unveiled: the Tuscan R. The other threat was that I was planning to schedule delivery of my Tuscan Speed Six for the following February. Ever since I’d seen the holey grille of the Tuscan I was leaning towards an all black Batmobile spec. that would ‘hide’ the grille. And there, sat in the VIP lounge, was ‘my’ Tuscan spec: Moonraker black metallic with a black interior. I licked my eyebrows.

Although not entirely convinced by the Tuscan R, I put a deposit down and at the same time confirmed the Tuscan Speed Six spec. and delivery date for my birthday in February 2001. The idea was to trade the 4.5 for the Tuscan but a bid of 20-something grand for the Cerbera and the fact the ‘Red Rose’ Tuscan was not a 4.5 beater made me review the situation. So I kept the 4.5 and added a third TVR to my garage. My reasoning was that I’d probably chop both roadgoing TVRs for whatever the Tuscan R evolved into a year later. More about that in a later journal…

So: the love affair had been sorely tested and the blue 4.5 had survived. In 2001, I went to Tuscan Challenge qualifying in one TVR, then to race day in the other, just for the hell of it. Having two to run reduced the mileage of both to about 6,000 miles a year each. The ‘6000 miles each’ was an unfortunate number though. TVRs have 6K service intervals and over the coming years, on several occasions, I ended up with both of them racking up service costs at the same time. Doh!

However where having two came in handy was entertaining race sponsors by taking them for ‘wild rides’ on trackdays. I’d book the Tuscan into the ‘fast road’ group and the Cerbera in with the race cars. While both shocked passengers with their speed and agility, it was the Cerbera giving race cars a damned good drubbing that shocked the most. You need slicks and wings – and plenty of both – to outrun a ‘determinedly driven’ Cerbera.

On a reliability note, neither car ever missed a beat – the worst that happened was in the last session of a particularly hot day, I melted all the grease out of a front wheel bearing on the Cerbera. Impressive stuff as I had driven them like a thief.

But the daftest thing I have EVER done in a car (and I have no inclination to surpass it) happened en route to Le Mans in 2003 in the 4.5. I was late for dinner. I can’t bring myself to write the speeds down but the gist of it is I was proceeding at a hell of a lick, closing in on a line of cars overtaking a truck. The last of the cars saw me coming and held back. I pulled out and accelerated, taking the decision to overtake all 20 or so cars, which themselves, weren’t hanging about. It was then I saw the island in the middle of the road.

I mentioned in the last journal about the Cerbera having some extra MPH for emergencies… This was an emergency: “If in doubt, more gas”. My lasting memory of passing a line of startled Caterfields was the look on their faces as I flew past on the wrong side of a 100 metre-long island. The journey time from driving off the train to switching off the engine at the Chateau was 3 hours 25 minutes (via the N roads), including a fuel stop south of Rouen.

There’s something about a Cerbera that I’ve never felt in any other car. Jumping in the big TVR is like stepping into my favourite shoes. It fits and suits in equal measure. The analogy fails, arguably, in that I can dance in a Cerbera but not in any shoes… Where the Griff writhed and bucked, a bit like a bull terrier does if you try and grab its tail, the Cerbera by virtue of its longer wheelbase wags like a rottweiler shaking the life out of a trespasser. Grrrrr!

It’s late night as I finish writing this. I’m off to rattle windows. Blue Oyster Cult in the deck: “Baby don’t fear the Reaper. We’ll be able to fly…” Might even stay out till the sun comes up.

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Phil James