Blydenstein Vauxhall tackles Castle Combe

| 13 Oct 2016

The VX4/90 had only one competitive outing over the summer, at Castle Combe in July, but Vauxhall asked if I’d be prepared to put the car on it stand at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Of course, I was delighted to and over the weekend the car was displayed alongside  Baby Bertha – the famous Supersaloon that was driven in period by Gerry Marshall – and John Cleland’s BTCC-winning Vauxhall Cavalier.

Previously, I’ve talked about there always being one corner at a race track that makes me anxious. At Castle Combe, it’s Avon Rise and Quarry. After the very fast pit straight, this is the uphill left hander that peaks and then flattens out to a long right-hander with little run off and high banks.

I hadn’t raced at Combe for a while, so I would be treating the 2.43-mile Wiltshire circuit with some respect.

A cold, damp morning welcomed us on Saturday with 44 cars on the qualifying grid and 20 different models/makes - typical of an HRDC grid. I qualified 31st, which was okay but we were all driving well within ourselves while the track started to dry. Damp conditions can be much trickier than a full wet track.

I had a good start in the race, all gentlemanly stuff with no touching and giving each other room. I was aware that the car was losing water, so at the mandatory pit stop - taken between 15 and 30 minutes into the race - I came in early to fill up. 

At that point, I suspected the head gasket was the problem. We completed the task within the mandatory time, but then there was another problem: the starter would not turn the engine over. The battery was flat. 

We tried in vain to bump-start it and not until we gave it a good long push did we get away, but I’d lost 3½ minutes. It dropped me to the back of the field and completely ruined any chance of a good result. 

From then on, the car wouldn’t run properly, with the power to the electronic ignition draining away. I had to slow to a crawl just to get over the finishing line firmly in last place, whereupon it stopped completely! Until the pit stop I was having lots of dices with other cars, winning some and losing others, but good racing and good fun.

Diagnosis afterwards suggested the alternator had failed. More recently, the cylinder head has been off, confirming that there was a bridge in the gasket between a water channel and number-three cylinder and another between three and four. 

Fortunately, we found the problem before doing any damage and the fix has been relatively simple and cheap. More investigation has shown the alternator is fine but the water pump had seized - preventing the belt turning the alternator pulley, hence no charge going to the battery. 

And I wonder if the lack of a water pump has caused the head gasket problem. We will never know.

Following that outing, I met Bill Blydenstein’s widow, Frances-Mary. She has an amazing memory, and attended all the European Touring Car races in 1963 – including Spa, Zandvoort, the Nurburgring, Brands Hatch and Zolder. 

But her favourite was Nepliget Park in Budapest, where Bill won a fantastic trophy that, along with others, she still has.  We were able to compare photos of the car in period and she was obviously thrilled that this historic racer is out again after all these years.

C&SC and Vauxhall are supporting Paul as he campaigns his ex-Bill Blydenstein VX4/90 in historic racing through 2016