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Driving an old sports car with an absorbing history of past ownership can be a moving experience – particularly if those connections are to brave war heroes.
London-based dealer Peter Bradfield sums it up perfectly, as he describes taking his Invicta to race at Goodwood, the former RAF Battle of Britain airfield.
“I compete in the old-fashioned way, driving down to the event,” enthuses Bradfield.
“That means an early start for scrutineering, and on that run in the Invicta I often think about the valiant pilots getting ready for a dawn raid at just that time 80 years ago.”
Getting behind the wheel of BMK 102, the rakish two-tone Frazer Nash TT Replica, has just such an effect on me after reading about Oliver Barton ‘Jimmie’ James, its courageous young owner during WW2.
Both Bradfield and restorer/racer Patrick Blakeney-Edwards have been absorbed by James’ brave, short life, which has echoes of both the fictionalised war movie The Great Escape and the story of the legendary disabled fighter ace Douglas Bader.
Like many young men at the outbreak of war, James – together with his elder brothers Alex and Leslie – was eager to sign up as a flyer.
At just 18 years old, James began his training at RAF Sealand on the Welsh border and achieved a boyhood dream after going solo in a Tiger Moth.
Reports suggest that James was a natural pilot, with only his passion for cricket matching his flying aspirations.
With the award of his wings, James was promoted to sergeant and posted to 83 Squadron based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire.
His first duty was to pilot Handley Page Hampden medium bombers on hazardous night raids across Germany.
It must have been a very worrying time for James’ mother, with all three sons in active service.
After her husband died in the late 1920s, she’d brought up her boys as a single mother.
James had acquired a motorbike as transport while stationed at Sealand and, concerned about his long solo rides to visit her in Salisbury, his mother agreed to part-fund the purchase of a car.
James began looking for something suitable and soon acquired a ‘chain gang’ Frazer Nash from a fellow officer.
Painted in its original two-tone scheme of ivory over brown, the spartan 1934 Meadows-powered machine perfectly suited the young flyer, who christened the Nash ‘Freddie’.
Often driving with his pet terrier riding alongside him, James enjoyed many adventures as he took BMK 102 around the country with the hood rarely raised.
In letters to his mother, James reported how he managed to do a deal with a local undertaker in Chester for petrol because the funeral parlour had a surplus from its allocated 200 gallons a week.
The poor fuel caused terrible pinking on long runs and eventually the car threw a rod near Stratford.
Amazingly, the driver of an eight-wheeler truck agreed to tow him the 80 miles to the Frazer Nash works in Isleworth, where James took leave to help the mechanics rebuild the engine.
Afterwards, correspondence home enthused: ‘Freddie is going well and making life much more bearable.’ But on one night run with a chum in October 1940, James’ exuberance at the wheel led to a dramatic off-road excursion, with the Nash rolling into a ditch.
Initially James thought he’d killed his unresponsive friend, who thankfully turned out only to be severely winded.
During the recent rebuild at Blakeney Motorsport, old damage to the wooden body frame was assumed to be as a result of this accident.
While the Nash was being repaired, James borrowed an Austin Seven from his brother that the pair christened ‘Herbert’.
All of the boys were car-mad and while the eldest, Alex, was stationed in Singapore he managed to acquire a vintage Bentley before he was captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of WW2 in a PoW camp.
The youthful pilots at 83 Squadron soon lived up to the group’s motto, ‘Strike to Defend’, with ever more courageous sorties into Germany to strike Berlin, Hamburg and the Ruhr.
The bombing raids included German Army barges preparing for Operation Sea Lion, but the losses were grim with an average of one plane every week.
By spring 1941, James and his crew were experienced flyers despite their tender years.
On 21 March, 83 Squadron was briefed for a ‘Gardening’ mission to drop mines on to German shipping lanes in the Brest port area.
At 0200 hours James and his young crew (all were just 21) took off from Scampton in their Hampden, which was affectionately christened ‘Lemon’, and set course for the night target.
After the rear gunner tested his .303 weapon over the English Channel, James aimed for the coast near Morlaix and then dropped to 700ft to position for the target.
Suddenly, the enemy flak became more intense and the Hampden’s port-side Bristol Pegasus engine was hit.
With serious damage, James trimmed the controls for single-engined flight but, having dropped to 450ft, the bomber’s wing-tip clipped a small hill and it burst into flames on impact.
At dawn James awoke with his flying suit still smouldering. Finding his crewmembers dead, he staggered to a nearby farm where a local gave the injured pilot shelter for the night.
With badly scarred hands and face, James concluded that he had no option but to surrender.
Once in the care of German medics at Morlaix hospital, James’ injuries started to heal but the doctor advised amputation of his left hand.
Against his wishes and the advice of the Red Cross, the operation was done.
During recovery James made several escape attempts, and on transfer to Dulag Luft he was sent to an isolation cell.
Eventually, word of his survival reached the RAF and his relieved mother.
For his bold leadership and sustained bravery, James was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal but in France he became ever more determined to escape.
When a repatriation plan for injured airmen was proposed, James was moved to Rouen where on 21 November 1941 he broke out with three other prisoners including Bill Magrath, another wounded pilot.
With the help of French patriots, James and Magrath made it to Paris then, after three weeks’ hiding, headed to Marseilles before crossing the Pyrennees on foot to Vilajuïga.
It was another three months before they sailed back to Britain.
The Frazer Nash was taken out of storage for a blissful break with his fiancée in Cookham, but later that summer James was recalled for duty.
The news of a deskbound posting was too much for him, but reports that the much-decorated Squadron Leader James Maclachlan had returned to fighter action with an artificial left arm gave hope.
After a refresher course with a Hawker Hurricane, James was given advanced training on the difficult new Hawker Typhoon, the 2000bhp, 24-cylinder, 400mph fighter.
James embraced the challenge of the heavy ground-attack aircraft and by May 1943 was promoted to Flying Officer with 245 Squadron.
Based at Westhampnett (the future Goodwood course) and later Lydd, James began ‘Rhubarb’ strikes into France on railways, troop convoys and military bases. His bravery and fearless flying were an inspiration to younger pilots.
Perhaps the Nash drove the Westhampnett perimeter, chasing Tony Gaze’s Aston Martin LM10, and I like to think that James had some fun runs to Cookham to visit fiancée Sylvia.
On 4 October 1943, however, James’ luck ran out during a mission to Chartres when his Typhoon was engaged by a superior Focke-Wulf Fw190.
Tragically, both the pilot and his 21-year-old wingman Johnnie Flynn were shot down and killed on impact.
Like many parents of flyers, James’ mother had to suffer the grief of a second son lost in action while her eldest survived in a PoW camp.
The heroic 23-year-old, who never saw his daughter, was buried in Evreux Cemetery.
His prized Nash was eventually sold and remained active throughout the following seven decades with a succession of enthusiastic owners.
Both the original two-tone livery and the Meadows engine were changed, but from 1967 it was owned and cherished by Jo Fairley of Newtownards, Northern Ireland.
Fairley’s life revolved around the Nash, by then hand-painted light blue with a 2-litre AC ‘six’.
As well as being active in club motorsport, including trips to England for Vintage Sports-Car Club meetings, Fairley and BMK 102 were regulars on the Nash Raids to the Alps.
Roundabouts were always relished, with Fairley sliding the TT Replica at angles today’s drifters would be proud of.
The 50-year ownership included plenty of thrilling moments, and only when Fairley was too old to climb into the cockpit was BMK 102 reluctantly offered for sale and snapped up in 2018 by keen Nash exponent Blakeney-Edwards.
Upon inspection, the Hertfordshire-based specialist discovered that this was a remarkable survivor.
Blakeney-Edwards even tracked down the original engine block, number 10402, but it was the car’s history that really captivated the ‘chain gang’ fan.
“The paperwork gave a few clues to the wartime ownership and James’ name,” he recalls.
“Then I found an article in a 1994 copy of Militaria Collector about this courageous young pilot and was gripped by his story.”
Further research, aided by Bradfield, led to contact with James’ family and the discovery of letters and photographs of BMK 102: “It’s an amazing story and we’d love to know more.”
After learning about hero James, Blakeney-Edwards decided that the Nash had to be returned to its authentic specification during the war years.
Work began on stripping the car down to the chassis, with Wayne Fairlie and the team in the firm’s Frazer Nash arm going right through the driveline.
“It had always been a good, working car and well looked after,” says Fairlie. “We fitted new bearings, steering, sprockets and brake shoes.”
The timber body frame, wings and panel cracks were repaired by Tudor Summers, but the body was amazingly original – one of the reasons why the car looks so authentic.
“We didn’t want to make it too perfect and have kept the panel ripples,” says Summers. “All the Bosch lighting is original, and we found some nice factory details such as the advance/retard and hand-throttle levers, the lip to the ’screen frame and the odd-shaped gearlever.”
A fresh Meadows unit was built by Josh Pitts and Jack Parry, which when running-in on the dyno delivered 111bhp at 6050rpm and maximum torque of 108lb ft at 5000rpm, with a 9.65:1 compression ratio.
Early on, the decision was made to return ‘Freddie’ to its original two-tone colour scheme and Blakeney-Edwards went to great lengths to choose the right match.
To enhance the finish, it was also decided to nickel-plate the brightwork – although not the authentic Falcon Works finish, it looks fabulous.
The final touch was a retrim in ‘pull-up leather’, which has a rich, natural finish that further enhances the car’s style, and the addition of a Smiths aviation clock.
Rolled out into the daylight, ‘Freddie’ looks magnificent, the ivory body and brown wings giving the TT Replica a raffish, Art Deco style that celebrates the jazz-age era.
But the best news of all is that it drives as well as it looks.
My test run demands an appropriate location to celebrate wartime owner James.
With no surviving Hampdens or flying Typhoons, the only option was a Hurricane and the wonderful Shuttleworth Collection agreed to roll out its rare 1941 Mk1 Z7015 for photography.
With its 1030hp Merlin V12 engine, this 296mph beauty is the earliest airworthy survivor and a regular star of flying days at Shuttleworth.
The 30-mile round trip also passes RAF Henlow, which dates back to 1918 and during WW2 was used to assemble Hurricanes built in Canada.
The drive proves a perfect test for the freshly finished TT Replica, with good straights and plenty of roundabouts, while the last scenic miles through Bedfordshire woodland and the idyllic Old Warden village offers timewarp rural views down the long bonnet.
I’ve been going to Shuttleworth since I was a child, and it remains one of my favourite places on earth.
No other pre-war car compares to a Nash, particularly one as sorted as BMK 102.
With only a passenger door, the best route to slide under the broad, four-spoke wheel and on to the flat seat is from the left.
The gruff exhaust of the eager ‘four’ doesn’t sound very sporty until it starts to sing higher in the rev range.
At first, the crab-tracked chassis layout feels and looks strange, particularly if you’re following.
The brakes pull to the left when cold, and into corners it initially wants to understeer, but once everything is warmed up and you’re in the ‘chain gang’ groove, its character is addictive.
The gate of one of the last production sports cars with an outside gearlever is unusual, with first away and forward.
The change is super-fast and, once out of first, the cogs can be selected without using the clutch. The faster you go, the slicker the change.
The high-geared steering is light, and once up to speed barely requires any movement as the throttle commands the direction.
Empty roundabouts are great fun, and en route I can’t resist a couple of circuits to slide the tail.
Both Blakeney-Edwards and Fairlie rate BMK 102’s handling and ride because there’s no match for the metallurgy of an original chassis, which flexes just the right amount.
The brakes pull straight and strong once warm, and the engine revs through the range with heaps of torque, like no Meadows I’ve experienced.
Back at the workshop, Blakeney-Edwards maintains that I didn’t rev it high enough and takes me out for a mindblowing blast down the London Road, where no modern can catch us.
The lucky new owner has been supportive of the restoration route and is just as enthusiastic as the team about BMK 102’s history.
There’s already talk of a road trip across France to visit ‘Jimmie’ James’ final resting place in Evreux. I’m not one for graveyards, but prefer to celebrate a hero by experiencing a car or place they were connected to.
That memorable drive in James’ restored Nash to Old Warden and getting to sit in a Hurricane was the perfect way to commemorate his short, courageous life.
Images: Will Williams