In Conversation with Paul Griffin, Author & Gentleman Racer

Welcome to our series of HCVA member interviews where we find out more about them and their businesses.

What got you into historic racing?

I have always been enthusiastic about older cars and motor racing. My career and family had both rightly taken priority for a long time, but around the year 2000 we had some money to buy a historic car and to begin racing.

The era which has always taken my interest more than any is the period immediately after the Second World War into the early 1960’s. This period was for me the most compelling. Increasingly over time my car interests have moved backwards into earlier periods.

My marque interests are broad and I am interested in everything, although our budget means that our cars tend to be British – the cars of Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari from those years are just so expensive. There are, of course, replicas but for me the originality and authenticity of the cars themselves really matters.

What was the first race car that you bought?

My first race car was a 1976 Ferrari 308 which raced in the Ferrari Challenge Series and was run by Nick Cartwright. That was relatively accessible racing and it let me find my way around without it being too costly. I could see how things worked and discover events that I enjoyed. So that was really what started me off. My first historic car was a Cooper T49 Monaco from 1959. I bought that in 2011.

How did you get on in your first race?

The early races were quite tense. Getting a race licence through the ARDs qualification process was one thing - a one-day course and you pay your fee and you gain your licence. But that doesn’t mean much until you have managed to collect signatures on your licence to show that you know what you’re doing. You need a certain number of signatures to upgrade the basic licence and gain access to a broader range of races.

I discovered there were so many ways in which you could fail to gain a signature! Early on, I entered a ‘double-header’ at Snetterton - two races in a weekend and the promise of two signatures. But the car had an oil pipe problem and although the guys did a great job to try to fix it, I was flagged by the marshals for dropping oil. All the work that had gone into getting there, racing and doing well over half the race came to nothing because I had to come in both times. No signatures!

The Ferrari Challenge Series in the 308 allowed me to realise that there is so much uncertainty in racing old cars that you can’t be too impatient with it. Historic racing teaches you to be pragmatic about most things.

In terms of racing itself the 308 was a lovely original car but it wasn’t at the sharp end of the racing - most of those tended to be enhanced cars. I was never likely to be threatening to win, but what is great in any of those series is that there are several classes and you can find your place to race all the way down the grid. It's that era of Ferraris that lends itself so well to accessible competition. And they were a lovely group of people in an established race series at some charismatic circuits.

What has been your proudest racing moment?

It won’t be a win!

One proud moment was competing at the Goodwood Revival. I’ve always loved the Revival, so the first time I raced there meant a lot to me. Another was the Monaco Historic which again to me is an extraordinary event - the opportunity to race on the circuit with so much history and which has been laid out ready for the Grand Prix which is going to be happening shortly afterwards.

In 2018 we raced in our Connaught ALSR. Monaco is obviously known for its Formula 1 Grand Prix but in 1952 the Grand Prix was a sports car race. So, within the Monaco Historic there is a sports car race among the more familiar single seat Grand Prix races. Our Connaught is a lovely thing and being properly of its time it still carries its 1500cc Lea-Francis engine, as worked on by Connaught. It races with other cars of that period and they tend to have engines of at least 2.0 to 2.5 litres in the case of the Maserati’s and Ferraris, with some of the Jaguar-engined cars having larger engines still.

That 2018 event was perhaps my proudest racing moment as we went from dire adversity to one of the most enjoyable races I’ve ever had.

In the practice, the Connaught’s rear suspension cracked. It looked as if that was it for the weekend. But the preparers who run the car for us - Ian & Will Nuthall at IN Racing – had brought their fabricator with them. They were running so many cars and this is just for when this sort of thing happens! So, bless them, over the course of the next day – qualifying day - the Nuthall team took the car apart, fabricated a repair and got it all put back together again. Just in time for the scrutineers to clear the car to be on the grid on the race on Sunday – an astonishing achievement effected not least by overnight welding by the harbour’s edge.  Because I couldn’t qualify on the Saturday I obviously started last on the grid - but at least I was on the grid!

It began to rain on the warm-up lap and by the start it was proper, Biblical stuff. Just the sort of conditions that suit an underpowered car and go some way to equalising the competition – the bigger-engined cars finding it much more difficult to apply their power than they would on a dry circuit. So, I was able to go from 28th and last to 19th at the end. For me, that was a proud, and enjoyable, moment.

What piece of advice about your hobby would you give your younger self?

Try to make the time and the opportunity to do it while you can. I think a number of things can work against you later in life - one of which is obviously just age. So, I would say start as early as you can, and make some time for it consistent with family and career and balancing everything else.

In relation to historic car events, I would say that you should enjoy being around the people who are involved in the sector. It attracts some really remarkable people of all sorts. I would also say that you should really enjoy the cars. It’s a comment on historic racing but I do think it should be about cars that really are historic. The trend for some years has been to race cars that have a historic appearance but are largely modern under the skin.

There’s a camaraderie that goes with racing your own car that you’ve been able to spend some time on, that you are fond of - and actually have quite a lot invested in as well. That is a different type of racing to me. But each has its place.

A key piece of advice to my younger self would be to recognise just how fortunate we are to be able to do these things.

After a career in a city law firm what has prompted you to write your book The Past and the Spurious - The case of Legitimacy in Historic Cars?

Chatting around the paddocks and following the press reports, it became clear that a lot of people have been going to court in recent times with claims over which car is which, what’s a ‘proper’ car and what is an original one. These questions also exercise a great many Owners’ Clubs and Registrars, as well as the DVLA.

As values have increased there has been a great deal more at stake. And approaches have changed - using a proper part from another car used to be seen as acceptable but fashions have moved towards things such as ‘matching numbers’ being the mark of originality and authenticity. When I retired from front-line lawyering in 2016, that meant I had more time to spend racing, and writing. I had always written and spoken about legal issues and that writing moved towards the law and historic cars. And questions of originality, authenticity and legitimacy.

What became clear is that more valuable than anything is the history of the car, and two things came out of that. One is that the history of a car may not be that reliable. Sometimes it will be, because great people have done great work in researching and recording what happened. The other is that that history and the car you see in front of you may not always be attached. And that was really what started it off.

In an unlikely way, my greatest ally in writing the book was COVID-19 and the first shutdown. There wasn’t much else to be doing at time when my thoughts had crystallised, and that shutdown did give me the time to begin to write.

Among the more troublesome areas in these assessments is the role of the licensing authorities in relation to historic cars. As well as creating a lexicon of elastic words that can make it difficult to develop a clear or easy understanding, the DVLA’s administration of its rules has become increasingly opaque. To the extent that the originality and history of some of these marvellous artefacts are now being undermined or sometimes destroyed. It’s more difficult than it needs be because the structure of licensing in this country has grown in a way that hasn’t been that well connected to the ways in which the historic car sector looks at these things - or in particular the way that the courts look at them. 

What is your favourite car that you have owned - and why?

My first car was a Ford Anglia 105E from 1961. I’m not sure I was that fond of the car at the time, but I did like what it represented – the discipline of working through the university summer holidays, saving up and learning to drive. It seems strange to talk about that first car now in terms of fondness when it didn’t last very long, and I didn’t even notice when it went. It became just a way of trading up to the next one.

I think I developed more of a balance about things when it wasn’t so much a case of having to sell one to buy the next one, and I could have the luxury of more than one car. But I am not sure there is a favourite? The elements of being proper and original cars matter in what the cars mean to me, and I suppose the times they represent as well.

Each of the race cars scores on those fronts.  Period participations at the leading international races and events, drivers such as Moss, Scott-Brown, Brooks, Brabham and McLaren, and a continued welcome at today’s historic gatherings. And it is not only the stories of the cars but the people and the businesses too – Charles and John Cooper and the domination of the Grand Prix world from an unassuming garage in Surbiton, and the glorious failure of Connaught. Of the race cars, it’s probably the Connaught ALSR that is my favourite. 

Another one would be our Bentley. It’s a 3 litre from 1923 and it’s very much of a time gone by. When you see the way that people respond to it, they just love the old thing. We were invited to race at Goodwood three years ago in the Brooklands trophy. That was a magical moment, but I don’t see it as a race car - it does mainly charitable work now, with rides for people at auctions for example. We offer to take people out into the country with a champagne lunch and people bid for that. That was really busy during the lockdown period as so many charities lost their normal means of funding.

It’s a very early example of where cars are now and when you then look at where cars are going to, I do tend to think it's almost of its own time.

A third one would be a car we don’t have any more. It was very glamorous and not English either, which is unusual for me. It was a simple, straightforward Ferrari 275 GTB which still had almost all its original bits - that type of authenticity I really like.

There I’ve named three of the children and the others will hate me now! 

  • What is your least favourite car that you have owned - and why?

    It would have to be a Range Rover. I’m very fond of Range Rovers but there was a period in their life when they seemed to struggle with their electrical systems. It was a car we bought new in the mid 1990s and within the first few days it had broken down. It was not something simple where the RAC man came and got us going again. The car was on the back of a low loader three times in the first couple of weeks, with mainly electrical ailments.

    The dealer was understanding – we had a new-born child and twice the car broke down for my wife when she had the baby in the back!  So we agreed that if the car broke down again they would take it back and we would get our money back. In fact, the car took things into its own hands. Instead of breaking down again, it actually caught fire. Happily, we all got out of the car all right, but it did end the discussion.

    The dealer recovered the toasted Range Rover and took it away and we got our money back. Subsequently we did have a Range Rover Sport that was really good.

What is a great example of a future classic in your opinion?

I think a car which is not made in great numbers, is beautiful to look at and which allows the driver to make the driving decisions. Oh, and it would have to be something with an internal combustion engine.

What has been your favourite ever classic car experience?

It would probably be the first time when I managed to change from 4th gear into 3rd gear in the Bentley 3 Litre, without gnashing any of the cogs of the box together. It took quite a few attempts, and I can’t tell you that I’ve managed it every time since. But first time I got it right I cheered out loud! I was on my own and I was so pleased.

What would be your dream racing drive - car & circuit?

I think the circuit would be Goodwood and the car, linking back to favourites, would be the Connaught ALSR in the Freddie March trophy race. 

Why did you join the HCVA?

In my view, the HCVA was looking to do the right things in an area where there was no effective trade body, and its aims were consistent with how I saw things. Also, I did feel that here was something that I could contribute to, given what I’ve done and what I still do with my background as an academic and as a participant in the business of historic cars. It was a rare opportunity to join an excellent group of people with a shared passion and view, and talents in lots of different areas.