Coachlines - November 2022

23.11.22 Liveryman David Barzilay

What happens when you unleash a British Bulldog?

Pictured above: Bulldog takes the weather in its stride (Copyright: Jayson Fong)

There is silence in the control tower at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in Somerset. Senior officers and flight crews are being briefed about the business of the day. A massive screen displays aircraft movements including attack helicopters but also the Aston Martin Bulldog.

It is the culmination of two and a half years of restoration and testing on the famous one-off prototype car, which was built by Aston Martin, to become the first production car to reach 200 mph, but which it never did in the day.

Attending is the owner of the car Phillip Sarofim; Richard Gauntlett, son of the former Chairman of Aston Martin, Victor Gauntlett; engineers from Classic Motor Cars Ltd, who have spent 7,000 hours restoring the car and are here to monitor the testing; and three times Le Mans 24-hour class winner Darren Turner who will drive it.

It is not looking great, there is rain forecast for the whole day, visibility could be compromised but Darren takes it all in his stride, smiles and says: “it will be fine – I’m used to driving in the rain at speed.”

The officer leading the briefing then turns to me, apart from looking after PR for the event, I had agreed to use my car as safety car and look after all safety issues on the track, or should I say runway.

“Timing is critical,” she said. “You have three half-hour slots. You must sweep the runway and make sure it is clear from your perspective, before letting Bulldog go. Then it is critical that you are off the runway exactly 30 minutes later. You have to be aware that things can change very quickly if we have an emergency.”

I assured the audience that it would be fine. Darren reminded me that he wanted to get in as many runs as possible in the half hour slots that had been allocated so I “shouldn’t hang about”. No pressure then!

For the past two and a half years the car has been entrusted to Classic Motor Cars in Bridgnorth Shropshire, to carry out a full restoration and build it back to a condition where it could make the 200mph that it never did and exceed it. The company won the RAC Restoration of the Year Award for its work on Bulldog.

Throughout this period, a dedicated team of engineers worked on the car and have been led by Brett Eggar, a South African with a wry sense of humour, who now knows Bulldog inside out from its little foibles to exactly what it will do.

Brett, who was been accompanied by Craig Bush, an electrical wizard says: “right let’s get back to the hanger and get the computers set.”

Every element of what the car is doing is being monitored by a system that has been built by Craig and Brett which will give them instant analysis of each run, how much power is being produced, what the fuel rate is whether the engine is firing correctly etc.

I ask Brett how much power the car is producing, and he says around 600 BHP and adds: “It shouldn’t have any problem making the 200 but we have to build this up slowly and constantly check that we are not putting too much pressure on the gearbox etc.

Meanwhile the press are arriving for the test and bemoaning the fact that the weather is bad. One national journalist is particularly put out that they may not get the pictures that they want. His photographer assures him that “It will be great and very moody”.

Brett and Craig are working in the dry in a hanger but it’s time to take the car out for the first run. Darren has donned his race suit and helmet and is being given instructions by Brett.

A site vehicle takes us out to an area close to the end of the main runway. I’m following it and Bulldog is following me. Beside is an old friend, Senior Naval Warrant Officer, and petrol head Baz Firth.

He is clutching a radio which is in contact with the main controller in the tower.

We approach the holding apron at the end of the runway. Two Wildcat helicopters are out bound and a C130 has just landed. “Busy”, says Baz as the heavens open and another downpour sends rain bouncing off the runway.

David Barzilay in the safety car (Copyright: Jayson Fong)

I’m listening out and we both hear the message “runway clear”. Baz says go, I slip the clutch and with Darren’s message ringing in my ears head off down the runway as quickly as possible for the safety run.

I take the centre line of the runway and the surface water is okay but to either side it’s building up. A quick turn round at the bottom, back up past the tower and I give Darren the thumbs up. He powers down the runway and, in that first session hits more than 150mph.

It’s the same process during the rest of the day with Brett and Craig making adjustments, a fuel filler cap coming loose and having to be fixed and then another part having to be replaced.

In the penultimate run, Darren takes engineer Keith Martin down the runway. When he returns a jubilant Keith Martin says, “It was just magic, and I wish my colleagues who originally worked on the car could have been here and witnessed this.”

Then it was time for the final run. The rain was getting worse, surface water was building up at the end of the runway and on either side. “Let’s give it one more go,” says Darren. While I’m worried about aquaplaning, he of course is supremely confident but that’s what makes him a great winning driver.

He sets off and returns the car to the hanger and Brett and Craig check the speed. It’s 176mph in the wet, well on the way to the 200mph which the car will attempt next spring.

A very happy owner thanks the driver and crew and we immediately start to talk about the spring and the final attempt but that’s another day.

On the day before the event Master Coachmaker, Julian Leach joined the team from CMC to see preparations for the testing day and initial runs being made. He also witnessed a spectacular fly past when the Navy Wings Supermarine Seafire flew low over the Bulldog which resulted in a series of spectacular images.

For more information about the Bulldog, please click here.