Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter hellos


Happy Easter everyone, I haven't forgotten you all!  (Don't worry, I've got a couple of posts lined up for the next few weeks so hopefully things will soon be back to the "new" normal here at Eclectic Ephemera.)  In more exciting news I had another article published in In Retrospect magazine, with a fourth hopefully for Issue 03 in a couple of months' time!

Did you see that B.B.C. Two actually put on Easter Parade at Easter(!), on Good Friday morning?  That was a pleasant start to the Easter weekend, I thought (even though I'd recorded it from their last showing of it in... November)!  I can never get enough of the incomparable Fred Astaire...

Here's hoping you've all had a wonderful Easter holiday - not too much chocolate I hope!  (I actually got my first egg in years - from work!  What a nice bunch of coves, eh?)  Well, roll on Spring!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Lost Sherlock Holmes story discovered in man's attic


Lost Sherlock Holmes story discovered in man's attic

Proof that there remains many unknown and long-lost treasures from the past [100 years] still to be found in attics, skips etc. comes this news of a newly-unearthed Sherlock Holmes story, written over 110 years ago and rediscovered more than 80 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle last put pen to paper on the subject of The Great Detective.

As it turns out this is not quite the great literary discovery of the century that it sounds, although it is still quite remarkable and most interesting.  The "story" turns out to be of the short variety (1,300 words), written by Conan Doyle in 1904 in support of the fundraising for a new bridge in Selkirk, Scotland, to replace the previous one that was destroyed in 1902.  Thus it was penned very much as a 19th century "sponsored article", with Holmes using his famous powers of deduction to determine Watson's forthcoming trip to Scotland to - attend a new bridge-opening event.  Having read it, it could even be argued that the whole scene is an "imagining" of a Holmes-Watson discussion by the third party and the thing reads in such a slightly exaggerated way that I wouldn't be surprised if Doyle had his tongue firmly in his cheek at the time.

Nevertheless it was obviously something of a coup to have such a well-known "literateur" endorse Selkirk's little bridge (still standing today!) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's name rightly stands proud in The Book o' the Brig

Whether there are any further, more substantial lost works from Doyle remains to be seen but as a Sherlockian and a vintage enthusiast I am delighted to see a prevously unknown Holmes story come to light in so interesting a manner.  Well done to Mr Elliot for finding it (eventually), hanging on to it and donating it to the local pop-up museum, who I'm sure will be proud and welcome custiodians.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Brooklands race track to return to use with £4.7m grant

Brooklands race track to return to use with £4.7m grant

Well, this has just about made my year and no mistake!  I doubt there'll be any more welcome [vintage] news in 2015 to trump this, and we're not even a quarter of the way through the year.

Yes, this is the overwhelmingly joyous news (which had me bouncing off the walls in excitement, I can tell you!) that the Brooklands race track in Weybridge, Surrey - first constructed in 1907 but defunct as a motor racing ciruit since the start of the Second World War in 1939, when it was largely built over and used for aircraft production - has been awarded nearly £5,000,000 in Heritage Lottery funding for use in restoring some of the track to its original 1930s condition.

Although efforts have been underway for some time now in this regard, confirmation of the Hertiage Lottery Fund's £4.7million contribution means that the projected overall costs of £7,100,000 have very nearly been met and work will begin soon.  This will involve dismantling the Grade II listed Bellman Hanger (erected by Vickers Aviation in 1940 for the production of Wellington bombers and more recently used to exhibit some of the Brooklands Museum's wonderful aeroplanes) and moving it, plus all its contents, several hundred yards where it will be rebuilt and restored to once again house many aeronautical exhibits.  Once this is done the next exciting part of the work can begin - the restoration of the start-finish straight (above).  Unseen and unused since Vickers built their production facilities over it in 1940, it will once again echo to the cheers of spectators and the roar of racing engines for the first time in 75 years.  Connected to the surviving banking at the north-east corner of the circuit it will provide the longest section of usable track since Brooklands' heyday in the 1920s and '30s.

Alas, despite the somewhat misleading B.B.C. article the entire track will not be returned to use since in the intervening decades a retail park and housing estate have been built over other sections.  Still, this is the best news that could have happened for Brooklands and will certainly return the track to as close to its pre-war glory as is possible.  And with this work, who knows what may be in store for the future?  Maybe we will see a complete circuit yet?

I last went to Brooklands in 2007 when the circuit was celebrating its centenary and what a fantastic day out that was.  Period outfits were worn and famous Brooklands racers including John Cobb's Napier-Railton and the later Napier-Bentley (above).  The Brooklands Musuem put on a fantastic event and is well-worth the visit and, although I didn't have the time or money to experience it on the day, the Mercedes-Benz World complex within the track is reputedly well worth a look-see.  Mercedes' contribution to the circuit's revival should not be overlooked and we owe them a debt of thanks for assisting the Museum in keeping the "Brooklands spirit" alive.

Personally I can't wait to see the results of the "Re-engineering of Brooklands" once it is complete, hopefully by the summer of 2016.  I'm sure it will breathe a whole new lease of life into an already fantastic place and my return there is only a matter of time.  With luck there will be some [period] special events to celebrate the reopening (already Brooklands plays host to many annual events and meetings, including the Double Twelve and 1940s Weekend - which I keep meaning to get along to) and I look forward to seeing the fruits of the restoration - Brooklands 1930s-style!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

28.5-litre Fiat S76 runs for first time in over 100 years

28.5-litre Fiat S76 runs for first time in over 100 years

Back in November 2011 I wrote a long post about the history of the aeroplane-engined motor car and included many incredible examples of much machines, such as the mighty 21½-litre Blitzen Benz from 1909, Fiat's 21.7-litre Mephistopheles, plus later additions like 47-litre BMW Brutus and the similarly-displacing Packard-Bentley Mavis.  Now it is the turn of another of those century-old leviathans to come under the spotlight - the 1911 Fiat S76.


Built in response to the land speed record-setting Blitzen Benz from two years previously, the S76 contained all of Fiat's technological know-how from its Grand Prix racing experiences of the early 1900s.  At the time, the only way to reliably extract a great deal of motive power from an engine was to make it as large as possible (hence the proliferation of monster-engined GP cars during that period, as well as the aforementioned use of aeroplane engines).  Thus it was that Fiat produced a gargantuan 28½-litre powerplant that put out nearly 300bhp - a fantastic figure for the time and almost twice as much as the Benz!  Featuring technology that would not look out of place in a modern engine, including four valves per cylinder and overhead cams with multi-spark ignition, the Fiat motor shared one thing in particular with its Mercedes counterpart - it was designed from the outset to power a motor car and a motor car alone; it never saw use as an aeroplane engine.

Only two examples of the S76 (fittingly named The Beast of Turin) were built, between Autumn 1910 and Spring 1911, and in the following two years they set numerous speed records around the globe, including runs of 125mph at the Brooklands circuit in Surrey and Saltburn beach in Yorkshire as well as a 180mph flying mile at Long Beach, New York!  It was in December 1913, however, that an attempt was first made on the World Land Speed Record that was held by a Blitzen Benz at 126mph.  French-American racing driver Arthur Duray, who had previously broken the land speed record three times between July 1903 and March 1904 (at 83mph, 85mph and 89mph), would be at the wheel for the record-breaking run at Ostend in Belgium.

Sadly, although the S76 used for the attempt was clocked at a magnificent 134mph a series of misfortunes ultimately denied the Fiat the record.  Inconsistent speed readings dogged the event (you can see from the accompanying footage just how rudimentary some of the measuring techniques were!) and the timings for each run, which have always been important for land speed records, were thrown into chaos by a recalcitrant tram driver who refused to alter his timetable along the seaside road being used for the attempt (yes, these chaps were really doing 130+mph next to tram tracks on a promenade road!).  Therefore the ultimate top speed remained unverified and the record unofficial; eight months later the First World War would sweep away all ideas of record attempts.  One of the S76 was sold to a Russian driver with the chassis later being used as a basis for a post-war racing car, the second was retained by Fiat and survived the war but never ran again under its own power.  The subsequent fate of it remains shrouded in the mists of time.


Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when British vintage motor-racing enthusiast Duncan Pittaway managed to unearth the chassis of the record-attempting S76 - which had somehow ended up in Australia!  This was brought back to the UK and has since been reunited with the surviving engine from the other S76.  After a long period of restoration and rebuilding - with not a few little hiccoughs along the way - the sole remaining Fiat S76 is running again for the first time since 1913!  And what a sound!  It's remarkable to see it, in colour, in 2015 - to marvel at its massive engine, as tall as a man, the power and torque literally rocking the car on its springs.  What bravery Duray must have had to drive the thing at 135mph (he was actually quoted as saying that third gear "called upon all of his knowledge as a racing driver" and fourth [gear]  required "the courage of 100 men")!


Mr Pittaway and his team are to be congratulated for such skill and devotion in bringing this monster back to life and I'm delighted to see it in such rude health after 100 years' sleep.  The Beast of Turin is scheduled to appear at this year's Goodwood Festival of Speed (25th-28th June 2015) and with luck many more events in the future, where it will doubtless thrill and deafen a whole new generation - I hope to be among them!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Views looking back - the Eclectic Ephemera Top 10

Here I am again, then, saying "What ho!" after another long dry spell at Eclectic Ephemera.  I seem to spend half my (few) posts lately apologising for my absence, and can only do so again.  I dislike constantly using work as an excuse, since I know so many bloggers who successfully juggle a good working/writing balance - it just seems I'm not one of them!  Having said that, it seems that a few of my favourite bloggers have gone quiet as the new year got underway, or have just emerged from the woodwork after months of silence, so perhaps I am not alone after all.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing, for a quite remarkable milestone was reached by this blog at the start of 2015 and it is this that I intend to celebrate in this post (for lack of anything really newsworthy!).  Quite appropriately, the start of my sixth year as a vintage blogger saw Eclectic Ephemera pass 400,000 pageviews.  Now of course that doesn't mean that 400,000 individual people have viewed this blog - some of those will have been me looking at the thing to see how it's doing (and forgetting to select "Don't track my own pageviews"!) and many, many more were probably spammers, bots, bits and other assorted members of the æthereal interweb - but the majority would have been fellow bloggers, followers and interested parties.  You, in other words.  And that deserves celebrating.  What I thought I'd do to mark the occasion, therefore, is to "run down" (to use the modern parlance) the Top 10 posts from Eclectic Ephemera's 6-year history - a sort of "best of", as it were, chosen by you the readers.

So, in ascending order they are:

10. Home linked to P G Wodehouse's Blandings Castle up for sale


From November 2010, the news that Apley House in Shropshire had been completely restored and was up for sale for the princely sum of £1¾ million.  I found it to be of particular interest because it is generally agreed among scholars to be the inspiration behind P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle, which was the setting for one of his other book series.  With Plum being one of my favourite authors and creator of that arch-chap Bertie Wooster, even though it was not directly related to the Jeeves stories I fancied including it here.  Eclectic Ephemera was barely a year old at this point and still evolving into the blog we know today, so at this point the stories I featured were sometimes more wide-ranging than they are today.  Still this one had a vintage bent about it and has obviously proved popular, for whatever reason (perhaps the Wodehouse connexion, or just its magnificence as an English stately home).

9. Liebster Blog Award #2


Jumping forward two years to November 2012, this blog received its second Liebster Blog Award.  Having largely given way to other blog awards (probably due to the demise of Google Friends) the Liebster nevertheless contained most of the things we recognise in today's examples.  Given to me by Lil of the now defunct Little Lil of London blog, it contained the usual x number of questions about myself to answer and I obviously made a decent fist of it since it is the most popular award-based post on the blog!

8. Historic wooden car floated at auction


November 2010 again and one of my many vintage motoring posts - this time featuring a one-off wood-bodied 1932 Talbot.  This car had an interesting history, which is why the story appealed to me (and everybody else too, it seems!), having started out in 1932 as just an ordinary 14/65 saloon before some time in the 1960s acquiring a fantastic roadster body fashioned entirely from boat-grade mahogany!  Despite this it was only valued at £20,000 to £30,000, eventually being sold for almost smack dab in the middle at £25,300.  As I said at the time, I hope the new owner enjoys varnishing!

7. Cary Grant - Style Icon



February 2012 and number 2 in my personal Style Icon series is obviously number 1 in your books - Mr Cary Grant.  Proof of the man's popularity even today, my thoughts on his impeccable dress sense - and more importantly the pictures that illustrate this - have gone towards making this everyone's favourite Style Icon post from a list that included David Niven and Fred Astaire!

6. Model of new Routemaster bus unveiled



The classic [red] AEC Routemaster bus has come to symbolise the city of London, not just for those of us in Britain but more especially for people living around the world for whom this simple, long-lived vehicle is part of their own external view of our capital.  Therefore it should perhaps come as little surprise, given the international nature of the internet (and thus, this blog), that the unveiling of its spiritual successor should prove to be so popular.  The idea of modern technology meeting classic, tried-and-tested design was much in evidence throughout the story of the NB4L (or New Routemaster, as it has become known) and this has always been the most appealing aspect of things to me, as I hope it has been to all who have followed the journey of the NB4L from drawing board to now, five years later, actually carrying passengers around the streets of London.  Having since seen one or two up close I can confirm it more than lives up to the hype and it's been fascinating to see its progress all the way from inception to now.

5. Vintage Rolls-Royces honour Spirit of Ecstasy



As if to reinforce its position as "Best Car in the World" this 2011 post about the centenary of Rolls-Royce's mascot, the famous Spirit of Ecstasy, makes it into the top 5.  As well the story about the anniversary celebrations featuring myriad Royce models from down the years, I took the opportunity to throw in a bit about some of my favourite examples and it has obviously struck a chord with many people for whom the Rolls-Royce is still the very epitome of luxury motoring.

4. Film Friday - Scarface (1932)


The third of the Film Friday: Gangsters series that I began back in 2010 with Little Caesar (and which sadly I've rather let slide since) this post focussed on the plot - and, more importantly the fashions - of Howard Hughes' and Howard Hawk's classic 1932 gangster drama Scarface, starring Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak and George Raft.  This post has proven to be popular with both vintage film and fashion fans alike, which are who I hoped would be the target audience and which has made me think that maybe it's about time I brought this series back!

3. All aboard the song train


This is the most recently-written post to make the top 10, containing a selection of railway-related tunes to celebrate (if that's the word I want!) my first foray back into the world of full-time work and commuting by train.  While that job didn't last and I now commute to the latest office by bus, this post really seemed to build up a good head of steam(!) and powered its way into the "most popular" list.  I suspect this is just through people searching for the phrase "song train", but then I live in hopes that there are several thousand visitors with a liking for the music of Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman and Bob Crosby among others!

2. Rare photographs of comedian Stan Laurel are auctioned


Proof of the enduring popularity of two of the funniest comic actors to have ever lived, this story regarding the auction of rare photographs of (mainly) Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy proved inordinately popular (again probably just through people Googling "photos of Stan Laurel", I reckon).  Including some very rare images dating back to 1897 and showing a young Arthur Stanley Jefferson playing with his siblings these photographs came from a family collection owned by a great-niece of Stan's living in Sunderland, near to North Shields where he grew up.  The 54 lots eventually sold for a total of £8,000.

1. Classic car firm Morgan building new three-wheeler after gap of 60 years


This would certainly be in my top 10 favourite vintage news items that this blog has covered since 2009, so I'm delighted to see it make the number one slot with my readers too.  And why should it not?  Here is an almost perfect example of traditional, vintage design being married to modern technology and - even better - one that has been an unqualified success for the Morgan Motor Company.  For it is now the company's best-selling model, having sold more than 600 in the first few months after it went on sale and over 1,000 in the four years it has been on sale.  While that may not sound like much, for a niche manufacturer like Morgan - who still use the same construction methods and work out of the same factory in Malvern, Worcestershire that they have done since the company's inception in 1909 - it is a very big deal.  In 2014 a whole raft of updates were applied to the car in response to customer feedback and I see no reason why the 3-wheeler, having taken its rightful place back in the very heart of the Morgan range, should not endure for decades just as the other models have done.

There we have it, then - the 10 most popular Eclectic Ephemera posts from the past 6 years and 400,000 pageviews.  I hope you've all enjoyed this little reminiscence as much as I have writing it and I look forward to seeing what the future brings for this blog amid the hope of many more readers and followers to come.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Space Zeppelins of the Future!

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

For my first post of 2015 I thought that, in the spirit of all things new and exciting, I might look to the future for a change - albeit a future with a firm link to a technology of the past.

Airships have long been a favourite form of transport for this blogger, evoking as they do images of stately and luxurious air travel between the wars - of huge cigar-shaped behemoths, true liners of the air carrying well-heeled passengers across the Atlantic far quicker than any ship could hope to.  If ever there was a vessel to symbolise the peak of 1930s technological advancement, then the airship was it.  Then in May 1937 the Hindenberg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey.  Footage of the falling mass of flaming wreckage and the commentators anguished cries has passed into history but at the time was seen around the world by millions and the image of the airship was almost irrevocably tarnished.

sourceR.101 on its maiden flight over Bedford, October 1929

I say "almost" because, like any gas-filled envelope, you can't keep a good airship down(!).  For the last fifty-odd years, since the end of the Second World War, airships have slowly begun their comeback in a myriad of new roles - flying advertisements, mobile weather stations and tourist transport, to name but a few.  In recent years there has been much talk of using modern airship designs for heavy payload lifting or accessing inhospitable areas, at the fraction of the cost of fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft - some articles about which have appeared on this very blog.  Now in the last year have come two new, somewhat interlinked ideas for new airship uses - in space! 


Astronomy From High Altitude Airships

Back in early 2014 the University of California, at the behest of NASA and the Keck Institute for Space Studies, came up with a splendid-sounding idea for a future space telescope and potential Hubble replacement - a telescope mounted on a high-altitude airship!  Designed to fly in the thin air of the stratosphere (upper atmosphere, 60,000ft+), these "HAAs" would carry an ultraviolet telescope, similar in function to the one on Hubble and able to carry out much the same functions.  Of course, as this article makes clear, there are still several technical hurdles to overcome but so impressed have NASA and KISS been with this proposal that it is hoped they will run an open prize challenge for similar projects.  So with any luck we may see a few more high-altitude airship designs in 2015!

NASA Seeks Comments on Possible Airship Challenge

One such proposal - or rather a variation thereof - has just recently been announced by NASA (which bodes well for HAAs), who have had the wonderfully science-fiction/steampunk idea of exploring Venus using airships!  That's right - Space Zeppelins!


As the fascinating article at the top of this post makes clear, the upper atmosphere of Venus is far more hospitable than the hellish surface (where the average temperature is over 400­­°C, pressure is 92 times that of Earth's and sunlight barely 10% and where it rains sulphuric acid).  At 30 miles or so up, however, it would be possible to travel above the sulphur clouds.  There would still be the ability to conduct many useful experiments - probes could be sent down, samples taken and, well, there's always just the wonder of human exploration.  Yes, these Venusian airships could easily be manned since the pressures and temperatures at such a height would be much more Earth-like.  In fact in the long term NASA may be considering so-called "cloud cities" - a collection of airships grouped together as a sort of floating base station.  What a hugely exciting prospect it all sounds!

Of course, airships as a means of exploration is nothing new.  Before their [relative] success in a commercial role airships were being touted as the future of air travel even over aeroplanes and both before and after the First World War several airships performed feats of great exploration, some unrivalled by other aircraft before or since.

America moored at Spitsbergen, Norway, c.1906

The airship America made several attempts to reach the North Pole between 1906 and 1910, all unsuccessful but among the first to be tried in such an aircraft.  In late 1910 its pilots endeavoured to make the first transatlantic crossing by air, nine years before Alcock and Brown, but again without success (although they did travel a total of 1,370 miles, albeit south along the east coast of the USA!).  The centenary of that attempt has been the subject of an earlier blog post.

Norge over Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen, Norway, 11 May 1926

It was the Italian-built airship Norge (above) that entered the history books as the first aircraft of any kind to fly over the North Pole on the 12th May 1926.  Constructed in 1923 for the famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the Norge left Rome in April 1926 and by way of Pulham in Norfolk, Norway, Russia and Spitsbergen succeeded in flying over the North Pole - marking the first time humans had travelled there - a month later.

Italia, April 1928

Two years later the Norge's larger sister ship Italia made a couple of polar expeditions but on the third trip crashed badly during its return trip from the North Pole, killing eight of the sixteen crew and wrecking the airship in an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained.

By the end of the 1920s aeroplanes had advanced to the point where they were able to undertake individual exploration and record-breaking far more freely than airships.  Nevertheless the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, among others, continued to prove the worth of the airship as a long-distance aircraft in a series of flights including the famous round-the-world trip of 1929 (which was the subject of an interesting documentary a few years ago).  Two years later, in 1931, it too made a highly-publicised journey to the Arctic Circle culminating in a rendezvous with a Russian icebreaker.  Meteorological and magnetic field studies were undertaken successfully, hundreds of photos were taken and the Graf Zeppelin proved categorically that airships had a practical use in polar exploration.


It has taken nearly 70 years, but I am pleased to see we are now once again waking up to those same practical uses for airships today - plus a couple of new ones! Another example of a past technology still having a useful application today - and what a thrilling example!  We may yet see a new heyday of lighter-than-air exploration - perhaps even taking us to other planets - and I for one can't wait to see what 2015 has in store for science and the airship.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Three cheers for the New Year!


 To all my readers, followers and friends.

I wish you all a healthy, happy and successful


and look forward to my sixth year of blogging 

here at Eclectic Ephemera.  

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