Ecurie Ecosse still carries a touch of class

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DICK Skipworth is living, laughing proof that the main difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.

His farm is home to a collection of top-quality historic cars - including Jaguars, Aston Martins and a supercharged ERA single-seater - but the apple of his eye is the unique Commer truck that carried the world-beating Ecurie Ecosse team’s cars into battle in the 1960s. Today’s racing car transporters have all the grace of a shoebox, but the Commer’s curves complement such gorgeous shapes as the Jaguar D-type - Skipworth has a Lynx-built replica - in which the muscular, the sinewy and the downright voluptuous are given an extra dash of glamour by the fin that helps maintain high-speed stability.

Ecurie Ecosse, formed in 1952 by David Murray, was based in Edinburgh, and helped foster the careers of such promising Scottish drivers as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart. The spirit was nothing if not amateur, but Ecurie Ecosse became good enough to run the snarling D-types that won Le Mans in 1956 and 1957.

Fans included young Dick Skipworth. His family farmed in Lincolnshire, near the Cadwell Park circuit, where he watched races for free after wriggling through the trackside hedges. Having admired Ecurie Ecosse as a youngster, he eventually made enough money to start collecting the team’s old cars and now has four of them: an XK120 Jaguar; a C-type Jaguar; a Le Mans version of the Austin-Healey Sprite; and the Tojeiro-Jaguar that America’s Masten Gregory crashed so spectacularly at Goodwood in 1959.

The team’s unique transporter entered Skipworth’s life ten years ago, after he attended a track day with Chris Keith-Lucas, one of Lynx Engineering’s directors. "I drove home in my Lynx D-type" - in Ecurie Ecosse’s blue-and-white livery, of course - "and was soaked to the skin as the rain hammered down. Chris kept dry in my BMW.

"When I joked about needing a truck, Chris said he just happened to know the whereabouts of the old Ecurie Ecosse transporter. My wife gave me a really hard time, but I eventually bought what amounted to buckets and buckets of bits. Lynx’s rebuild was masterminded by John Hay, who was fantastic in terms of everything from craftsmanship to searching for parts and driving a hard bargain when he found them."

Originally funded by Ecurie Ecosse’s fan club, the three-car transporter has an aluminium body and was built by Walter Alexander and Company of Falkirk. The designer, Selby Howgate, had worked in the aircraft industry before switching to commercial vehicles. When the truck was handed over in 1960, he explained that the elegant tail was inspired by a fish - nature’s finest example of what was then called streamlining.

The team sidelined the Commer in the late Sixties and it had several owners before Skipworth opened his wallet and kept Lynx busy for about 3,000 hours. Behind the cab, what used to be a small workshop is now a seating area filled with Ecurie Ecosse memorabilia.

Skipworth loves driving his truck, particularly on the annual pilgrimage to Le Mans, and it has covered about 30,000 miles in his ownership, taking cars as far afield as Monaco. Power to the tune of 117 bhp at 2,400 rpm comes from a torquey, 3.5-litre engine that prompted Stirling Moss to exclaim "that’s a bloody complicated way to do it" when Skipworth described the specification. The TS3 is a supercharged, two-stroke, three-cylinder, six-piston diesel in which the combustion chambers are the spaces between the crowns of the horizontally opposed pistons. Hefty rocker arms transmit power to the crankshaft.

Skipworth was in France, returning from 1997’s journey to Le Mans, when this mind-boggling motor had a problem about 20 miles from the coast.

"The fastest we’ve ever gone was behind the breakdown truck that towed us to the ferry in Calais," he chuckles.

"We must have been doing 80mph. The engine’s under the cab. My brother-in-law and I reckoned we could remove it over a weekend, but the job took nearer a year after we realised that it had to come out through the cab. We needed to remove just about everything, right down to the passenger’s grab-handle."

I have driven such exceptionally large cars as a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, but king-sized butterflies with cast-iron wings were looping the loop in my stomach as I clambered aboard the Commer. Reasons included the old lady measuring about 33 ft from cliff-like nose to shapely tail and having an enormous overhang behind the rear wheels. No car I have ever driven was lofty enough for branches to be a hazard while bowling along leafy lanes, but overhead clearance becomes very important indeed when your vehicle’s upper deck is carrying the D-type Jaguar that won Le Mans in 1956 and has changed hands for 1.6 million.

Contrary to expectations, the Commer is not difficult to drive, although jokes about "Armstrong" power steering are appropriate during low-speed manoeuvres while wrestling with a wheel that is two feet in diameter. The engine starts easily and runs smoothly, the clutch does not demand Herculean strength and the gearbox responds sweetly to slow, precise shifts.

My remarks about the transmission triggered another of Skipworth’s infectious laughs; "We thought she was awfully slow until someone gave the gearbox a smart clout with a lump-hammer and the five-speed became a six-speed. Finding top gear improved performance and also reduced the fuel bills. Granted reasonable conditions, she’s happy at 55 mph with a load of three cars."

Big boys’ toys often gather dust after they cease to be a novelty - but not the transporter. "She’s even more fun than expected," says the lucky man whose other pastimes include racing ocean-going yachts.

"The real appeal is that she attracts so much interest. For instance, we were at Silverstone when an old fellow said he had come just to see the transporter, not the racing. Even my wife was impressed by that."