Issue 34 | Le Mans Heroes – DB3S & Norwood P4

We spend the day with SCD member Roland to learn about his two vintage Le Mans cars, the stories of their history and the thousands of road miles he has covered in them both.

Written by: Matt Parker

“Since being a teenager, I’ve always thought that Le Mans is perhaps one of the most important, romantic and dramatic races in the world”, SCD member Roland tells us as we wonder how on earth one comes to own vintage Le Mans racing cars.

“From being 16 years old, I used to make a pilgrimage to the ‘proper’ Le Mans back in the day. It was there I first saw a Ferrari P4 running and it remained perhaps the most iconic and wonderful car ever in my mind”, he remembers, “My father’s best friend had what is probably the only completely original P4 in the world, a car that still exists, and I was lucky enough as a young man to have sat in the passenger seat of it and been driven in it.

“That, together with seeing the car compete at Le Mans drove the desire to have a Ferrari P4 probably more than anything else. The current owner has a six-mile racetrack in his garden in order to run it, so needless to say he’s fairly wealthy and it is not for sale.

“As time went on, I became friendly with a very interesting guy in my thirties who was incredibly keen on cars. Many years ago, he had some amazing cars including an original D-Type Jag and not one DB3S Aston, but two. He had a habit of inviting me down every month or so, and we’d take one of the cars out and share the driving. I actually got to put serious miles on an original D-Type and an original DB3S, so I was able to judge which of those cars I thought was the best.

“Stirling Moss famously said that the DB3S was the best sports racing car of the 50s, saying that it felt smoother and safer to drive than the D-Type. I agreed and came to believe a DB3S was what I really wanted”.

About 15 years ago, Roland finally found a DB3S he wanted to buy. “I bought this car from a wonderful enthusiast who ran a jewellers on Bond Street in London. When I went to see him, the car had been parked in his garage for something like 12 years. We went for lunch, and by the end of that lunch, he had sold me the car. He said he had been waiting for someone who he liked and thought would use the car, and he’d sell it to them for virtually any price they named. He said he had a wonderful time with the car, it owed him absolutely nothing and he was so pleased I was going to have it. We shook hands, and that was the DB3S bought.

“Aston Martin didn’t have the budget of to do what Jaguar did with the D-Type at Le Mans, and didn’t do anything like as well, but it did well in other races, I absolutely love Astons, and the DB3S is a much more forgiving car than a D-Type for an amateur like me who just enjoys driving these things”, Roland explains, “A D-Type has that bit more grip and you can get through the corners very quickly, but if you lose it, God help you. The DB3S slides very nicely in the way you always see Vintage racing cars doing”.

Even the sight of the DB3S is special, so what is it like to actually be behind the wheel of on the public road? “I think it’s true to say that the ‘50s sports and racing cars are some of the most iconic and wonderful things that you can drive”, Roland tells us, “I know a lot of fellow SCD members are very much into modern supercars, and they are of course far more effective for getting from a to b, but these cars have no driver aids, no ABS, nothing.

“The DB3S was one of the first cars to have disc brakes. That and the D-Type both beat Ferrari to it which gave them a great advantage going racing and makes them a great road car. The brakes are one of the best things about it, just don’t push them too hard in the wet! It also accelerates into gaps in a way you just wouldn’t believe for a car built in 1956, it’s so torquey that if you put your foot down at 100mph in top gear, it just goes”.

So, you own a classic Le Mans car, what do you actually do with it? Some might just gaze at them in the garage, some might take them to concours events or race them at the Revival. What about Roland? “I do get a lot of pleasure from knowing they’re in the garage, but for me, the whole point of having these cars is to drive them. As for this DB3S, it’s done the Colorado Grand in America which is probably the greatest long-distance endurance rally in the world. It was set up as a charity to raise money for the families of police officers who had lost their lives on the job. In return, the Colorado police force provides an escort for us throughout the rally — imagine cruising at 110mph with a police bike in front of you, lights flashing, and then the guy comes and has dinner with you at night!

“It has also done the Going to the Sun rally in Montana, the Arizona Copperstate, it’s been out to South America for the Patagonia 1,000 Millas, and finally it has driven 1,800 miles through the Oregon mountains from Seattle to Pebble Beach, visiting amazing car collections on the road. Back home, it has won many of the Aston Martin Owners Club competitions over the years, and it’s a regular competitor at Chateau Impney.”

It’s amazing to see such an iconic car being used so much, but we have to ask if the values of such cars makes Roland a little nervous about using them quite so much. “They are very well insured, and with these cars, you can rebuild almost anything for a price, so as long as the insurance covers that amount, you’re ok. An obvious concern is if a car was stolen and not recovered, and the biggest worry is fire, but I don’t worry about actually using them, and if they’re used regularly, there’s actually a lot less costly work needed on them. Compared to a Bugatti Veyron, they’re cheap to maintain!

“I’m not particularly pleased that the value of these cars has gone up as much as it has. As far as I’m concerned, if they hadn’t gone up so much, I might have even more of them! There are one or two cars like the Ferrari GTO that, whilst I had one many years ago for a mere six weeks or so, I know I’ll never have one of those again”.

And that brings us to the second car we’re focussing on, the P4 Roland lusted after as a child. “Like a GTO, I think I accepted that a P4 was something I would never ever buy. Knowing that the only original one was very much not for sale, I had sort of given up on the idea. Interestingly though, when I was at the Amelia Island Concours, which is fantastic, I was walking around the stands and I came across a model of the P4. It was the most magnificent model you’ve ever seen. It was absolutely perfect, and it was expensive. You could have bought a small brand new car for the price of this thing!”, Roland laughs.

“Anyway, I got chatting to the man who owned the stall. I laughed and told him it was an amazing model, but the only person who would pay that is the person who actually has the real thing. I said I thought it should be half price, to which he responded, ‘You can have it for half price, as long as you promise me you will buy a real one’, to which I replied, ’It might be a tough promise, but If I do my best to buy one, do we have a deal?’. We shook hands and I brought it home with me”.

And so, true to his word, Roland began the search for the real thing. “We looked around the world and couldn’t find anything that was anywhere near good enough, until my son James spotted just what we wanted, at Tomini Classics in Dubai of all places. So, nothing ventured, we made a trip out to Dubai, and the car was magnificent. It was absolutely indistinguishable from the car I’d grown up knowing as a kid. So, I bought the car and we air freighted it straight from Dubai to Arizona where it went to a shop that specialises in these cars to have a few things done to it for a month”.

We know it’s a thing of beauty, but what’s the story behind Roland’s P4? “Three or four of these cars were built by Norwood in Texas using original bits and some new parts.

I guess that’s as near as I can get to the original!”, he laughs, “It came to be over 30 years ago with a medical doctor who raced a proper £10 million competition Ferrari SWB. Despite being fifty-something, he decided that wasn’t fast enough and he really wanted a P4. So, he knew this guy Bob Norwood, who is now famous for his work on Ferraris and holds the record for the fastest Ferrari in the world with a highly-modified 288 GTO rebody which clocked 275mph, and he told him what he wanted.

“Norwood said it would be one of the most difficult things he had ever been asked to do. A number of replicas had been built with something like Ferrari 412 road car engines in, but he said if they were going to do it, and they were going to go racing, they had to do it properly, and to do it properly, they would have to make the P4’s quad-cam V12 from scratch — you can imagine the costs of making that alone on a one-off basis!

“The other condition was that Norwood could share the racing of the car, and thinking the way I would think, the doctor said “absolutely!”. He said if Norwood would build the car for him at cost plus 10% and share the racing, they had a deal. They finished the car about 30 years ago, they went out racing it with the Ferrari Owners Club across the States, and they won”.

So it’s quite a machine with quite a story, and Roland didn’t hesitate to make full use of it. “After I bought the car and the work was complete, I flew out to Arizona to test it for the first time and spent a few days driving it, then we arranged to take it on the Going to the Sun rally which we had done in the DB3S. The rally is about 1,800 road miles over four days across Montana, a magnificent state known for its mountains, wide open roads and lakes.

“We arranged to have the car transported from Arizona to Montana around 200 miles away from the start of the rally, then drove the car to the start before doing all 1,800 miles of the rally. The car is embarrassingly noisy, and whilst quite a lot of people were pleased and gave me thumbs up, there were at least two women who told me what they thought of me for making such a dreadful noise!

“After that, the car remained in America while it was still cold and miserable in England, so I put together a private rally for a dozen of us with similar cars. We did 2,000 miles across the high desert in Arizona over six days. When we had done all that, I finally brought the car back home ready for spring here in England”.

Roland tells us that the P4 is absolutely magnificent to drive, but you have to choose the right place to do so. “I did take my son to his school prom which involved driving in some traffic in Nottingham, and it was bloody hard work. It’s very high geared in first, and the clutch is sort of either in or out. It’s actually extraordinarily comfortable though. You wouldn’t think it, but I’ve done 600 miles in a day in that car and felt as good at the end of the day as I did at the beginning. That’s why I love Le Mans cars. They were always made for doing long stints over long distances, so you can just drive them and drive them.

“The car is a little more powerful than the original P4 with something like 480bhp at the rear wheels on the rolling road, and of course the car isn’t very heavy either, so it’s quite an amusing thing to drive!”

When you look at the P4, it’s hard to believe you can actually drive it on the road, and the American licence plate ‘330 P4’ has us asking how it all works. “The 330 P4 is not really road legal here in England, and I wasn’t about to try and go through all those hoops, so the car is in fact registered in Montana with the genuine licence plate 330 P4 and it is insured for use around the world, which leaves me free to use it in England a reasonable amount. It is only here on a temporary import at the moment, then it will go back to America to do some more of those great rallies, but who knows, it might well be back”.

Roland has done plenty of miles in these cars, but are they really usable on the road? “The DB3S is a wonderful car to drive”, Roland smiles, “It was a successful racing car, and yet it’s something you could jump in right now and go anywhere for a few hours, and if you had to go through traffic, it wouldn’t matter. The P4 is much more of a challenge and indeed I couldn’t use it at all if I wanted to have it permanently in England. It’s nothing like as usable, but it’s a hell of a lot faster. The beauty of them is how they actually can be driven on the road when you want. I would love to drive one of the modern Le Mans cars at Le Mans, but there’s no way you could use them on the road!”.

A comparison of two cars wouldn’t be complete without the most difficult question, so we ask Roland which he would keep if he had to choose. “I’m a child really and I find it hard to let go of things”, he laughs, “Of the two, I think the Aston is the absolute keeper because it’s so usable. You can go to the shops in it as easily as you can do a thousand miles in it. The P4 is not a thing I can drive as often as some other cars, but on the other hand of course, it was the car I grew up wanting so much as a teenager, so I guess they’re both keepers!”.

This feature was taken from issue 34 of the SCD Members magazine, you can get your own copy using the button below.