The intercontinental silver bullet 1957 Jensen 541R Air Race. Tally ho and all that – the Jensen soaks up the miles as we take to the roads that made PEA 541 famous. In 1959, the Daily Mail Air Race caught and fuelled the world’s imagination. Fifty-five years later, we take the wheel of its record-breaking Jensen 541R. Words: Ross Alkureishi. Photography: Rory Game.
Carte blanche is a dangerous concept, and ‘by any means possible’ is another one; yet combine both and you have the ultimate recipe for the race of the century. To celebrate 50 years since Louis Bleriot’s first flight across the English Channel – and pocketing of the Daily Mails £1000 prize – the newspaper instigated another contest, this time between the centres of London and Paris in the shortest time possible, specifically from Marble Arch to the Arc de Triomphe. Cue a breathtaking 11 days between July 13 and 23, as amateurs went head-to-head with crack teams from the armed forces, and a wild sprinkling of eccentrics.
Webb gets under way at Marble Arch, 1959. Just under two-and- a-half hours later, the team arrives.
Although ostensibly called an Air Race, competitors could use any means, and combination, of transport they wished; imagination proved the only limitation in the 135 contestants’ choice of weapon as they embarked on daring and sometimes comical escapades. Lt-Cdr W Boaks left the Marble Arch start on rollerskates, only to flounder before leaving the city, while all manner of cars, motorcycles, zip cords, gyrocopters and motor launches were utilised in the mad scramble to leave the capital. One minute after the event started Stirling Moss screamed off in a Renault Dauphine.
This morning, John Nash’s triumphal arch is slightly less hectic. It’s early Sunday, and the best day if you want to attempt a semi dignified exit in modern-day traffic. I watch as that distinctive fastback profile appears, and then snakes round the road that leaves Marble Arch somewhat isolated from its surroundings. It has a hint of AC Aceca crossbred with a Mercedes 300SL W198, although that panoramic wraparound rear window lends it a unique tail end.
With its innovative pivoting front flap – for rapid warming up or cooling down – open, it resembles a guppy fish.
This is no ordinary example of the breed – it’s PEA 541, the prototype 541R and, more importantly, the very car John Webb and co-driver Alec Harris used on the 1959 Air Race.
Owner Daniel Bristow brings the car to a stop, vacates the driver’s seat and tosses me the keys. I slip into the well-appointed interior’s leather bucket seat; there’s ample space, front and rear. A Moss gearbox – a Jaguar unit, with a bellhousing unique to this car – sits in a wide transmission tunnel and slots into first with a familiar recalcitrance that responds to firm, positive action. The large steering wheel dominates proceedings and at low speeds the rack-and-pinion steering is hard work, but lightens significantly on the move; it offers a high level of precision and combines with the 541’s firm suspension to ensure it feels firmly planted to the road.
Austin DS7 engine used in just 43 Jensen 541 Rs. Large steering wheel dominates the interior.
I sit close to the facia, with all the necessary switches and toggles within reach; it’s a thoroughly tactile driving experience, reaching forward to engage and disengage the indicator or wiper blades. On the hoof it quickly becomes clear that this is no sports car but rather a gentleman’s tourer. The 3993cc Austin DS7 engine – one of 43 that found their way into a 541R – provides its power in a dignified fashion, and with only faint noise encroachment into the cabin from the twin-exit exhaust. It has similar characteristics to an American V8, with lashings of seriously low-down torque that necessitate minimal use of the gearbox.
However, it’s the servo- assisted brakes that are the stars of the show; the 541R was the first four-seater car to have disc brakes front and rear, and they feel far superior to almost everything else of the period. If anything provides you with the confidence to travel fast, it’s the knowledge that you can reign it in when necessary.
As we speed across Westminster Bridge it’s easy to visualise the Air Race’s organised chaos. For those who chose the rotor blade for the first leg there were numerous makeshift landing/take-off spots, with helicopters utilising the Chelsea Embankment and a number of temporary heliports, including the 23rd Special Air Service’s floating construction on the Thames. Those on two and four wheels thundered past, but most had the same destination: Kent’s former World War Two airfields. We’re focused on a brisk but legal pace; we have no competitors and there’s no £10,000 prize fund, so there’s no need to give the police any reason to stop us.
John Webb – Alec Harris 1957 Jensen 541R Air Race
Elephant and Castle, Old Kent Road, New Cross and Lewisham are dispatched with ease and we find ourselves on the A20. For the first time I can stretch the 541R’s legs and utilise the overdrive toggle on the dashboard; under a heavy foot the resultant surge is exhilarating, with power delivery remaining discreet. The big Austin lump features a redesigned cylinder head with twin carburettors on the right-hand side, rather than its predecessor’s triple arrangement on the opposite side – you can spot a later DS7-engined car as the twin-exit exhaust is on the right, rather than the left. The right-hand bonnet stiffening strake allows for carburettor clearance, with a matching one on the other side for aesthetic balance.
The compression ratio rose to 7:6.1, instead of the standard 6.8 or 7.4 for the Deluxe, with a long-dwell camshaft, stiffer crankshaft, new sump and oil pump helping it to a 28 per cent power hike, to 150bhp. But it’s the 224lb ft of torque at 2500rpm that propels it from 0-60mph in 10.6 seconds, and enabled Autocar to report that it achieved ‘the highest maximum speed of any car with more than two full-sized seats’ at an overdrive-assisted 127.5mph. In a time obsessed with speed that was a mesmerising combination.
‘Biggin Hill Airport,’ announces co-pilot Bristow. ‘How long did it take?’ I ask. ‘Fifty-seven minutes, 47 seconds,’ comes the reply. Not bad, but in that time one of the first competitors had completed the dash from Arch to Arc. Captain Roderick ‘Red Rory’ Bamford Walker, hero of Malaya and the Arabian Desert, blitzed the course using a Boys Own blend of motorcycle, Skeeter helicopter and Hunting Jet Provost plane – combined, of course, with a stiff upper lip and soupgon of grit. The time to beat had been posted, and in hours it would be broadcast worldwide: the race was on.
Many of the armed forces teams, and those using multi-vehicles, used Biggin Hill as a staging post for their flights to France, but for those determined to go point-to-point in the same vehicle they had to head to other airfields where the air ferries awaited. Two firms went head-to-head, Silver City Airways and Air Charter. On the first day Stirling Moss covered the 73 miles between Marble Arch and Ferryfield Airport, Lydd, in a scorching 90 minutes, before going on to reach the Arc de Triomphe in two hours, 45 minutes and 56 seconds; on the return he was three-and-a-half minutes faster.
As we leave Biggin Hill it’s time to head west. There’ll be no landing on mainland Europe for us today. It’s Drive It Day in the UK and we’re heading out to the Cotswolds, where Jensen’s chief mechanical and engineering designer Colin Riekie took PEA 541 on development blasts. The car was an original 1957 541 that had been crashed by a peer of the realm,’ says Bristow. ‘I’ve tried to find out who it was but around 20 owned them at the time.’
The 541 project began in February 1953 and adhered to the Jensen Brothers formula, with the aim to produce a four-seater as light as possible and with high gearing. In typical style it was named The New Car’ but body engineer Eric Neale coined it 541 – 1954 model, series 1 – and although later series appeared, the moniker stuck. The first prototype had aluminium panelling on a distinctive ladder-type frame, incorporating tubular side members, with suspension and steering made up of Austin A70 components.
When the production car appeared it had the intended glassfibre body – an innovation that would later win Jensen a silver medal for coachwork at the 1959 Earls Court Motor Show. The R followed in 1957. Riekie incorporated a new chassis design from the bulkhead forward, with a significantly stiffer structure. Armstrong piston-type dampers replaced the telescopic units and rack-and-pinion steering came as standard. The ratios of the Moss box were improved with 25, 50 and 77mph achievable in the first three gears, which helped to lengthen the car’s legs considerably, as did the DS7 engine.
The R must have had Webb smacking his lips in anticipation as he sat at the Marble Arch start
I’m finding that out now as I get on the M25 motorway – it’s phenomenal at high speed. By using a cable under the facia to my right I’m able to close the radiator panel and reducing the drag coefficient from 0.39 to 0.365. This furthers its natural effortless gait; you have to keep a close eye on the speedometer to make sure you’re not getting too enthusiastic. But once again it’s the disc brakes that astound – they’re capable of repeated high-speed stops. According to Reickie the 541 ’s drum brakes had always been considered ‘not up to the car’s full performance’ because of their tendency to fade to an alarming degree. On the R, he decided on discs front and rear, to avoid having differing characteristics.
No wonder John Webb chose to borrow the works Jensen for the Air Race. He had prior experience of the 541, having bought one to race for £1500 – as a true four-seater it sneaked in as a saloon car in the then regulations – in which he famously beat ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears in the rain at Silverstone. The performance of the new R must have had Webb smacking his lips in anticipation as he sat at the Marble Arch start. At the age of 22 when he set up his own press agency business he secured cross-channel air ferry service provider Silver City Airways as his first client and now he enlisted its sponsorship to help in his bid to win the motor vehicle contest.
Stirling Moss’s time stood for two days until the chairman of Air Charter, Freddie Laker – whose firm flew from Southend – pinched it in his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. Then, on July 19 it was Webb, Harris and PEA 541’s turn. They covered the 73 miles to Ferryview Airport, Lydd, in a scintillating 72 minutes; what local residents must have thought as they thundered past is anyone’s guess.
At the airport a waiting Silver City Bristol Freighter picked up Webb’s steed and deposited it in northern France. The journey continued at a similarly electric pace on French roads before PEA 541 screamed through the Parisian suburbs and finally to the checkpoint at the Arc de Triomphe. Webb and Harris achieved the journey in an astonishing two hours, 27 minutes and 17 seconds – taking the honours from Laker, and beating Stirling Moss’s time by 28 minutes. On the return leg Daily Mail correspondent Stevenson Pugh reported that Webb and his Jensen ‘ran off the road between Lydd and Marble Arch’. But the time had been set and would not be beaten, with the Jensen 541R taking the honours as the fastest single vehicle from Arch to Arc.
‘If anything provides you with the confidence to travel fast, it’s the knowledge that you can reign it in when necessary’
Back in the full race proper, the armed forces had been having a right old ding-dong, with the record changing hands almost on a daily basis. Two men featured heavily: Grp Capt EN Ryder and Sqn Ldr CG Maughan – the former Station Commander at Duxford, the latter Commander of No.65 Hunter Squadron at the same airfield. They fought a ferocious battle right up until July 22, when Maughan snatched it with his combination of RAF police motorcycle, Sycamore helicopter to Biggin Hill, Hunter aircraft to Villacoublay, Sycamore helicopter to Issy, and RAF police motorcycle to the Arc in just 40 minutes and 44 seconds.
The second-splitting escapades of all ended the following day. Honourable mentions went to the 12-strong Renault team, which included French racing driver Maurice Trintignant, who helped Pierre Averlau to the title of ‘fastest user of civic transport’ in 55 minutes, nine seconds. And 26-year-old Colette Duval, whose pilot mistook disused Kenley Airfield for Biggin Hill, with the end result that his 700mph Vantour Jet ploughed through a fence, stopping 60 yards from a cliff; Ms Duval simply ‘took tea with the RAF’ before making another attempt in a replacement bomber.
We leave the M4 near Royal Wooton Bassett and begin snaking north to the Cotswolds. On country lanes the 541R acquits itself well. There’s no limited-slip differential – that appeared on the later 541’s – but its tendency to oversteer is easily caught with a bit of opposite lock. After further extended mischief in and around Tetbury our own epic journey is at an end. We stop for a pint of ale and to reflect on our day’s exertions, and the Jensen’s performance.
After doing battle with the modern traffic a host of classic cars from subsequent decades can leave you feeling drained, but the 541R is perfectly suited to high-speed environments. It was a design ahead of its time, preceding the opening of the Ml in 1959. ‘Prior to the Air Race, it was prepped and booked in for Le Mans,’ explains Bristow. ‘It has quick-lift jacking points on the front of the chassis, and all its nuts and bolts are wired in for racing.’ Unfortunately driver Lesley Johnson suffered a heart attack, dying the day before the race and it was withdrawn out of respect for him.
It’s a shame PEA 541 never got to grace the Circuit de la Sarthe, as today’s experience suggests it would have been a serious competitor. Including Bristow’s initial journey to London this morning, the Jensen has been running, on and off, for 12 hours – not bad considering this is its first outing after being mothballed for winter. Reliability, high-speed stability, and the fastest production four-seater: sounds like the perfect recipe for Le Mans.
Thankfully, John Webb and Alec Harris took that undoubted potential on to the Air Race and destroyed the opposition, and cemented the car’s place in the history books. Ultimately, magnificent men in their flying machines – and motorcycles – may have snatched the overall record, but our intrepid pair proved that, if you’re undertaking an intracontinental wacky race in a single vehicle, you should look no further than a Jensen 541R.
Thanks to: Daniel and Malcolm Bristow; Jensen Owners’ Club (joc.org.uk); Dave and Jane Turnage; London Biggin Hill Airport (bigginhillairport.com)
WEBB: THE ENTEPRENEUR
John Webb (far left) picked up the circuit press and PR service for Kent- based racing track Brands Hatch in 1954. Five years later he negotiated its purchase by Grovewood Securities, and by 1964 he’d been installed as the company’s chief executive – a position he’d hold until 1989. As one of the driving forces behind F1 in the UK he secured the RAC British Grand Prix every other year until 1986, and the Grands Prix of Europe in 1983 and 1985 for the track. Part-showman, part-businessman, the driven Webb was an avid motor sport enthusiast and responsible for creating a raft of new formulae, including Formula Ford in 1967, which offered a cut-price route into racing for aspiring drivers.
He also diversified into air transport, setting up motor racing air charter service Webbair, which ferried many of motor sport’s great and good – including Clark, Gurney, Brooks and Surtees – to European races, all in a party atmosphere. Ten years after the Air Race he was at it again, achieving a time of 9hr 59min by Ford Cortina and Boeing 707 transport plane in a race of his own conception between London’s Post Office Tower and New York’s Empire State Building to commemorate Alcock and Whitten Brown’s 1919 Atlantic crossing in a Vickers Viking.
|Car||1957 Jensen 541R|
|Engine||Austin DS7, 3993cc, in-line six-cylinder, OHV, twin SU H4 carburettors|
150bhp @ 4100rpm
224lb ft @ 2500rpm
|Drive||driving rear wheels|
independent with coil springs and wishbones, lever arm dampers
live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs , lever-arm dampers
|Steering||rack and pinion|
|Brakes||dual-circuit all discs with servo|
|Price new||2866 7s|
|Value now||From £35,000|