I often wonder if younger readers today are as awestruck by magazine covers as I was back in the ’60s. One of the most iconic for me was the May 1965 issue of Road & Track, which featured Carroll Shelby with three of the cars he would be racing that year: the Cobra, the Shelby 350 Mustang and the Ford GT40. He’s the reason I own those three cars today. When he visited my garage I asked him to recreate the photo, and he graciously complied.
Another magazine cover, a bit more obscure but no less riveting, was the September/October 1965 issue of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America. It featured an enormous chain-driven aero-engined monster nicknamed Rabbit-the-First. At that point in my life I was more into muscle cars and hot rod magazines than antique automobiles that puttered down the road, but this one was different. So different that I saved that copy of the magazine, which I still have. The thought that I would one day acquire that car never crossed my mind. It finally happened about ten years ago. Unlike many aero-engined cars today, this one was assembled in period. It was once thought to be one of Count Zborowski’s Chitty Bang Bang cars, an easy mistake to make because the build was somewhat identical.
The original owner, Lord Scarisbrick, had an engine taken from a German aircraft that had been shot down. Someone had buried the engine in their back yard, hoping to put it in a car or a boat when the war ended. Scarisbrick acquired the engine and had it put in a beefedup 1910 Mercedes frame. The car quickly acquired the name Rabbit One because of the name Scarisbrick called his wife. Use your imagination to figure that out. The earliest photo I could find of the car showed it in the 1940 Easter Parade in New York. After several American owners it was acquired by famous automotive illustrator Peter Helck, who first saw it in 1950. By then it had a radiator from an early Locomobile, still on the car today. Helck came up with the badge on the radiator that says ‘Benz-Mercedes’. And according to Bill Boddy, the car was run at Brooklands in 1921, we think just the once.
When I got the Rabbit it just about ran. It had a clutch that barely functioned, which I believe is the original clutch from the 1910 Mercedes, and brakes on the rear wheels only that barely stopped the car. The restoration took so long because the steel water jackets surrounding the cylinders were rusted through; you’d fill the radiator, run a mile or two, and all the water would have gone. We had to hand-make new water jackets out of brass, which took about a year. Hands haven’t changed, so I hope this hand-made engine will now last another 100 years. To make the Rabbit driveable we took off the front axle, which we saved, and fitted an axle from a 1929 Lincoln, which had front brakes. We made a periodlooking drum with hydraulic discs hidden inside them.
We can always go back to original if need be. We also fitted a modern McLeod clutch and put a clutch brake on the gearbox input shaft using a disc brake from a motorcycle, making it easier to shift the non-synchro transmission. I don’t think any previous owners drove it more than a few hundred miles, at best. After Peter Helck had made a wonderful job of restoring the engine, I don’t think he drove it much at all. Probably because of the clutch and the lack of braking.
It’s a fascinating vehicle to drive on its thin, almost bicycle-like tyres. Its most impressive part, besides the giant sprockets and huge chains, is the six-cylinder, 18.5-litre, 230bhp engine with its polished brass water jacket and four overhead valves per cylinder. Scarisbrick must have had some male brass parts himself to run this thing at a documented 113mph.
To sit behind such a mechanical beast is truly a treat. It is so unlike any modern automotive experience; 1600rpm is pretty much the end of the world and the valve springs are not covered. Oil drips down on them from an overhead spigot. You’ve seen those old photos of racers who have taken off their goggles and they look like raccoons because their faces are covered with grease and oil. That’s what it’s like when you drive this thing.
Once a group was touring my garage and an elderly man with a walking stick yelled out at the top of his lungs, ‘Oh my God! Is that Rabbit One?’ His father had seen it as a boy and told him about it. This man had researched almost all the aero-engined cars at Brooklands, but this one had eluded him. He didn’t look at another car in my collection; he just stayed with this one until the tour had finished. That’s what makes this hobby worthwhile. Fun as it is to preserve history, it’s way more fun to drive it.
‘LORD SCARISBRICK MUST HAVE HAD SOME MALE BRASS PARTS HIMSELF TO RUN THIS THING AT 113MPH’