Motoring TV presenter and journalist Alex Riley drove Stirling Moss’ car and here he tells us at Mike Brewer Motoring how much he enjoyed it…
One of Stirling Moss’ cars will be auctioned off at the NEC Classic Motor Show in November. And I’ve driven it – turning the same steering wheel that the great man caressed with a sensitivity beyond the reach of mere mortals. I’ve taken bends in it – not drifting like him, more kind of driving round them. My right hand has guided the same gearstick through its gate, my feet have worked the same throttle, clutch and brakes. In my own ham-fisted way, for just a few hours, I walked (or drove) in the great man’s shoes (not his actual shoes, it’s a metaphor).
No of course it wasn’t a Vanwall, Birdcage Maserati or a Mercedes SLR, it was a 1957 BMW 600, a kind of bubble car limousine that BMW hoped would change the world. As you’ve probably never seen one in the flesh, it’s safe to say it didn’t. Stirling Moss bought and restored it in the 90’s to nip around London and taught his son Elliot to drive in it.
So what actually is a BMW 600? Well, it was designed to fill the massive hole in BMW’s range between the cheap BMW Isetta 300 bubble car and the expensive six and eight cylinder luxury cars. Neither of which were selling enough. The market for 600cc saloons was booming, and BMW hoped to shift 300,000 600s a year.
They extended the 300’s wheelbase, added a folding back seat and a door on the right-hand side. Despite being only 9½ feet long it was actually very spacious, and was the first BMW to use semi-trailing arm rear suspension – a system that would appear on every BMW saloon until the 90’s. Its twin cylinder 600cc boxer engine produced 19.5bhp giving a top speed of 64mph, heady stuff for a 600 in 1957. But it cost almost as much as the bigger more practical Beetle and it flopped, BMW selling just 35,000.
It was my choice for the 1957 episode of The Car Years going toe to toe with Vicki’s rather obvious choice, the Fiat 500. It arrived fresh from a high-quality restoration. The paint was lustrous, the chrome immaculate, and apart from a new headlining, the spotless interior was completely original. So the seat of my pants experienced the same upholstery as Stirling’s.
But it was put on a transporter to Ireland while the paint was barely dry and there’d been no time to do a proper shakedown. The engine was running so rich it kept wetting the spark plugs and flooding. Driving it round the busy streets of Galway City meant the engine had to be repeatedly revved to stop it cutting out at low speed. Then, suddenly, it wouldn’t change gear. The clutch cable had stretched or slipped and I was stuck in third.
Driving around narrow roads in the centre of town, doing pieces to camera, trying not to crash into the Land Rover Discovery camera car, avoiding pedestrians, keeping the revs up – especially when slowing for turns; and trying to maintain momentum to avoid stopping for traffic lights and junctions – because it would cut out – was, I can tell you, a bit stressful.
I like to think even Sir Stirling himself would have struggled to do a better job of driving the BMW through the streets of Galway City on that day, and that racing the Vanwall over the cobbles and tramlines of the Oporto circuit in Portugal in 1958 was in some ways less challenging.
The BMW 600 was actually a really good car – Motor magazine was particularly impressed – but no-one noticed. If you were one of the newly enriched Germans able to at last afford their first car, you weren’t going to buy one that looked like a glorified bubble car, no matter how good it was. And they didn’t.
If Stirling Moss had bought one in 1958 things might have been different. But like most people he ignored it, and bought another titchy rear-engined German, an NSU Prinz. He just loved small cars, because they’re brilliant fun to drive and perfect for nipping around London. After two NSUs he ran Minis including a Mini Sprint, as well as Smart For Twos, an Aston Martin Cygnet for his wife and finally a Renault Twizy which had bespoke suspension developed by Bilstein and Eibach to soften the ride.
His 600 was also modified, BMW supplying him with the larger engine from the BMW 700, tuned to 32hp. More than enough for nipping round town in a car 6 inches shorter than a Mini and weighing just 515 kilos. And since I drove it the engine has been properly sorted with a new carburettor and the clutch cable adjusted so it now drives as it should.
I hope the new owner will live in the heart of a city and drive the 600 hard, running rings round all the big heavy cars that so many people use as urban transport these days. And, like me, experience the thrill of walking (or driving) in the great Stirling Moss’s shoes (not his actual shoes – again – it’s a metaphor).
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