There’s plenty to tickle the visual taste buds at East Sussex’s preserved Bluebell Railway, one of Britain’s oldest restored railway lines. While closed for 3 years after the savage ‘Beeching Cuts’ of the 1950s and 60s, where the nation’s rural lines were decimated in the pursuit of efficiency and ‘progress’, the battle to keep open the rail line between Lewes and East Grinstead raged in the courts and in the press. The Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was formed to buy the rail line properties and renovate the tracks; public ‘preservation’ train lines opened in 1960 – the first in the world.
How short sighted to have torn up the trackbed and sold the land. Never again would it be possible to build such an infrastructure. Our current pursuits of ‘green’ transport solutions always stumble when it comes to serving the rural communities; the fact is that these areas were well provided for at the turn of the 19th century, long before the motor car. Our interest here is in the oily rag nature of such an enterprise as The Bluebell. Oily rags are seen everywhere but particularly in the hands of drivers and firemen conducting the huge steam locomotives as they go about their business. They lovingly wipe the brass work and bare metal almost instinctively. It is seldom you see one of these men or women fail to give a rub to some part of the machinery as they pass it by. And they’re all volunteers – nurses, doctors, factory workers, airline pilots, computer geeks – a complete cross section.
As well as the locomotives and rolling stock (30 steam engines, the second largest in the world), The Bluebell has a wonderfully preserved infrastructure too – from the stations themselves to the ephemera of a working Victorian railway line, all is perfectly done. The semaphore signalling system works perfectly and warrants at least ten minutes study should you choose to visit. Sheffield Park, at the southernmost end of the line, houses the railway’s engineering works where mind-bogglingly complex heavy engineering overhauls take place. It is here too you will find some fine oily rag examples of the line’s steam locomotives – to be fair ALL locomotives receive the touch of the oily rag and thrive on it.
Easter 2013 marks a major development for The Bluebell Railway as the final link to the mainline British Rail network at East Grinstead will be re-opened, many years after work was started on its restoration. The benefits will be huge and visitors will be able to travel all the way to the Bluebell by rail, simply changing trains at East Grinstead. Equally exciting will be the loaning and transfer by rail of locomotives from other preserved lines throughout the British Isles.
The Bluebell line is the very incarnation of the oily rag principle. It’s fun to visit and if you half close your eyes you’re in a living version of ‘The Railway Children’ although you could really be there by visiting the Keighley and Worth Vally railway in Yorkshire which operates on similar lines (no pun intended). Next time you are in the sunny South of England, detour to the Bluebell for the full oily rag experience.
Lovely Aston Martin DB2 in green and rust…
This year’s Oily Rag Run, the third of an annual series promoted by The Automobile magazine (www.theautomobile.co.uk), was the most successful yet. Fifty ancient cars in varying stages of decrepitude descended on the sleepy north-east Essex village of Great Easton, some 45 miles from London, where Paul and Andrew Wood, proprietors of the eponymous Rolls-Royce dealership of worldwide fame, had bravely opened their immaculate showrooms and workshops to these alien invaders.
Practically the whole of the extended Wood family, plus several employees, had responded to locally-based historian David Burgess-Wise’s request to serve as the focus for the Run, offering, tea, coffee and home-made refreshments to participants and hangers-on throughout the day.
Paul Wood’s own collection was on display, in addition to many tens of millions of pounds’ worth of customer cars and a number of perfectly restored Rolls-Royces of all ages lined up for sale. These included the ex-Stanley Sears 1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, currently on offer with very low miles and its original coachwork by Charles Clark of Wolverhampton. The interior has to be seen to be believed, a Louis XV fantasy, all gilt and gingerbread, commissioned originally by one of the co-founders of Woolworths.
From the Wood family collection; fantastic Bugatti Royale
Award winners included specialist wheeler dealer Neil Tuckett with his rusty but complete and totally original 1924 English-built Model T (Most Feral Car); Dutchmen Henk Afink and Ernst Jan Krudop who set out to drive all the way from eastern Holland in their 1920s Morgan Aero three-wheelers, only to have one of them break a crankshaft en route (Most Travelled); and L Dean, driving Tom Fryars’s 1914 Crossley RFC light tender which came complete with contemporary ordnance (Car We Would Most Like to Take Home). A special award went to Ron Mellowship, who finished the course, believe it or not, in his ultra-mature 1896 Bergmann Orient Express dogcart.
- Jonathan Rishton
Bonhams auctions are singing the Oily Rag tune at the Simeone Foundation just outside Philadelphia on October 8, 2012. With 63 unrestored cars (and a single Sears motorcycle!) coming under the hammer, anyone looking for an ‘as found’ project should give the catalog a good look.
The 1932 Aston Martin LeMans 'barn find'…
The Simeone Museum, site of the Auction, is an impressive collection of racing cars from the turn of the Century to the 1980s, most of which are in original, unrestored condition. Mr. Simeone is well known as an advocate for many years of a ‘don’t restore’ policy, which has at times aroused controversy and even derision in the magpie world of megabucks collector race cars. He is to be saluted for his steadfast adherence to his principles, a keeper of the flame of originality, and his museum is truly a must see if you’re in Philly. I visited the museum in 2011; for photos from The Vintagent, click here.
From a Simeone Museum tour in 2011
The Bonhams lineup fits well with the Simeone philosophy, and the cars range from as-new looking Ferraris, to a barn-find 1932 Aston Martin LeMans, an Isotta Fraschini 20s limousine, a Ford Model T with Raceabout Speedster body , to Cadillacs and a Thunderbird ‘Thelma and Louise’ convertible. All gloriously original. Plus of course, Bonhams usual massive array of automobilia and spares, some for the very cars on sale. Check it out here.
From the Simeone Museum; a lovely unrestored Alfa 1750
- Paul d’Orléans