As much as I would like to say that it was some fantastic German engine that started my fascination with the engine bay, it was in fact a British engine. The Lotus Twin Cam engine to be specific. At the time, I had already driven in a number of garden variety British Fords: Cortina, Escort, Anglia, Consul. Many of them looked sporty with mag wheels and fog lights, and a few had Webers installed, so they could handle the narrow twisty roads and short straights with aplomb. However, I was more concerned with the sound and the look at that point, and was under the distinct impression that when it came to the engine compartment (and the badging), 3 litres were better than 2, etc. The other absolute indication of power was the number of exhaust pipes. The Jaguar E-Type won those discussions, but I digress. Then, an uncle came to visit one day. You could hear the car coming from a half a mile away, and when it got to our driveway, it burbled along at about 15 MPH with the throatiest dull roar I had ever heard. My uncle had to blip the throttle, because (as I would later learn), the thing would not idle below 2000 RPM. The sound was the most potent audible evidence of power I had ever heard. My brothers and I went racing down the driveway and ran alongside it laughing and shouting with glee.
The car was a refrigerator white Ford Escort with a Rally car stance and what seemed like massive flared fenders. Except for the paint and fog lights, it was similar to the Roger Clark Matchbox car that I had. Once my uncle went inside, we crawled over every inch of the car, and when he returned, I begged him to show me the engine. I was hoping for a massive brute that filled every inch of the compartment. What I saw instead was a faded signature blue twin cam cover on a pretty small powerplant. There was plenty of room around it, and it seemed out of place in the snorting beast that I heard earlier. “How many litres ?” I asked with obvious disapointment. “Don’t worry about the litres”, my uncle said. “How many exhaust pipes?” I said looking under the car. “Just one, but we will go for a ride one day soon, and then you will see that one is enough”. “Why not now?” I wanted to understand the magic transformation. “Not now”, was the static reply. We ran alongside as he left and heard him gun it down the gravel road as he sped away. We listened until you could no longer hear it. I needed one of those engines (despite not having a prayer of even owning a car at the time), and began to find out everything I could from old magazines. That lead me to Colin Chapman, and a whole new world.
A few weeks later I finally got to ride in the car. My uncle swore me to secrecy as my parents had clearly told him not to allow the kids near the thing. It was a short ride of about 8 miles, and I was in the back seat, which had no seat belts. This was back in the pre-safety era, when it was better to be thrown clear 😉 It was simply one of the most scary and exciting rides in a car that I have ever had. There was a gaping hole where the speedometer would be in the dashboard, so there was just the tachometer and I have no idea how fast we were going. Supersonic, I think. In between being thrown around the cabin, pinned against the seat, and projected into the back of the front seats, I was laughing and praying. The magic transformation was indeed real, and the engine with the little blue cam cover was now a monster of unknown but gargantuan displacement. The sound was glorious, and the smell of hot oil on the headers wafted into the spartan cabin. This bore no earthly resemblance to the (now) plodding Escort I had driven in previously. Surely there was no faster car than this on earth.
When we returned, I asked to see the motor again. surprisingly, it was the same one I had seen weeks earlier. I could not comprehend it. It was smaller than the motor in my Father’s Cortina. I concluded that this was like the light in the refrigerator. You were told it went off, but you never could tell what happened once you closed the door. Magic. Perhaps that is why my uncle stuck with refrigerator white.