In April 2012 I was asked to take an Edwardian ladies’ bicycle to a secret location in the depths of the Norfolk countryside for a photo-shoot. I had advance warning it was going to be special, but I had no idea how special it would be!
Photographer, Nick Clements; the founder of Men’s File magazine had been asked by Fiskens of London to produce a set of period style images of a very special car. The location was to be a beautiful watermill in the county of Norfolk which had a stretch of road which resembled northern France without having to go there.
Mick Walsh; was also with us for the day, as he was writing a piece on the car for Classic and Sportscar magazine.
Upon arrival, I was duly greeted by some familiar faces, together with the car which I had watched being driven with vigour for as long as I could remember. The 1908 GP Panhard-Levassor; a well known Edwardian beast which had been campaigned for many years by the Walker family, was to find a new custodian and it was only fitting for the machine to be photographed in a way it had become accustomed to during its previous life. Nick Clements has a unique eye for photographing period scenes and particularly those of Henri Lartigue; the famous French photographer whose stretched images of Edwardian racing cars at speed, are iconic. The idea for part of the day was to create similar images for the Panhard.
The Panhard is so well sorted, that after the pre-starting procedure and a flick of the starting handle, the Panhard bursts into life, the throttle is blipped and 12.8 Litres of torque rock the car from side to side. Mick had apparently already found a location about 2 miles away to take some images, but Mick’s photographer needed to be hanging out the boot of his car and that car needed a driver. After some discussion, Mick said he would drive the photographer, but that left the Panhard needing a passenger and Mick suggested me.
At which point, I found myself in the passenger seat of a legendary car and sitting next to the equivalent to the present day Edwardian Michael Schumacher. Everyone was ready to go and we followed the photographer’s car along the single track lane. Before we get to the main road, I’m told to make sure I’m hanging on. By then we have light drizzle and this is the point when I discover why my driver still keeps breaking the hill record at Prescott Speed Hill Climb.
Down with the throttle and the previously suggested advice of 'hanging on' is taken up. The light drizzle now feels like needles and when we get to our destination, I feel like I've just jumped out of a plane. The shear grunt and acceleration of the machine is nothing you can describe in words, only that it's like being scared witless, but feeling totally confident at the same time.
Photographs are taken, and it's time for some lunch. Over a ham sandwich and packet of ironically name crisps, my driver proudly shows me his new wrist watch in the style of a rev counter. But Nick was keen to get on with creating the Lartigue style images and had brought with him an entire wardrobe of period style clothing and a makeup artist. I had also bought with me a pair of original Edwardian driving coats and we rapidly found ourselves being kitted out as period racing driver and riding mechanic.
Not one for going slow, the first couple runs past Nick in the Panhard; were apparently too fast, and Nick could not catch us with his period camera. Like a boy being told to go to the naughty step, my Edwardian driver tells me he doesn’t do fashion stuff. We then spend the afternoon driving slowly past Nick to get the images and 'FAST' in between the shots. As the afternoon went on, it gradually became more difficult to ‘hang on’ and I began to appreciate those Edwardian drivers and more so; the riding mechanics in the day who sat at speed on gravel roads for up to 9 hours on these pioneer racing beasts.
The resulting images from the day are a masterpeice, but the star of the day was the machine which brought us all together. The 1908 Grand Prix Panhard et Lavassor.
Special thanks to: Fiskens - Mick Walsh (Top photograph) - Nick Clements - Mark Walker – James Mitchell and Julian Balme.