‘A “special” is a car built for a specific purpose by an amateur, either entirely to his own design, or by combining the essential parts of a number of makes. The reason for building it is simply to produce a car with a better performance than anything the constructor could hope to buy ready-made.’
That’s the definition of what makes a vintage special according to John Bolster, motoring journalist and builder of famed twin-engined special Bloody Mary. It’s also how serial special builder Peter Graham sums up his enjoyment of creating a considerable number of unique cars.
Yet Peter was originally a keen motorcyclist, so how come he is now one of the most prolific specials builders? ‘I discovered I had Ménière’s disease, which affects your balance. At the time, I was working in forestry on Arran and arrived for work on my clubmans Velocette. I put the bike on its stand and fell flat on my back, and I thought this isn’t sensible. So, that was me done with motorbikes.
‘If I was going to be on four wheels, I reckoned I’d better look for something. This was in the mid- to late 1960s and there was a lot of stuff just lying about. I asked around and bought the remains of a 1933 Riley, where the body had fallen around the chassis. This was the basis of my first special and it had been quite a rare six-cylinder car, though it had a four-cylinder engine when I acquired it for £15.’
Peter created the body from steel tube and aluminium sheet, and the car became known as the Pop Rivet Special as this was what held the body together. He explains: ‘With all specials, you get to the stage where you think you could make it better, but do you try to improve what you have or start again? As a result, I sold this car and ended up buying my only proper vintage car – a Riley Brooklands.
‘It took a while to buy this car as the owner genially said “No” every time I asked to buy it, but this time he invited me in for a drink and talk. The car’s registration had my initials, so the owner said I’d better have it and it turned out it had been driven by Sammy Davis in period. I used it for sprints and hillclimbs, but in the end it went to help buy a house.’
During this time, Peter had been collecting parts and, without a vintage car to drive, he realised he had enough bits in his barn to make a complete car. The resulting Riley-based car was called the Bathtub Special due to the shape of its body. It’s still being used by the family that Peter subsequently sold it to in order to fund his next car, which was built around a Riley chassis and 16hp engine.
Another Riley-based car followed, called the Atblo Special, with the name standing for ‘all the bits left over’ as it was fashioned from parts Peter still had in his shed. This gave way to another Riley-based car and an Austin Seven before Peter built Atblo 2, which was later sold to Northern Ireland.
After making a Riley Nine special for a friend and building a Hotchkiss tourer, Peter wanted another car to compete in. Having been thwarted in his desire to build a Ford-powered GN, he mated a Ford Model A engine to a Riley Nine chassis.
As is Peter’s way, he sold this car in a bid to build an Edwardian SCAT special and he says: ‘It wasn’t to be, so I decided to build an Austin Seven hillclimb car and that became The Moose. The great thing with Sevens is everyone involved with them is lovely and very helpful, and because people have been playing with them for years there’s a huge amount of information about making them go faster.’
The Moose, which is the Scots word for mouse, was meant to stay put in Peter’s garage, but a chance meeting with friend Colin McLachlan saw the car being used by Colin while his MG was being rebuilt. After a season, Colin declared The Moose was quicker than his MG and told Peter he didn’t want to give the car back. ‘I named a figure and Colin said yes, so that was that,’ says Peter.
‘I wish I hadn’t sold it,’ he adds. ‘But that’s what led me to build The Puddock (Frog in Scots), which is a more developed version of The Moose. It weighs around 4cwt (203kg), so it’s quick if not quite as pretty as The Moose. I’m looking forward to competing in it in 2022.’
However, the special building bug means Peter has another car coming together in the background. It’s based on an Austin Seven chassis and will be powered by a 1930 Harley-Davidson 1200cc V-twin engine, so should be very quick. It’s safe to say, Peter’s cars more than meet John Bolster’s definition of a special.