Photojournalist, author and photo consultant Lara Platman has photographed and written about motor racing for over 15 years. She’s raced a bit, too.
We caught up with Lara to talk about her love of motorsport, her classic Land Rover, and her passion for actually getting out and driving classic vehicles.
When we video call Lara for this article, the snow has been coming down around her Cotswold home, and she’s not long been out in Big Red, her beloved Land Rover Series IIA.
‘Land Rovers love this weather,’ she says, laughing. The pandemic may have limited travel, but whatever essentials are permitted, Big Red is up to the challenge.
Lara and Big Red first met on a dark, rainy November night in 2014 – it was love at first sight. While the name was chosen for the shade of red she appeared to be, Lara quickly found the carmine hue was in fact caused by Big Red’s burnt, crispy paint from being kept under a glass canopy for so long.
‘She also drifted to the left,’ recalls Lara, ‘because her right side was slightly longer than her left. And her wheel arches were cut out. Overall, she was a bit of a bodge job, but with so much character!’
‘So, it became a question of, do I restore her just to drive her, or do I try to put her back to factory standards and try to keep her as concours as possible?’ In the end Lara landed somewhere between the two, and what was expected to be a short restoration job turned into a serious project.
You spent 19 months and around 500 hours restoring Big Red, a real labour of love. But she’s not a garage trophy, is she?
She was never going to be. Historic, classic cars need to be used. They’re like our bodies – if they stay still too long, they get cranky. Land Rovers in particular are really mechanical cars, they need to be driven. And not just driven, but taken care of.
When I drive Big Red, I’m reminded that she’s an old lady – she needs lubricants, she needs Botox, she needs things that old people need. I have to keep greasing to stop her getting car arthritis and creaking! It’s about keeping the fluidity of life. There are definitely parallels between cars and people; we all need to keep moving.
Throughout this past year, I’ve continued my Friday tradition of going shopping at three local farm shops. The pandemic allowed me to carry on doing this, so every week I go out in Big Red, we do our shopping and we get out and about. I’ve used her more in the past year than any year before, and I’ve really had to think about the admin side of owning her! How many miles am I allowed to do on my insurance, do I have all the right things – tax, MOT – in place at the right time?
I still MOT her, even though I don’t need to. Clive at Paxford Motors does my MOT for me; he advises me, and I’m happy to listen. I’m no mechanical expert, I only know about the one car, but I can make an educated guess if someone brings me a question!
The other person who helps me look after Big Red is Adrian Wynn, my go-to historic vehicle restorer. He helped with the restoration on Big Red and he does a lot with the Dunsfold collection, the largest collection of Land Rovers in the world.
“Something from nothing is how I’ve always thought about everything”
When I was growing up, my parents had a shop just off Oxford street making theatre costumes and wedding dresses. I was always surrounded by and participating in the making of things, for me it was a very clear and simple thought. A dress needs to be made – a car needs to be made, a book needs to be made, a photo needs to be printed. Starting from nothing, something from nothing is how I’ve always thought about everything. Somebody has to make it – and who is that person?
Making Big Red work was one of my something from nothings. But there’s so much more than just a restoration, and then you’re done. Restoring the car taught me to look after her while I’m using her.
Long before you had a classic, historic car yourself, you were on the trail of historic cars and motorsport. What opened up that world for you?
I was working at Country Life magazine, part-time in archive and part-time as an ‘out-and-about’ photographer. They sent me to all sorts of places and I’d come back with personal stories, a combination of photos and write-ups. And as part of that, they sent me to Goodwood for the first ever Goodwood Revival at Lord March’s estate. There was such a theatre to it, it was one of my favourite stories that year.
I went back the following year, and what I started to see were all these women racing their father’s, grandfather’s, great aunt’s historic cars. I was intrigued – how had these people lived? These cars came from between the wars, and the grandchildren were inheriting them from these old estates; many of the cars racing at Revival were hand-me-downs. Back in 1998 when Revival was just starting these cars were worth a lot of money, but not a lot lot, not like these £3.5m Bugattis we see now.
Not long afterwards, I was invited to Spa 6 Hours as a photographer, and I met some people who were happy to take me out on the track. It was a completely different driving experience – you don’t go up to 80mph, you start at 80mph and you’re sometimes taking corners at 110mph!
After that I was hooked, I went and got my motor racing licence. I’ve only actually raced three times, in a Renault Clio, a Golf, and an MG Midget. I’d love to do more – especially hill climbs and sprints, where you’re racing against yourself, which is less stressful. I’ve also marshalled, which is an essential part of getting your racing licence. You learn the other side of motorsport – the flags, the etiquette and responses.
“I love the theatre of the pit lane”
Getting into motorsport photography has been an interesting experience because primarily I’m a portrait photographer. The longest camera lens I use is 75mm, which is not very long – I’m not going to get the best trackside images that people get with their big zoom lenses. It’s not in my desire to have that kind of kit; I prefer the more intimate portrait style. So why go to a motor race? For me, the pit lane is my theatre – I love theatre and performance, and the pit lane has it in spades.
My book Through the Night came about because of my work with Leica cameras, for whom I’m now an ambassador. Years back when digital cameras were coming in and film was being discarded, I came across a fantastic Leica camera kit with this heavy lens called a Noctilux, which was for night photography. I knew it would be a great theatre lens, but what I didn’t realise was that it would be great for night time motorsport.
You need patience in the pit lane; the cars come in for 3-5 seconds and then they’re gone again for two hours. I photographed the work that went on behind the scenes – it was like being backstage at the theatre. Hardly any other photographers would cover the events at night, and I could get these unique shots that new digital cameras couldn’t.
I met Rauno Aaltonen, one of the ‘Flying Finns’ of rallying in the 1960s and ‘70s, at 3am in a parking lot in Valence, a stage just before Monte Carlo during the 2011 Monte Carlo historic rally. I was using my Noctilux lens, and all these night shots ended up being part of an exhibition for which I produced the Through the Night photo book.
“Without racing you don’t get road car”
I love going backwards to look at the present. Without racing, you don’t get road car – the developments made for the track find their way down to the rest of us. There’s a reason that road cars are tested on tracks, and even a manufacturer like Land Rover who might not race, will still test their cars for endurance.
And then with the history of motorsport there’s the society angle – Cecil Beaton and Madame Yevonde both photographed these debutantes who were part of the ‘bright young things’ – they had cars in their garages and were racing at Goodwood and Brooklands. And when you dig you find all these women who were instrumental in developing not just motor racing, but road cars too. There are plenty of examples: the rear-view mirror and the windscreen (Dorothy Levitt), the glove compartment (Kaye Petre), and the Tulips road map (Madame Junek).
On the trail of women in motorsport
After that first Goodwood Revival, and as I looked deeper into the history of motorsport, I started to research historic women racing drivers. I was photographing contemporary women in motorsport, too; Katarina Kyvalova, rally driver and historic car collector; Pia Bianci, who both races cars and flies planes; Maria Costello MBE, a British motorcycle racer. There are more women in motorsport than people realise, and there always have been, right back to the 1920s and ‘30s.
I’ve been privileged to commentate for several years at Prescott for the annual VSCC (Vintage Sports Car Club) August meeting. At lunchtime, when the drivers take a break, my fellow commentator Nicholas Upton and I do a 45-minute session on ‘fast ladies’, historic women in motorsport. I’ve also participated in the inaugural virtual Bugatti day in 2020 with the Bugatti Trust, and Nicholas and I created a video about fast Bugatti ladies.
We’re delighted to announce that Lara will be writing a feature series on women in motorsport for us through this year. In the first of the series, Lara will write about Helle Nice – The Bugatti Queen, a story of a remarkable fast lady whose life was as racy off the circuit as it was on.
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Lara Platman is a photojournalist, author and photo consultant and has photographed motor racing for 15+ years. Lara is the author of four books, Art Workers Guild, 125 Years, Through the night – the passion of motorsport, Spirit of Place, the distilleries of Scotland and Harris Tweed, from land to street.
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