Motor racing 1952-1959

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Mike’s very first race was the S.U.N.B.A.C. Trophy, at Silverstone in June 1952; he won it, at an average speed of 55.6 mph, in his own MG.   His father had given him the MG with strict instructions that it was not to be raced.  Mike planned to keep the whole thing a secret but unfortunately his father, rooting around in an outhouse used as a family workshop, discovered the trophy which had an inscription identifying it with the MG!

In 1954 and 1955, in partnership with an old school friend, John Nunn, Mike prepared and raced a vintage chain-driven Frazer Nash (registration PF 1861) in seven races.  In this same period he also raced another vintage Frazer Nash (WN 4839), nicknamed “Patience”, belonging to Betty Parker.  Most of these races were at Silverstone, not far from Mike’s home in Warwickshire.  As well as driving the cars Mike was also preparing them for the races, and making detailed notes for each race about lap times, carburettor and valve settings, steering and suspension geometry, tyre and oil pressures.  From a competitive point of view these races did not offer great satisfaction, but they were undoubtedly useful in terms of engineering and racing experience.

His next steed was a Ford Lotus II owned by Geoff Williamson.  Mike got to know Geoff Williamson through Tim Fry, his close colleague at Rootes.  Geoff, who lived at Wheatley, just outside Oxford, was an engineer.  His business activity was the manufacture of photographic equipment, but he also had a passion for racing cars.  Although he had given up driving in races himself, he owned the least expensive ‘Club’ version of the Lotus Eleven which had a converted Ford 100E engine instead of the more usual Coventry Climax.  Mike and Tim worked with Williamson to make car more powerful by modifying the valve ports of the Willment cylinder head; this had the effect of raising the bhp of the 1172 c.c. Ford engine from 40 to 85.  By changing the carburettor jets, adding a supercharger and running the engine on methanol its performance was further increased to 128 bhp.  The engine testing arrangements were in Heath Robinson style.  John remembers that one day when he flushed the lavatory in the shed adjacent to the engine test bed piping hot water came gushing out of the cistern, which was also being used as the header tank for the dynamometer.  The engine exhaust consisted of a pipe pointing vertically out of the vegetable patch.

Mike drove this car (LBW 800) in several sports car races between 1957 and 1959.The car was so highly tuned that on one occasion it burned a hole right through a piston.  Mike had pulled into the pits and they had a look at the engine which seemed to be all right.  Mike got back in but as soon as he re-started the engine, the piston with a hole in it fired the fuel which had by then leaked into the crankcase.   The result was an explosion worthy of a circus clown turn; the oil breather cap shot straight up through the aluminium bonnet and Mike leapt out of his seat.   Mike mounted the same engine conversion, known as the Willment conversion, on his own Ford Prefect.  The Prefect looked like any other but with the engine conversion and an overdrive had a cruising speed of around 90 m.p.h. and was nicknamed “Zephyr baiter” or “ tin past tin”.  On one occasion he raced the Prefect (PRW 173) in a BRSCC Saloon car race at Brands Hatch, but was beaten by a much older “sit up and beg” version of the Prefect.

In 1958 and 1959 he was also racing a Formula 2 car owned by David Fry.  Mike’s contact with David Fry came about through Alec Issigonis, who as a sideline from his other activities was helping David develop a monocoque chassis 1500 cc Formula 2 car, to be powered by a Coventry Climax four-cylinder engine.  The car was christened the Fry-Climax.  David Fry originally planned to get the Vanwall team Formula 1 works driver Stuart Lewis-Evans to race the car.  Tragically, Lewis-Evans was fatally injured in the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix.  When David Fry was casting around for a new driver Issigonis suggested that he should try getting Mike to drive it.  Mike raced the car fourteen times during 1958 and 1959, with modest results.  The stressed-skin monocoque car proved rather too heavy to compete equally with the latest Formula Two Cooper and Lotus products, and suffered various mechanical failures.

The experience Mike gained in driving the Lotus Eleven and the Fry Climax was an important step in his progression from driving relatively slow vintage cars to the high performance sports and saloon cars which he was to race in the next few years.   As he once said in an interview: “Never accept a drive in a car that is one stage better than you can already handle”.

In 1958 he was invited by Colin Chapman to be the reserve driver with team Lotus in the 1958 Le Mans 24 Hours.  Lotus had four cars in the race: two Lotus Fifteens, one Lotus Eleven, and one Lotus Eleven with a 750cc FWMA engine. Mike went to Le Mans but did not actually drive in the race.

In these years Mike’s life was incredibly hectic.  As well as doing his “day job” as an engineer at Rootes, he was helping to prepare the cars he raced (which were based at Oxford and Bristol) and towing them to the tracks with his own car, which by then was a Triumph TR3.  The wire wheels were continually having to be re-spoked, because towing the trailer at excessive speeds put too much load on the towbar.  On top of all this, he also embarked on the construction of a “home-made” racing car similar to the Fry Climax but using sheet plywood for the monocoque chassis with Ford swing axles for the front suspension.  The engine was to be the V8 designed by Issigonis for the prototype Alvis 175/350 coupled with a Porche transaxle.  The car was nicknamed “The Gaboon” because this was the brand name stamped on the sheets of plywood from which it was constructed.  The whole project did not get very far and after languishing in an outhouse at Mike’s home for a few years it was finally scrapped.

Next: Motor racing 1960-1961