An Ongoing Affair with the Automobile

John Wroe

EAR we go!” I suppose that my interest with things mechanical started in about 1950 with UK boarding school holidays spent on the farm of my lifelong friend Patrick. For an 8 year old, it was interesting albeit hard work and over the years I learned to drive tractors including the “Grey Fergi” and a TVO fuelled International. I also experienced the rigours of an original Fordson and, not to forget, the single cylinder Marshall that powered the stationary Threshing machine. Mastering the art of reversing 2 and 4-wheeled hay trailers has proved useful to this day.

Hardly a start for an interest in motor racing! The first sports car I experienced was a BSA (bought by Patrick’s brother) and I remember it as being so unreliable that it was soon replaced by an ex army WWII Hillman “staff” car, that we used as a Ute.

Leaving school in 1959, I commenced an engineering traineeship (pre-university) with now defunct English Electric. Many of the trainees were involved with Austin 7 and Ford 10 Specials, whose demise was sudden once the affordable MINI and its variants came onto the scene. During this time, friendships were formed with others interested in Motor Racing. One friend’s father had a Mark IV Cooper 500 which he towed to race meetings behind his 1932 open 4-seater Aston Martin — on a trailer made from the famed Coventry Climax Fire pump trailer chassis. We visited many historic circuits and Hill Climbs such as Mallory Park, Castle Combe, Crystal Palace, Goodwood, Lydden Hill, Snetterton, Silverstone, Aintree, Prescott and Shelsley Walsh and saw the likes of Moss and Brabham competing before they entered F1. Friendships made then remain to this day.

The bug thrived during university days in London, with friends having vehicles such as Austin-7 Ulster & Specials, Alto O/V Morris Minor, Isetta and a Rolls Royce Hearse — plenty of room for grog and seats line astern in the casket area! When I joined the 750 Motor Club London branch, members included such legendary names as Broadley, Mallock, Chapman, Pilbeam, Costin, Duckworth, Cooper and many more. On the circuits and in Formula 1 were the likes of Moss, McLaren, Brabham, Parnell, Brooks, Salvadori, Gurney, Rodriguez et al. Drivers and teams were all approachable and most participated in all types of events — competing in perhaps 4/5 races during the day. We all started as marshals and I still remember the iconic BRSCC chief marshal Bert Lamkin who ran Brands Hatch in those days. IT WAS A FAMILY AFFAIR! I approached The Cooper Car Company, British Racing Partnership and Brabham Racing Organisation for employment during the long summer university vacations when their organisations were but Mews type operations in London. I still have their replies.

Not satisfied with only marshalling, I purchased a 1926 Austin-7 Special for less than £100 and parked it outside my university flat in Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill while I readied it for the July 1961 BRSCC club meeting at the new Cheshire circuit of Oulton Park. We drove to the circuit and as that iconic fisherman Isaac Walton said:

“Lo the Racing Car Driver (angler). He riseth in the morning and upsetteth the whole household. Mighty are his preparations. He goeth forth with great hope in his heart and when the day is far spent, he returneth, smelling of strong drink, and the truth is not in him!”

This in part could be applied to my first race. Practice was curtailed after a wire wheel failed at Old Hall corner — spokes pulled through the hub — but not before I qualified for the race. Quick repairs after practice and we were ready to race. No need for re-scrutineering in those days — no seat belts, no race suits and no boots — we had a Les Leston ‘Bone Dome’ and a pair of leather gloves to cover the oil engrained hands! I came THIRD; was elated and hooked and we were on our way! That was the start of it all, and at year end, the annual BRSCC film show held in Leicester Square, London featured the Oulton Park meeting with my car compared to Sievwright’s Type 625 single seater Ferrari. They dubbed my car ‘The oil company’s best friend’ given its propensity to emit clouds of blue smoke!

After graduating with an Engineering degree from university, I joined Rubery Owen (the owner of BRM) first in the Black Country and then at Bourne in Lincolnshire. It was then that I acquired my first Morgan, a Kingfisher Blue ’59 +4 with TR3 engine, Moss box and 64 spoke wire wheels and disk brakes. So I became the first of my group to have a modern sports car. At Bourne, I became involved in the then current BRM projects as we moved from the 1½ litre to the 3 litre formula including the 998cc F2 and 3 litre V-12 sports car engines as well as the ‘infamous’ H-16 engine. These are for another article or talk.

Graham Hill and Pedro Rodriguez were BRM team drivers as we moved from frame to monocoque construction, to engine/g-box as stressed members — but still with little or no advertising. When Jackie Stewart joined the team, safety issues grew in importance given the toll that befell so many drivers of the time. This was the era when the F1 season in Europe was relatively short so, late in the year, teams and engineers enjoyed months spent on the Tasman series in Australia and New Zealand and then in South Africa.

The Owen Organisation pushed BRM to undertake commercial contracts to pay the bills as BRM fuel-injected versions of the Lotus twin cam engines were the engine of choice for Ford Team Lotus Cortina saloon cars and many sports cars. We undertook the Le Mans Rover-BRM gas turbine project headed by Wilkie Wilkinson (of Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar fame and Noel Penny Rover’s gas turbine guru). At the other extreme, BRM were involved in a contract to develop the 1880 cc V-8 Tasman engine for use in a twin-engined military vehicle that drove, hovered, floated and could jump over obstacles for NATO use during the Cold War. Wow! Subjects again for another article or talk.

With linkages to Rubery Owen, time was spent working with Chris Shorrock of Shorrock Superchargers, then restoring a 30-98 Vauxhall, at Shell Research in Thornton and down at Rye in Sussex at Harry Weslake’s engineering consultancy. There Aubrey Woods was designing the 3 litre V-12 Weslake-Eagle engine for Dan Gurney’s F1 team as well as contra-rotating engines for Tommy Sopwith’s twin-engined power boat to compete in a round Britain power boat race. Aubrey Woods was involved in the original V-16 supercharged 1½ litre 1948 BRM and the designer of the famed 1½ litre V-8 F1 BRM engine that took Hill to his world championship. What a time to work in the industry!

For various reasons, my career path changed giving me the opportunity to enjoy private racing either on my own or with friends. At that time the Morgan was sold as well the Austin-7 as I built and developed a racing MINI, while my friends had Formula Junior cars. I also helped Pete Sadler re-construct a Ford GT-40 which was bought as a wreck from former Autosport correspondent Paddy McNally. Apart from club racing in the UK, regular excursions were made to the continent for 1,000km sports car races at such places as Nurburgring, Monthlery, Spa Francorchamps and Monza. It was there that I met Paul Hawkins, the Australian who raced a GT-40 on a shoe string and was always the joker in the pack until he was sadly killed at Oulton Park.

My career took me to AP (manufacturers of Lockheed brakes and Borg & Beck clutches) in Leamington Spa and I spent ‘chunks’ of time visiting East European automotive companies during the height of the Cold War — considerable caution had to be exercised to avoid being compromised for future use by Communist governments. I was forced to flee to Vienna when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was a player on the margins when British MI5 engineered the return of a former RAF engineer working for an English Computer Systems Company in Eastern Europe (who was later convicted of selling secret plans of an air-to-air missile). Driving back across Central Europe in mid-Winter on ice and snow with temperatures of minus 30-35oC was interesting in itself. Such an exciting time!

Sally came into my life about this time when she accompanied me to Brands Hatch in August 1971. My racing activities were curtailed by family commitments and mortgages, moving from Britain to Australia in 1974 and then moving between Sydney and Melbourne. I kept in touch with the sport, especially old BRM colleagues who, following the demise of BRM, found work with the likes of Williams and McLaren. Here, I was involved with the Hardie Ferodo 1000 when Assistant GM of Hardie Ferodo.

But I had always hankered after another Morgan and way back in 1975, Sally got wind of a property out West where allegedly there were the remains of two 3-wheelers. Sadly, the remains had seen the end of an oxy-acetylene torch.

Meantime a “26 Dodge Fast 4” was purchased in pieces from a friend and the company we both worked for ‘enjoyed’ transporting it to and fro from SA ~ NSW ~ VIC ~ NSW! After a mechanical renovation, I commenced on the body and completed the timber frame but sold it as interests changed.

That brings us to 2004 when, over in the UK, one of my old teenage buddies, Mick (who was still single), was reminiscing about the need to rationalise his collection of desirable cars and motorcycles which included a Lotus-18, Lotus-22, Brabham BT-18, the original Formula-1 Toleman and “MY” Morgan +8. Racing these cars in historic events was becoming prohibitively expensive and engine overhauls costly as youthful chargers seemingly had no concerns but to win at all costs, with the attendant risk of unwarranted damage.

We discussed and agreed a price and the car was shipped out in a container and now “EAR we are!”

John Wroe