First amongst equals

Then and now: Jack Sears, champion back in 1958, discusses touring car racing through the ages

Within the pages of Denis Jenkinson's book The Racing Driver lurks a surprising juxtaposition of images: an oversteering Maserati 250F at Rouen is pictured above a wheel-lifting, slightly understeering Austin A105 Westminster at Brands Hatch! The drivers? Juan-Manuel Fangio and Jack Sears. In the accompanying caption both are held up as examples of masters of their particular racing crafts. The underlying principle is that, although the techniques required may differ, the basic make-up required for a driver to push any car to its limit is the same.

The photographs were separated by a year: Fangio was in the midst of his glorious Indian summer of 1957, while Sears was in the process of winning the inaugural British Saloon Car Championship in 1958. The former needs no introduction, and the latter was flattered by the comparison.

"I took that as a huge compliment," explains Sears from his Norfolk farm. "To appear on the same page as Fangio, to be mentioned in the same breath — I couldn't believe it when I saw it."

Sears Fangio had retired to Balcarce before clinched the aforementioned title, but luminaries such as Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham and Jackie Stewart are able to testify just how difficult Sears was to be beat in his saloon and GT domains. The late Jimmy Clark too, had his hands full with the East Anglian on the regular occasions he stepped down from Formula One. Indeed, "Gentleman Jack" may have given them a run for their money in Grands Prix but for his reluctance to spend too many weekends away from his family — a Formula One offer from Yeoman Credit was politely turned down for this very reason!

But the man who scored the first race win for the Ford Cortina, "staggered" the Jaguars with his mighty Holman and Moody-prepared Ford Galaxie, and helped the Shelby Cobras usurp the legendary Ferrari 250GTO, has no regrets about his career's chosen direction.

"I've always loved saloon cars. They've always been very popular, even when there wasn't a championship for them. They always supported a major event, they were never just clubbies. And I feel privileged to have been involved in this side of the sport, and to have won the first proper championship."

But in an Austin Westminster! How?

"The championship was split into four categories: one of these was for cars from 1600cc to 2700cc the A105 had a 2.6-litre, straight six engine. It also handled much better than you might have expected. It was an old works rally car (Sears was a member of the famous BMC rally team from 1956 to 1959), which I bought with my own money. I was allowed to race it as long as it was viewed as a purely privateer effort."

That was until he started to win regularly. BMC took notice. His wife was banned from driving it to the shops, and a Speedwell-developed triple carburettor set-up was homologated to stave off the challenge of Jeff Uren's Raymond Mays-converted Ford Zephyr. This proved sufficient, although Sears actually secured the title in a Riley 1.5.

"I finished the championship tied on points with Tommy Sopwith, who had won a lot of races in a Jaguar 'nine', and nobody had thought to put a tie-breaker into the regulations. It was suggested that we should toss a coin, but Tommy and I were totally against this idea."

Marcus Chambers, BMC's Competitions Manager, had a solution. He provided two identical Rileys for a head-to-head match-race between Sears and Sopwith at Brands Hatch, But, as always seems to be the case in such matters, one proved to be much faster than the other, so the championship was decided by the aggregate of two races. Sears won by 1.2 seconds.

"The cars in those days were pretty much standard. All the trim was still in it you weren't even allowed bucket seats. And it never even crossed our minds to put it on a trailer, we always drove it to the circuits."

Sears chuckles at the thought. "You were allowed to take the spare wheel out, and I think we had stronger shock absorbers on the car. Perhaps the biggest advantage we had, though, was that we ran Michelin Xs the first radial tyre which was much better than the Dunlop cross-ply in the wet."

Prosaic? Perhaps. But it wasn't so long ago that class-winning BTCC Alfa Romeos were towed to the track behind a humble Transit. Since the advent of Class 2 (aka Super Touring) in 1990, the BTCC has made enormous strides in terms of professionalism, budgets, and media coverage. But Michelins being good in the wet is not the only thing "that's nothing new". Five years after his first title, Sears was racing a highly tuned car that had been specially imported from the States, run by a professional, Publicity-seeking team – the Twickenham-based Willment Racing – complete with transporter.

Saloon car racing came on in leaps and bounds in the sixties as well. The early races of 1963 were undertaken in a Ford Cortina GT, Sears scoring the model's first race win with a last corner move at Oulton Park having started from the back of the grid because of engine problems during practice. But the highlight of year was the arrival of the monstrous, seven-litre Ford Galaxie. This leviathan finally scotched Jaguar's invincibility with a memorable performance by Sears at Silver stone's Daily Express International meeting.

"We had a problem with the car's clutch," explains its helmsman. "The team told me to be careful. The car was very heavy and the clutch was its weak point – they didn't use it much in NASCAR racing. There was no way you could dump it, and you had to take off like a normal road car."

This allowed the 3.8 Mklls of Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori to beat the 'Big Yank' into Copse. However, with 450bhp on tap, the Galaxie steamed effortlessly pass this duo as they honked down Hangar Straight for the first time. But the following Stowe corner was to be the real moment of truth...

"Everybody expected the Jags to be better under braking, and so I watched them in my mirrors and waited for them to come by. But they didn't. They just sat on my bumper through the corner. Then I pulled out a small advantage into Club. And on the long pull up through Abbey the seven-litre came into its own, so that I had a sizeable advantage by the end the first lap. The plusses on my pit board just got bigger and bigger and, because I was so worried about the clutch, I thought the safest thing to do was to just to keep it in top for the rest of the race!" And he did so for eight laps! "You only needed third for Becketts, and the thing had so much torque, it wasn't really a problem!"

Everybody expected the Jags to wreak their revenge at the Mickey Mouse Crystal Palace, but further Galaxie wins here, and at Silverstone, plus an Oulton Park class win on the Lotus Cortina's international debut, saw Sears take his second national saloon title.

Four more Galaxie wins were chalked up the following year – at Goodwood, Aintree, Silverstone and Brands Hatch.

"It was a great car. It handled very well for something so big," remembered Sears fondly. "It was very heavily modified it had four shock absorbers on the front and it was even better when it was homologated with disc brakes. But there was no fade even with the drums. It was so quick on the straights, that I didn't have to work the brakes to their maximum."

A class title was gained in 1965 with a Ford Lotus Cortina – his second such honour following class success with an Equipe Endeavour Jaguar three years earlier – but this was to be his last season of competition. A huge crash while testing a Lotus 40 at Silverstone left him with a broken neck, crushed vetrebra, and a virtually severed arm. Even with such injuries, Sears acknowledged that he had been lucky, and that a return to the tracks upon recovery was too big a risk to take.

But he still loves the sport he graced.

"I'll watch anything, but it's still the saloons that gives me that gleam in the eye. I think the British Touring Car Championship is wonderful at the moment. There are a lot of very good drivers in it, and they've shown us their ability on a number of occasions. But I have to say, as an old age pensioner – I've just reached that critical stage in my life – that some of the driving tactics are deplorable. We had accidents in our day, but these were of pure mistake, we never got to the stage of virtually taking people off on purpose. Some of the driving today is totally irresponsible. I may be an old fogey, but I'll have my say! We didn't have the same commercial pressures as the drivers have today, but our racing was just as competitive. We tried just as hard."

There's a picture in a book by Denis Jenkinson that proves this.