Tony Merrick

One of our leading restorers of rare and historic single-seater racing cars, and a skilled racer

If you make it to the monaco historic races in may, you will see two particularly rare cars. One is a Maserati 8CL taking its first bow since 1948, the other a Ferrari, the unloved and unsuccessful Super Squalo of 1955. And the man who has revived them both is Tony Merrick.

It’s hard to say whether Merrick is a restorer who races, or a racer who restores. He looks more like an academic, with his scholarly glasses and neat, grey-flecked dark beard. Yet since 1958 he has been involved solely with historic racing cars. Having restored a 1923 Vauxhall 23/60 during his auto-engineering course, he went Vintage Sports Car Club racing with a J3 MG single-seater, which he prepared himself’.

In 1960 he met Sandy Murray and began to look after his ERA, RIA, and before long was driving it in VSCC races. It was the beginning of an association which continues to this day.

In about 1966 Tom Wheatcroft, who used to come to all the VSCC meetings, invited him to look after his 15 or so single-seaters, the germ of today’s museum. While Merrick was thus engaged the Tec-Mec Maserati 250F came along and he spent a season in that.

Here the second formative character in the Tony Merrick story appeared. Neil Corner already had an extensive collection of very special machines, including the Aston Martin GP car, the DBR4, and needed a full-time race engineer, so Merrick moved up to County Durham, still with the ERA which he took with him. It was a busy posting at one stage they went motor racing for 12 weekends on the trot. But, he says, “the Corners are extremely generous people wherever they went, I went”.

A short spell in Scotland failed to wean him off racing cars Doune and Ingliston were too close. A London-based Lotus 16 owner who wanted help with its rebuild sealed his fate; he moved back South, setting up on his own in 1972.

Tony Merrick Racing is now in a range of handsome converted barns. There is no billboard outside; in these rarified circles, recommendations are word of mouth. And `rarified’ means such machines as 2900 Alfas, including last year’s Villa d’Este concours winner, Terry Cohn’s gorgeous convertible, and Doug Marr’s V8R1 Maserati. The five-man team also built from scratch a replica of the sportscar version of Albert Obrist’s 6C34 Grand Prix Maserati. And it’s not just private clients: Merrick rebuilt the two 300SLR coupes and a 1902 Simplex for the Mercedes museum.

These are, however, straightforward compared to some jobs. “It was a good day when we started to work on V16 BRMs”, says Tony, having revived the famous V16 shriek of Wheatcroft’s MkI and Nick Mason’s MkII.

It is a useful plus that Merrick is a serious vintage racer whom owners can trust to exercise their cars. Now Chairman of the Historic Grand Prix Drivers Association, he has been racing and winning for over 30 years, though he prefers to recall good battles than trophies; for example, beating John Harper’s Cooper by a few feet during a rainy race at Dijon in the Ferrari Dino. But even more memorable was a Donington race with the Vanwall VW10 in 1986, when it caught fire. “I decided that as the flames were now heading for the fuel tank I perhaps ought not to be there,” he recalls in his laconic way. In leaping out he broke a wrist, as well as being badly burned around the face and ankles; now he won’t drive without all the protective gear. Nevertheless, he says, “the lads got it fixed and I was back in it with a strapped wrist eight weeks later at Silverstone”. That’s about the nearest thing to a boast you’ll hear from this diffident man, for whose team the races at Monaco will be a double scoop.

Maserati built only two of the straight eight 430bhp 8CLs, in 1940. Merrick’s often serious face smiles at this. “It amuses me that when the rest of the world is at war, the Italians are still building racing cars!” Both raced at Indy in 1946, but there is a debate about which is which, and being the purist you ought to be in this business, Merrick won’t paint this one until he is sure which colour it should carry. Remember, this is the man who, possessing enough genuine spare parts to build most of an ERA, took the honest route and titled the assembled car AJM1, rather than appropriate a defunct ERA chassis plate.

The Maser will be demonstrated in Monaco but the Super Squab will race, and we will thus soon hear a contemporary verdict on the unpleasant reputation of the machine Ferrari was relieved to replace with the Lancia D50 in 1956. This one has a bizarre history: taken to New Zealand by Peter Whitehead, it later raced in saloon events, chopped and Chevy-powered, under a Morris Minor body. Reunited with the correct four-cylinder engine, it has been in the shop for three years; and if it turns out to handle after all, it’s more likely a fine tribute to the high standards of today’s top restorers than proof of an historical injustice.

Few in the crowd will know of Merrick’s part in resuscitating these snarling machines and publicity is not high on his agenda. The people who matter know what his small team does, and he is truly grateful to Sandy Murray and to the Corners for the early exposure they gave him to vintage racing folk. But though his clients today are often millionaires, and he can look across his gleaming workshop at a Lottery jackpot’s-worth of metal, Tony remains mindful of the dedicated spectators who have for years shivered in the Silverstone winds watching him race at VSCC events. “You have to be aware of them and not disappoint them,” he says. The words of a proper racer. GC