A charmed life

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Alan Brown, who died earlier this year, wheeled and dealed his way through single-seaters and sports cars. Mike Lawrence remembers the colourful career of a true 1950s all-rounder

Alan Brown was a Formula Three champion, the first man to win World championship points for Cooper, and the first to race a Vanwall. He was also a Formula One constructor (the man behind the Emerysons of 1961-62) and a private entrant who ran drivers like Jim Clark, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham. And it was Alan who got Ken Tyrrell started as a team manager.

Born in 1919, Brown’s desire to compete came early, and he and his friends did motorcycle grasstrack races until he suffered the only heavy crash of his entire life. He was not an academic, and was soon apprenticed to Dennis Brothers, makers of trucks and fire engines. Then came WWII and Alan, already a member of the Territorial Army, was very soon in France where he attempted to establish a lap record for Army trucks on the Reims circuit.

On a leave pass to Paris, he and a friend were approached by a photographer from Picture Post. The upshot was a photo-feature showing the pair enjoying Paris, with the tab picked up by the magazine. That is an important point about Alan: he was born lucky, had no shortage of charm and also a shrewd eye for the main chance.

He missed the Dunkirk evacuation and was among the last British troops to leave France, but preferred to remember the lighter times: “I was made the unit’s entertainments officer and, provided you secured a chorus girl for the colonel, there was nothing to it” The colonel was Norman Garrard, later the competition manager of the Rootes Group.

Major Brown returned to England at the end of the war and found that Dennis Bros had no need of him but, after a year spent wheeling and dealing, he was offered a job as a technical representative for the firm: “The government was about to nationalise road transport, and since full compensation was promised it was advantageous for a firm to own as many trucks as possible. I teamed up with a dealer called Bob Hamblin and we shifted a lot of trucks. Bob made a lot of money and he wished to express his gratitude, and so I suggested he bought me a racing car.

“He thought I was joking, but then I explained about Cooper and the 500cc movement, so he bought the car and I provided the engine. That was in 1949 and I got only a few events in, but by the end of the year I had assured myself that I was good enough to hack it. For 1950, I sold that car on to a chap named Ken Tyrrell and bought a new car on hire purchase.”

Alan’s career got under way through a combination of shrewdness, opportunism, determination and luck — no matter what his main employment, he worked away at his sidelines.

“1950 was not a good year” he said. “I stuffed my car at Silverstone, but was offered another in the Monaco GP support race. I shunted that into a tobacco kiosk. Its owner cracked open some champagne while we watched the rest of the race.

“It all sounds a huge laugh, but I was ready to quit. I was in second place when I crashed and racing was the reason I was there. Following so soon on my crash at Silverstone, it completely undermined my confidence. Charlie Cooper was not a sophisticated man, but he understood what was going through my mind. He worked on me all the way home until I believed in myself again.”

In the remainder of 1950, Alan took a win, three seconds and nine thirds, which made him a leading runner in Formula Three, albeit a long way from being a star. During the close season he put together one of the first professional teams in post-war racing. He had found a patron in Jimmy Richmond who, being 22 stone, could not fit into a racing car. Alan, by horse trading, secured ‘double knocker’ Norton engines at a time when some people bought the entire motorcycle just to get the power plant.

Ecurie Richmond presented a professional face: Alan even designed his own racing overalls which, naturally, he offered for sale: “Some people hated us because we were thought to be trying too hard, but the race organisers welcomed us. Some said we had better equipment, but that wasn’t true; what we had was a professional approach, but we didn’t have real money.”

Brown and team-mate Eric Brandon had a terrific season, and Ecurie Richmond was unquestionably the team of the year. Alan won the Luxemburg Grand Prix, and in the very next race, a support event at the International Trophy, it was Brandon first, Brown second: “We often took it in turns to win, which is why Eric won one of the F3 championships and I won another. We became a big attraction and could demand good starting money — between £100 and £200 in Britain, £1,000 each on the continent

“We made a very good living, but we worked at it. As soon as we came back from a trip to Europe, our engines would go straight to our tuners and we had spare engines ready to bolt in, which we had bought with all the appearance and prize money.”

Alan finished the season with nine wins, a dozen seconds and two thirds, a dramatic improvement on the previous year. He also won two of the three British Formula Three championships (Brandon won the other) and was the runner-up to Stirling Moss for the BRDC Gold Star. He would never again know success like it during his career.

“For 1952, we decided to supplement the Formula Three cars with a pair of Formula Two Cooper-Bristols — the world championship was run to F2 that year. We were the official Cooper works team, but we had to arrange a lot of the work ourselves. Eric, who was a great mate ofJohn Cooper, made sure that we got all the best bits while what was left over went on the third car, which was being prepared for another former Dennis Bros apprentice: Mike Hawthorn.”

At the Easter Monday meeting at Goodwood, Hawthorn arrived a youngster and left a star. It is less frequently remembered that Alan came second to him in the Formula Two race, won a handicap and, the following month, scored Cooper’s first world championship points when he finished fifth in the Swiss Grand Prix. Hawthorn is rightly remembered for his heroic battle in his little Cooper-Bristol with Villoresi’s Fl Ferrari at Boreham in a downpour, but Alan was the second F2 driver home (ahead of Moss) and he also won the F3 race ahead of Don Parker and Moss.

Hawthorn’s drives were so extraordinary that they overshadowed everyone else; under most circumstances Alan’s win and second at Boreham would be reckoned a fair day’s work. It also has to be said that such days were not that frequent, though Alan did finish sixth in the French Grand Prix and, thanks to that fifth in Switzerland, was 11th in the world championship. Alan and Mike Hawthorn were friends, part of the same fast set. But, as Alan said, “The only time I ever beat Mike was when I took his first girlfriend, Ann, and married her.”

At the end of 1952, Hawthorn moved to Ferrari and Alan replaced him as the driver of Bob Chase’s cars: ‘There was no falling out with Ecurie Richmond, but Eric decided that he was not really cut out for Formula Three while I still nurtured my ambitions.”

So far as Formula Two was concerned, it was a thin season: Alan’s best result was second in the Coronation Trophy at Snetterton, but the field was not of a high order. In the three world championship races he undertook, his Cooper was outclassed every time.

One of these was the Argentinian Grand Prix when President Perón opened the circuit to “all my children”. The result was a crowd of half a million that spilled to the edges of the track. Alan had just been lapped by Giuseppe Farina and was right behind the Ferrari when a spectator decided to cross the track. Farina took avoiding action and spun into the crowd. The official story claimed that there was one fatality and six people injured, but Alan had his doubts: “Bodies bounced off my car. I don’t know how many died, we just had to get on with the race. It was the only thing to do. The crowd was in an angry mood.”

Alan had a few outings with the 500cc Beart-Cooper and took a memorable victory (and lap record) at the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting when he beat a class field which included Stirling Moss. His best move, however, was to have the ex-Hawthorn Cooper-Bristol converted into a sportscar which became very familiar in British racing during 1953. Although Alan and the Cooper normally took second place to Cliff Davis’ Tojeiro-Bristol, they came into their own in 1954 when Alan won the British Empire Trophy and the Dutch Grand Prix, which was run for sportscars that season.

During this period Alan became in demand as a test driver, perhaps the first in Britain. As a result of such work he became the first Vanwall works driver when the original 2-litre car was entered in the 1954 Daily Express International Trophy. He qualified on the front row for his heat, but spun when the heavens opened. He fought back to sixth place, and the first 2-litre car home, but retired in the final. Tony Vandervell did not repeat the invitation and handed his car over to the young Peter Collins.

The bright promise of 1951-52 was not being fulfilled – and ’55 was even worse. The relationships with Chase and Beart were over as both turned to younger, brighter prospects, and it proved a thin year.

In 1956, Alan became a member of Ecurie Ecosse and after a couple of reasonable performances in a D-type (third place at Snetterton, fourth at Goodwood) he finished a good fourth in the main sportscar race at the International Trophy meeting. But this time Alan got out of the car and announced his retirement. Even years later he did not know quite sure why he did it – but he had recently married, he was nearly 37, and he was not getting any faster. He had found his level, and when he turned his back on the sport it was while he still was capable of getting good drives. He left on his own terms.

Alan had been running a main Ford agency for John Coombs, a close friend, but left to set up a small garage with Tyrrell, who had himself just hung up his helmet after a nasty crash at Goodwood. The two partners joined with Cecil Libowitz to run a Formula Two Cooper which, during 1957 and ’58, was entered by the works and driven by such as Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Innes Ireland, Carroll Shelby, Harry Schell and Masten Gregory.

By the end of 1958, the garage was taking up a lot of time and Tyrrell wanted to concentrate on racing. So Alan moved on to be sales director at Connaught Engineering, which was by now a car dealership. Rodney Clarke, the founder, was a brilliant engineer, but was not always the easiest of men to work with. Before long he and Alan fell out Clarke was bought out by the other directors and Alan was made managing director of a new company, known as Connaught Cars, in 1959.

The following year Connaught Cars entered an arrangement with Paul Emery to make a new mid-engined formula car. It was not a marriage made in heaven. Alan was business-like; Paul was not Though the first to pay tribute to Emery as an intuitive engineer, Alan reckoned he was impossible to work with. The Connaught-built Emerysons were not very successful, although Mike Spence did win the Commander Yorke Trophy with a Formula Junior version in 1961.

After the Emery episode Alan stayed away from active motor racing for a while, but he kept his contacts. In 1963, with the support of Esso, he imported a Ford Galaxie to challenge the similar car run by Willment. With his reputation, Alan was able to have his cars driven by the likes of Clark, Brabham and Gurney. “In 1966,1 was running a Mustang for Jack Brabham. We came to a point when, if Jack won a particular race, the championship would go to one marque but, if he did not, the series would go elsewhere. Our car only appeared at selected meetings so we were not in contention for the championship, and a well-known team manager offered Jack and me £1,000 apiece to throw the race. I suspect that he was only acting on behalf of a manufacturer and, had we been interested, we could have raised his bid. I had not liked the way motor racing was going and that was the last straw.”

Almost the last straw, because he later entered a McLaren M1 for Frank Gardner in some races; then he disappeared into the world of the car trade.

Alan remained a very enthusiastic member of the BRDC, revelling in his status as an ancien pilote since he did win two world championship points. Not much by the standards of some drivers, but more than 99.9 per cent of racing drivers ever achieve.