The wizard from Oz

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Ron Gaudion spent only three seasons as a Jaguar race mechanic – but what seasons

He’s no braggart, Ron Gaudion. If you had been team mechanic on Jaguar D-types for all three Le Mans victories you might expect to revel in the glory at least a little. But having been a crucial part of the Coventry marque’s hat-trick, Ron returned to his native Australia, went into the oil industry – “and it just never came up for 15 years”.

Things have changed. Those racing days have become not just rose-tinted but gold-plated and Ron’s memories are valued. Sixty years on from the last of those momentous races, Ron returned to the UK courtesy of BA to celebrate that 4pm moment in 1957 when his team, privateers Ecurie Ecosse, took a momentous 1-2 at the Sarthe. He was a central part of the D-type event we reported on a couple of issues back, when the three Ds which came first, second and third along with the prototype long-nose and Jaguar’s Heritage car combined for a road trip like no other. Before that, though, I had a chance to reminisce over lunch with him about building Ds, Ecurie Ecosse, and how a young man lucked into a glorious moment of British racing history.

“I didn’t aim to go racing,” he says, an upright, fit, friendly figure of 87 who proves to have pin-sharp recall. “I just wanted automotive experience.” That led him to Coventry, Britain’s motoring heart, early in 1955 where he tried all the firms but despite having seven year’s training under his belt there were no openings – until Jaguar remembered it needed 20 men for an experimental project, a new racing sports car.

“I was shown some blueprints stuck up on the wall and Malcolm Sayer’s sketch of the car. ‘We’re going to build 100 of those,’ they said.”

Ron’s job was to help assemble the first 10 subframes and produce patterns for the ‘production’ cars. He couldn’t know that five of those first 10 would become legendary race-winning machines – the long-nose D-types that would bring lasting glory to the marque.

Nor did he know as he helped wheel the selected racers to the next-door competition department to be prepared for Silverstone, Le Mans and Reims, that the works team needed a temporary extra bod for the 24-hour classic – and he would be it. It would furnish the young Victorian with experiences no-one could forget. “Pulling on those overalls with the Jaguar symbol on, I felt 10ft tall.”

That Le Mans race of 1955 did bring victory for Jaguar’s sleek new car, Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb taking the flag on that quiet Sunday afternoon, but it did so against a background of anguish and devastation such as motor racing had not before known. The images of racing’s worst crash, which happened directly in front of him, still greatly affect Ron, colouring what had earlier been “two and a half hours of the best sports car racing I’ve ever seen. First Fangio [in the Mercedes 300SLR] was in front, then Mike. That’s why there were so many people in the stands – they were keen to see the first pitstops.”

I don’t want to keep Ron on the subject of the human distress he saw, but I ask what it did to Hawthorn, unwitting centre of the accident.

“Because of the smash Mike had to go round again, and as we waited Ivor said ‘I’m not getting in’. We’d all seen two blokes killed right in front of us. Lofty said to him, ‘just get in and drive. Don’t race, just keep it going’, and he was back to speed in five laps.”

Lofty, meanwhile, was trying to protect Hawthorn from the unfolding facts. “He said ‘keep away from Mike, don’t tell him anything’. But around 2am someone gave him a newspaper and it really shook him.”

It’ll be debated to the end of time whether or not Jaguar’s discs would have outlasted Mercedes’ drum and air brakes, but after Stuttgart decreed a team withdrawal Hawthorn and Bueb’s victory was virtually assured. The team returned to Coventry with the laurels, but the bloom was off the leaves.

And Ron was back on assembling D-types. He wasn’t needed for the Reims 12 Hours, the only other race on the works calendar, and there was no guarantee of a team place next season, so he determined to follow the Ds to a privateer outfit favoured by Lofty England and the Jaguar management – Ecurie Ecosse. With success in XK140s and C-types, the Scottish outfit was becoming a Browns Lane second XI, and with a brace of Ds on order Ron knew they’d need another hand.

“Jaguar only did two or three races per season, but I knew Ecosse were very active. So when Wilkie Wilkinson came down to collect two Ds from the works I introduced myself. He told me to come to Aintree to meet David Murray, who offered me the job, at £8 10s a week – a tenner less than Jaguar! But EE offered more racing, so after pushing it to £10 I went.”

What Murray’s team achieved on its tight budget was remarkable. Working from a couple of cramped mews garages in Edinburgh, the tiny outfit – Ron, his good mate Stan Sproat, head mechanic Wilkie Wilkinson, Pat Meehan and Sandy Arthur the transport man – carted their blue Jaguars from Edinburgh to Le Mans, to Monza and even Sweden, bringing back an improbable haul of results.

Ah yes, Wilkie. Dapper frontman for Murray’s team, always beaming, always in the photo, always mentioned in reports. Brooklands tuning wizard with Bellevue MGs and ERAs, central to setting up EE in 1951, the ace tuner who oversaw the team’s success. I recall how impressed I was to meet him in the 1980s, still beaming, still famous.

Ron isn’t an unkind man. It takes a while to unroll his opinion. “I can honestly say the few times I saw him lay a spanner on a car he ballsed it up, excuse my language. We were trying out drivers at the Nürburgring and Dickie Stoop came in to change plugs. Wilkie says ‘I’ll do this’. Afterwards I missed my plug spanner. I checked with Stan and DM and said ‘it’s in that car.’”

This isn’t about tidiness; a loose spanner in a racing car could jam a throttle, kill a driver. “144 corners – I thought, this guy’s dead. He came back in and DM says I’ll keep Dickie occupied, you check under the bonnet. D’you know, that spanner was sandwiched between airbox and bonnet, didn’t move at all. Up, down, 14½ miles… I get goose-bumps even telling you about it.”

Strangely, Murray was always Wilkie’s best promoter, despite the evidence. There was even a 1957 story claiming the two had tested a LM car around local French roads. “A fib,” Ron says firmly. “DM was always exaggerating Wilkie’s achievements. I followed the three works cars down, peeled off to our hotel and drove straight into the transporter, and we locked the transporter until the car went to scrutineering next day. “

DM wasn’t totally blind to Stan and Ron’s views. “I remember him pointing to a carb pipe and saying what’s that, Ron? A breather. Stan says, he asked me the same thing. Wilkie told him it was a fuel feed pipe! He was checking out Wilkie.”

But fair’s fair: “He was good at tuning SUs – he got the 120s and C-types going really well, but on Webers he was way off”.

Murray never had a cross word for Ron or Stan, but after the ’Ring episode he let fly at Wilkie. “Same in Sweden at the 1957 1000km,” Ron recalls, a twinkle in his eye. “We took the cars that had finished 1-2 at Le Mans, and at the first pitstop we’re waiting and Wilkie looks at all these photographers and news cameras and says ‘I’ll do this one’. The routine was you stand in front of the car holding the dipper, a big pot of oil for top ups. What does Wilkie do? Goes out far too soon, his arm gets tired and he puts down the dipper. Sanderson arrives, Wikie steps back, puts one foot in the dipper. He’s jumping around – ” Ron jumps up grinning to demonstrate – “there’s a gallon of oil everywhere, we’re laughing fit to burst… Mr Bean couldn’t have done it better! But DM went mad, tore into Wilkie. ‘Leave it to the boys in future!’

“I caught up with Graham Hill in the 1961 Sandown Tasman tour, when Wilkie was at BRM and asked him how he was doing. Boy, did he pay out! ‘You mean the storeman,’ he says. They’d put him in charge of spares.”

However, Wilkie didn’t generally interfere with Stan and Ron’s work, and 1956 saw the team take its first D to Le Mans. With three works cars, two Aston Martins – featuring Stirling Moss and Peter Collins, no less – and scads of Ferraris and Maseratis, the saltired Scots were not expecting an easy run with their two-year-old car, tiny team and aged transport: at this point, says Ron, one vehicle was a 1928 Leyland and the other a cut-down 1936 double-decker. And you’d be lucky to scrape 45mph in either. Yet against such odds Flockhart and Sanderson’s singleton D thrived as crashes and breakages knocked out the opposition – a remarkable debut triumph. “Boy, did we celebrate!” says Ron. “We were delighted to beat Moss and Collins in the Aston. But the biggest high was at Le Mans in ’57.”

Let’s not repeat the tale of Jaguar’s 1-2-3-4-6, headed by the two Ecosse D-types. Let the cheering die down and instead think of Ron, Stan and Sandy immediately carting the successful cars down to Italy for the Monzanapolis event in those aged trucks. It took days, says Ron. “And we’d already been down there for the Mille Miglia in May. We got up the Mont Cenis pass to find it snow-blocked, so we turned round and drove via Nice. With all the first-gear work the red-hot exhaust burned through a fuel line, which I fixed with a plastic shirt wrapping. Lasted the three days back to Edinburgh!”

A contrast with Ron’s drive down to that ’57 Le Mans race – in the future winner. With no illusions about Wilkie, Lofty England held the new fuel-injected car at the works so he wouldn’t mess with it. Thus Ron had to drive it from Coventry to Le Mans, via Bristol air freighters to Cherbourg. “We took the four privately entered cars – the Duncan Hamilton car, the French, the Belgian [which would place third and fourth] and our car – and Lofty told me ‘just follow the others’. He kept off the main roads but these are country lanes; I got caught behind a tractor so I’m putt-putting along in this racer at 20mph. Then I had to catch up – probably the best drive I’ve ever had, catching the team in a Le Mans Jaguar.”

Murray was a fine manager who spread a small budget a long way, and Ron’s programme especially suited him. “We prepared the cars by October for the next season and then I had winter off and signed on as a ship’s engineer. At the end I’d return to Edinburgh. DM was very happy because he saved several months’ salary. He was running on a shoestring.”

Did it feel like that? “No. Our wages were always in, we got regular expenses, we had the best cars. He was tight with money, yet when he loaned me cash when I ran short abroad he denied it when I tried to pay it back.”

On the other hand, while Jaguar gave him a £25 bonus for the ’55 win, Ron had to go to DM’s panelled office over the mews and request his portion of the prize money. It was no palace, that cramped mews base: “Virtually horse stalls, just room for a car and a bench. Any minor nudges went to the local dealer to fix, but if it was serious it went back to the works.” Which, he says, negates the story that there was a spare frame or body parts found there. “There was no room!”

A chartered accountant by trade, Murray was balancing several business interests: he had two hotels and some wine shops. Eventually he left the UK in a hurry, leaving behind rumours of financial and sexual improprieties, and never returned. But as a team owner he seems to have been ideal: the crew always had what they needed, he was a man of extreme thoroughness, and as an ex-racer himself he knew what counted. He’d prepare a campaign plan for each trip, with timings, writing out yellow slips with the details.

I ask if they disassembled and rebuilt the new cars. “No. We trusted Lofty. After three races we’d take the heads off and check valves and tappets in case of over-revving but we never had trouble with the mains or lower end. Everything had to be wirelocked, split-pinned or tabbed. It’s all in the prep if you have the right car and a driver who’ll do what he’s told.”

Murray had pre-race rules – no beer or romantic interludes for three days prior, the latter often broken by Ninian Sanderson. Ron reflects on their drivers: “Jock Lawrence was pretty good and Flockhart was excellent, no1 for sure. But Ninian was always up to japes. Once in ’56 when Ron had just joined us he was getting in the car and Ninian stuck a firecracker up the exhaust. Flockhart turned the key – BANG! He leaped out like a jack rabbit. Ninian laughed like a drain – but Ron went out and beat him by 1.5 seconds…”

He has good words for Hawthorn too: “If a schoolboy came up he’d always stop and talk”.

In 1962 Flockhart died in an air crash, one of many funerals Gaudion had to attend. “In my ’55-58 run 12 drivers were killed,” he reflects.

And he has an insight into one in particular. “On the Mille Miglia I was at the Bologna pitstop when de Portago came in. He’d obviously hit kerbs and bent the Borrani spoked wheels – the whole car was shaking – but he over-ruled the pit manager who tried to replace the rims. Taruffi was only two and a half minutes ahead and he wanted to catch him. They could have changed the wheels but he just took fuel and at 150 or so a wheel let go. The usual story is a tyre, but I know what caused that accident.”

Murray expected Gaudion to continue in 1958 – Ron still has the unworn overalls he was issued – but he could see that both Ecosse and the D had peaked. With his new wife, a Scots lass called May, he returned to Australia where he’d become commercial and racing manager for BP oils, and few knew of his time in the limelight. It had been a brief excursion – but what perfect timing.