Rallying to spark plugs–

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Behind all the outward glamour which motor racing provides is a large army of specialist individuals each concentrating on one particular item of a competition car’s performance. Tyres, brakes, fuel injection all provide an obvious source of attention for skilled technicians and mechanics and to that list one should add another very important accessory and one which is often overlooked and certainly taken for granted. That is spark plugs. Possibly the largest competition-orientated firm in that sphere is the Ford controlled Motorcraft organisation and one of the most familiar trade figures at the Grand Prix circuits is their popular competitions manager, Brian Melia.

Melia has been competitions manager of Motorcraft, or as it was when he took over, Autolite, since 1967. But we would be interested to know just how many of the earnest young racing drivers who can be seen huddled in the corner of paddocks all over Europe attentively watching Brian’s analytical examination of a plug electrode realise just how much of a motor sporting background the man they are dealing with has amassed. For his consuming interest in motoring matters started way back in the mid-1950s and led to his becoming one of Ford’s most valued rally co-drivers before his current appointment brought an end to his active participation six years ago.

Born in Blackpool in 1934, Brian had a technical inclination from a young age and, although his all-consuming passion was for cars in general and rallying in particular, left school at the age of 18 to serve a technical apprenticeship with the British Aircraft Corporation. He spent seven years based at their three establishments in Lancashire and graduated as an engineer working on the wind tunnel development of such aircraft as the Canberras, Lightnings and the abortive TSR2. But although his working hours were occupied with the intricacies of aircraft aerodynamics, his spare time was devoted to rallying.

“I can remember reading all the magazines avidly”, Brian recalls. “In fact, when I was a teenager I’d pedal to Preston in order to see the Edinburgh starters for the Monte Carlo Rally passing on the A6”.

This youthful enthusiasm soon started to look for a practical outlet. During his stay at BAC, along with one of his colleagues, Brian used to put “about thirty bob into a kitty every week to enable us to go rallying. In fact our first rallies were conducted in an old Ford Anglia 100E which used to get thrashed round the country lanes on the border of Wales in all manner of unlikely events”. Melia earned himself quite a local reputation for knowing all the popular country tracks used at the time and became in demand as a navigator in many restricted events in the area.

But his big chance came in the 1959 RAC Rally which started from BIackpool. Theodore Roosevelt, wealthy motor enthusiast son of the late American President, had entered a Fiat-Abarth for Gregor Grant to drive with Brian McCaldy, but the latter gentleman broke his leg during some pre-rally frivolities. A quick eye was cast round for a replacement and someone suggested Melia’s name. He was in.

“We really were lucky and fell on our feet, particularly in Wales where I knew all the territory but were still fairly novice about the whole affair and had to miss the maximum number of controls to keep within the overall time limit. Eventually we found ourselves at Brands Hatch for one of the circuit races and I was left to do the driving. Because of the car’s sheer speed I ended up on the outside of the front row alongside Paddy Hopkirk’s works Sunbeam Rapier. When the flag dropped, so did Paddy’s clutch which promptly broke with a bang. And I won the race—as, I’m told, I should have done in that car!”

Brian’s reputation expanded the following year and he was invited to co-drive for local enthusiast Don Grimshaw who had just purchased a brand new, works prepared Triumph TR3. Together they won the Bolton Rally, one of the qualifying rounds of the Motoring News Rally Championship; and thus encouraged, Grimshaw acquired an ex-works Austin-Healey 3000 for the following year. “But that came to a sticky end in a narrow Welsh lane”, Melia recalls, “It caught fire, we baled out and watched while a pencil of flame about fifteen feet high lit up the surrounding countryside. There wasn’t anything left by the time the fire brigade arrived”.

But it wasn’t just behind the maps in a rally car that Melia’s talents lay, for his organisational abilities soon came to the surface as well, abilities which were to eventually earn him a permanent position with Ford’s competition headquarters at Boreham. Through his position at BAC, he was a member of the English Electric MC which in turn was a member of a consortium of Lancashire clubs titled the Fylde Motor Sport Group. They held a rally called the Welsh Rally, the organisation of which was taken over by Brian and a fellow member named Graham Marrs. They immediately renamed it the “Shunpiker” and over the next four years it earned a reputation as being one of the very best of all British rallies. When, in 1965, Graham Marrs left, to live in America and Brian’s professional aspirations had led him south to live near London, rather than a run a sub-standard event the organisers chose to scrap the “Shunpiker”. It was missed by rally enthusiasts all over the country, but this move by the club was an adequate testimony to the organisational flair of the two men.

In fact, it was the “Shunpiker” which was directly responsible for Melia getting his first ride in the works Ford team. He’d met Anne Hall one day at Mallory Park and started chatting to her and, by chance, a copy of the “Shunpiker” regulations fell through her letter box just as she was taiking with Bill Barnett about Ford’s participation on the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally.

“Anne suggested that I should be asked to go with Henry Taylor in a works Cortina”, says Brian with a grin on his face, “so Bill rang me up and my mother, to her everlasting credit, managed to keep him talking on the ‘phone for 40 minutes until I arrived home!”

In addition to the Monte, Melia was also taken along as co-driver on the Acropolis and RAC Rallies in a Cortina and also took in the Tulip with Tony Fisher. In the Tulip they took second place in their class behind Pat Moss in her works Mini-Cooper. They took sixth in the RAC, eighth in the Tulip and tenth in the Acropolis. The following year, when Syd Henson took over as Ford’s Competitions Manager, Melia was asked to join as a regular co-driver for Henry Taylor.

But his actual post at Boreham involved far more than just navigating. It’s with some amusement that he recalls he had a notice on his office door labelled “Brian Melia—Navigator” and most of his colleagues assert that he’s the only individual ever to be so treated. And this was where his organisational ability was harnessed to Ford’s rally programme. Not only could he co-ordinate plans for the rally, map out service schedules and annotate pace notes for the crews, but he was an organiser whose mind worked as that of a competitor and as such proved to be a great asset.

During his spell as full time co-ordinator for the Ford Rally team he didn’t let success pass him by altogether, winning the BTRDA Gold Star Drivers Championship in 1963 and second to Roger Clark in the British Drivers’ Championship. He took a works Cortina to second place in the 1965 Circuit of Ireland in partnership with Geoff Daniels; they were only a couple of seconds behind Tony Fall’s Cooper S at the end and Melia looks back on this as one of the personal high spots of his active competition career.

Then, in 1966, carne the event which many readers will know Brian’s name from. The RAC Rally in which he co-drove with Jim Clark in a works Lotus Cortina. “It all came about in a rather peculiar way. After Stuart Turner, then BMC’s Competitions Manager at Abingdon, took the step of entering a Cooper S in the RAC Rally for Graham Hill, there was very little alternative but for Ford to do something about it. Quite naturally, the obvious choice was Jim Clark and I was the one nominated to co-drive with him”.

Of course, Clark’s early days in the sport had embraced a lot of rallying in the Border country, although he’d not taken part in a rally for about nine years up to that time. The way in which he settled down behind the wheel of this Cortina merely emphasised to Melia what an exceptional driver he was in just about anything on four wheels.

Melia remembers it was a brilliant performance. “But he’d got the luck of the Gods on his side as well. He had five minor excursions on the first evening, but on each occasion there was nothing to hit”. In Wales, Brian’s knowledge gained in organising the “Shunpiker” kept Clark on the road and, in fact, his fastest times were set on stages where Melia had recorded fastest time on the Gulf London Rally some months before. “But there were moments when he slipped into the two per cent area where his lack of experience let him down, and in those circumstances he just went off. He was naturally in control of the car and immediately set times on the stages which put him amongst the leaders”.

By the time they reached Scotland they had climbed to second overall and Clark was really beginning to get the hang of the whole business but then they arrived over a slight brow just before a slight left and Clark made the mistake of turning the wheel a little bit as the car went right over the crest. The car ploughed off into a rock face and badly damaged a front corner. This was repaired promptly by the Ford service crew at the end of that particular stage, but a few stages later, Clark got out of phase over a series of humps whilst flat out in top gear. A front wheel dug into the soft earth and the car rolled several times.

“It was amazing. We’d jumped a three-foot ditch completely and landed, comparatively undamaged, on our wheels in the scrub the opposite side. There was a shattering crash and the car stopped. If it hadn’t been for the ditch, we’d probably have got the car back in the rally, but in the event, that was that”. Then came the problem of finding the way out of the forest. “Jimmy took my arm, and we walked out together with me guiding him from my maps which I’d got in my right hand” remembers Melia. This ingenious method of improvisation worked, although it must have prompted a few puzzled expressions from following cars who passed the two lonely figures in the night!

That was the last serious rally Brian Melia took part in, and his last for the Ford works team. For although he was down to do the 1967 East African Safari with Roger Clark, the offer of a job as Competitions Manager of Autolite arose. Up until that time there had been no co-ordinated competitions service as such and there was something of a state of panic existing at the start of 1967 owing to the birth of the Cosworth DFV. After a lot of very serious thought, Brian decided to turn his back on active motor sporting participation and accepted the position.

The Competitions Department of Motorcraft really only exists to service racing and rally cars, but if one was to dismiss Brian’s job as merely superintending spark plugs at race circuits, one would be doing him a great injustice. It falls to him to estimate and plan out just how many plugs of differing grades will be required by various competitors, where they will be required, when they will be required and how they are going to get to their destination.

In addition to his responsibilities to the motor racing fraternity, which he operates with the assistance of just one secretary from an office in Ford’s Advanced Vehicles Operations block at Aveley in Essex. He usually drives to international races, reckoning to rack up something around 50,000 miles a year at the wheel of his Ford Consul GT which is inevitably loaded up to the brim with sparking plugs in its boot. Once at the circuit, the thousand-and-one queries surrounding the performance of the plugs must be dealt with, checks made that inexperienced mechanics haven’t left soft warming up plugs in the head of their expensive racing engines which will eventually result in a holed piston, as well as the more mundane job of making sure that everyone using his company’s products is exhibiting the MotorCraft decal on the side of his car.

Immediately after the race, it’s a question of pointing the Consul towards Calais and moving as fast as possible. Back to the office to answer the endless queries about plugs from racing drivers, motorbike competitors, powerboat owners, stock car fans and drag racing exponents. It’s a seven days a week, fifty weeks a year task for Motorcraft’s Brian Melia, one of the many who ensure that motor racing’s vital, but unseen, details are carried out efficiently, unobtrusively and with an unflappable enthusiasm for the sport which he has fostered now for nearly twenty years.–A.H.

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