Looking back with Jack Sears

Probably the most difficult single decision ever to confront a racing driver is the question of the most timely moment to cease active participation in the sport. Once the choice has been made, most either sever all their connections with the sport or find that it is impossible to totally divorce themselves from such a compulsive activity and busy themselves either in team management or general administration. Into the latter category falls Jack Sears, the amiable Norfolk farmer who successfully dovetailed his agricultural business with a varied and fascinating competition career which started in 1949 and terminated, after a rather unpleasant testing accident, at the end of 1965. Immediately immersing himself in the administrative side of motor racing, Sears is now a member of both the Race and Competitions Committees of the RAC as well as sitting on the Council of the BRDC and taking an active interest in the commercial side of Silverstone circuit's operation as a director.

Jack Sears' family roots lie in Northampton, but when he was very young his family moved to Sussex where his father ran a farm. Stanley Sears himself had always been passionately fond of cars, being a contemporary of Raymond Mays from the days of the Varsity Speed Trials at Cambridge in the mid-1920s. Sears senior raced an Alvis 12/50 at the same time as Mays used his Brescia Bugattis, later competing at Brooklands before marriage marked the end of his circuit activities. However, he became a great rally enthusiast in the mid-1930s, competing on several RAC Rallies with 4-1/4 and 4-litre Bentleys as well as taking a Rolls-Royce Phantom 3 on the RAC Rally. Thus the youthful Jack found his enthusiasm for motoring matters fired up at a very early age, although he frankly admits "the only thing I ever wanted to do was farm". His very first car was a Standard Ten engined Morgan 4/4—"I had a very generous father"—and by 1948 the youthful Sears could be seen bouncing over the Downs in production car trials. Such elementary contests were sufficient to whet his appetite for something rather more ambitious, so it didn't take long for him to swap the Morgan for a 1949 MG TC which, fitted with a Wade supercharger, was taken on the 1950 Daily Express Rally before making its circuit debut in a BARC Goodwood handicap. Of this circuit baptism Sears recalls little, "although I managed to distinguish myself by spinning at the first corner!"

Despite the lure of motor racing, Jack was determined to pursue a serious farming career and embarked upon a practical apprenticeship which eventually led him to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. But the first few races in the MG left him itching for something more ambitious so he acquired a Cooper-MG sports car which had previously been owned by Liverpool garage proprietor Jack Reece whose cousin Peter used to drive it. During his two years at Cirencester Sears found plenty of opportunity for club racing, so the Cooper was frequently prepared at the nearby garage of former ERA exponent Brian Shaw-Taylor. By the time his course finished at the agricultural college, Sears was contemplating matrimony and moved to the farm he still owns at Ashill, near Thetford, in Norfolk. Unlike his father, those steps towards the altar very definitely failed to halt his motor racing activities.

After learning the rudiments of circuit racing with the Cooper-MG, Sears graduated through a couple of Jaguar XK120s, in the meantime making the acquaintance of fellow East Anglian Archie Scott Brown who drove for Cambridge sports car constructor Brian Lister. Sears continues the tale: "As Archie became increasingly well-known, it suddenly dawned on everyone that he'd only got one proper hand. Immediately the RAC stepped in and suspended his competition licence for a short while until he persuaded them that he was a fit person to be handling a racing car. During that spell Lister asked me to handle the 'works' Lister-MG in several events. So I must have caught his attention, even though I hadn't .got much to show in the way of results."

However Scott Brown was soon back in harness, so Sears teamed up with Bill Black (who had formerly raced a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica) and they purchased a Lister-Bristol together for the 1955 season. Sears admits that "perhaps I had rather more courage than sense", finally realising that sheer valour wasn't enough on its own to succeed after contriving to up-end the Lister at Silverstone's Copse Corner. He was flung out onto the circuit, surviving with just a strained shoulder as a legacy of this frightening incident, but convinced that he should moderate his enthusiasm in the future. The car was rebuilt for the 1955 season and still races in historic sports car events to this day in the hands of its present owner David Muirhead.

The 1955 season also marked Sears' first serious foray into the rallying world. The previous years he had competed with Bill Banks (of Koni shock-absorber fame) in the Tulip Rally driving an Alvis Grey Lady but the 1955 season marked the arrival of BMC and its first big factory-backed assault on the International rally scene. Sears' old friend Peter Reece was signed up by Marcus Chambers for the 1956 season and he immediately asked Jack if he would join him on the Monte Carlo Rally in January' 1956. "I was absolutely delighted. My reaction was 'fantastic, marvellous'. Unfortunately Peter was killed shortly afterwards in a road accident, but his father asked me to follow through the plans and take the car to Monte Carlo nonetheless. I obviously agreed and on the way back from Peter's funeral in company with Archie Scott Brown I realised that Archie would be the obvious choice to have with me. I asked him, he accepted and, along with Kenneth Best we teamed up and went."

The car provided for this epic was an Austin A50 into which had been installed a well-tuned MG Magnette engine in addition to stiffened suspension and a floor gear change. "The pinnacle of our success was when we qualified for the mountain circuit and this was the time I realised just how good Archie's technique had become. I honestly believe he was one of the very first drivers to fully develop the technique of turning the car away from the corner, then swinging hard in before holding the car on opposite lock all the way through the corner."

Sadly, their heroic efforts ended when the Austin ran out of brakes and slid gently off the road down a ten foot gulley. "That was the end of our rally. We tobogganed the car down onto the next section of road below, kicked out the roof, turned it back onto its wheels and then motored slowly to the finish at Monte." Despite the damage to the A50, Marcus Chambers was clearly quite satisfied with the way in which Sears had acquitted himself and there followed an offer of a permanent place in the works rally team, a position accepted with alacrity by Jack who stayed as a member until the end of 1959. During that period, driving a variety of BMC models, he scored a number of class placings on such rallies as the Geneva, Tulip, Sestriere and Alpine, his links with the team bringing him back into saloon car racing when the first British Saloon Car Championship was instigated in 1958.

Sears campaigned his own Austin A105 throughout the 1958 season, BMC helping with the car's preparation, and his main opposition in the points table came from Tommy Sopwith's Jaguar 3.4 even though they were running in different classes. "Believe it or not we got to the final round at Brands Hatch with nine class wins each to our credit, so it looked pretty likely that we would both win our class at the final round as well. Mindful of this possibility, the BRSCC had cleverly laid on a couple of rally-prepared Riley 1.5s for a couple of five-lap sprint races between the pair of us to act as a tie-decider. Of course, we did both win our classes, then jumping straight into those Rileys for the two run-offs, swapping cars between each five-lap chase. The first was won by Tommy by a second, and I won the second by one-point-six seconds, so I was champion by six-tenths of a second! It was tremendously exciting and elating."

Sopwith retired from driving at the end of 1959, immediately confirming Jack a place in his Equipe Endeavour team of 3.8 litre Jaguar Mk. 2s alongside Michael Parkes. He freely admits that this involvement "did a lot of good for my reputation" for not only did Sopwith run the Jaguar saloon, but Sears also had a few outings in his Aston Martin DB4GT and later in the team's Ferrari 250 Berlinetta. In 1961 Sopwith acquired one of the very first 3.8-litre Jaguar E-types for competition use, Graham Hill doing most of the driving in this car. However it's a source of great pride to Sears that he lapped the Ferrari quicker than either Hill or Roy Salvadori (who drove a similar E-type for John Coombs) in practice for the 1961 Oulton Park Spring International Meeting. The E-types beat him in the race, so he ended up third overall.

At the end of 1961, Hill left Sopwith to join the rival Coombs organisation, Parkes and Sears staying on to handle the Jaguars and also a new Ferrari 250GT0. But this season very nearly proved to be Jack Sears' last following a very serious accident whilst competing in the Tour de France in a French 3.8 Mk. 2. "I was asked to compete With Claude Lego, a Frenchman who owned a competition Jaguar 3.8, and the car was brought over to England prior to the event for preparation by Equipe Endeavour. I agreed to compete in the circuit races, while Lego was to drive the hillclimbs. Everything went well from the start and I was actually leading the touring car category after the first two circuit races at Rouen and Le Mans."

Sears admits he found Rouen demanding and daunting, but nonetheless managed to take the Jaguar more or less flat all the way down the hill to Nouveau Monde—"although I flicked it out of overdrive for that tricky second sweep after the pits"—and the third race in the Tour de France took place at Clermont Ferrand, "where I made a very serious and fundamental mistake".

After the Le Mans-type start, Sears failed to immediately secure his seat harness, preferring to concentrate on building up a substantial lead over the first few laps before relaxing on a short straight and doing it up. "Unfortunately I didn't make it round to the straight on the fourth lap as some Frenchman in a Citroen I was lapping closed the door on me in the biggest possible way and knocked me straight off the circuit." The two cars touched at over 100 m.p.h. and the next thing Sears knew was when he found himself lying on the track, having been thrown out through the hole left where the rear window should have been! His first reaction was to jump up and belabour the French driver over his stupid action and he immediately set off for the pits, intent on lodging an official protest. As he walked the two miles back towards the pits, Sears found himself getting weaker and weaker, but he managed to keep going long enough to reach his destination and profer his explanations. Then, almost on the verge of collapse, he was rushed off to hospital where an X-ray examination revealed him to have sustained three fractured vertebrae! "I still shudder to think of the possible consequences to this day," is Sears' only reaction.

As a result of this near-tragic incident, Jack was condemned to be encased in plaster for no fewer than three months, missing several international events for the Sopwith team. Although he was out of plaster in time for Christmas the future looked just a little bit barren on the motor racing front, for Sopwith withdrew and turned his attention to that other exhilarating pastime, powerboat racing. "I thought about quitting," Sears told us. "I was coming up to 33 years old and reckoned I'd had a couple of lucky escapes as well as thoroughly enjoying myself. It didn't look as though there was a drive around for me either." Just as he was in the process of making up his mind, the telephone rang in his Norfolk farm house early in February 1963. The caller was Jeff Uren, an old friend and sparring partner.

Uren had raced against Sears back in 1958, his Ford Zephyr being one of the very few machines which could get to grips with Jack's fleet Austin. He was now competitions manager for the big London Ford dealers John Willment, who were on the verge of a massive racing programme which was to be launched in several categories during 1963. Sears listened with increasing interest as Uren outlined the Willment plans and then offered him a drive in their saloon car team. "We're going to race an American Ford Galaxie," Uren told him. "Would you like to drive it?" The only previous occasion on which an American saloon had competed in British saloon events had been the previous year when Dan Gurney raced a Chevrolet Impala at Silverstone and it had looked quite promising. Accepting Uren's assertion that the Galaxie would be a competitive proposition, Sears asked for twenty-four hours "to think it all over" and then accepted. Back came what appeared a cautionary note: "Well, I'm afraid the Galaxie isn't ready yet, so you'll have to start the season in a Cortina GT."

This prospect didn't turn out to be as doubtful as Sears originally suspected, for he won his class first time out at the Oulton Park Spring meeting. "I had electrical trouble during practice, but raced through from the back of the grid and actually managed to pip Alan Hutcheson's Riley 1.5 in a side-by-side finish for class victory." In fact Sears never got beaten in the Cortina and, to this day, Walter Hayes introduces the Norfolk farmer as "the man who started the Cortina on its road to success".

The Galaxie arrived in time for the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone in May, although Sears' hopes fell when he arrived to be confronted with the news, "I'm afraid the racing tyres haven't arrived yet so you'll have to do first practice on road tyres." The team pumped up the tyres as hard as they dared, only for one to blow out on just the second lap. But the racing covers arrived in time for the second session and Jack soundly beat the Jaguar opposition to secure pole position on the starting grid.

"By the end of the practice I was becoming aware of clutch slip. But when I told the mechanics they just told me I'd have to take things easy because there just wasn't a replacement available. So I edged the Galaxie gently off the line, slipping it into top gear as quickly as I could. I went on to the Hangar Straight behind three Jaguars and just blew past them all as I went down into Stowe. It was quite amazing. I simply drove away from them with no difficulty, winning the race with ease even though I never took the car out of top gear after the second lap!"

Sears' success in the Willment Galaxie was virtually unchallenged throughout 1963, his second Saloon Car Championship being secured with much greater ease than his first. On reflection he recalls only two occasions on which he was certain that he was about to be beaten. "One was when Jack Brabham drove Alan Brown's Galaxie at Snetterton, gradually closing in on me until a Mini spun in front of my car at Riches and I was obliged to stop at the pits. On another occasion Jim Clark drove the same car at Brands Hatch, pulling steadily away from me until I was forced to stop after a puncture. But my most satisfying moment with the Willment car was when I beat Dan Gurney in a straight fight at Silverstone. That gave me a lot of pleasure."

But singularly the most satisfying race of Sears' whole career was driven at the wheel of Willment's AC Cobra roadster in a supporting sports car event to the 1964 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. "I just couldn't get to grips with the wretched thing in practice and the fact that Bob Olthoff lapped the other Willment Cobra about two seconds a lap quicker didn't help either. But Bob then crashed the car, damaging it too badly to compete and leaving his pole position vacant on the grid. So Jackie Stewart moved his Coombs E-type across into pole position and David Piper moved his Ferrari GTO across to the middle. I therefore moved the Cobra up to the front row of the grid, only for a marshal to come rushing up with about thirty seconds left to go shouting about me being in the wrong position. All I could do was to shrug my shoulders and then we were off. I remember it was quite a long race, 25 laps I think, and as I went round South Bank chasing Stewart and Piper I could feel fuel sloshing down my back from the over-full tank. Next time round there was the black flag, so I rushed into the pits mentally cursing some over-zealous marshal who, I assumed, had seen the apparent petrol leak. I was met by Uren who explained that I'd been brought in because of my wrong grid position and that I should get on out again. I well remember shaking my fist at the officials as I hurtled back onto the track, but that was just the stimulus I needed. I started to feel really at home with the car, hurling it round all over the place. It didn't take long to pass first Piper and then Stewart, so I won the race in the end. It was quite the most satisfying race I've ever done. At the end of 1963 Sears left the Willmerit team to accept Colin Chapman's invitation of a place in the Lotus saloon car team alongside Jim Clark. In addition he joined Carroll Shelby's long distance sports car team to drive Cobra Daytona coupes, but it was his relationship with Clark that sticks in his mind. He grew very close to the Scot, the two men sharing outside interests and both coming from farming backgrounds, competing in the R.A.C. Championship and at Sebring driving the famous Lotus-Cortinas. "There's one rumour I'd like to dispel." Sears asured us, "There was no way in which Jim ever got a better car than mine. I did most of the testing and there was never any fraction of difference between his car and mine. They were as identical as it was possible to be." Sears also drove the big Ford V8-powered Lotus 30 in a lot of test sessions—"on one occasion I was actually quicker than Clark" —and also in a race at Silverstone, but it was in a development of this car that he was involved in the accident which finished his career.

"I was testing the Lotus 40 at Silverstone, the 5.3-litre car that Richie Ginther once described as a Lotus 30 with ten more mistakes. I lost control at Abbey Curve, rolling the car and ending up trapped underneath it with my left forearm trapped beneath the roll bar." Sears was extricated from the wreckage and rushed to hospital where he stayed for three months undergoing serious bone and skin grafting, for he had been badly scalded down one side of his body and had sustained a fractured vertebra in his neck. It wasn't until Autumn 1966 that he was fully recovered, but there was still an offer from Alan Mann for him to drive a 7-litre Ford Mk. 2 "any time he was ready".

"I decided that this was the time to stop," Sears reflects, "even though I did sneak down to Snetterton and gently had a couple of laps in the Alan Mann Ford. It was the best therapy I could have had; made me feel about ten years younger! But suddenly I realised I was nearly thirty-seven and had missed the best part of a full year. So I took the decision to stop, hard though it was."

But that burning passion for motor racing which had brought him back to the circuits after two nasty accidents meant that it was impossible for him to leave racing alone for long. "I just didn't want to sever my links with all the fascinating people I'd met over the years, so I got involved with the organisation of the London to Sydney Marathon." From then on his involvement with the organisational side of the sport mushroomed to the point where he now spends about two days each week either at RAC meetings or tending to the commercial side of Silverstone's activities. On the road his taste is practical and modest, driving as he does a 3-litre Capri, although he admits he'd like a Ghia model and keeps the ex-Coombs Ferrari 250GT0 for "quick blasts through the forests early on summer mornings!"

In closing, we asked Jack Sears whether he ever felt a tinge of sympathy when having to rule against drivers who feel they have received unjust treatment at the hands of the RAC. "Oh yes, in some cases", was his immediate reply. "Even though I'm bound to say that if most of the competitors today know as much about the organisational side as I did when I was a competitor, then they probably know next to nothing. I just used to arrive, race, and then go off home. It wasn't until I retired that I began to appreciate just how much offtrack activity was required to make a race meeting or rally possible." So today's competitors can take heart in some small way when they realise that there is at least one member of this country's motor racing administrative hierarchy who understands and appreciates their problems, particularly when he is someone as congenial and easily approachable as Jack Sears certainly is.