The story of the Connew GP car
When some people talk about their attitude to motor racing, they say they were ‘bitten by the bug’. Some talk of it as a religion. Others say it’s like a drug and there are times they’d be grateful for a cure. However it’s described, motor racing does breed obsessions.
The most extreme example of motor racing obsession I’ve ever come across struck Peter Connew one February morning in 1970. Peter had not, and has not, any particular interest in racing though he’s keen on motor cars. He’d been working as a draughtsman with a company making record players when a friend suggested he might like to join him on a trip to Monza to see the 1969 Grand Prix.
It sounded like a pleasant holiday but his company refused him leave. Not being too committed to record players he went anyway and got the sack. That was the race when Stewart, Rindt, Beltoise and McLaren battled to the line and just nineteen hundredths of a second separated them at the finish. It was the sort of finish which enthusiasts dream about but Peter, not being an enthusiast, was left cold. He does allow though that he was stirred by the sound of the Ferrari, Matra and BRM V12 engines.
Back home and jobless, a friend who was working for Team Surtees told him of a vacancy in the drawing office. He got the job and was set to work redesigning the inboard pick-up for the top rear wishbone of the Surtees TSA F5000 car. Quietly asking around, he even found out what an inboard pick-up for a top rear wisbone was! So far as Peter was concerned it was just another draughtsman’s job, like making drawings for a company making record players. What he learned about racing cars, he learned on the job with the help of those around him.
John Surtees had been making F5000 cars while driving for other teams but had decided to build a Surtees F1 car for himself. It was not to be ready until the British Grand Prix so, in the interim, he bought the ex-Bruce McLaren M7C, and this he had painted red with a broad white arrow on the nose.
It was a crisp, bright, day in February when the car was wheeled out ready to be taken to South Africa and the Team Surtees workforce stopped what they were doing to watch the car go. At that moment, Peter Connew’s life changed, “I looked at this car gleaming in the clear sunlight and thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I decided then and there that I had to build something like it.”
Most of us have these flashes of inspiration over a few pints in a pub and somehow never get round to doing anything about them. Connew’s decision was anyway ridiculous. He was twenty four years old and had no money apart from the £27 a week which his job brought in. He had no experience of motor racing, he’d only ever seen one race in his life, and he had no experience of original design.
It was silly to give the matter a second thought. Yet Peter Connew did build his F1 car and it raced in a World Championship Grand Prix. “In motor racing terms,” he says, “it was not a success. But in my terms, it was 100% successful. I set out to build a Grand Prix car and I built a Grand Prix car.”
Now most of us, if we became serious about wanting to build a racing car, might start off with something like a Formula Ford car. Starting off by designing and building an F1 car is like deciding to enter boxing by becoming a sparring partner for a ranked heavyweight contender. It’s not sensible, folk will advise against it, your own common sense will sound warning bells, and it is likely to involve pain, deep pain. Peter’s problem was he had no option but F1 or, just possibly F5000, because the only experience of motor racing he had was through Team Surtees and those were the categories Surtees was involved in. Perverse it may be, but Peter Connew would have found it harder to have designed an FF1600 car than an F1 car.
Having made his decision, Peter set down to draw his car. It was a basic British F1 Kit Car of the time, an aluminium monococque, inboard front springs in conjunction with rocker arms carried on a sub-frame, a Cosworth DFV engine and a Hewland gearbox. There were two distinctive features (there tended to be a couple of distinctive features on most British F1 Kit Cars) one was the water radiator mounted in the chisel nose at just five degrees from the horizontal and the other was the rear suspension which was by wide double wishbones but which initially did not have radius arms.
The radiator location worked, the chisel nose was not only attractive and distinctive, but the engine never had heating problems. The rear suspension, though, proved to be the Achilles’ heel of the design. It’s hard to prove positively at this distance, but the layout itself was probably not a very good idea but, worse, the structure itself was fragile. In order to produce a car from earned income, Peter had to keep costs down and so parts were fabricated rather than cast.
Some men have special personalities so when they have an idea or a dream, even one as impossible as Peter’s, others are inspired by the idea and want to help. With every such offer of help the impossible moves closer towards the possible until, as with the Connew, it becomes fact. People often call motor racing ‘glamorous’ or ‘exciting’ but only a perceptive few use the word ‘romantic’. Motor racing is the most romantic of sports, it may be super-competitive and hard-nosed but there’s also a soft side — brassy but with a broad sentimental streak.
Peter began without even a workshop but talking to a friend about his idea, before he even set pencil to paper, he found his first supporter. His friend gave Peter the use of his garage behind his house in Hornchurch and most of the early work, including the first monococque was completed there, though later the project moved to a lock-up in Chapel Heath. As Peter says, “If he hadn’t made his offer, the idea might never have got off the ground for I certainly didn’t have any space.” Throughout the history of the project there were to be dozens of such examples of help. Some of them, like that first one making the difference between continuation and cessation.
Design of the car had begun just after Peter’s vision, in March 1970, and it was ready to begin constructing that September. There were individual enthusiasts who had been caught up by the dream of building an F1 car and there were companies as well Avdel of Watford, supplied special rivets, Maurice Gomm rolled the outer skins of the monococques and ‘forgot’ to invoice, Girling provided brakes, Armstrong gave shock absorbers, TDC a set of exhaust pipes while Firestone pitched in with free tyres.
Of the many individuals who helped along the way, two stand out One is Roger Doran, a specialist joiner who threw himself wholeheartedly into the project, and who became chief mechanic, the other is Barry Boor, Peter’s cousin, who was a woodwork teacher.
There were many others, too, dozens of people who made a contribution. There was the chap who had some aluminium welding done and who was never seen again. There were a couple of lads from the Elephant and Castle, nick-named ‘Pinky’ and ‘Perky’, who’d turn up to several evenings a week to polish wheels and do other odd jobs, like so many others the just wanted to be involved in the dream. And there was Roger’s father, Ron Doran, who did the welding but who did not go to the races. Ron also started a supporters’ club which attracted a couple of hundred members who received a news sheet.
The three at the centre of the project had skills related to the job in hand but not necessarily the actual skills required. Like many craft teachers, Barry is adaptable and was able to learn how to work in fibreglass. He made the bodywork and this one area alone illustrates the problems the team faced. The group had become a team.
Before he could begin, Barry first had to learn how to do the job. This took time as inevitably, he made mistakes. Then, he hadn’t the experience to know the short cuts and what he could legitimately get away with. The result was fibreglass work which took a long time to create, which was beautifully finished (actually better finished than the job, at the time, required) but which was thicker and heavier than it need have been. The second or third shell he might have attempted would probably have been right, but the chance never came. Similarly, Peter had things done the way Team Surtees did them, while lacking the man-power and equipment.
Peter, Roger, Ron and Barry laboured in the evenings, after they had finished their day jobs, and all through the weekends. Wednesday evening, however, was a rest period. The initial aim was to be at Kyalami in March 1971, but that objective was soon put back a couple of months, to Monaco, and so on. As it happens, it was no bad thing that everything took much longer than the little group had expected in their first flush of optimism, that way the developement kept pace with cash coming in One set-back was a change in the regulations relating to materials used in construction. The monococque of Connew PC1 was discarded after completion, for it had been made from 18 gauge L72 aluminium; PC2 was constructed from 16 gauge NS4 aluminium.
Barry Boor remembers, “We would build from component to component. It was a big deal when we got the wheels, when we got the gearbox and so on.”
Barry left his teaching job and got a temporary job as a clerk with the Co-op funeral service. The official hours were slightly longer but there was no commitment, and, besides, there was constant access to a telephone. Peter left Surtees to work full-time in the project and then came up against the problem of fine machining of components. The team had a second hand lathe in its lock-up garage but it was not up to serious work. Peter solved the problem by taking a job with an engineering firm and so was in daily contact with people who’d do favours, ‘homework’ or ‘foreigners’.
Word was getting around about the project. ‘Autosport’ ran a small item on the project and, anyway, motor racing people gossip like no other people. Visitors dropped by among them Howden Ganley and Gerry Birrell. A groundswell grew of support and good will Heads said that the task was hopeless but hearts wanted a different result. An F1 car built in a lock-up garage is unlikely but if, just if it worked and if it worked well enough to score a win or even a place, well, that would be Boys Own Paper time. Motor racing is essentially a romantic sport.
Peter’s own image underwent something of a change. He certainly wasn’t “ex -record player draughtsman” any more, he was “ex-Surtees designer”. There was some suspicion that perhaps the car would turn out to be a Surtees copy and/or to have some illicitly gained ex-Surtees components. In the event, nothing of the sort occured. The front suspension was along Surtees lines but the rear followed Ralph Bellamy’s thinking on the McLaren M14 with a degree of rising rate springing.
The public’s first opportunity to see the car came in January 1972 when PC1 appeared on ‘The Show Boat’ (the racing car show held on a Townsend Thomson ferry) It was fitted with a dummy engine and gearbox and borrowed wheels and was still not 100% finished in detail but it attracted a great deal of favourable comment. Motoring News said it was one project which must not be allowed to rot in its workshop.
Brian Kreisky, now the Video Vision man, was running a management company at the time and he arranged a deal whereby Francois Migault would pay £10.000 for five races starting with the Monaco GP. Connew returned from a meeting in Paris with £2,000 in francs. There were currency restrictions at the time so the team spent a busy time changing 300 franc bundles at all the neighbourhood banks.
McLaren had a second hand DFV for sale at £3,250 Peter arrived with £1,000 to secure it and Phil Kerr, who was well aware of the project, immediately knocked £500 from the asking price and told him to take it away, he’d trust Peter to pay the rest when he could. Everybody was rooting for the little outfit.
By taking the front passenger seat out of his car, Peter got the engine home, and Roger and Barry left their jobs to concentrate on the project full-time. It was not ready in time for Monaco but the French race seemed possible. A week beforehand, Francois Migault drove over from France with a Ford D300 truck which was hastily converted into a transporter while work continued on the car itself.
On the Saturday of the week before the race, Barry got married. After the reception, Peter and Roger went back to work and the happy couple set off on their honeymoon. Barry held out until lunch time the next day and decided he could not leave them any longer. Leaving his bride of less than 24 hours, he returned to the lock-up garage. The marriage did not endure.
By working around the clock the team completed PC2 by 1 a.m. on the Tuesday morning, then snatched some sleep before heading to Southampton en route to Clemont-Ferrand. In the middle of France the truck’s engine gave up the ghost. Connew persuaded Migault not to make alternative arrangements but to give the race a miss and head the sixty miles south to the Frenchman’s home town of Le Mans where it was possible to shake the car down on the Bugatti circuit. It had not, after all, even turned a wheel under its own power and it was asking rather a lot to expect it to qualify for the race.
As the car set off on its first lap a fault was immediately apparent. The buffeting of the drive across France had caused a rear wishbone to bend. It was a case of more all-nighters to ready it for Brands Hatch.
Ifs easy to write a brief sentence like that, but it represents gut-wrenching disappointment and day in, day out, of hard work, snatched meals, snatched sleep, snatched social and family life.
The team managed to get in some testing at Goodwood and Snetterton but the engine refused to run for very long. Later, in Austria a friendly mechanic from a rival team pointed out that the fuel lines had not been plumbed in correctly. It was a wonder the car ever ran at all.
The first practice session for the British Grand Prix saw Migault put in just a few laps. He was the slowest man on the circuit, three seconds adrift from Pescarolo’s Williams, but within eight seconds of Fittipaldi’s Lotus which took pole. The lack of test miles soon revealed more faults, the Connew-designed magnesium rear wheels began to shear from their hubs and the car began to sag on its rear springs.
It was back to the workshop for another all-nighter. A police escort was arranged to get them to the circuit in time for final practice but as they pushed the car out to the truck. Roger noticed that a rear upright had cracked.
“When something like that happens,” says Roger. “the feeling is indescribable, soul destroying. But then there is always the next race and the belief that everything will be alright then. All I can say is that I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world. As an enthusiast, it gave me a chance to get close to Grand Prix racing in a unique way.”
Migault had no entry for the German GP but was confident he could talk his way in. The truck duly arrived at the Nurburbring and was refused admission. The members of the team had not a pass among them but their Frinch truck driver was a resourceful fellow who barged his way in. The other teams were happy to allow the Connew to practice (quite a number of 1986 F1 people were there in 1972) but the organisers were adamant that Migault had insufficient expenence.
The team made it to the start of the Austrian Grand Prix though the car blotted its copy book in practice when the oil tank leaked oil. Not having the facilities to fabricate a tank from aluminium, Barry had made it from fibreglass and he had made the skin too thin.
Still, Barry remembers the joy of standing by the car in the pits and having people like Colin Chapman come up to give it the once-over. They were there in the big time, rubbing shoulders with legends of the sport!
Migault set himself a 9.000 rpm limit in order to conserve the engine but despite this self-imposed handicap, still made the grid. He was last on the line-up, three seconds adrift from Beuttler’s March but within six seconds of Fittipaldi’s pole-winning time. The Connew was not exactly taking the world by storm but at least it was on the grid.
During the race it circulated at the rear but retirements promoted it to 17th place. On lap 22 a rear suspension pick-up point broke but fortunately it was on the start/finish straight and though it weaved crazily, Migault brought it to a halt, undamaged.
Although it had not been an auspicious debut and clearly the car was destined never to do well, Barry Boor’s enthusiasm remains un-dimmed. He calculates that had the car kept going, even without overtaking anything else, it would have finished tenth and that would have been good enough to attract more sponsorship which would have enabled a desperately needed test programme. With a bit of money, a bit of testing. a bit of luck… Barry still holds to the dream.
Next on the calender was the Rothmans 50,000 Formula Libre event which had a total purse of $50,000. It was perhaps the team’s best chance of establishing its credibility and earning some money. During the first practice session, Migault circulated slowly, on the wrong side of the cut for the main race. This time the car had electrical problems. During the second practice session, a cylinder liner cracked and the car was out. Migault called it a day.
Brands Hatch ran a ‘Tribute to Fittipaldi’ combined F1/F5000 event at the end of the season and David Purley hired the Connew by paying for an engine re-build. For once things seemed to be going well, though Purley was not amused to find a screw driver lodged between his pedals. For once, the Connew was not quite last on the grid, the F5000 cars of Lunger and Williamson were behind, but Purley’s best time was a full 10 seconds slower than Fatipaldi’s pole-winning time. Fittipaldi was two seconds quicker than he had been in practice for the British GP but Purley was half a second slower then Migault had been. The team was not making progress.
John Webb had promised a bonus of a thousand pounds if the Connew put on a good show. Despite all the disappointments, everyone still wanted the Connew to succeed.
Purley had insisted on an ignition ‘kill’ switch being fitted to the steering wheel. On his warm-up lap one of the wires came loose and the engine died. It would have been the work of a moment to rectify but the problem took too long to locate and the car was scratched. When Purley was asked about the car many years later, he refused to be critical, though he clearly did not have the happiest memories at his race. Like everyone else, he was full of admiration for what the team set out to do.
So far as F1 was concerned. that was the final straw. The team was flat broke and even had to write a cheque for the 12 1/2p toll through the Dartford Tunnel.
Barry Boor took his wife off to Wales. Roger Doran went back to joinery and later drove Superkarts as a hobby.
John Webb generously sent a cheque for £600 which kept Peter afloat. The engine was sold to Tom Wheatcroft and when Peter went back to McLaren to pay off the outstanding debt. Phil Kerr knocked a further hundred pounds off, ‘for cash’.
The Connew appeared a couple of times in 1973, converted to F5000 with a Chevrolet engine provided by Pierre Soukry, a Swiss amateur. It did not shine but then the only testing it ever got was during practice for races. Tony Trimmer was at the wheel when, at Brands Hatch, a rear damper gave way and the rnonococque was dented in the ensuing shunt. Not even Trimmer had made the car go well and, with the crash, Connew knew the end of the road had come and so finally he foresook his dream.
The car has since lay in pieces in Peter Connew’s garden, together with the discarded tub for PC1. Both Barry Boor and Roger Doran remember their involvement as one of the high points of their lives, for Barry it is the high point. Peter accepts it was a failure in strict motor racing terms, but says his dream was to build a Grand Prix car and he fulfilled that dream. He still keeps in touch with many of the people who joined him in the dream and will occasionally turnup for practice at the British Grand Prix.
One day, perhaps, he’ll fit all the parts together again. If he does so, the car will be painted the same shade of red as John Surtees’ McLaren M7C as it was wheeled out of the workshop one crisp, clear, day in February, 1970, when it caught the sunlight and one man’s imagination. – M.L.