Happy Days

Singapore-born of an Australian mother and Scottish father in 1913, Ian F Connell competed in a considerable number of races and other competition events in an interesting variety of racing cars, both before and after the war. A short time ago I paid him a visit to chat about those days.

Connell’s father died when Ian was four and his mother and stepfather did not become regular motorists until they returned from the Far East for a spell in England, when her young son taught them how to double declutch on an Austin 12/4. On subsequent visits to England, and when they settled here, they had a series of cars such as Rovers, a Singer and a Wolseley 14.

Before going to Cambridge, Ian had been sent to Versailles to learn French and, with some money left to him by his father, he was able to buy a D-type MG Midget (GW 568). Finding that Montlhery was just down the road, he tended to spend much of his time there, driving the MG on the road circuit in the company of Mlle HeIle-Nice in her Bugatti, and meeting Capt George Eyston, who was nearly always out on the track chasing fresh records in a Panhard.

Whilst at Marlborough College, Ian had shared a study with Derek Hall who today is a great Frazer Nash ‘Chain Gang’ enthusiast. Together, they planned one day to enter the Monte Carlo Rally, writing for the entry forms and planning the route. This, and many visits to Brooklands as a spectator, sowed the seeds for Connell’s interest in motor sport.

Although the plans never came to fruition, Ian and Derek later entered a Singer Nine Le Mans (AYM 957) in the 1934 Alpine Trial, which was very ably tuned by a modest and helpful mechanic, Harry Spring, at whose London mews workshop members of the Cambridge University Automobile Club would assemble to get their cars hotted up, or to receive freely given advice, often working on their own cars under Spring’s watchful eye. It is nice to know that his expertise served him well when war broke out, for he attained senior officer rank. In the Trial Ian was notably successful, winning a coveted Glacier Cup, whereas the works Singers were in trouble as their carburettors had been tuned for high altitudes, but the steepest and most difficult timed climbs took place lower down.

During his three years reading engineering at Cambridge Ian took part in the trials and rallies of those days, first in the D-type MG (including the first Scottish Rally), then in the Singer, an L-type MG Magna belonging to Peggy Blathwayt (later to become Mrs Jim Elwes), an Austin Nippy belonging to her sister ‘Bumpy’, who married Peter Monkhouse, and so on.

Together with Kenneth Petter he even built, at their digs, a trials special, known as the WAGN, because it had a Wolseley engine in an Amilcar chassis, with GN chain transmission and a bullnosed Morris radiator. The body was constructed of plywood and Connell’s mother helped to build it. There was also Ian’s 1923 two-litre twin-cam Targa Florio Ballot (XF 2772) “which consumed more oil than petrol” but was used for some trials. Connell later bought, for a few pounds a Ford V8 coupe (JJ 1744), for trials work.

At Cambridge, Connell became treasurer of the CUAC, of which Hugh Conway was the energetic secretary. It was in one of Conway’s Ulster Austin 7s that Ian did his first Brooklands lappery, racing it over the Mountain circuit.

The last project as an undergraduate was the Le Mans 24 Hours of 1935, which regretfully covered the period of the final examinations for his engineering degree. Undeterred, Ian took as his co-driver Nevil Lloyd, who wrote humorous articles and books about motoring. They booked into an auberge where the proprietor asked to be taken for a ride on the circuit, so the Singer’s owner obliged. The flat-out speed along the Mulsanne Straight was about 75 mph, and it was embarrassing being passed by non-competing cars. In the race, alas, the flywheel came loose and the Singer retired. It did, however, survive an MCC one-hour Brooklands high speed trial at some 70 mph.

Connell now wanted something faster. The ERA had just appeared but it was more economical to have a special car built by the Vale Engineering Company, who made the Vale Specials at Maida Vale in London, hence their name. These were apt to be disregarded by purists as rather ‘boy racer’ cars, so I asked Connell why he went to this manufacturer. He said that he had shared an 1100cc Vale Special on an RAC Rally and been impressed with the good road holding which the low build ensured, and that he had also been impressed by the showing of a Vale Special in the Jersey sand races.

In any case, Coventry-Climax had offered to supply and service a 1.5-litre engine free, so the scheme went ahead. The engine was supercharged at 6/7Ib sq in with a twin-belt-driven No 224 Centric vane-type compressor, in conjunction with a compression ratio of 6.7:1, the blower sucking from a 46 mm Solex carburettor. Cam Gears steering was used, with a drag-link on each side to obviate a track rod, and a compact two-seater body was contrived. The inlet-over-exhaust valve Coventry-Climax engine had a massive three-bearing crankshaft with semi-circular webs, balanced and counter-balanced, and substantial con rods were used, machined all over and having ribbed big-end caps, and holes for oil feed to the little ends. The camshaft also ran in three bearings and was chain-driven. The cylinder head was of Whatmough formation, with a solid steel gasket, and was held down with 18 large studs. Cooling was carefully contrived, using a belt-driven water pump at the front of the engine, delivering via two inlets to the cylinder block, water exiting through four pipes into a manifold, to the radiator. The supercharger was on the offside and had its own oil-pump, with its vanes supplied from a separate half-gallon tank. Ignition was by a Scintilla magneto and both air-pressure and electric fuel-feed were fitted.

This power unit was installed in a standard Vale Special chassis, with the customary underslung chassis, normally used for the 8 hp car with the Triumph Super Seven engine. So the 1.5-litre Vale Special was a compact car, with a 7 ft wheelbase, crab-tracked by six inches, with a front track of 4 ft 5 in, in which Connell sat high in its cockpit. The four-speed gearbox had ratios of 14.0, 7.6, 5.2 and 3.8:1 and Ian ordered additional axle ratios of 4.5 and 4.1:1 Hydraulic brakes with 21 in drums were used and the fuel tank held 16 gallons. Twin sets of shock-absorbers damped the back axle. Vale Engineering had hoped to market similar cars at £625.

Connell found that this Vale Special was reasonably reliable, apart from some trouble with the exhaust valves, but that the front wheels flapped alarmingly, although road-clinging was very good. It was registered BXN 495 and raced at Donington, Brooklands and in trials and sprint events. On its first Brooklands appearance, Easter 1935, it lapped at 105.29 mph. Mrs Gordon Simpson (who later married Hugh Conway), whom Ian had known from his trials days, drove the green-painted Vale at Whitsun, going round at nearly 103 mph, and the owner lapped the Mountain circuit at 65.81 mph without either being placed. However, although going more slowly (101.43 on both flying laps, with a fine standing start lap at 89 mph), Connell was rewarded with second place behind Hector Dobbs’ Riley in the Long Handicap. In a later race it lapped at 106.42 mph but had no luck in the British Empire Trophy nor in the BRDC 500 Mile Race, cracking its head in the latter.

I asked what became of it. There had been plans to make it into a sprint car, with drilled chassis, but that came to naught, and it disappeared. That year Connell drove Evan Hughes’s Frazer Nash BMP 481 at Donington. Connell had been demonstrating Railton and MG cars for University Motors and when the new R-type MG Midget single-seater, with its revolutionary torsion-bar, all-independent suspension, was announced he was able to buy one for a reduced outlay. He thinks it was intended for George Eyston but when that driver was disinclined to get excited about it Connell acquired it. Brand new, it was fetched from the factory at Abingdon. Having almost the same engine as the Q-type MG and being heavier, it did not have a particularly impressive performance.

All I can say is that with its soft suspension it was very comfortable to race,” says Connell, remembering the odd way in which the body tilted on corners. It was given the twin-cam cylinder head devised by Michael McEvoy and Laurence pomeroy but, as this was made of bronze, the weight differential was not improved! A valve broke at Shelsley Walsh and the MG retired at Donington.

Ian was very friendly with the Evans family, and when they took over the team of NE Magnettes entered by the MG Car Company in the 1935 TT on the Ards circuit, he was entered as spare driver to Dennis Evans. He practised on the circuit but did not get a drive in the race. However, he purchased one of the cars and ran it very successfully in speed trials and hillclimbs.

Clearly, something had to be done. The solution was to purchase a 2.6-litre Monza Alfa Romeo. It was the car Penn Hughes and then Dr Benjafield had raced, a car difficult to handle on the outer-circuit; to effect a cure the rear dumb-irons had been lead-filled, although Connell took the lead out. He had Irish races in mind for the Alfa, a car “not easy to drive but admirable nevertheless”. It was matched by a road-going 2.3-litre four-seater supplied by that honest motor-dealer in Pembridge Villas, London W11, ‘Jolly Jack’ Bartlett. This was a car (HY 5053) which the great engine designer, Roy Fedden, had as part of the negotiations by Alfa Romeo for making Bristol aero engines in Italy. It was a very enjoyable form of fast transport and in this car Ian was gonged by the local police for considerably exceeding the 30 mph speed limit, which contributed to losing his driving licence for a month for speeding at 40 mph in a borrowed Fiat 500 on the way to Donington.

When the Monza had a back axle problem at Donington and Ian thought to repair it by using parts from his road-equipped 2.3, he discovered that whereas the latter had a two-star differential, the former had a four-star…

Nevertheless, there was some compensation when, partnered by Kenneth Evans, Connell finished the 1936 Donington Grand Prix in the Monza, and he also drove it in several Irish races including winning the unlimited class in the Leinster Trophy in pouring rain. His next move was to acquire an ERA, R6B, bought from his friend Douglas Briault, who had had an R-type MG at the same time as Ian. He tried it out in the Swedish Winter GP, although he had not heard of spiked ice-tyres or how to tune the engine for a cold climate. Hounslow (his mechanic) went with the car on a cargo boat while Connell travelled by air, until a forced landing put him on a train. On arrival, Björnstad showed them where to get spikes put into the tyres. These were shorter than his, which was just as well as a rear wheel ran over Connell’s foot with painful results, but there were carburation problems due to the wrong fuel having been supplied. The engine behaved well in temperatures of minus 16 degrees Celsius. Connell found that racing on ice was rather like motor-boating (he was a keen sailing man) or skiing, as the brakes were virtually useless and corners had to be broadsided on the throttle. When you lifted off, the car was quickly slowed by the studded tyres.

In the race Connell came second to Björnstad’s 2.6 Alfa Romeo, and took another second and a fifth place in further races before leaving Stockholm. (I used to see spiked tyres hanging up in T&T’s premises at Brooklands, and wondered what on earth they were for!)

The ERA then gave Connell a second place in an Easter 1937 Mountain handicap at Brooklands and finished in the British Empire Trophy race. But in the Crystal Palace Coronation Trophy the SU piston-chamber came off and punctured the oil-tank. In the Campbell Trophy race at Brooklands it finished, but was flagged-off, and the blower-drive sheared during the Nuffield Trophy race at Donington. However, Connell scored a good second place behind Bira in R2B in the London GP at the Palace. He had now joined Peter Monkhouse as a director of the Monaco Motor & Engineering Co at Watford and was able to modify R6B, moving the radiator forward so that twin Arnott superchargers could be accommodated at the front of the engine. Alas, on the try-out in the CP Cup race, the oil-tank supplying them burst, ruining the blowers, and in the JCC 200 Mile Donington race a piston broke and there was further blower trouble in the CP Imperial Trophy race. The car was fifth in its class at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, but in the GP at Donington there was blower failure after one lap.

On the whole Connell was not very impressed with the modifications to the ERA. There had been multiple problems and the pre-selector gearbox, with the bottom-gear band forming the clutch, (7.5:1 at Stockholm) was good for a limited number of racing starts, so frequent overhauls were required. However, Connell had been able to buy R1A for Björnstad, who won first time out in it at Turin; it was later re-acquired by Ian and sold to Bill Humphreys. Memory recalls speeds in the gears of 77, 88, 105 and 120 mph at 6000 rpm, with a 4.25:1 axle-ratio. There was also a race at Angouleme in a K3 MG Magnette, which Monaco had converted to a double-reduction back-axle. Ian was leading when the fuel tank split.

For 1938 the Jamieson supercharger was replaced on Connell’s ERA and it rewarded its owner with FTD and a new course-record of 25.67s at the Inter-Varsity speed trials at Syston Park. But lap 13 proved unlucky in the BE Trophy race at Donington, when a piston broke. The car was then raced at Cork in Ireland but after a couple of laps the engine packed up and, back home, faulty air-pressure feed caused the ERA to be flagged off in the JCC International Trophy race at Brooklands. As some compensation, Connell was to take a second and a third at Donington, behind Tony Rolt in R5B, and two seventh places, at the Palace and Shelsley. Then, sharing R6B with Kenneth Evans, they were sixth in the Nuffield Trophy race, but the Appleton Special was too much for the ERA at the 1938 Poole speed trials. Piston trouble put it out of the BRDC Road Race at Brooklands and it stopped in clouds of steam in the Siam Trophy race, after having done better at the Palace. Peter Monkhouse then joined Ian as co-driver in the Donington GP, won by Nuvolari for Auto Union, and they came in eighth. I asked if it wasn’t alarming to have the German cars coming up so fast, but Ian said you could look back after Starkey’s corner and judge about where you would need to pull over.

Somewhat disillusioned by his ERA, Ian sold it to Mrs Hall-Smith, for whom Robin Hanson drove. His next racing car was the exciting four-litre Darracq (or Talbot-Lago, EUR 3) which was to become so well-known. It was the car which Connell had shared with Tom Lace in the 1938 Donington TT, where it was nearly disqualified by the scrutineer as the wheelbase on one side was half an inch under the minimum allowance but, on the other side, was half an inch over. It was allowed to compete, and they came home fifth overall, third in class. It was at RR Jackson’s premises at Brooklands afterwards, where Ian acquired it. Hopeless on the Campbell circuit, possibly due to the track deformity incurred in a terrible crash in the 1938 International Trophy race, the Darracq could be driven flat-out all round Brooklands outer circuit, coming down the banking to avoid the notorious bump after the members’ bridge unless other cars prevented this. On the Mountain circuit the Bendix brakes were a thought troublesome. It took the sports-car record at Shelsley Walsh and was driven by Connell in that ‘Fastest Sports Car’ contest which John Dugdale of The Autocar had persuaded Percy Bradley to hold at Brooklands, after Ian had issued his challenge in a letter to that paper, the winner to be the fastest in two races, over the Campbell and Mountain circuits. The Darracq was third in the former, second in the latter, after outaccelerating the winning Delahaye at the start. Count Heydon, who entered the 3.5-litre Delahaye had bet Ian a dinner, if he beat it, but hadn’t said that Arthur Dobson would be driving it! It won by 10.4 sec on the overall timing, and Heydon enjoyed his dinner at the Berkeley Arms Hotel near Heathrow afterwards. In compensation, Ian was invited to drive the Delahaye with Rob Walker in the forthcoming Le Mans 24 Hours, in which they finished eighth. Before that, the Darracq had won a Long Handicap at Brooklands’ Easter Meeting, lapping at 116.36 mph (Walker, in the Count’s Delahaye, lapped at 111.42) with a standing start lap at just over 100 mph, had then finished second in a Mountain race (best lap 70.43 mph) in spite of a re-handicap, was second in the next of these races, twice equalling its previous best lap, and concluded its Easter holiday with a win in another outer circuit race, its lap speed up to 122.67 mph, the first lap clocked at 105.07. No wonder Connell issued that challenge! Indeed, although out handicapped towards the end of 1939, the blue, silver-wheeled Darracq eventually lapped the outer-circuit at 129.36 mph, the Mountain course at 72.37 and the Campbell circuit at 66.68, and much of this lappery was notably consistent. Connell was awarded the 1939 BARC Track Gold Star, and had been elected a member of the BRDC. And that was it, “for the duration”.

After serving as an RASC workshop officer with the 7th Armoured Division in the war, Ian resumed his motor racing. What he did was to

buy the famous ERA ‘Remus’ from Tony RoIt and St John Horsfall, which he towed to Geneva behind a Wolseley 14 saloon on a rigid tow-bar, possible because Freddie Dixon had fitted a non-pre-selector Riley gearbox, taking a couple of friends and his wife as ‘mechanics’. (Usually he used an old Ford van, which he often drove himself.)

In the GP des Nations at Geneva, R5B managed seventh in its heat, behind Mays in R4D and in front of Gerard in R14B. It was all high adventure, being their first post-war continental GP for many of the English competitors. In the final the gearlever broke off and the car retired. It was then found that the Wolseley could not tow the ERA up the Alpine pass out of Switzerland, so it was driven to the French frontier, where it was welcomed with open arms at the customs post. Was this the longest road run by an ERA in full racing trim?

Connell next ran ‘Remus’ at the Brighton speed trials and was 10th, Mays setting FTD in R4D, 4.19s quicker. Ian’s then-wife Eve sportingly had a go, but was 4.12s slower than her husband. At Prescott and Shelsley R5B was fifth, and at the Cofton Hackett speed trials was a mere 0.8s from the course record set by Gerard’s R14B. At the end of the 1946 season Connell sold the ERA to Peter Bell, for John Bolster to race. That was not quite his last dice in one of these cars, as he shared R10B with Peter Whitehead in the 1947 French GP at Lyons, where they came in seventh.

Then came an arrangement with Raymond Sommer for Connell and Kenneth Evans to drive Sommer’s 4CLT Maserati in continental events if they would provide a mechanic. Entries being restricted in those days, good starting money was offered, but some cars only just got away from the start; not quite as bad as Nevil Lloyd’s ‘Dud Czech’, who rushed to cash his starting money when the flag fell. Sommer is remembered as “a very generous person and a delightful chap”, who was most helpful to Ian and Kenneth when competing at Nice, Marseilles, Rheims, Pau and Albi. Here lan retired, stung by a wasp down his shirt front and needing ambulance treatment.

Back to sports cars, Ian drove with Dudley Folland in the 1948 Spa 24 Hours in the ex-Seaman (1936 TT) two-litre Aston Martin, prepared by John Wyer at Monaco. When leading after 21 hours, Connell took over but, with a full tank and mud on the road, he slid off into a ravine. Although the car was almost undamaged, the fuel tank had fractured and they retired. Due to confusion in the timing box, the works Aston Martin driven by Jock Horsfall had been shown on the leader board as lying first. So, to avoid any argument later, the two entrants had agreed that no matter who was given as the winner, they would split the prize money. Jock won and, being the gentleman that he was, kept the bargain.

The last race for this keen amateur racing driver was the Paris 12 Hours sports car race at Montlhery, in the same Aston Martin, again shared with Folland; they finished third, with the ageing car, behind Chinetti and Lord Selsdon’s Ferrari and the Delage of Louveau and Brunet. That was how enthusiastic amateurs raced before and just after the Second World War, a carefree age, never to return. Ian Connell can still recall an loM race which started in pouring rain, in spite of the drivers’ protests, for they had practised on dry roads. In the leading pack after a good start in his EM, he had no idea how wet tram lines would affect the car at over 120 mph as he came down the hill in Douglas in the company of Baron de Graffenreid (1500 cc Maserati) and turned onto the sea front.

I knew that many pre-war racing drivers took to flying, and I asked Connell whether he did. It transpired that he took lessons at Marshall’s in Cambridge on being demobilised from the army, in DH Tiger Moths, and subsequently flew from Elstree in the Auster from which the dismembered body of Setty had been disposed of over the sea — not,hasten to add, by Connell.

So to the road cars. I have found that racing drivers often go in for staid forms of motoring when away from the circuits. Connell proves the point, although emphasising that he had a very early twin-cam 1500 Alfa Romeo before the war, when he was up at Cambridge, apart from the MGs I have mentioned, and that he drove the Darracq on the road, “a fine way of curing a hangover!” There was also the aforesaid Ballot and the 2.3 Alfa Romeo. While with Monaco, Connell demonstrated anything from small MGs to a Studebaker President. Before he ever began to race Connell had bought a supercharged four-seater Super Sports Lea-Francis from a disreputable dealer, its tyre treads wafer thin, but with re-cut grooves, and the steering geometry suspect. It had three punctures on the way to Brighton but luckily had two spare wheels. Re-shod, Ian took it to Brooklands, paid his 10 bob, and began to lap the track, soon to learn what “expensive noises” meant, considerate as Robin Jackson was to fellow CUAC members. Cars were not permitted to undergraduates in his college, but this was overcome by keeping the car in Royston and using public transport to reach it. After the war there was a Renault Floride, which needed a sack of potatoes in the front to balance the rear engine, but was still unable safely to overtake lorries, whose drivers waved it on, if there was any sort of cross-wind. But Ian’s wife Pat liked it, because young men would admire the combination, although while it could get up a snowy hill when taking her daughter to school, it would be out of control when returning. A Mini van as a “going-to-work machine” needed a rubber glove over its distributor in wet weather, with the ignition-leads coming out of thumb and fingers, but a Triumph Vitesse served them well and was followed by a Fiat 125. Then, feeling that driving should again be enjoyable, Connell got an Alfa Romeo GT Junior, which at least reminded him of his one-time Monza. It ran a big-end on the M4 after an ‘expert’ Italian mechanic who “loved Alfas” had cleaned the oil-filter in a bath of petrol and the resulting disintegration wrecked the oilways. So a part-exchange was done for an Alfasud. That was followed by a Renault 5, a Ford Escort, two Citroen BXs and today this ex-racing driver has a Renault Clio, the only inexpensive car that could be found with power-assisted steering.

His racing is now something almost from another age, although it can be re-enacted to a lesser degree in today’s VSCC and historic car events. Asked how he could afford to compete in full-scale continental races, Ian Connell will tell you that after the war France was full of American cars stranded for want of new tyres. The ERA’s and Maserati’s rear wheels took the size of tyre these required and after having paid a token duty to take the racing covers through the customs, what was wrong with selling the discarded racing tyres at prevailing market prices? Happy days indeed! W B