Torque like an Egyptian
Giles Chapman talks to the people who created Egypt's only Le Mans contender - The Phoenix
For Raymond and Neville Flower, and other colonials who treated Egypt as home, life would never be the same after 1956. Gamal Abdel Nasser had seized the Suez Canal and, as Britain and France declared him a tyrant, he sequestrated their assets in his country.
The fact that the two brothers were trying to establish the country on the international motor racing scene stood for nought.
"Nasser wasn't very nasty to the British," grins Raymond, "just firm. Like all British subjects, we received orders to leave."
I tracked them down in Cannes last November 40 years to the month since they quit Egypt. Raymond, 75, lives in an Italian castle and writes books; Neville, 70 and an Egyptologist, lives in the south of France.
Their father Edmund, recuperating from illness in Egypt, had set up his own Cairo Motor Company in 1908, selling British cars like Rover and Napier. Flower worked his contacts assiduously, badgering the boss of Ford's Manchester plant until he granted him the Ford franchise for Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Syria and Cyprus.
During the war Raymond was handed the reins, while afterwards Neville did a year's engineering at Rolls-Royce, returning in 1947 to become EAST Co's technical director... and clutching the lucrative Rolls and Bentley franchise for the entire Middle East. By 1951 Cairo was Rolls's largest export market, and the Flower brothers lived like playboys. Neville opened a nightclub in Antibes where Errol Flynn was a regular. Raymond, meanwhile, leaving the grubby business of assembling kit-form Austin A40s and Morris lorries to his faithful managers, went motor racing.
In 1949 he failed to finish the Alpine Rally in a Riley Roadster. Undeterred, he took part in the next six Alpines, but fared better in Ireland's Tourist Trophy. In a tuned MG TD, with George Phillips, he won the production car class in 1953, and again in 1954 with Ernest McMillen and a Porsche 356. "My success was in keeping four wheels on the track and lolloping round," he says. In 1955, in a Porsche RS100, he was part of the infamous Deer's Leap pile-up which spelt the end of racing at Dundrod.
The good times, however, were to end. First, Cairo Motors and EAST Co's HQ was razed by a fire in the Cairo riots of January 1952, and no sooner had they been rebuilt than, in July, Nasser swept to power on a tide of Egyptian nationalism. Charismatic and clever, he quickly deposed King Farouk and vowed to stem the rising poverty of the country's underclasses and, of course, the ballooning wealth of the privileged, including what he saw as the Imperialist British.
Car imports were banned. "But parts were still allowed in so we could assemble them," says Raymond. "We had 300 staff and we had to keep them busy. To me it was like a large family I can't remember how many circumcisions I was invited to attend."
The genesis of what was to become Egypt's first and last Le Mans contender was just as painful.
At London racing drivers' hangout The Steering Wheel Club, Raymond had met Gordon Bedson, the designer of the Kieft sports-racing cars, and persuaded him to design a simple tubular chassis to take imported Morris Minor bits. With a hand-beaten steel body this made a passable small sportscar, which Raymond christened the Phoenix Flamebird. A few dozen were sold.
But Bedson had racing in his blood... He also schemed a two-seater sports-racer for Raymond, called the Phoenix 2SR6 (sometimes titled SR150 in press references at the time). "I wanted a Maserati engine but Gordon suggested a 2-litre Connaught. Brian Lister made the chassis and then we built the car in Alexandria." Lister remembers sending a chassis to Egypt in 1955, the early Lister-Bristol-type with ladder frame, equal front wishbones and de Dion rear. "There was some talk of production under licence," he recalls, "but I never thought it would get off the ground."
Contemporary press references to the project detail a Turner engine, which was based on the Lea-Francis block, as was the later Connaught engine; this may explain the differing recollections of the power source. Certainly one of the people involved, Fitzroy Somerset, now Lord Raglan, remembers it being a 2-litre Turner. "I was a friend of Raymond Flower and I went out to Cairo for a holiday in the winter of 1955. I actually designed the Phoenix body, using heavy wire as formers with alloy panels. But someone else added a sort of TR2 nose to it and rather spoiled it."
Press photos of a model of the Phoenix show streamlined, recessed headlamps, whereas the built car had conventional projecting units; yet it remains an elegant shape. "Very conventional for the time," says a modest Raglan now, "but it looked alright. Nice car to drive, too."
Tested around Cairo, the two-seater managed 80mph on the streets, in a novel hue to improve its chances of a Le Mans entry for 1956. "I'd never have got a Le Mans place if it hadn't been the Egyptian 'national car'. Egypt didn't have a racing colour so we thought we'd give it one: we chose purple," says Flower. "We were about to ship it back to Gordon Bed set's team in Wolverhampton for tweaks when Nasser took the Suez canal. So we called it the Nasserati!
"But now, because of Suez, there was absolutely no way the French would let it in; I got a polite postcard from the ACO saying they'd be happy to accept it another time! So we took it on to Reims, but there the car cooked a piston in practice. That was the end, really".
This was the Reims 12hr race in July 1956. Lord Raglan went as mechanic, at this period of political passion. "We practiced, but there was an engine problem, even talk of sabotage — sugar or sand in the tank." By August 1956, both brothers had left Egypt for the tranquility of Cannes. "We just had to lock up and go, leaving the lads with 200 Morris commercials to assemble," sighs Neville.
With them went plans for a car that could have put the ordinary Egyptian on wheels, the Phoenix Frisky microcar. It later surfaced as the Meadows Frisky and enjoyed sporadic production in Britain, its brief popularity, ironically, due to the Suez-inspired fuel crisis. Gordon Bedson designed its chassis while Giovanni Michelotti styled it. Raglan even raced one, turning the three-wheeler over early on. But the Frisky was more important in introducing Neville to Michelotti. soon became the designer's agent, a partnership that gave birth to such designs as the Triumph Herald, Spitfire, 2000, TR4 and Stag, BMW 700 and 1800 and the Alpine A110.
And what, I wondered, did Raymond think of old Nasser after all the trouble he'd caused him? "Well," he says contemplatively, "he made his people proud to be Egyptian. He gave them an identity."
And what of the Phoenix itself? Disappeared into mythology, as befits a project which was, says Lord Raglan, "really a jeu d'esprit".