Pat Appleyard interview

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Recognised across the rally world, number plate NUB120 became synonymous with Jaguar triumphs. We talk to the woman who guided a famous car to victory in the mountains

There aren’t so many number plates that spark instant recognition: VEV 1 & 2, DAD10, 911HUL, 100MPH. But mention NUB120 and “The Appleyards!” says anyone who knows British car history. That was the number and name carried by the most famous Jaguar XK120 of all, a car which for a 1950s generation flew the flag for British motor sporting success even before the C- and D-type carved the name Coventry forever into the Le Mans pitlane.

The scene of its glory was high in Europe’s mountains, on successive Alpine Trials, and in the cockpit were not one but two Appleyards – Ian and his wife Patricia. Ian died in 1998 but Pat, his co-driver during their greatest successes, is today a trim and active farmer in the Cotswolds. Ahead of XK70, the huge Shelsley Walsh gathering to celebrate 70 years of the legendary XK engine, we stopped in at her attractive honeyed stone farmhouse to talk mountains, maps and Alpine Cups.

But it would have been rude not to invite another guest – NUB120 itself, now a treasure of the Jaguar Heritage Trust since its competition days ended. We couldn’t claim it was a grand reunion to see Pat (now Pat Quinn) settle down in the same seat where more than 60 years ago she clung onto the paperwork and yelled orders at her husband, because the two have got together before thanks to her son Michael Quinn. A patron of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, he’s also involved with the Brighton run through the RAC and until recently was MD of the dealership which supplied Jaguars to the royals. Jaguar facts course through him. Oh, and he’s grandson of Sir William Lyons, founder of the marque.

That’s because his mother Pat is Sir William’s daughter, and she grew up surrounded by the Jaguar enterprise. That’s not what turned her on to cars, though.

“I wanted to farm when I left school,” she says, “but it came to nothing. Then someone invited us to Silverstone and I was like Toad of Toad Hall – I thought ‘this is for me! I want to race.’ I met Ian there and he said I’d better begin with rallying and he would help me. I joined him on some small rallies in Yorkshire and was terribly car-sick. But I battled on.

“Then Ian asked me to marry him,” Pat continues. “He said he had two ambitions: one was to win the Alpine Trial, the other was to marry me. I didn’t think twice – because I wanted to do the Alpine! In these days we’d have gone off and done the trial but then it was unheard of for an unmarried couple to do something like that.”

Being married to a keen co-driver was ideal for Ian, who had already done several Alpines, winning the coveted Coupe des Alpes in 1948 driving an SS100 – the family firm being a Jaguar dealership. That same year he also skied for Britain in the Olympics.

That Coupe was a real achievement. In the 1950s the Alpine Trial – or Criterium des Alpes – made headlines when rallying was an amateur sport and drivers thrashed their own cars over demanding passes.

Growing from pre-WWI endurance trials, the Alpine by the 1930s was a famous testing ground for man and machine. There was no overall winner – it was man against the Alps, and if you conquered those unsurfaced, precipitous passes without ending up in a ravine and also hit all control points on schedule, incurring not a single penalty point, you received that precious Alpine Cup.

In pre-war days British entrants flocked to the event: MGs, Rileys and Frazer Nashes abounded, and Talbots took the team prize in 1932 and ’34. After the war the Alpine added the word International, though still starting and finishing in the south of France after a 2000-mile detour via Italy and Switzerland’s toughest passes. Manufacturers paraded their successes in the press, advertisements and in the cinema newsreels. “Acknowledged to be the world’s most arduous speed trial” trumpeted Pathe’s clipped tones.

For Jaguar it was perfect. After stunning the world on its 1948 launch, the lithe 120 roadster was out to prove its credentials in racing, and adding rally triumphs would prove what a versatile and reliable machine it was.

Though it was Appleyard’s own car, NUB120 was one of six competition versions built at the works in 1950, with modified cylinder heads, special shocks, larger tanks and twin fuel pumps, in the alloy body of early cars. While the others went track or road racing, Appleyard was determined to prove NUB in the mountains with another Cup.

Timing on the Alpine was everything. Late or early at a time control meant a penalty point – and immediately your hopes of a Coupe went out of the window. Worse were the special tests, sometimes sprung on you by surprise, where you were hit with a penalty point for every 1/5th of a second you were out. The route book might give a 45kph average for the section, but on tortuous mountain roads with cobbles, rockfalls, ice, snow and local traffic, only brilliant driving would see you hit your marks.

But if the driver’s task was tough, the navigator’s was like juggling cats in a hurricane. Route books, maps and clocks, average speed figurings, fuel consumption, all had to be managed while giving calm and timely instructions to the person at the wheel – frequently in an open car with chill mountain-top air coursing through the cockpit. For four or five days, through the night, with the briefest snatches of rest. And Pat loved it.

“By now we’d done the Tulip [they lost by inches] and the RAC rally,” she says casually, “but that first Alpine was so exciting. We had all sorts of trouble: the brakes failed and I had carbon monoxide poisoning because the exhaust was coming into the cockpit until we switched to a side exhaust.”

Those drum brakes would be a regular bugbear until discs arrived, but this was the point of competing – to ferret out the weak points, and back at Browns Lane Bill Heynes’s team were learning all the time. Pat recalls the tall, dominating figure of Lofty England.

“Lofty was always a bit superior, very tied up with the racing. He put everyone in their place. He was incredibly sarcastic.

“We were testing the car for the public. Those drum brakes – we had to keep changing them. In fact we prayed for another Jaguar to crash so we could pinch their brakes. Then I had to sit on the old drums. And I had to carry two bricks because I wasn’t heavy enough for the minimum weight.

“We’d done reconnaissance,” Pat continues. “I’d marked the maps so I could call out the distances and shout “Lone tree coming up before a sharp right” or whatever. We had the whole route plotted. Ian would drive the special stages, but I’d drive road sections to give him a break.”

“We prayed for another Jaguar to crash so we could pinch their brakes. Then I had to sit on the old drums”

Did she get a break?

“I used to crawl down into the footwell for a rest. But we didn’t think about the four or five days driving. It’s different when you’re 20!”

Their impressive run of success began back in Leeds. “Ian was meticulous. One of the reasons for our success was his attention to detail. The car was prepared at the works but he went through everything. He was among the first semi-professionals, very serious about it. But once other people knew they had lost their Cup they used to have great fun; they’d stay up all night but we’d have to go to bed to be up early. I was disappointed about that. But it was the only way to do well.”

That first Alpine in 1950 took them through Monte Carlo, Cortina, Innsbruck, St Moritz – glamour venues for the wealthy, but where they spent mere minutes getting a precious time stamp on the roadbook. At the Cannes finish acceleration and braking tests knocked out more of the 120 starters, until only 38 survived. Seven had clean sheets and picked up Cups, among them the Appleyards. For the new car it was a triumph, and for the new bride, married a mere two months before, it was a thrill – and so were the parties.

“There were a lot of ex-RAF people who weren’t settling down in ordinary life and they treated the whole thing with Battle of Britain spirit. Raymond Baxter was one – a lot of journalists joined in the event. There was lots of joking – almost a wartime atmosphere. It did feel like an RAF mess.”

Was she treated differently in this mainly male world?

“On the event I felt no difference” she says crisply. “I was completely accepted. It didn’t occur to me to think about it. I don’t know why women make such a fuss these days.”

The pair went on to more fine results. Now with some works upgrades, the white 120 carried them to victory in the 1951 Tulip Rally, which also took them to the South of France. It was a favourite.

“The Monte got so much publicity – we were second in 1953 and people made a fuss about that but we felt the Tulip was more difficult. Almost the same roads as the Monte and long night sessions, yet nobody seemed to bother about it. The Dutch were so hospitable – fantastic parties. England was still struggling after the war so rally stops would be places like Butlins. We felt ashamed when the Tulip had all these flowers and lovely food.”

Back again on the Alpine, the Appleyards in 1951 again achieved perfect time sheets and a Cup. For 1952 there would also be an outright winner based on timed hillclimbs, but Appleyard played it safe, ending third but with a clean sheet, meaning they received the Holy Grail of rallying – a Gold Cup for three Alpine Cups in a row. Only two others managed it afterwards – Stirling Moss in 1954 and Jean Vinatier in 1971. But they were the first to achieve what many thought was impossible. After all, in 1949 the organisers gloated over an ideal result – just one perfect timesheet and one Alpine Cup.

In those grey and rationed days, Pat hoped to squeeze a holiday from their adventures.

“It was a novel thing to go to the South of France, so on the second Alpine I said ‘let’s have a few days in the sun’. We set off a few days before and halfway through France Ian said he wasn’t happy with the brakes. So we turned round, went back to Coventry, got Bill Heynes out of bed and they worked on the car all night. We got back just in time for the start, so bang went our holiday.”

Not all events were in the open NUB.

“On winter events we used a MkVII. We took [photographer] Klemantaski along one year but it was a bit annoying having a third person.”

On these tests of endurance it was up to competitors to fix problems.

“It was fantastic how people kept themselves going – that was half the fun. I remember Goff Imhof’s Allard throttle went and he got back by tying string to the linkage and pulling it with his hand out of the window. People would raid anything that went off the road. ‘Is your car still down that ditch? We’re going to get the dynamo from it!’ Another time we needed a repair at a remote garage.

‘I am very good mechanic,’ said the chap. But the job was terrible and Ian was furious. ‘Okay,’ the man said, ‘I am not very good mechanic…’ ”

To the enthusiast world the white NUB120 had become famous, but at Coventry the racing, especially the C-type’s victory in the 1951 and ‘53 Le Mans events, overshadowed their achievements

“Ian got a bit cross because he didn’t feel Jaguar appreciated what we did. They were so tied up with the racing; Le Mans was so glamorous we felt a bit out of it. We got a bit fed up. And Jaguar never gave us a car. We had to buy it.” 

Other changes coloured Pat’s attitude.

“It got crowded later on – the Sunbeam Talbot crowd arrived and there was more rivalry. In the early days everybody did it for fun, a relief [from post-war austerity]. Hardly anyone expected to win. Then it got more competitive among the different marques.”

“If someone went over the edge they’d roar with laughter. They were attuned to danger”

Was she ever scared?

“One held one’s breath occasionally but I don’t remember any stark fear. Ice and fog were alarming, but Ian was a brilliant driver. And he trusted me. People joked about the danger – back to that RAF atmosphere. If someone went over the edge they’d roar with laughter. They were attuned to danger, and they were missing it.”

By now tired, NUB was generously handed over to Jaguar and has remained a prized exhibit. The Appleyards took on another XK120 labelled RUB120, but… “It never felt the same. It had a steel body and didn’t behave as well and somehow it lacked the character.”

Still, RUB brought another Coupe in 1953, when their successes saw them leading the new European Rally Championship – until Norway.

“We took a MkVII with racing seats. Outside Oslo it was just tracks of dust and mud. Then Ian lost it on a corner and we went down a slope into some bushes. We didn’t get it out for two days – if not for that we’d have won the first championship. That was a disappointment. And by now Ian had to spend more time at work and the rallying faded.”

There was another adventure, though. Appleyards were Morris agents, so Ian and Pat decided to drive to Rome and back in a day in the new Minor 1000.

“We did it, just, only stopping to change over at petrol stations, foot down the whole time. But when we got back to London the Nuffield people said ‘we didn’t think you’d do it’. No publicity, no one knew about it, it’s not on record anywhere. That was about the end of our motoring. Ian and I parted soon after that.”

This was an era when women were scoring notable rallying success – Sheila van Damme, Ann Wisdom, Anne Hall and of course the great Pat Moss. It didn’t happen for this Pat.

“I drove some events after that but it was difficult to find a woman co-driver. I tried several. One turned up with her knitting, and another was sicker than I was. Then without Ian there wasn’t the same excitement.”

Michael, who keeps the car’s archive, brings a couple of small trophies. “That’s all I have,” Pat smiles. “I suppose Ian kept the Alpine Cups.”

She leafs through a scrapbook of their adventures in what even in the Fifties was being called ‘the famous NUB120’.

“That article irritated me – asking me about housework instead of rallying.”

She had better acknowledgement from Vogue. “I was photographed by [famous fashion photographer] Norman Parkinson as one of their Women of Achievement’. She points to a photo at the end of one Alpine: “Ah, those bonnet louvres were cut because it was overheating, and the strap is because the bonnet flew up, which was rather terrifying…”

Then the cuttings switch to farming, which Pat finally took up aged 50, yet she’s had much success showing her longhorn cattle and pedigree Cotswold sheep. She’s easily as proud of that as the rallying.

“But I wouldn’t have missed it. I loved the years with NUB. It’s amazing the Jaguar name is still at the forefront. My father would have been delighted.

“It was very exhilarating,” she muses, looking at photos of the two of them, beltless, sliding past another precipice. “I occasionally watch rallying on television and I can’t equate it with ours. Those uniforms and sponsor labels. We’d have refused to wear a helmet – too uncomfortable!

“Thank goodness it wasn’t today when sportsmen have to give accounts of every little detail. I’d have hated that.”

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