LEC's 15 minutes of F1 fame – a fridge too far

The Lec Formula 1 team epitomised the cliche of British pluck, yet David Purley's Bognor Regis-based outfit showed unlikely promise – almost immediately, as Nick Phillips recalls

David Purley in Lec Formula 1 car

David Purley on track at Jarama '77 in the Lec-Ford

Grand Prix Photo

How do you put together a new Formula One car in Bognor Regis, with an assembly team switched from making refrigerators, and expect anything but trouble? Well, the Lec CRP1 was the result of just such a chain of events and it led its first GP!

To a race fan in the 1970s, the name Lec was not only a very well-known fridge brand, but was also synonymous with one of Britain’s true motorsport heroes, David Purley, whose family ran the company. The Lec F1 car was his most ambitious project, and it effectively finished his racing career.

Purley was a quick and famously brave racer who had twice tried to break into F1 before. In 1973, he entered a March under the Lec banner in five grands prix, starting four and achieving a best finish of ninth in Italy, but that was insignificant compared with his courageous bid to save Roger Williamson from burning to death at Zandvoort.

After an unsuccessful effort to qualify a Token at the 1974 British GP, Purley concentrated on Formula 5000 for two years, winning the British title in a Chevron in ’76. By this time he was looking at building a new car of his own and turned to Mike Pilbeam for a design. Pilbeam’s Formula One track record included work for BRM and Lotus. He’d then set up on his own and recently designed Formula Atlantic and Formula Two cars for Tom Wheatcroft. As Pilbeam recalls, it was conversations between Wheatcroft and Purley that brought him on board.

From the archive

Originally, Pilbeam set to work on an F5000 design and was just starting to worry whether the project was going ahead at all, when Purley contacted him: “Suddenly David came along and said, ‘I’ve got a little bit of finance and we’re going to do Formula One.’ So the F5000 car became an F1 car and was fairly – completely – different.”

With Pilbeam based in Lincolnshire and Lec down in Bognor Regis, there were a few logistical problems, Mike remembers: “The drawings went mainly by post. On odd occasions, when there was a bit of a panic on, David would come up in his plane and fetch me down there.”

Pilbeam is harsh on himself when he describes the Lec thus: “It was okay. No worse than most of them that were around.

“It was relatively conventional because I knew the circumstances in which it was being made. Basically, it was built by a bunch of guys the majority of whom had come straight out of the Lec fridge factory. They did extremely well. The team running it [led by Mike Earle] were motor racing people, but the people building it were just good fabricators and machinists and so on.”

The CRP1 (CRP were Purley’s supportive father’s initials) made its debut at the Race of Champions, where it finished an encouraging sixth. Then it was off to Spain for the first European grand prix of the year. Various problems meant it was one of six cars that didn’t qualify, though a lap from the untimed session would have got it in.

The journey back, as described by Pilbeam, gives a vivid picture of life with Purley: “There were four of us in his little four-seater aeroplane and a fuel pipe broke. We had to stay the night at Biarritz while a mechanic brazed it up. David said it would be okay.

“Almost as soon as we were in the air it broke again, so not only was it only running on four or five cylinders, it was also using fuel at a frightening rate. We ended up crossing the Channel at about 50 feet, looking at all the ships, trying to decide which one we’d swim for. David thought it was a great joke, made his weekend, really. He liked to be on the edge with everything.”

1977 Belgian Grand Prix

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Next up was Zolder and the Belgian GP. This time Purley qualified 20th of 26 starters and 32 entrants. It was wet for the race and he immediately made progress through the field. Even as the track dried, the Lec continued to climb the lap chart, and thanks to a relatively late stop to swap to slicks, enjoyed that brief moment of glory.

Pilbeam is somewhat dismissive of that, but is still proud of the way the Lec performed during its brief grand prix career. “That was a bit of a freak occasion,” he says. “It led a lap, but that was down to pitstops. But we did well to qualify it regularly. Aerodynamically, it was substantially better than some of the cars that went before it. We were looking to retain a good deal of aero grip even when the car was at a bit of an angle in a corner. In those days, most of the cars actually lost most of their downforce aero grip as soon as you got a bit of yaw angle on. We did a bit of good work in that area and I think that was why it was a very nice-handling car.

“The season was quite good, despite various people trying to stop us qualifying. At one or two races they ended up taking a bunch of lawyers with them just to get into the paddock. Some of the Establishment weren’t very keen on these ‘rabbits’, as they called them.” The ‘rabbit’ comment came from Niki Lauda after he’d had a run-in with Purley at Zolder, and by the next grand prix a white rabbit had appeared on the side of the Lec.

Further respectable showings in Sweden and France led up to the British GP. Pre-qualifying was the first hurdle. and it went disastrously wrong when the Lec’s throttle stuck open at Becketts. Purley piled head-on into unyielding sleepers. He was very badly injured in what was the biggest recorded impact in which the driver survived.

“For its day, the car was strong and we got lots of positives from people saying so,” says Pilbeam. “But I didn’t feel like that. It was horrific.”

Two years later, after a long and painful recovery, Purley had CRP1/002 rebuilt and raced it in a handful of late-season British F1 events. It wasn’t competitive and Purley switched to a Shadow before retiring from motorsport. He channelled his energy into business and flying, but was killed in 1985 when his stunt plane crashed into the sea off Bognor.