Looking back, with Cliff Allison

Of the Englishmen who drove Ferrari’s classic Formula 1, front-engined Dino 246 machines, after 1958 World Champion Mike Hawthorn, of course, most of our readers will recall Peter Collins and Tony Brooks. Collins was a Ferrari team member from 1956 until his death in mid-1958, following an accident during the German Grand Prix, and scored a victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the wheel of a Dino 246. In 1959 Tony Brooks, following Tony Vandervell’s withdrawal of the Vanwall team, found a berth in the Maranello line-up and scored two stylish victories for the Dino 246 in the French Grand Prix at Reims and the German Grand Prix at Avus. But how many of our readers recall, I wonder, the 27-year-old Northumberland farmer / garage owner who not only finished second in the 1960 Argentine Grand Prix, but the previous summer had also used a Dino 246 to net the fastest practice lap round that daunting Avus circuit during practice for the German Grand Prix?

The man we’re talking about is Cliff Allison, the 500 cc Formula 3 graduate who, on his way to becoming a member of Ferrari’s Grand Prix and sports car team, scored a whole string of successes for the fledgling Team Lotus, including the marques first-ever World Championship point. Recently we journeyed in one of Ford’s excellent new 1.6-litre injected Orion Ghia saloons to his family’s garage just off the A66 at Enough, to talk to this self-effacing personality about his racing recollections.

Born on February 8th, 1932, Cliff Allison has always lived in Brough, his family involved in farming as well as owning the large garage business in the town’s main street. At the age of 20, Cliff’s first race was at Charterhall in 1952 at the wheel of his own F3 Cooper-Norton and he continued to race in this category through until 1956, scoring his first victory two years earlier. Through his achievements in Formula 3 he gradually built himself a reputation as a promising newcomer on the British scene, attracting the attention of Lotus chief Colin Chapman in the process. By 1957 he’d got himself involved with Lotus, acquired a 1,220 cc Coventry Climax-engined Lotus 11 at the wheel of which he consolidated his progress through the ranks.

“I earned my Lotus drive on the strength of my Cooper F3 outings, with a little bit of assistance from Reg Tanner of Esso,” recalls Cliff, “and I think some of my drives in Italy may have brought me to Ferrari’s attention. I remember one race at Imola where I put it across both Musso and Castellotti who were driving Osca sports cars on that occasion. I well recall the start before which I’d been advised by Denis Jenkinson not to watch the starter’s flag, but to go when the other cars moved . . .” The Lotus didn’t finish this particular event, but Cliff remembers with some pleasure that he was “miles ahead” when he encountered mechanical problems!

During 1957 he also enjoyed a celebrated outing at Le Mans where, partnered with Keith Hall, he took a 744 cc Climax-engined Lotus 11 through to an amazing 14th overall and victory in the Index of Performance handicap, just pipping their Lotus team-mates Herbert Mackay-Fraser / Jay Chamberlain who finished ninth overall in an 1,100 cc-engined Lotus 11. Allison also achieved another international success with a victory at Roskilde in Denmark, the sum total of his season’s achievements earning him the offer of a place in the Lotus Formula 1 team for the following year.

At the wheel of the 1957 Formula 2 cars, fitted with 1960, cc Coventry-Climax engines, Allison and his number two driver Graham Hill tackled the 1958 Grand Prix season, starting at Monaco. It should be recalled that Cliff managed to keep going to the end, finishing last of the six cars running and consequently scoring the Lotus marque’s first World Championship point, but even more promising things awaited him at Spa during the Belgian Grand Prix. This event, at 24 laps (338 km) was technically too short to count for the World Championship, lasting as it did a mere 1 hr 37 min 06.3 sec, but if it had been run a single lap longer, Allison’s Lotus would have almost certainly won! Tony Brooks’ winning Vanwall crossed the line with its gearbox tightening up, Mike Hawthorn’s second place Dino 246 blew its engine asunder as it accelerated down towards the line and Stuart Lewis-Evans’ third-placed Vanwall wobbled to a halt just after the finish with a broken front suspension wishbone . . . Cliff crossed the line, his Lotus in healthy fettle, in fourth place!

“I think when Mike Hawthorn retired at the end of the year he may have mentioned Graham Hill and myself as potential candidates to replace him in the Ferrari team,” reflects Allison, “I got on very well with Mike and we spent a lot of time together. I rather think that Graham was a bit too pro-British to be really interested, but I went down to Modena and did a deal for the following year. Of course this involved me racing on the sports car team and standing in as a reserve driver on the Grand Prix team to start with . . .”

One should also mention that Cliff regularly made the trip from the family business in Brough, something which he shrugs off with a grin, but which imposed a schedule calculated to turn even that most seasoned traveller grey just thinking about it. “Oh, it wasn’t really any problem,” he smiles, “I used to drive to Darlington, get the express train to Kings Cross, taxi to Cromwell Road air terminal, bus to Heathrow, plane to Milan, taxi to the station, train to Modena . . .” His desire, indeed need, to keep in touch with the family business meant that Cliff made this gruelling return trip every couple of weeks. Of his relationship with Enzo Ferrari himself, Cliff only has pleasant, uncomplicated memories; “no problems at all, I thought he was just grand,” he says with a happy smile.

At the time he joined up with Ferrari, the Italian team had a large line-up of other drivers for its wide-ranging racing programrne. Of those he worked closely with, Cliff has particularly fond memories of Wolfgang von Trips; “a really charming, delightful man. I think it was Peter Collins who first nick-named him ‘Taffy’ because, at first acquaintance, his English accent sounded rather Welsh. I remember he used to confuse words, like donkey with monkey.

“I got on with most of the other drivers pretty well. Phil Hill was fun, but, heavens, was he jumpy! And Tony Brooks of course: slightly aloof, rather in a world of his own, but in the most pleasant possible way!”

Before he was taken on as a full-time member of the Grand Prix team at the start of 1960, Cliff spent many of his racing miles behind the wheel of the 3.0-litre, “Testa Rossa” sports car. During the 1959 season he finished second at Sebring (with Jean Behra), fifth in the Niirburgring 1,000 kms (with Willy Mairesse) and fifth in the Goodwood Tourist Trophy. But, on the flip side, one of the more frustrating moments came with an enormous accident whilst practising one of the Testa Rossas for the Targa Florio.

“I was flat-out going down one of the long straights,” Cliff recounts, “and I suddenly became aware of a vibration. I backed off slightly and it weaved about a bit, but when I went back on the throttle it wasn’t too bad again. I wondered if there might be a problem with the steering, but it turned out that a front tyre had deflated and the centrifugal force at 160 mph was just about enabling the car to stay under control. When I tried to slow down seriously I found myself in real trouble, heading straight for the end of a wall on the side of a bridge.

“I managed to swerve away from that, but the car took off, had its floor pan ripped out by a milestone before crashing down into a field on the opposite side of the road. I looked down to where the floor should have been and just saw mud and earth. You can’t imagine how relieved I was, but if I hadn’t kept my feet on the pedals I might well have been in pretty bad shape. The Ferrari team’s reaction was most interesting: until they’d ascertained that the car hadn’t broken, they were very worried and preoccupied. When they discovered that it had been tyre trouble and not a chassis breakage, they heaved a sigh of relief. I think we took five cars to the Targa that year and four of them got involved in accidents . . . in the race, Richie Ginther put ours up a tree, as I recall!”

Cliff’s single-seater debut for the Ferrari team was equally memorable. Driving the F2 Dino 156 in the Formula 2 class of the Monaco Grand Prix, he got no further than Ste Devote on the opening lap. The entire F2 field which only included Bruce Halford’s Lotus 16 and Taffy von Trips’ Porsche in addition to the Ferrari, managed to get tangled up with itself and all three cars came to rest against the wall, in no state to go any further! Monaco, it was to prove, would be a troublesome circuit for the Northumbrian!

Ferrari finally allowed him his Grand Prix debut with a Dino 246 in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, where he finished ninth, while a fine fifth place on the team’s home soil at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix strengthened his prospects for 1960. Nonetheless, he still recalls his biggest disappointment being his Ferrari’s clutch failure in the United States Grand Prix, which rounded off the 1959 season, at Sebring.

“I was lying third behind the Coopers of Brabham and McLaren, and I really think I could have got on terms with them in the closing stages. Then the clutch flew apart . . . God, I was sick!”

Looking back on his 1959 season, the other great achievement was his fastest time in practice at Avus “although I was only a reserve entry and had to line up at the back rather than taking pole position”. In the event the two-heat German Grand Prix proved something of a major disappointment at the end of the day: his Ferrari’s clutch failed after a handful of laps in the first heat and he wasn’t permitted to take the start in the second.

For 1960, Allison was included in the full-time Ferrari Grand Prix line-up together with Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips. At Buenos Aires, in the Argentine Grand Prix, there was a mix-up with the tyres: “Dunlop’s Vic Barlow told us that there were tyres with two different tread depths available, the 5 mm version of which would mean starting with a light fuel load and making a pit stop for fuel and fresh tyr., or the 7 mm ones on which we could go through non-stop.

“I said I wanted to go through non-stop, but there was some confusion and I wound up with the 5 mm treads and a full fuel load. The tyre fitters had done it wrong, so I had a marginal time towards the end, watching to see when the breaker strips appeared.” Allison finished second behind Bruce McLaren’s Cooper-Climax, thereby scoring the best result of his Formula I career.

A week earlier, Allison had also shared the winning Ferrari Testa Rossa with Phil Hill in the Buenos Aires 1000 km endurance event, so the Englishman headed back to Europe full of confidence. Ferrari Formula 1 form took a bit of a denting when the Dino 246s came to the Silverstone International Trophy, Cliff finding himself off the pace and only managing eighth place — “that needs forgetting”, but his World Championship aspirations came to a very firm end with a frightening practice accident at Monaco.

After the first day’s qualifying times had been disallowed, following problems with the timing equipment, Cliff was waiting to go out on the second day with full tanks and unscrubbed tyres when he realised that his good qualifying time from the previous day had been wiped from the slate. “I thought I’d better go for a time,” he reflects rather ruefully, “and as I was in my first ‘tailor-made’ chassis, vvith a longer wheelbase than the other Ferraris, I did just that…”

Coming through the chicane onto the harbour front, Cliff clipped the inside wall with his right rear wheel and the car spun like a top, hurling him out onto the road. His limp, unconscious body was gathered up with precious little ceremony by an official “and I woke up 16 days later in hospital, speaking French — which was quite strange, because I didn’t know any French!”

For a while it seemed as though that might be the end of Cliff Allison’s racing career as it took the best part of the year for him to recover fully from his facial injuries. But he’s extremely frank and honest about the motives which forced him to return to the Formula 1 fray: “to be quite straight about it, I missed the life, the teaselling, being a part of the whole scene. I suppose I’d really had my fill of driving for drivi g’s sake, but I just wanted to get back into the excitement of it all.”

As a result of this enthusiasm he accepted a drive with the UDT Laystall team which was fielding old Lotus 18s — “Jimmy Clark’s cast-offs!” — in the first year of the 1 1/2-litre formula. Running in some of the F1 / Intercontinental British domestic races which preceded the Championship season, Cliff demonstrated that he could still perform quite competitively, but he only drove a single Grand Prix — at Monaco. On his very first practice lap for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa — “trying to do too much with a car that didn’t want to do it” — he rolled the Lotus comprehensively at Blanchimont, breaking his legs and sustaining several other fractures as well. That was the end of the motor racing road for Cliff Allison.

Cliff admits, candidly, that he returned to the life of a rural garage owner with a burning sense of resentment and annoyance “It was years before I ever wanted to go near a race again,” he confesses, “it took use a very long time before I came to terms with my situation. I was very bitter about the whole affair.” Nowadays he only occasionally goes to the British Grand Prix, preferring to keep away from the sport in which he felt, in his own mind, he could rise to the top. He never gave any thought to becoming involved in any other aspect of the motor racing game, such as running a team or becoming a steward, because his whole pleasure was bound up with the thrill of participation. Nowadays Cliff Allison leads an unobtrusive life and I wondered to myself as I drove away from Brough, just how many of the chattering schoolchildren he collects and delivers in his mini-coach to local school, morning and evening, realise that the man in the driving seat is a former Ferrari Grand Prix driver! Yet, perhaps Allison name may one day make another appearance in the motor racing world. One of Cliff’s sons is currently involved in a Jim Russell school course at Silverstone — and enjoys every moment of it. Would Cliff think of entering a car for him at some time in the future? His face softened wit mixture of nostalgia and affection. “Perhaps,” he smiled, “you never know — AH