DSJ life on the edge

Jenks was more than the most read motorsport journalist of the 1950s and 1960s, for hie lived it, breathed it and competed in it. Doug Nye looks back fondly upon the little man’s personal life

Jenks sprawled full-length on the Watsonian racing sidecar, nose inches from its cowl’s tiny window, watching the Sidecar Italian Grand Prix develop first-hand at Monza. It was bedlam. To his right rode the Fangio of this form of racing. His name was Eric Oliver – five-times World Champion. When he slipstreamed a rival he really let him know who was there! Reaching well above 100mph along the straights he had the Norton’s front wheel jammed between the leader Ercole Frigerio’s works Gilera “4” and its sidecar. And all Jenks could see, inches ahead of his scarred, flystarred perspex screen, was the soles of his Italian counterpart’s plimsolls… What an introduction to the racing world.

He followed, and loved it, for the rest of his busy life. For this magazine’s 150,000-plus readers during the Fifties and Sixties, Jenks’s lifestyle seemed enviable. He was actually being paid we assumed to follow the circus in his Lancia Aprilia, or Porsche 356 or E-Type Jaguar company cars. He was universally admired and respected and in an era when the media pulled punches, MOTOR SPORT’S fearless outspokenness came as a breath of fresh air. As “DSJ” our Continental Correspondent, our alter ego on the scene Jenks was and remained a tough little nut.

He was utterly obsessed by racing. As early as three years old, elder sister Joyce remembers him being found transfixed by cars in a dealer’s window. When he was 12 he discovered MOTOR SPORT and from 1933 he religiously saved tuppence a week to buy the latest issue.

At 17 his chum Bob Newton taught him to ride properly on a flat-twin Douglas while they were studying engineering at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic. There, Jenks was an outstanding gymnast. “He had superb balance and was frequently selected to show how the apparatus should be used,” Bob explains. He was also very muscular, his power-to-weight ratio terrific. “He cycled everywhere,” Newton continues, “30 or 40mile round trips, rain or shine, and all with a fixedwheel pulling a fantastically high gear!”

Despite a late start, Jenks’s older brother Harold remembers him suddenly taking up swimming: “He taught himself, became better than proficient within a few weeks which was typical and promptly won a highboard diving competition.”

Then from the day in 1941 when he cycled from Forest Hill, South London to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough for his first job interview, Jenks became a fixture on the Surrey/Hampshire border. At the RAE he lived in digs, drawing car plans for Percival Marshall which sold as model-makers’ blueprints in his spare time.

There he really got to know “WB” Bill Boddy whom he had met pre-war at enthusiast functions, then working in Air Technical Publications while editing MOTOR SPORT in his spare time. Shy Bill could be very entertaining. Also in this circle were Charles Bulmer, later editor of The Motor and Joe Lowrey who would become its Technical Editor… They really knew their stuff.

Another chum was Holly Birkett, the vet in nearby Fleet, who had (vitally) a wartime essential-service petrol allowance. If they felt like motoring off in the night, they’d go on Holly’s petrol. Joe Lowrey recalls how Jenks was always “up” for any ride in an interesting car: “I was posted down to Cornwall and drove down in my HRG with Jenks as passenger he caught the train back…” When pilot Mike Oliver drove past the RAE in his blown 1750 Alfa, Jenks chased him down at the traffic lights, begged a ride, and caught the bus home.

Typical Jenks traits really developed there. Bob Newton: “We’d all accepted that racing had to be set aside while we got on with sorting out the Germans. But not Jenks. Although he wasn’t a conscientious objector he was totally apolitical and loudly disagreed with the need for this…”

Vintage motor-cycling pal Mick Wilkins met Jenks at the RAE, and recalls vividly: “We all first knew him as the little feller with the big hat and no socks he’d worked out that he could swap the saved clothing coupons for petrol coupons…”

He certainly lived cheaply. But in 1944 he bought a Frazer Nash for £250 – £150 postponed for a year! and in 1947 drove it in the first post-war British motor race meeting at Gransden Lodge. But motor racing was plainly beyond his pocket. He sold the Nash and bought, for £100, a 350cc Norton International. Renting a lock-up was cheaper than digs, so for some time home became a sleeping-bag beneath a workbench. Jon Derisley, who went on to race Lotuses, was a schoolboy nearby. ‘We heard that there was an old man in a lock-up who’d got a racing motor-bike”, so one lunchtime a party of inquisitive schoolboys ventured to take a peek. And there he was – long ginger beard, hence the ‘old man’ tag (Jenks was barely 26). “And you know how open he was later with interested youngers? Well, when he spotted us he roared —**** off!’ and we all fled.”

With perhaps just one exception, he never liked small children. He nicknamed one friend’s year-old daughter “159” because, when she bawled, she made exactly the same noise as, and her mouth was exactly the same shape as the grille on, a Formula One Alfetta 159.

He loved jazz traditional of course but liked good classical concerts too. He also tried to play the clarinet, but had more success learning to race the Norton. He finished last in the Hutchinson ‘100’ at Dunholme Lodge and also ran at tracks like Oliver’s Mount and Cadwell Park. Then fellow rider David Whitworth encouraged him to join the Continental road-racing circus in 1948. So, astride the Norton, with just a shoulder bag and a soft hold-all strapped across its tank, Jenks went off to compete in three Belgian meetings, only for his engine to seize in practice for the first, at Mettet.

Jenks was stuck with only a pound. He patched-up his engine and made the grid, but broke early; friendly organiser Jules Tacheny still paid the promised £30 start money. The ‘bike was dead, but at the prizegiving Manx GP winner Eric Briggs offered to take him on to Brussels.

At the prizegiving there, Jenks sat at the same table as Eric Oliver, also in his first postwar season of Continental touring. Eric used two regular passengers, but both competed only by taking holiday leave. He was looking for “new ballast” after the third Belgian race, at Floreffe. Jenks said he’d like a try just to stay with this intoxicating circus. So Eric invited him to appear at Floreffe: “… and I’ll give you a try-out before practice.”

After a few brisk laps on open roads, Eric said: “You’ll be alright you don’t rock the boat.” Minimum regulation weight for a sidecar passenger was 60kg Jenks in his kit scaled 59.9 he was in, with just ounces of ballest.

He then learned Oliver’s uncompromising racing standards. “I learned at close quarters why real World Champions are naturals and not manufactured,” he wrote. “On a starting grid he was there for one reason only to win.” Eric’s favourite remark after a twitchy moment was “I think we were sharing control there for a bit!”, by which he meant the ESO/DSJ duo versus their “lethal device” the Norton/Watsonian.

They built a new combination for 1949 when the FIM launched its Sidecar World Championship, and were only beaten twice on grass by a methanol-burning 1000cc JAP, and in the Italian GP when the spark-plug dropped out because Eric hadn’t pinched it up right. Jenks grabbed the Plug spanner tucked into Eric’s left boot and wound in the spare plug from his pocket. They restarted and finished fifth, then were hustled onto the podium to celebrate their World title. “While everyone was cheering we didn’t feel very proud of ourselves, as we had made a team cock-up.”

For decades after, Jenks covered races from that same grandstand, but never reminisced about his day on that podium. No question of “during the Forties… “, much less “When I was World Champion…” There was no trace of that in Jenks’s Psyche, he was too interested in what was happening now and how he could tell us about it.

And he had really absorbed the fine grain of racing lore. For example, Oliver was an absolute master at gearing for a circuit and he also had Jenks not lean out to the maximum in every corner, to minimise frontal area. “I could feel the chair lifting through the left-handers,” explained Jenks. “But when we straightened up Eric would give me a quick thumbs-up on some circuits this meant we could go up a whole tooth.” These were tiny advantages, but they could destroy the opposition.

Another time they tested their standard works Norton engine bottom end and internals against their own highly polished set, to reduce oil drag. They set a baseline time, then pulled off the back of the course to their garage, stripped the standard engine, rebuilt it with the still-warm head and barrel on the polished parts and went out for the second session. Down the straight there was the “unfair advantage” an extra 200rpm… Pre-race they re-geared to take even “unfairer advantage”, and another win was almost guaranteed.

Spa 1949 saw perhaps their finest race a carburettor feed banjo broke on the first lap and DSJ found the only way to keep the engine running was to plug the leak with his thumb. Whenever he had to take his thumb off the leak, the engine would starve. He was wrestling with this dilemma into another fast curve when he felt Eric’s big boot pressing on his back, to keep him fiat on the chair. They two-wheeled around that corner, then the next… For 50 minutes Jenks remained a flat little Dutch boy with his thumb against the bawling, buzzing Norton’s carburettor and another GP win was theirs. It was not without cost, though, as Jenks related: “My right arm was numb well beyond the elbow and it was quite a few days before everything returned to normal.”

They lived happily under canvas, to rivals’ disgust who said “You’re letting the side down” they preferred the cash they saved. The bonus was that motor-cycle meetings were then combined with motor races, so Jenks began to report on both for MOTOR SPORT, The News Chronicle and for Motor Cycling. He also wrote for Iota as “Barbarossa” Red Beard. He called it “the cushiest job I know”.

Eric Oliver liked to nip back home as often as possible, but Jenks hankered after a more European lifestyle, so from 1950-52 he joined forces instead with Belgian Marcel Masuy (‘Mazzwee’), who went racing in style and stayed in hotels… Jenks lived in Brussels, polished his Ianguages, prepared Masuy’s ‘bikes and cars and was paid £14 a week plus expenses. They ran a 600cc BMW Rennsport with Vanderschrick “Precision” sidecar through 1950, followed by a “Garden Gate” Norton/Watsonian in 1951 and “Featherbed” Norton in 1952. Jenks planned to race ‘bikes until 1956-57 when he hoped to switch full-time to MOTOR SPORT. But on March 11, 1953, magazine owner W J Tee then offered a full-time appointment. “That kind of door opens only once, so I took it,” explained Jenks, and his serious riding career was over.

The rest of his motoring life has been well recorded, but meanwhile the private Jenks was very private indeed.

Around his time in Belgium, “home” was a cottage room adjoining The Phoenix pub at Hartley Wintney. From November 1953, he rented Stratford Lodge near Odiham. Then, for nearly 35 years from November ’61 home was a saggy-roofed single-storey lodge house which he bought to enjoy “My own trials course right by the back door” never mind no mains electricity.

The tiny kitchen was dominated by a solid-fuel Aga range which Jenks alone knew how to drive. With it pulsating, and a wintertime kitchen temperature around 80 degrees, he’d sit within Agaglow at a tiny table lit from the window above the sink, and write to us. Perhaps that was his secret, he wrote “to” his readers, not just “for” us…

Although he never married, Jenks had many lady friends, one of whom over many years simply meant the world to him. Another, Patricia Burke (who later married John Surtees) moved the great Henry N Manney of Road & Track to remark: “Pat’s very good for Jenks, she’s taught him to wear socks.” Yet, despite his sartorial critics, when he wanted to, Jenks could appear very dapper.

Among local motoring and motor-cycling me and to his farming neighbours, he was such a special friend there was invariably good conversation and gales of laughter. And should a Concorde thunder over he’d always break off and gaze admiringly then beam “Bloody marvellous, eh?

Yet, while he was non-materialistic, he was always intensely possessive, of property and people alike. He cultivated separate interest-groups of close friends, yet discouraged contact between each group. Many of us only met for the first time after his stroke last January.

He always admired inquisitve, analytical minds, and another old RAE friend Sandy Burnett often accompanied him on his high-speed road tests of exotic cars, like the Mercedes 300SL Coupe in March 1956 in which they saw 128mph past Blackbushe, and averaged 72.8mph to Andover before Jenks spun and toppled the car onto its side. They plonked it down again and resumed, braying back to Camberley to average 61mph, “time allowance for righting car and inspecting allowed. Rather slow from then on!” reads Jenks’s “Circuit Dicing” log.

Then at the end of his competitive life he was very proud of his homebuilt TriBSA sprint ‘bike which in 1991 took him below the 40sec barrier for the first time at Shelsley Walsh. And in 1993 at the Colerne spring he ripped across the line ever-faster on each of his three runs with it. Ending that lovely day our little gnome, in his baggy black racing leathers, removed his crash helmet and stroked his beard, and told Mick Wilkins: “If I die tonight, I’ll die a happy man.”

And that says it all…