He’s not just half of restorers Hall and Fowler, he’s a fine racer and has driven every BRM in existence
Who takes more Grand Prix cars to a race meeting than Williams or Ferrari? Rick Hall. At last year’s Monaco historic meeting he and partner Rob Fowler loaded six cars for the journey, and for the Coys Festival it could be more. And apart from looking after the cars, the jovial Hall is frequently in the cockpit leading the way.
Racing came late to Hall, who formed his restoration firm with fellow BRM employee Rob Fowler over 20 years ago, in BRM’s old premises. It’s a connection which continues; by now Hall & Fowler have had every running BRM through their hands, and Hall has driven them all. It’s a long way from the unfulfilled dreams of racing the young Hall had in his father’s Lincolnshire garage.
“I would get off the school bus and start servicing cars. In the evening I’d drive around the forecourt in sales cars.” He began to experiment with motorbikes and karts: “We had a Villiets-engined Aerolcart with one-wheel drive on tight-handers the driven wheel would lift and you’d stop!” He progressed to grasstrack karts, and then 250s but as he improved, costs went up and he had to bale out.
Being in the next village to Bourne, his father’s firm did contract machining for BRM, so the young Rick knew what a V16 block looked like before he saw a real racing car. It wasn’t long, though, before he was attending races and the bug bit. “I wanted to race but I knew I couldn’t afford it, so I went to Tun Parnell at BRM and asked for a job. I went to the engine shop in 71, working on V12s; I really wanted to be on the race team, but we were too busy.” Busy, but not well paid; Rick was tempted away by a better packet in 1974 but within two years he was back, “to build the P207 Rotary Watch-sponsored car. That was a fiasco; it never qualified.”
At this point Rick and Rob, who had met in the works, made a prescient decision to take on private rebuild work on older BRMs, starting with Arthur Carter’s P139. It proved a safety net; when rumours began about BRM’s instability in 1977, Rick and Rob cornered Louis Stanley who admitted things were so rocky that redundancies were imminent. “So we said, ‘We’d like to go now, please.”
Working at first in Rob’s garage, the pair finished the P139, then started work on the cars of Bobby Bell (“we thought he was daft when we heard he had paid £26,000 for an old Maserati 250F”), Martin Colville and Robs Lamplough. “Then suddenly we were running these old cars at race meetings as well. Not something we’d ever intended to do.”
Having moved into the BRM engine test sheds at Boume, they had access to the adjoining airfield where Rick would shake down cars. In 1977 Rob sorted a Formula Ford for Rick to race. “I was doing quite well really, but business was growing and there wasn’t enough time to go round. At the end of the 78 season I had a somersault and called it a day.”
Historics were about to claim him instead. “I’d tested Anthony Mayman’s Ferrari 625 and Lotus 18/21, and he asked me to race them too.” So began a string of drives in client cars, in which he proved versatile and fast. He even gave the notorious Lotus 40 its first international win, at the Nürburgring. “It used to flex like crazy, but I really enjoyed driving it.” Then in ’81, Tom Wheatcroft bought most of the BRM collection at auction, which brought Hall & Fowler steady work. “And of course Tom would say, ‘You’d better have a go in this’. So I’ve driven every model of BRM now. I can’t think of anyone else who has.”
For 1989 Hall bought a Formula 5000 McLaren and proceeded to dominate the HSCC series with 485bhp of Chevy brawn. “I couldn’t believe the power. At my first race, at Oulton, I was on pole by 2sec.” The following year he switched to a Surtees TS8 and was series runner-up. It’s not all single-seaters, though; Mike Burtt’s Porsche 930 and Brian Auger’s BRM Gulf-Mirage have added sportscar spice, and restoring Richard Thwaites’ Ford F3L offered a dream drive. It was a huge anti-climax. “For 15 years I’d wanted to drive one of these horny-looking cars, and suddenly there I was at MIRA with it. I couldn’t close the door my head was in the way. But I just had to have a go, so I drove with my head cranked over. Bloody quick, light, but twitchy; you felt it could really bite.”
H&F also built up Wheatcroft’s Alfa Romeo Bimotore, the twin-engined monster: “It’s quicker than you’d think, despite being so heavy, but the brakes are unbelievably bad.”
In amongst the Thinwall Special and the odd Vanwall, Rick’s regular mount is Cedric Brierley’s C-type Connaught, now performing after a mystery ailment. “It seems the de Dion tube had fatigued, and the handling went odd. Since the accident at Coys we’ve replaced that and it’s fine.” Driving the Connaught brings Hall a rare idea of what it’s like to be a client, because Brierley does the work on the car. “I just jump in and drive it.” Last season Hall raced the BRP P25, winning three races out of three, including ‘the Scottish Grand Prix’ at Knockhill.
Lately Rick’s son Rob, now part of the business, has picked up the baton. After proving quick in Fiestas and Formula Vauxhall-Lotus, he stood in for an unwell Rick in a European Historic F2 event and went on to win the 1996 championship. It’s something which pleases Rick: “I left it a bit late to do anything modem, so I’m glad Rob could.”
As historic racing blossoms, Hall and Fowler find their time more and more precious. There’s no offseason for the eight employees: summer is racing and winter is preparation. The facilities have been joined by a sales showroom, though, says Rick “that’s a bit of a hobby”. Meanwhile the engine test-bench echoes to fours, sixes, V12, V16 and even the H16 BRM, recently returned to original specification.
Best of all, Rick likes the long-distance events. “I’ve tended cars at the Milk Miglia, but I’d like to drive there. And I loved doing the Nürburgring 500km in William Hay’s 250F We raced at night under the lights on the new circuit, but down the back we needed headlights.” A 250F; with halogens up front; there’s a striking thought. GC