Gathering Moss

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Thoughts on the career of the late Ken Gregory, one of post-war British racing’s unsung heroes

Early in 1951 Stirling Moss was eagerly awaiting completion of a frontier-technology 500cc Formula 3 car that was being tailor-made for him by a rather eccentric but evidently capable fabricator named Ray Martin. With mutual friend – and fellow jazz fan – John A Cooper – Technical Editor of The Autocar (an ex-BRM project engineer, not to be confused with John N Cooper of Cooper Cars) – the trio had spent long hours together discussing how a 500cc Norton motorcycle engine could propel Stirling around a race circuit faster than anyone else. Dean Delamont of the RAC joined this design think tank, but the problem was how to finance such a car.

Enter Cyril Kieft, who offered all kinds of inducements for Stirling to drive for him in 1951, including a directorship of his embryo car company. Moss commented, regretfully, that he did not consider the existing Kieft quite good enough but that he knew somebody who could build a really good car that he would be willing to drive. Kieft had apparently never heard of Martin but now took Stirling’s recommendation, and agreed to finance Martin to build a prototype Kieft, with a royalty on all subsequent cars made to that design.

Dean Delamont did the drawings with input from J A Cooper, and Ray Martin began building the new car. At that time, the new Secretary of the Half-Litre Club was a slight young ex-Army glider pilot who had been racing an original-type Kieft. His name was Ken Gregory. He and Stirling got on well, they became flat-mates in London and Ken became Moss’s business manager, handling his affairs and organising his time and travelling over the next decade.

In his personal diary entry for March 21, 1951, Stirling wrote: “Went to Martin’s and saw the elektron castings. After dinner with Dad went back to flat and chatted with Ken Gregory about women and my licence…” They had much in common.

The new Ray Martin Kieft was ready in time for Whit Monday Goodwood. Moss had tested it briefly at Brands Hatch on May 9, noting “Car exceptionally fast but very dicey, back kept coming round.” Four days later he drove a terrific race for HWM in the Monza Autodrome GP, finishing third after a tremendous dice with ‘Gigi’ Villoresi’s Ferrari 500, then had to return home overnight for Goodwood.

In his absence Ken Gregory had practised the new Kieft that Saturday, and after post-race dinner in Milan Stirling had boarded the night train to Zurich, to catch a flight to London. Any chance of sleeping on the train vanished when Fausto Coppi – superstar Italian racing cyclist – chose the same compartment with a group of voluble fellow ciclisti. Coppi recognised Moss, whose diary entry next day began “Can’t say I got up, because I never went to bed.”

In Zurich at 6.30am, his flight then landed in England at 11 and he ran straight to a waiting Percival Proctor chartered by his father. They landed in Shoreham-by-Sea at 11.45 and arrived at Goodwood at 12.30 – barely half an hour before the 500cc heat was due to start. Ray Martin and Ken Gregory were wheeling the new Kieft onto the startline as Stirling rushed up. “What’s it like, Ken?” – “Fantastic!”.

But that debut race was a flop. Stirling started with a soft warm-up spark plug still fitted, forgotten in the rush. And then the throttle cable stretched – and Moss finished eighth. But with both faults corrected for the final, Moss left the entire field for dead, and lapped Goodwood 4mph faster than Reg Parnell’s winning speed there in 1948 with the Maserati 4CLT Grand Prix car. The new Kieft cornered so well that Stirling passed Eric Brandon around the outside at Madgwick, pointing down at his mount and mouthing “You’ll have to buy one of these!” That win paid £200 – great money in ’51.

Later that year at Rouen the French Championship Formula 2 race was run by some of the most officious organisers the circus had ever encountered. Giannino Marzotto won in a 2-litre V12 Ferrari, but at the prize-giving Robert Manzon’s second place for Gordini received a bigger award than Marzotto’s. All the Italians instantly walked out in protest, with Moss and Gregory accompanying them “to wind up the French”.

The young Englishmen shared good times and bad, and when Ken and ‘Pa’ Moss raided The Boy’s bank account to buy him a brand-new Maserati 250F for 1954, Moss’s final vault towards the pinnacle of his profession became assured. But Ken used to enjoy recounting how in 1952 Equipe Moss had not fared quite so well.

In the 500cc Brussels GP, Lex Beels spun in front of the pack and triggered an enormous multiple collision. Moss rammed the straw bales in avoidance and rolled the Kieft. It was badly damaged and dispatched to London while Stirling spent next day recuperating in Brussels. Ken then set off in their gleaming two-tone, green-and-cream, Jaguar XK120 coupé with Moss – never a good passenger – beside him.

To save on the cost of living while abroad, Stirling had also bought a caravan, admitting “Caravan firms lost interest when I said I wanted a caravan that would tow at 60mph” but they had acquired one that they had fitted out carefully to their own requirements.

But now, heading downhill outside Namur, the towing pin sheared. “I glanced in the mirror and there was our caravan trying to overtake!” Ken dodged right and sure enough the caravan careered past them, veered off the road, snapped off signposts and a kilometre stone and disintegrated into a tangled heap of shattered wreckage. “We’d lost our car, and now we’d lost our hotel too!”

It’s not easy near the top…

Ken Gregory died in November – perhaps better remembered now for his management skills, his entrepreneurship, his stewardship of the British Racing Partnership (sometime UDT-Laystall) racing teams, and various aviation and publishing ventures. But as a youthful enthusiast in the frontline of the British rise to motor sporting dominance through the 1950s, what a significant figure he really was. Rest easy.