(Continued from the December Issue)
Having dealt, in the last two articles, with two distinctive types of mechanic, the “super tuner” and the younger generation of “works” mechanics (if the two previous subjects will forgive such terminology), it seemed logical to take for this third article someone who works for a purely private stable. But first a few words of introduction. There are those who, by virtue of their background or inclination, will always be mechanics in the sense that they screw things together expertly and very conscientiously, but are quite incapable of appreciating the broader field of design, and of following this up with the ability to fabricate, machine and generally evolve some new modification, and to carry through its testing and perfecting, logically and profitably. It is legitimate, of course, to expect this altogether wider ability in someone in the “super tuner” class, but ordinarily the drawing-board and the slide-rule demand one approach, and the bench another, and in few do these approaches combine. Yet happy the man in whom they do, and it is altogether unusual and refreshing to find this combination in someone as young as Frank Sharpe. The progress of a certain maroon-coloured Cooper-Bristol, piloted by Anthony Crook, bears adequate testimony to this fact.
Frank is essentially an individualist. Put him in a workshop with others and you see at once that either the whole workshop does things his way or he “goes into his shell,” as the saying is, and sticks doggedly to his personal standards, which are as high as he can possibly make them. If the subject of his labours is something that is basically badly designed, or at least capable of improvement, he doesn’t “bottle up” his moan or call the fire of Heaven down upon its designer, merely for the sake of talking, but will seek out an early opportunity of telling those responsible just how and where the thing could he improved from the fitter’s point of view. His criticisms are helpful and constructive, and he appreciates that things sometimes have to he designed awkwardly to meet a particular set of awkward circumstances. The “big” outlook — how seldom is it encountered these post-war days!
Serious in outlook, yet he does not lack the sense of humour without which engineering in general, and motor-racing in particular, would be next to impossible, and he, further, has the doggedness and perseverance so essential to success.
In replying to a letter dealing with this article, Frank Sharpe wrote:” . . . I always say that my mixed experience of factory, repair shop and specialist shop has been to in advantage, and would be to anyone …” While that is undoubtedly so, nevertheless it is the ability and willingness to apply such experience that is the real advantage. There is, perhaps, something of a lesson for the future in this characteristic breadth of outlook, and to see it a small digression may be permitted.
Even during the present “golden age” of motor-racing, which bewilders those who remember the 15,000-odd spectators that went to Brooklands before the war, firms and individuals still go motor-racing for the same basic reasons—publicity, technical research, or simply because they like it or it pays them. Now it is perhaps not unfair to suggest that the present taxation position helps the larger firms, in particular, to meet the very heavy costs involved, but it must be remembered that this advantage may not always obtain. We all obviously want these firms to continue their efforts for a long time to come, building up a real reputation for British motor cars over a long period of years, and to help to ensure this it is incumbent on those who serve the game, even in the humblest capacities, to cultivate something of this broader and more business-like approach. The racing shop and the factory must be closely and logically linked, and blind enthusiasm, whilst obviously needful in reasonable proportion, is, by itself, not particularly attractive to the company director.
The more enthusiasm can be tempered by an appreciation of the business aspect, the more likely are firms to continue their racing programmes as an integral part of their general development policy; a situation that we all want to see as accepted practice.
When the writer first had the pleasure of meeting Frank Sharpe he was working in a fitting shop with a firm who specialised in the manufacture of certain motor-car components on a small scale, quietly doing a first-class job during the day, making model internal combustion engines as a hobby in his spare time, and sufficiently interested in furthering his knowledge generally to belong to the local branch of the I.M.I. and to be a regular attender at their meetings. He was not then, and still is not, a motoring enthusiast in the usual sense of the term, and does not become bored or disinterested in an engineering job as such merely because it does not go last or appear at Goodwood. On the other hand, he obviously sees in a racing car a fine piece of engineering, and is openly and rightly proud in a quiet way if his car does well. (It usually does.) To hear Frank’s dry summary of the “goings on” in the paddock after a meeting is over can be amusing in the extreme. If you wind your way up the hill out of Caterham valley, you will usually find Frank closeted in the rear of Anthony Crook’s premises, which are more than fully equipped. The writer had the job of doing a bench-test there not so long ago and was astounded at the facilities available. This is not to give a free advertisement to Anthony Crook (who doesn’t need one anyway), but is necessary to an appreciation of the qualities of our subject, for it is the very ability to tackle such diverse arts as electro-magnetic crack detection, welding, and full bench-testing that singles him out as a mechanic of exceptional ability. Take as an example the supercharging of the Cooper-Bristol last year. To appreciate things fully, one must have a close look at the layout of that particular motor car on the port side. Frame tubes, crankshaft pulley, damper, radiator header tank and dynamo all make the possibility of getting in a chain-driven supercharger look hopeless. Indeed, the job was impossible by all ordinary standards. Several people shook their heads sadly and said it just couldn’t be done, but done it was, and the next thing the writer heard was a ‘phone call from Frank suggesting a visit to see the installation and do a little carburetter tuning. Carefully he had worked the thing out on paper, written to the bearing firms, the flexible-coupling people and the chain people, winning an inch here, an eighth there, fabricating a chaincase with inbuilt oiling system, ducting, mounting brackets and manifolding. Unless one has had some experience of laying out chain-drives one is not in a proper position to appreciate fully what was done, but the most staggering thing is that the completed job in no way looks a “cobbled” effort. Without exaggeration, it is a masterpiece of engineering extemporisation of which any mechanic might be proud, and the grin of joy on Frank’s face after the Shelsley Walsh sports-car record was broken was worth going miles to see!
The gift of “plodding on,” acquiring a bit of design knowledge here, a bit of “tuning” knowledge there, reading things up in what spare hours you possess and being always prepared to learn is something much to be admired, and obviously of the greatest possible value in the small private racing shop where facilities other than those normally found in a well-equipped garage and test-house are missing and expensive to acquire.
Another facet of the job of “mechanicing” as a whole is also well illustrated by the general consideration of Frank Sharpe and his kind, and that is the value of concentration over a period of time on one car and one power unit. Each racing car must of necessity have its own peculiarities and it is the mastering of the correct assembly of that particular motor car over and over again that just makes the difference between it motoring and motoring properly; and, furthermore, it is the best generator of the all-important reliability. Look at the Gerard, Harrison and Shawe-Taylor E.R.A.s a year or so ago, and there you have the answer. Specialisation has much to commend it, and many the racing shop that has courted unreliability by trying to run several cars at once, or by buying the very latest thing from Italy each year without adequate knowledge of its operation. The Crook Cooper-Bristol is on the right basis, as may well be judged by the consistently good results over several seasons, but let us recall that its preparation has been in the hands of a comparative youngster (Frank is 42), and we at once see that here is someone who will go far in his profession. What is even nicer is that if you go into the Crook racing shop late at night when the car is perhaps wanted for a race the next day, you will find Mrs. Sharpe patiently waiting and encouraging, and there are not many girls today who implement their marriage vows to that extent! No doubt the writer will get a jack handle thrown at his head next time he enters that establishment for writing thus, but there is always such a pleasant atmosphere, and in a very real way one comes to look forward to going there. Today, Frank Sharpe still stands on the threshold of his career, and no doubt the slow, quiet handshake, and the deep quizzical glance that he gives you over the top of his spectacles will continue to win him many friends, and his humility of approach to his job keeps him safe from ever being satisfied that he has learned it all. Therein lies the secret of real success. — “A. B. C.”