Looking back with Peter Ashdown
Last November we received a package containing photographs and negatives taken at the Borehamwood race meetings in the early Fifties. A reader had been sorting out his late father’s effects, had come across the pictures and had kindly sent them in the hope that we might file them and find some use for them. The photographs caught the eye first and they were superb. Then the name of the generous donor, Peter Ashdown, registered and the memories came flooding.
I was once again in front of a television set on Easter Monday, 1959, watching the previously invincible Lotus Elevens being humiliated by the three new Lolas of Peter Ashdown, Mike Taylor and Peter Gammon. I was back at OuIton Park for the 1959 British Empire Trophy seeing Ashdown pulverise the opposition in the 1,100 cc sports car class finishing second to Alan Stacey’s 1.5-litre Lotus Fifteen in the 1,500 cc sports car race. How I lingered around that Lola in the paddock, savouring every tube and bolt of it.
Peter Ashdown was born in 1934 and in his final two years at Brentford school, ceased being a boarder and became a day boy. This did little for his education because he had acquired a 500 cc Matchless motorcycle and, on the whole, prefered to push off to airfields to watch planes fly or to Brands Hatch to watch testing rather than go to school.
At the age of 18, two years National Service would normally have been Ashdown’s lot but he chose instead to volunteer for three years in the RAF, trading the extra year for better pay, conditions and, above all, choice. It was a wise move for he found himself stationed in East Anglia, not too far from home. He spent his time happily as a driver but also managed to get himself on a mechanics’ course. “I was keen on cars but frankly didn’t know very much about them. The 16 week course was very intensive and I learned enough on it to be able later to prepare my own racing cars. I became pretty keen on that and always like to have the assurance of knowing I’d been over the car thoroughly.”
In 1952 he brought a Ford Ten-engined Dellow which was given the full treatment, high compression alloy head, twin SUs, Buckler close ratio gears, and all the other available tweaks. For two years this car was used for trials, hill climbs and driving tests. Then, with his parents assistance, he began to buy the bits and pieces to make a Lotus IX.
“It was supposed to be ready for the start of the 1955 season but dealing with Chapman at the time was impossible. You’d arrive at the lock-up in Hornsey to collect a part only to find it had been sold to someone else. It took ages to get everything together and it was midseason before I was able to get out in it.
“The RAF had been very good to me, I’d been allowed leave at weekends to compete with the Dellow and when the Lotus came along, I was given the use of a nissen hut at Wattisham where I was stationed. From a Dellow to a Lotus IX was a bit of lump but I got used to it by driving it on the roads; it was my only means of transport.
“Mark you, it could be a bit hairy on the roads because saloon cars were much slower and taller than they are now and there was no 70 mph limit. I soon had to allow for the fact that neither drivers nor pedestrians would see me.
“I was demobbed from the RAF in 1955 and went to work as a driver for my father who ran a coach company. A lot of his work involved school bus contracts so I was able to work in the mornings and spend the rest of my time preparing the car.
“During the winter of 1955/6 I had it uprated to top specification, throwing out the live rear aide and fitting a de Dion system, changing the gearbox and so on. I also took the cylinder head of my Coventry Climax FWA engine to Don Moore and kept it for the next four years, fitting it to every engine I had.
“About this time I got to know Alan Stacey who had been racing a Lotus VI. Alan and his brothers were a mad bunch who farmed near
Chelmsford and each morning he’d pass by my workshop on the way to his own so naturally we got to know each other and became very close friends. You know that Alan had lost most of his right leg in a motorcycle accident but that did not stop him from racing cars, playing cricket or tennis or anything. He was always cheerful about it saying that it had given him his big chance – it was the compensation money which had allowed him to go racing.
“You’d normally never have guessed that Alan had an artificial leg except you’d be in a hotel or bar and he’d quietly undo some of the screws so his foot would slowly revolve around 360 degrees. Or else had suddenly drive a fork into it. We had great times. When the racing season was over we’d ride motor bikes in trials, every weekend. We got to know John Whitmore whose family estates were nearby. Alan, my-self, John and a friend of his Steve MacOueen, would be out on our bikes over the Whitmore estate. It was before Steve became a big star and he was more or less penniless, living in one of John’s cottages He was an excellent rider”
Although nominally out classed by the new Lotus Elevens, Ashdown’s IX had a very good season. “I had no difficulty at all with the Elevens One reason was that my lX had drum brakes and the Elevens generally had discs and these often tended to snatch. More than once Colin Chapman came up to me after I’d beaten him and mutter half jokingly, ‘You really ought not be beating me, its bad for business.’
Towards the end of the season a friend and I got into the Lotus and drove to Sweden where I war the Kanonloppet race at Karlskoga, then we drove home again. This sort of thing attracted the organisers of a race at Imola who offered me money to race there. Having accepted I discovered there was another race at Montlhery the week before so arranged my schedule to take in that as well.
That race was very wet and I lost the car, hit a bale and had a leisurely roll. The car had scrubbed off most of its speed and I just plopped over, being saved from injury by the height of the tail fins. Unfortunately the incident twisted the chassis and I simply had insufficient money to continue. It looked like the end of the road and I was ready to say ‘I’ve had my chance, I’ve enjoyed myself, and I’ve been luckier than many others’. A couple of days later I had a call from Colin inviting me to drive for him.”
Ashdown’s season had not only impressed Chapman, it won him Club Lotus’ John Coombs Trophy for the most meritorious performances by a Lotus privateer. “The deal was that Colin would provide the car and I would supply the engine. The IX proved repairable, I bought a new Climax engine for it keeping my Don Moore unit, and it was sold to Chris Williams who had quite a successful season with it.
For 1957 I was a member of the Lotus works ‘B’ team along with Alan Stacey and Keith Hall. Chapman arranged the entries and told us where we were to race. We received a small retainer and, if we won, one pound per mile of the race, with 10 shillings a mile for a second. With trade bonuses this would be doubled
“Now bear in mind that you might do two race meetings a weekend and you could enter for the 1,100 cc race, the Unlimited Sports Car race and, perhaps, a Formula Libre race, so you could be looking at three or four hundred pounds for a successful weekend. That was a lot of money in those days.” It still is ask any Formula Ford or F3 runner. “I’d had a furniture van converted to act as a transporter and living accommodation and would arrive at a circuit with some unpaid mechanics friends of mine, and we’d race and have a good time.
“There wasn’t much to choose between Alan, Keith and myself until we suddenly noticed that Keith had an edge and kept his bonnet firmly closed. We eventually tumbled to the fact he’d bought some Weber carburetters which were then about £150 but we’d soon sent someone over to Italy to buy some more.” Alan Stacey went on to Lotus’ F1 team and was killed in the 1960 Belgian GP when a bird struck him in the face. Keith Hall, a very talented driver indeed responded to family pressures and retired from racing at the end of 1958.
“Keith, Alan and I had a good season, more or less sharing the honours between us though I think its fair to say that Colin thought most highly of Keith. Alan and I were down to drive at Le Mans in the 1,100 cc class but when the 1,500 cc Eleven of the Americans Mackay, Fraser and US importer Jay Chamberlain, gave up in practice, we were asked to stand down. They’d come a long way to race and the American market was important. They won the class and came second in the Index of Performance, yet a couple of weeks later, Jay had a bad crash in practice for Reims and ‘Mac’ was killed in the race. Racing does have its changes of fortune.
“I look back now and I realise lust how many of my contemporaries were killed. It was all such fun that we never thought of that we never very much even considered safety Jay brought me over a Bell helmet with full side panels and I used this but everybody else was content to stick to the old ‘pudding basin’ type so my wearing what we would now think as a moped rider’s helmet became something of a personal trademark. I suppose I always found Colin slightly disturbing in this respect because he had a ruthless attitude. He’d always say that you shouldn’t get too close to the people you were racing with and if you stopped to think about the danger you wouldn’t go racing. He was right but it’s an uncomfortable attitude.”
Ashdown ‘s progress over his first two full seasons had been on a steadily rising curve. In 1957 he’d returned to Karlskoga and won his second Kanonloppet race but is quick to point out that the opposition was minimal. Early in 1958 he had his first set-back, at Rouen. “I lost the car on the twisting downhill section, crashed it and broke my collarbone. They sent an ambulance out for me and my mechanic cut across to be with me. The ambulance set back up the hill and against the flow of traffic. Ron Flockhad In his Lotus Elven merit, crashed into it and the car caught alight with Ron in it. My mechanic broke out the back of the ambulance and saved him.
“When word got back that I was in hospital, a friend of mine, Gerald Smith, flew over in his Auster and took me back home. Gerald, with the Hagan brothers who are well known in the bike world, had developed a dohc head for the FWA engine. Even in 1,100 cc form it gave as much power as the later 1,500 cc unit but there were problems with the casting. He later built an utterly diabolical single-seater to act as a test bed for the engine. The engine was laid on its side and a thin transmission shaft went alongside the driver to a motorcycle gearbox at the back. Alan Stacey and I did a lot of testing with this device and, later, Eric Broadley built a mirror-image FJ car (with the driver off set to the right, not left) to accommodate this engine. but nothing much came of it.
“It took some time for me to get better and it took even longer for the car to be put back again. Even then it wasn’t right and I’d keep returning my shockers to Armstrong’s who kept assuring me that they were okay. Eventually I went out and bought another set and the car was perfect.”
Some late season results brought Peter’s name to the fore again and he was approached by Frank Nichols of Elva with a view to driving for 1959. “The car, a MkIV, wasn’t quite right but Frank was so enthusiastic that I felt we could possibly work together over the winter and put together a good package. I told Frank that I’d be in touch and, at the moment he and the Elva left the circuit, I was ready to drive for him. I decided to hang around and see out the rest of the day when Eric Broadley appeared with his car.”
Broadley had built a Coventry Climax-powered special for his own use for he harboured some ambitions as a driver. In its early outings in mid to late 1958 the Lola had made a few people sit up and take notice for, in Broadley’s hands it was clearly the quickest 1,100 cc car around. The question remained, had we witnessed a brilliant new car or a brilliant new driver?
On that day In October 1958, the question was resolved Broadley invited Ashdown to drive the car and Ashdown was so quick that Broadley immediately gave up any idea of being World Champion and decided instead to become a constructor. There and then he and Peter made a gentleman’s agreement.
“I was convinced from the start. The car was superb on the track and, more, I liked the thought which had gone into it. Eric had designed it for strength and safety as well as speed, the wishbones were properly made and gusseted, for instance, and Eric’s own attitude was so different to Colin’s. We agreed there and then that I should drive for him and over the next few seasons I often had to shake down a new car in a race which was intended for a customer overseas. In that way I drove a lot of the Lola Mk 1s produced and often raced them without having previously seen them, and every one of them felt exactly the same, sweet and true.
“I’d just left my father’s business and had opened a garage of my own at lngatestone. Every weekend, though, I was down at Eric’s workshop helping to put together the cars for the following season”
It’s difficult to describe the impact of Ashdown and Lola in 1959. 1,100 cc racing had become the rough equivalent of F3 today and Lotus had emerged as the leading firm. To put that season into today’s terms you have to imagine an amateur driver who, by day, was an architect, building a new car for his own use. It is sufficiently promising for others to want replicas. Then, when it appears as a three-car team, it does not just beat the establishment which today would be Ralt and Reynard, it makes the establishment look positively amateur. The Lola Mk 1 was Broadley’s best car in the sense that it had a greater level of superiority over the opposition than any Lola subsequently produced.
In the opening race at Snetterton, Ashdown led easily but was penalised a minute for jumping the start. Contemporary photographs prove that the allegation was nonsense but in those days you played by the whistle and didn’t argue. The next race was at Goodwood when Taylor, Gammon and Ashdown swapped places in a little race all of their own with the rest of the field fighting for fourth.
“Any one of us could have won and I happened to be in the lead at the flag It was a wonderful season and I experienced something I’d never known before or ever knew afterwards, utter confidence in the car and myself. My race used to begin the previous Wednesday when I’d gel myself into the right frame of mind. I used to make sure that we were the first to the circuit, the first through scrutineering and the first on the track for practice. Then I set pole and, in my mind, had already won the race. When we lined up for the ‘off’ I knew, positively knew, that nobody was going to beat me to the first corner and because I felt that way, nobody ever did. Later in Formula Junior, Peter Arundell and Trevor Taylor had exactly the same frame of mind and they’d won before the rest of us even started.
“We entered for the Nurburgring 1 000 kms that year and two weeks beforehand I went out to prepare myself. I met up with Keith Greene who had this little Alfa Romeo and so, for a fortnight, we hammered around in it learning the circuit. Eventually the day came when the doors on the Alfa would not shut, we’d completely wrung the car out. The Nurburgring remained my favourite circuit and I always did well there.
“At the start of that race I’d put the Lola in eighth place on the grid. If you see photographs of the line-up — we had a Le Mans-type start — you will see Ferraris, Maseratis, Astons, Jags and in place number eight you don’t see anything. Our little car was completely dwarfed.”
Ashdown and his co-driver, Eric Broadley, led the 1 100 cc class by miles until Eric stuffed the car into a ditch. Still Peter managed to take a minute off the old class lap record. Yes, that is a minute, 60 sec.
“That year we went to the Roskildring in Denmark for a two day meeting. The organisers had decided to make up their rules as they went along. They put a capacity cut-off at two-litres. After the first day, I’d won by such a margin (there wasn’t much opposition and it was a very tight track) that they ruled that I was now an over two-litre car. I was tickled, it’s magic when people come along and make up the rules as they like.
“The Lola was superb and Eric and I had a tremendous rapport, we were a real team. I’d talk about the car with him and he’d set it up for any circuit with a few adjustments to the front roll bar. Everything was done properly, so unlike Lotus where we might still be building our cars in the paddock at the start of a new season. On the short circuit at Brands Hatch at the August Bank Holiday Meeting. I shared a new outright lap record — with Jack Brabham’s F2 Cooper,
Peter Ashdown and his Lola won the Autosport Championship for 1959, 1960 and 1961. Towards the end of that period, 1 100 cc racing could no longer be regarded as the equivalent of today’s F3, for Formula Junior had taken over that role, but the Autosport Championship remained one of the most important national titles.
During 1959, it was clear that Formula Junior was going to take off in a big way, so Broadley laid down a low, front-engined car, with Its Ford unit angled to the left of the driver. Ashdown arrived with it for the 1959 Boxing Day Brands Hatch Meeting and though he had an “off”, he recovered to finish second to Peter Arundell’s Elva-DKW. MOTOR SPORT described the Lola as having clearly the best handling of any car on the circuit.
In retrospect, it seems odd that Broadley chose a front-engined car for were not Coopers winning m F1, F2 and F3 with rear-engined cars? That was true but it was generally felt that Cooper’s advantage came not so much by the position of the engine, for the cars chassis and suspension were undoubtedly crude, but because Coopers were light, nimble and presented a low frontal area. It was felt that if one could get a car down to the weight limit and present a small frontal area, then a well-engineered front-engined chassis would be superior.
That race at Brands Hatch seemed to prove the point for the first three cars home were all front-engined and Lotus’ first rear-engined car, the 18 in the hands of Alan Stacey performed dismally, with Stacey spinning twice because of ill-sorted suspension and appearing slow in a straight line. What nobody had realised was that the new Cosworth Ford engine had given trouble at the last minute and it had been substituted with a standard 105E engine to which the ”goodies” (racing manifolds and carburetters) had been attached.
Orders came in for the winning Elva and for the Lola which had appeared so promising and it was not until a few months later that everyone realised that the combination of Lotus chassis and Cosworth-developed Ford engine was the way to go
“Our Ford engines were dreadful. First Eric tried to time them, then Ted Martin had a go, finally John Young of ‘SuperSpeed’ was able to get them nearly right. We not only rarely made the finish of a race, most times we’d blow up in practice and not make the start. Lotus refused to let anyone else have Cosworth engines and the rest of us were groping in the dark.”
In FJ the works Lola had a rotten time, though Ashdown did manage second in the Monaco race (on his least favourite circuit) being beaten in the final stages by Henry Taylor’s Cooper. In sports car racing, though things were different.
“A wealthy Swiss, Charles Vogoele. had wanted to get into motor racing and had been pestering Eric to buy a car at any price. Eventually a deal was struck and Charles had his car with me as a co-driver for the 1960 World Sportscar Championship. That was the way to go racing; Vogoele would send me an airline ticket and give me my expenses, I’d turn up at his hotel and we’d generally win our class. We retired at Le Mans and were pipped close to the end at the Nurburgring 1000 kms. but won everything else.”
While Ashdown was winning at home and abroad in his sports Lola, things were not quite as happy in FJ. Broadley had responded to the Lotus challenge by producing an innovative new design, the rear-engined Mk3. Its layout was similar to a contemporary F1 car with the driver close to the front of the car, the fuel tank behind him and then the engine and gearbox. If you undid a few bolts, the rear of the spaceframe came away with the engine, gearbox and rear wheels, the idea being to be able to have interchangeable rear ends in the event of a blow-up or accident damage. Unfortunately the car didn’t work.
We tested at Silverstone every week throughout the winter, putting in a hundred laps every session. It suffered from overheating problems and the gear linkage was awful. I’d been used to understeering, front engined sports cars; this thing oversteered and when the rear end went, it went without warning. It would even go in a straight line.”
1961 was a miserable time for the Mk 3 Lola and for Ashdown. 1962 was hardly better for the Mk 5, though an up-date, was hardly better. “At the International Trophy Meeting in May I had the offer of a SuperSpeed Lotus 20. After trying it and the Lola in practice, I told Eric that I’d be driving the Lotus. John Hine, my team-mate therefore moved up into my place for that race and Eric fitted, for the first time, an 1.100 cc Ford engine in the car.
On the second lap, Hine went by me on the straight, left his braking late and spun. My car collected his and went into several rolls. The Sunday Express had the incident as a 12 photograph sequence, the last picture showing me scampering away from the car.
“After that I drifted apart from Eric; we had had no written contract. That shunt had anyway made me start to think about racing. I’d had ten years, was married and had two kids, and was thinking I’d gone about as far as I could go. I accepted some drives in John Young’s SuperSpeed Anglia, racing alongside Chris Craft. and did some races in Ian Walker’s Lotus 23, picking up a class win at the Nurburgring 1000 kms.
“John Young had been developing a Cortina for saloon car racing and at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting, I started with it from the back of the grid and brought it home second. What we didn’t know was that the Lotus-Cortina was on the stocks. The SuperSpeed effort fizzled out; the Cortina had been a waste of time from the moment the Lotus-Cortina came along and we were halfway through 1963 before it came home that I hadn’t got a drive. I had a few offers later for long distance events and was tempted because there’s nothing like a long distance event to Involve you, the tactics, the working out of margins and so on, but I resisted temptation.
“Motor racing drifted away from me and I turned to other things but have never found the excitement and fulfilment that I had in racing. I’ve been to a few meetings with Perry McCarthy, the Formula Ford driver whom I’ve helped a little, but I’ve looked around and wondered what happened to all the spectators we used to have. My son Ian, though is heavily involved in the sport, as a designer with Reynard.”
When you look back at the works Lotus drivers of the late Fifties you find that almost all of them went on to better things: Innes Ireland, Graham Hill, Cliff Allison and Alan Stacey. Only two failed to make F1, Keith Hall, who retired, and Peter Ashdown. “I don’t think I was up to adapting to rear-engined single seaters. I did a couple of F2 races with Ken Tyrrell ‘s Coopers and found I was getting to grips with the problem but wasn’t quite up to it.”
Its hard to contradict so modest and honest an assessment from a driver but the fact is that no driver who was good in front-engined cars — and in his class, Ashdown was very good — failed to make the transition to rear-engined cars. In the same way, nobody who was any good in the 1.5-litre F1 failed in the 3-litre F1, even though engine power more than doubled in little over a year. I think that Ashdown had the talent to do F1 but his thinking was damaged by his season with the Mk 3 Lola. Having said that, had he had the potential to be a real star in F1, that experience would not have put him off. Indeed, he would probably have parted with Broadley long before he did so for the real stars have a ruthless streak in them.
I suspect, too, that after ten years in the sport, he had become a little wary and that deaths of so many around him, particularly Alan Stacey, had begun to nag at him.
With his second wife, June, who saw him race only once, at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting of 1962 which turned out to be his last event, Peter has gone from strength to strength. He sold his garage and went into mail order motor accessories. Then it was a business which specialised in refurbishing timber.framed cottages and then, with June, into fashion shops. June still runs an expanding chain of shops while Peter is currently in video hire shops and video production. His interest in racing has been whetted again by his involvement with Perry McCarthy and he is thinking along the lines of how pleasant it would be to get back behind the wheel of a Lola in HSCC events. . . . He’d also like to hear from anyone who has 8 mm or 16 mm film footage of him in action (telephone 024 541 3280).
I had a wonderful time rolling back the years with him, for he is a very amusing man. The only problem came when it came to taking his photograph. “I must try to look serious,” he said He failed. — ML