From home-built specials... to GT40s

There were two JWs in JW Automotive: John Wyer was its leader, but John Willment had his triumphs, too. By Gordon Cruickshank

JWA. Three initials throbbing with racing significance, which reflect two very different men: John Wyer is famed as one of the great team managers; but it was his friend and partner John Willment who made the first big splash on the tracks.

Willment never looked like being content in the family sand, gravel and construction business, with a side division building boats. After National Service in the 1950s he began trading in army surplus trucks, and racing an Austin 7. But, says his daughter Avia, who now runs the businesses, he was more interested in the cars than the driving — “and he was a maniac behind the wheel.”

Pictures in the family collection show him with a huge variety of cars, including a Bentley 4-1/2 converted from an ambulance. “He was obsessed with Bentleys, and mad about engines,” says Avia. He began building specials, and as soon as one was finished, he was on to the next. They included an all-enclosed four-cylinder 500, the famous Fruabodied 7-litre Cobra, and a handsome sportscar raced by Graham Hill and Stuart Lewis-Evans. He also entered a Cooper for Stirling Moss.

With fast cars and boats to play with, the burly and bluff JW was doing a good impression of a rich playboy. That stopped dead in 1960, when he married Dorothea. From that point he retired from racing and became a driven man. “I have to make my fortune for my family,” he told his wife.

In 1961, on a plot of land by Twickenham rugby ground, John built a showroom — and he didn’t even have a dealership contract. But very shortly Ford signs went up and the first JWA — John Willment Automobiles — was launched.

Within a year John had decided a racing team would be a good advert and invited Jeff Uren to run it. British saloon champion in 1959 and then Ford’s rally team manager, he was the perfect choice. As was his way, JW left him to get on with it, with one proviso: he wanted Uren to use Ford’s NASCAR weapon, the huge American Galaxie. “He liked things big and brash,” says Uren.

Uren ordered a car from Holman & Moody. He knew where to go for a driver, too: Britain’s first saloon car champion was short of a drive. Jack Sears takes up the story: “I’d been driving for Tommy Sopwith, but at the end of 1962 he closed his team to go powerboat racing. I had nothing to drive and was considering retiring — I’d been racing since 1950— when Jeff rang me and asked if I was interested in a 7-litre Galaxie. I was doubtful, but Jeff said it would do the business. ‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘but I need the answer tomorrow.’ “

Nor was there a chance of a test drive: the Galaxie wouldn’t arrive until May. Meantime the team would run Cortina GTs, another unknown quantity. But Sears did trust Uren and rang back to agree terms and become the first Willment driver. Good decision: he won the 1500 class from the back on the Cortina’s debut, and kept on winning until the Galaxie finally arrived, for the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone. “I was so excited,” says Sears. “We got pole easily, but to save the clutch I trickled off the grid — then passed three cars in one go. After that I left it in top the whole lap, and won by a huge margin.” Thus ended Jaguar’s domination of saloons: Sears was the clear champion before the season’s end.

Uren had also recruited Bob Olthoff from South Africa, Australians Paul Hawkins, Frank Gardner and Brian Muir, and John Whitmore among others. As well as saloons the team fielded Elva and Lotus sportscars, a trio of Shelby Cobras — and Brabham and Lola single-seaters. F2 cars, but Willment was going grand prix racing.

For a private team, 1964’s spread was astonishing — saloons, sportcars, GT, F2, endurance races, and a grand prix. Sears and Olthoff ran Cortinas, Galaxies and Cobras; Gardner drove saloons and F2, and made his and the team’s grand prix debut in the F2 Brabham in the British GP. It was a disappointing day: FG crashed — and John got his hugely active team suspended.

With Uren as the hands-on manager, Willment rarely came to races. “He didn’t want his young family involved in racing,” says Avia, and he had his expanding business to run. But he came to that Brands meeting, and got stuck in when a dispute about start positions looked like robbing Sears of a spectacular last-lap win in his Cortina. In a frank pitlane exchange with Willment, Clerk of the Course Basil Tye ended up in a ditch. Sears, ever diplomatic, says, “It’s not clear how he ended up there.” Avia is blunter: “Oh, Dad thumped him.”

The RAC promptly withdrew the team’s race licence and Uren had to broker a compromise: “I argued for an alternative punishment because we had drivers under contract and a whole season of race entries. Finally they agreed to restore our licence, but to ban John from races — if he came and stood in front of the committee and apologised like a naughty schoolboy. He did, but he said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.”

Willment wasn’t content with running other people’s cars. After Sears and Olthoff had finished behind Dan Gurney’s Daytona Cobra in the 1964 TT, he tried to buy one of these aerodynamic coupes from Carroll Shelby. Rather than build another, the Texan sent drawings to Twickenham. The result was the mean-looking Willment Coupe. Sears scored another debut victory with it, followed by a win in the Guards Trophy at Brands, and a fifth in the Kyalami Six Hours. At the same track Hill and Hawkins took a 1-2 in the (F2) Rand GP. Willment was prepared to send his team anywhere there were races to contest.

Soon JWA stickers gave way to ‘Race-proved by Willment’. Uren explains: “John wanted a name for racing Fords and I wanted to move into speed equipment. So the ‘Race-proved’ was me and the `Willment’ was John.” Always with an eye for style, Willment liveried all his race cars and support vehicles with a bold triple stripe, first red-on-white, later reversed, and also built some Econoline team vans with hot 427 V8s. “Most of them were crashed in no time,” says Uren.

Although the team was large, Willment even extended support to promising privateers, such as Boley Pittard and his twin-cam Anglia. The total budget must have been huge, as Sears reflects: “He had very little sponsorship. It cost him a lot of money, but it was good promotion. The race cars were often displayed in the showrooms.”

Even more cars arrived at the crowded team base for 1965: a Lotus 30, three Lotus F3s, and a Brabham-BRM with which Gardner had an indifferent F1 season. Elsewhere, Willment Cobras and Cortinas won repeatedly; Bob Bondurant found the 30 “spooky”, but in it Gardner bettered the F1 lap record at Zeltweg in Austria.

Olthoff was now running a Willment team in South Africa, with a Galaxie, a Cobra and the BT10, winning the saloon title, while the Lotus 30 went on an American tour. Even Le Mans was on the schedule, though the Cobra Coupe didn’t start. Willment had become an international operation, and a household name.

By 1966 the expanding team had its own testbed and facilities scattered around Twickenham, where apart from running the fleet of race cars (now including Brabham BT8 and Lotus 23 sportscars, and an Elan which John Miles took to nine successive wins) they fielded a Cortina rally car, built a special-bodied Galaxie for the boss, and developed tuning conversions for production Fords. Team transporters were cheekily labelled ‘Ford Racing Division’. Says Avia: “My father was trying to get sponsorship from Ford. He even wrote to Ford dealers all round Europe asking if his wins were helping their sales…”

Ford was pumping cash into racing, but mostly into its Le Mans effort with the GT40 and Mk II. These two strands were about to link up in an unexpected way. Wyer, who had been organising the Ford GT40 project from its start in 1963, was a long-time acquaintance of Willment, from his days as Aston Martin team manager.

After their 1966 Le Mans grand slam, Ford worked out that for a fraction of the cost of keeping its Advanced Vehicles arm running it could pass the programme to a third party. Accordingly Wyer was offered the assets of FAV, at highly favourable terms. He would be MD and major stakeholder, but needing a partner he invited Willment aboard as an investor and co-director. The new firm, JW Automotive Engineering, was contracted to make parts for existing GT4Os and build new cars, including the Mk III road version. The contract stated that these new cars were not Fords, but JWAs; from being a prolific special builder, Willment was now effectively a manufacturer. It meant the finish of ‘Race-proved by Willment’ on the tracks.

Uren went into the tuning business, and Wyer did his historic deal with Gulf Oil which was to make that blue-and-orange livery synonymous with success: JWA Fords won the world title in 1968 plus the ’68 and ’69 Le Mans, before Wyer took on the Porsche contract and pulled off more victories and the world title in 1970 and ’71.

Meantime Willment’s businesses were thriving, and John was indulging another long-time interest: powerboats. And as always, bigger was better.

“He bought the Daily Express offshore race winner,” recalls Uren, “installed two Holman & Moody Galaxie engines and went to do his first offshore race. But on one hard impact he went through the floor, ricking his neck. He had to be taken to hospital — but he still made it to the party that night! He was a very, very determined man.”

Willment was now less involved in the racing. What few realise, though, is that up to 1978 Wyer, the public face of JWA, was also involved with all Willment Group activities. Nevertheless, the two JWs were moving apart. John Horsman, JWNs ops and engineering chief, says he only saw Willment at board meetings — “and he only wanted to talk about boat engines or Ford tuning kits.”

While Wyer began his Mirage sports-racer projects, from 1972 JWA continued (and continues) to manufacture GT40 components, and in ’79 built a further run of GT40s. But the same year disaster felled the Willment dealerships.

After questions were asked about the group’s financial dealings, Ford pulled a big loan and Willment had to liquidate the car side. No irregularities were found, but Willment was now left with the marina and boatyard. From here on he spent much less time on the businesses, but “obsessed with projects,” as Avia puts it, he started a Bentley restoration firm and built yet another Willment special for his daughter to race.

Poor health dogged Willment’s last 10 years, aggravated by his refusal to take medication, and he died in 1997. Sears: “My Willment years were very successful. John was hugely enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I look back on it with fondness.”

John Willment’s story has perhaps been shaded by the other JW, but in the 1960s the team he built up pulsated with ambition and success. It was vibrant, confident and effective — a reflection of the man himself.