"And here's one I made earlier..."

In 1965 privateer Peter Sutcliffe reckoned the new Ford GT40 could be a paying proposition. So he bought one – or at least the components…
By Gordon Cruickshank

Anyone who owns a real Cobra or a GT40 dreads that question “did you build it yourself?” The illicit thought flashes through my mind as I pass the dark green Ford squatting outside the BRDC clubhouse in the Silverstone paddock – but only because its number plates say ‘GT40’ and I’m sure I’ve seen those on a kit-car.

And then I meet its first owner and he tells me he did build it himself. The difference is that he bought his kit from Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV) in 1965. This is one of the first customer GT40s, chassis P/1009, and Peter Sutcliffe, the man who bought and built it, is here to check out its recent restoration. Pleasingly, its latest owner, Roger Wills, has had it painstakingly returned to the way it was when Sutcliffe first climbed into it to see if he’d bolted everything on the right way. In its deep metallic green it poses on the BRDC grass, and Sutcliffe looks over it carefully. “Virtually the same,” he concludes, shaking his head. “Even to my little flyscreen.”

We settle in the clubhouse ignoring the zing of engines practising for the Classic meeting, and Peter spreads out photos, documents, his racing overalls and plonks his original green helmet on the table. It’s surprising he still has this stuff after emigrating to South Africa in 1967. “I might have kept more but my parents said ‘you can’t leave all this junk’, so most of it went in the bin. You never thought people in the future would want to know your gearbox temperatures – which I have been asked. And I gave my second GT40 away!” To us that’s barely conceivable, but when Sutcliffe bought this car he wasn’t investing, just being pragmatic.

“As a privateer I needed a competitive car. I didn’t have unlimited funds; racing had to pay its way, and an expensive to run car could have curtailed my activities. This didn’t cost a bomb.”

Naturally Ford wasn’t selling its new wonder car to anyone who rang up, but by 1965 Sutcliffe already had a respectable record. Expecting to become the third generation to run the family’s Yorkshire textile mills – where he briefly went before National Service deflected him – he had raced an MG and a Frazer Nash before buying an ex-works Ecurie Ecosse D-type and then a Lightweight E which won him the 1964 GP de Paris at Montlhéry, while in the same year Lord Doune ran him at Le Mans in the works-assisted Aston DP214. Then there was the GTO he raced through ’65, building GT points for Ferrari. “Couldn’t get rid of that,” he laughs. “Nobody wanted an out of date racing car.”

Ford needed to get its promising but thus far mostly unsuccessful new car into the hands of people who might achieve something, says Sutcliffe. “I had a reputation as a decent long-distance driver who didn’t smash his cars – chiefly because it would have been too expensive to keep blowing them up! So they thought they were on a reasonably sound footing, and John Wyer asked if I’d like one. I said yes, if I can build it. There’s nothing like knowing a car you’re going to trust yourself to – and I saved £700 in purchase tax!”

Hiring a lock-up near FAV in Slough, Sutcliffe collected the bits and set to work. It took him a week to build, and after FAV had checked it out he gave it a shakedown at Silverstone. Though it was a private entry chief engineer John Horsman came over, indicating the company’s concern that the car should show well. So much so that when Sutcliffe set off for the Kyalami Nine Hours, first of the South African sports car races he planned over the 1965-66 winter, Wyer sent mechanics, spares and Horsman himself to look after things.

“I’d raced there before, and charmingly they were keen to have me back. And desperate to have the new GT40, so there was good starting money.” He was also able to choose his co-driver. “I said ‘Innes [Ireland] is good, and great fun’. Racing was always fun then. I hope it still is…”

It wasn’t fun when in the last half hour and leading, spokes began to snap in a front Borrani wire wheel and Sutcliffe was forced to let Richard Attwood’s Ferrari by to win by 100 yards. “I was distraught – it would have been a privateer GT40’s first international win.”

Like all the other GT40s the car switched onto Hallibrand alloys and Sutcliffe sailed on through the African ‘winter’ garnering experience in his new mount, not to mention three wins and two seconds from seven highly enjoyable races. “It was like club racing, but very thorough – the perfect gentleman’s way to go motor racing,” he recalls.

I could list every race here because we’re joined by Joe Twyman, who manages and races Roger Wills’ collection, and he has brought a big folder containing the car’s entire history, from the FAV order sheet onwards. He’s passionate about the research, and about this car. “It’s so original,” he says, showing me then and now photos. “It came with the same seats, gauges, scrutineer tags…” Growing up around old cars – his dad is long-time vintage racer Neil Twyman – he loves the history angle. It was he who tracked down the GT40 plates – “and we had a to buy a replica GT40 with them!” Aha… He would have applied for the number Sutcliffe ran with – but it transpires that was invented to make the car look road-legal.

Full of confidence, Sutcliffe returned to Britain with a busy season planned. “Dunlop and BP paid for consumables and were generous with bonuses, which helped make racing pay at my level,” he says. “I don’t think I ever had more than £6000 tied up in racing at any one time, and I was at the top of my particular tree. If you did well it could be a battle to show a loss and avoid paying tax! No sponsorship, of course. I’d have hated that – going round begging… I only had to pay for my mechanic.”

And on cue that mechanic walks into the clubhouse and joins us. John Pearson (father of Gary) looked after Peter’s D and E and kept the GT40 sharp race by race. “He paid me five bob a day and maybe some fish and chips,” he grins. “Sometimes we’d be at some foreign circuit with only a fiver to get home.”

“It was tight at times,” says Peter mildly, “which added a certain piquancy.”

“If he was well in the lead,” says John, “I’d call him in near the finish and fill the tank. Then we could transfer the fuel to the Land Rover.”

“I fitted a 50-gallon tank to my lorry,” adds Peter, “which we’d fill at the track. If things got tight we could always sell some fuel!”

“Peter was a better driver than he got credit for – quick and mechanically sympathetic,” John tells me while Peter talks to someone else. The someone else is touring car hero Paul Radisich who joins our expanding gang. He sometimes drives Wills’ cars at historic events – he, Peter and Joe all sprinted the GT40 up Goodwood’s hill, so he and Peter chat about driving it while John tells me about long trips hauling the Ford behind a Landie – “20mph uphill over the Alps!”

But that was the life of a privateer: long continental trips, repairing things on site. They carried few spares, John says, just rain tyres and a gearbox. “The motor was a standard 289 from Dearborn and pretty reliable, apart from head gaskets. We never changed ratios, either. The standard set was fine up to 200mph.”

Entering the high-profile sports car events, Sutcliffe had a good 1966 season in 1009, finishing well in the Tourist Trophy, placing fourth in the Spa 1000Kms with Brian Redman. “I loved Spa’s fast corners, and Brian was super to drive with – quick and careful, and fun,” he says. “Being Northerners we shared a sense of humour.” The fun element clearly matters. Who else was enjoyable company? “Richard Bond – I’d choose him for two-handers – and Mike Salmon was always huge fun.”

Still hoping for that major long-distance win, Peter and Henry Taylor tackled the Nürburgring 1000Kms (sixth) before Sutcliffe finally topped the podium – after 20 laps of Crystal Palace. “Not the ideal circuit, but you could slide a GT40, and you had to at the Palace. Huge fun!”

To close his season, a bit of a contrast: off to sunny Surfers Paradise in Australia for the Rothmans 12 Hours. Only Peter’s tyres didn’t arrive. “I sent Dunlop a stinking wire dumping them and fitted Firestones. That’s why I have these Firestone overalls.” Sharing with local hero Frank Matich, Sutcliffe, car and new tyres performed faultlessly, crossing the line four laps ahead of the rival Ferrari 250LM.

“I thought ‘brilliant – we’ve finally got a GT40 to win an endurance race’. Then we woke up next day to find we’d lost four laps and the Australian Ferrari had been given our win!” Ford Australia protested, but the organisers stuck to their decision that Sutcliffe’s lap-keeping (and many others) was wrong.

“We drove such a good race,” he says. “Our pitstops were perfect, far faster than anyone else.”

“How did you fill the tanks quickly?” It’s Roger Wills talking; he has nipped in between practice sessions to join the party. His stable may be large and his home in Moscow, but the New Zealand financier races his cars extensively. They discuss fuelling, tyres, handling – the first owner and the latest, still figuring how to tweak its performance.

“And how hard did you drive it?” Roger asks. Sutcliffe ponders: “Perhaps 90 per cent. I was so conscious of not blowing it up. That’s why I used to pray for rain. I was good in the wet. I could drive hard without stressing it, and a GT40 is hugely controllable.”

“A modern six-hour race is a six-hour sprint,” says Roger, who has been racing a 430 Ferrari GT2 in ILMS. “Everything data-logged, engineers saying ‘drive harder…’ ”

“Roger,” says Sutcliffe shaking his head, “I don’t think I could live in that world. For us it was just seat of the pants.” He talks of the camaraderie then, how rivals would help you out, then Roger asks if things ‘stepped up’ when F1 drivers were in the same race. “No. We all knew and trusted each other.”

Were sports cars seen as more dangerous? “Hugely. Three times the power of F1, and there were drains, kerbs, trees to hit. I was extraordinarily lucky – I had two man-sized accidents and stepped out of them.”

Peter told the Surfers Paradise story ruefully but without angst; it’s hard to tell if it was the honour or the prize money that riled him more. But it was an unsatisfactory end to 1966, because it was his last race in 1009. He’d already sold it to fellow privateer Ed Nelson and bought an experimental GT40 spider. That never handled well, but he had other horses to ride in ’67.

“I’d scored a lot of points for Ferrari in my GTO so I must have been on their books as a chap who could make it round a track. I got a call to come and meet Mr Ferrari to talk about Le Mans. Over lunch he threw me the key to a P4.”

At Le Mans, with Gunter Klass, the Ferrari failed, but in the BOAC 500 at Brands, when Ferrari clinched the title, Peter and Lodovico Scarfiotti brought the P4 home in fifth.

“Actually I passed the leading Chaparral thinking ‘God, Sutcliffe, you’re cool!’ But as we were a lap down it didn’t signify… A lovely way to finish my racing adventure, though.”

Despite the offer of a works Ferrari drive for ’68, Sutcliffe felt new fields called, and moved to South Africa and the steel industry. Now retired, he and his wife Liza spend six months here and six there, and he says he never missed the racing.

But 1009 went on competing. A GT40 was heavy but tough, and Ed Nelson used it hard, modifying it lightly to stay competitive. It still has his wider arches. “Well, they look good,” says Joe.

Through 1967 and ’68 Nelson entered dozens of races in South Africa and Europe, scoring some small victories, before selling the car to Malcolm Guthrie. He took it out once again for the 1968 Springbok series – but crashed in the first race. That was the end of its ‘in period’ race career. The damage wasn’t so bad, but to save time Guthrie bought a Mirage, then built up a lightweight special GT40 using 1009’s identity. But the real 1009 went as a complete entity to Brian Wingfield who rebuilt it, sprayed it yellow and used it on the road before selling it to the USA. There too it was a road car, before spending 25 years in storage. A waste, but at least it avoided further damage. And GT40 expert Ronnie Spain authenticated its identity, so when Wills got it, it was one of the least messed-with of the breed. It has now emerged from Precision Auto Restorations in Boston in exactly the spec it ran at Spa in 1966, a time when a private owner could buy a potential Le Mans winner.

“That era seems so glamorous to us now,” says Wills, getting up from the table to head out for another practice session.

“Glamorous?” Sutcliffe glances out over Woodcote, where 47 long years ago he first felt 1009 coming to life beneath him. “People say ‘gee, you were lucky’ but that’s just the way it was then. You did the best you could, tried to stay in profit, enjoyed yourself.”

Peter, to answer your earlier question, racing is still fun. It’s just a bit harder to make a profit…