The West Midlands is the heart of the British motor industry, but strangely, the building of competition cars is centred around trading estates in Huntingdon, Slough, and so on. However, racing cars have at last come to the “Black Country” with the formation of Lewis-Nunn Racing, producers of the Ensign.
The Ensign is the success story of the 1971 season so far, for Ensign Formula Three cars lead the chase for the Motor Sport Trophy, while abroad, the Ensign has already chalked up a major win. All this has been done on a minimum of resources thanks to the talent of a man named Morris Nunn.
The story completely revolves round Nunn, whose name has been well-known in racing circles for several seasons. A former motorcycle racer, Nunn was a partner in a small garage business in Walsall when the motor racing bug bit, in the mid-1960s. Success first came with a Lotus 23B sports car he raced in 1964, and then for the following year he decided to move up into Formula Two with sponsorship from a local industrialist and racing enthusiast, Bernard Lewis. A Lotus 22 was obtained, but running in F2 soon proved a failure and Nunn converted the car to F3 specification.
During that year, and subsequently in the following two seasons, with a Lotus 41 Nunn’s driving earned him the reputation as one of the fastest independents. He was also respected for his mechanical ability, for his self-preparation of the ageing Lotus 41 was always immaculate. During the winter months, having turned professional and left the garage, he soon gained a good reputation for racing car work. He used to build up cars out of kits of parts, carry out crash damage repair, and so on.
His big break came in 1969 when he was offered a drive for Gold Leaf-Team Lotus in the Formula Three squad alongside American Roy Pike in the new Lotus 59s. Everything did not go quite to plan, for he experienced a lot of engine trouble throughout the year and he had a generally disappointing season. For 1970 he decided to make a move into Formula 5000, driving one of the new Lola T190s for the Doug Hardwick team. The T190 model took a lot of sorting, and after disagreements over various aspects of the policy of Hardwick Racing, Nunn left the team and effectively his driving career was over.
He looked around for another drive for a while but no one seemed interested and he disappeared off the racing scene. What in fact he had decided to do was turn constructor, for during his period of racing he had always assimilated the technical information fed to him by various racing car designers and particularly Dave Baldwin of Lotus. Though he had no formal training he felt he could produce a car from the lessons learned, which would show the others a thing or two. A bold idea perhaps, but few people would have rated Nunn as a budding McLaren, Brabham or Surtees. But Bernard Lewis had always liked Nunn’s determination and he promised to help Nunn with some finance towards the first project—a Formula Three car.
The name Ensign was chosen for no good reason apart from the fact that it sounded a racing car sort of name.
By June, Nunn had most of the drawings of the car complete, and by September of last year he was seen on the racing circuits again, surreptitiously measuring up such details as gear linkages and so on. The secret was out although he confessed that he had no plans for production and just wanted to get the prototype tested.
For workshops he was using his own little garage alongside his house in Cheslyn Hay near Walsall, and in it he built up the first chassis, a square tube design with the area forward of the engine featuring strengthening by aluminium pontoons which also contain the fuel tanks. In fact, the chassis could exist without these but would not be rigid as there is no cross-bracing, so the aluminium sections are really an integral part of the chassis. Nunn had been impressed with the shape of the Lotus 72 Formula One car which, at that time, was winning regularly with Jochen Rindt at the wheel. He styled his F3 car on the 72, using Chapman’s theory of side radiators and a chisel-shaped nose.
At this stage the assistance of a local boat-building firm, Fletcher Engineering who, for a short period, built Mini-based road cars, proved invaluable, and they built the extremely attractive bodywork in glass fibre. In fact, Nunn relates that there were no drawings for the body at all apart from a few sketches. He took the chassis to the Fletcher works and stood over the men for three solid days while they moulded a body to his liking. The result is undoubtedly the prettiest Formula Three car presently racing.
One of the clauses in Morris Nunn’s partnership agreement with Lewis was that he was not to get involved with the driving side of the project. So when the car was complete in December it was Lewis’s son-in-law, Alan Rollinson, who carried out the initial test programme. It was obvious almost from the moment the car first turned a wheel that Nunn had done his sums right. Particularly impressive was the car’s speed in a straight line, while the conventional wishbone and link suspension did its job admirably.
The months of hard work had proved well worthwhile, and whe. the car made a late appearance at the January Racing Car Show on the Astrali Steering Wheels stand it attracted a tremendous amount of favourable comment. At this stage Nunn was hardly prepared to accept orders for replicas, although some people were very keen to force deposits into his hand. In fact the only order he took was from Steve Thompson, who was really in the family! He came from Walsall, was Alan Rollinson’s cousin, and during the past season had won some 15 Formule Libre races.
Meanwhile, Nunn decided to race the prototype car in Formula Three, but as Rollinson was committed to a Formula Two programme he chose Hampshire driver Bev Bond who had, in fact, replaced Nunn in Gold Leaf-Team Lotus for 1970 but subsequently left at the end of the year. Support for the racing team was enlisted from Bob Howlings, the Manchester racing car and spares dealer. Entered under the title of “Bob Howlings Racing with Team Ensign” the gleaming British Racing Green Ensign turned up for the opening Championship Formula Three race at Brands Hatch in March. It was almost a story-book win as Bond pulled out a good lead over Colin Vandervell’s Castrol Brabham. Then a spin dropped him down the field, but driving brilliantly he made up the lost time, caught Vandervell, and the pair sprinted to the line side by side. In fact the Brabham driver just got the verdict by a nose cone.
But a couple of weeks later at the same circuit Bond made no mistake about it and won in fine style. Since then he has always been right up at the front in all the Championship races, and to our knowledge has contested the lead of all but one of them, and that was when a different make of engine to Holbay was being used. There have also been a couple of spills but hardly any damage. As we go to press Bond leads the championship table for the Motor Sport Trophy, although he is being challenged by his former teammate Dave Walker in the Gold Leaf-Team Lotus 69.
Equally impressive has been the performance of young Thompson in the first production car which sported a chassis built by Racing Frames, rather than by Nunn himself. His car was delivered at the end of April, and after a couple of races during which he learned the car, he set pole position for the important Zandvoort race in May. Unfortunately his engine blew up, but a week later he drove to an excellent fourth at Monaco (the works car was not present), and then the following day he won against top French opposition at Montlhéry. Since then Thompson has been right at the front, his blue and white car showing the equal speed of the works machine.
All this, and particularly the performances of private owner Thompson, have had the customers pleading with Nunn to build them Ensigns. A potential French customer even came knocking on his door at home one Sunday afternoon, and there have been enquiries from all over Europe and America.
So far Nunn has fended off these people by quoting long delivery dates, for there are some aspects of his business which still need to be sorted out. The most pressing one is of premises, for despite looking around the area he has not found anywhere suitable yet and is still working out of his cramped garage at home. However, as we go to press it seems this problem is about to be solved. Once it is, then Nunn has various people lined up for jobs to implement his present staff of two, himself and mechanic Simon Arkless. Only then will he go into production with Ensigns, and there should still be quite a few customers around. He is already working on a car for 1972 and intends that Team Ensign will move into F2.
Nunn is known in the racing circles as “Mo”, and this balding, cheerful character with a black country accent seems to have taken to his new role as designer/constructor exceptionally well. If the yearn to drive again still exists then it doesn’t show, and he hasn’t more than sat in the car. His pretty wife Sylvia is usually on hand at race meetings with their three children to provide tea and sympathy.
In its early days the Ensign project has proved remarkably successful, although one has the feeling that, despite his modesty, Nunn was sure he had a winner on his hands. That he can build race-winning cars is already an established fact. Now Nunn has to surmount an equally difficult hurdle and show that he can make a commercial success out of it.—A. R. M.