Looking back with-Alan Brown

In the best company

In the years following the end of WW2, Britain produced an astonishing number of good racing drivers. The achievements of some, such as Moss, Hawthorn, Scott Brown, Lewis-Evans and Brooks, are justly celebrated, but below that level was a stratum of professional drivers capable of running in the best company, always reliable, and sometimes able to produce surprise results. One of their number was Alan Brown, who was one of Cooper’s first two works drivers.

Alan Brown is currently in what he calls “semi-retirement”, thinking of restarting in the garage business at the age of 67, and dreading the idea of slipping into inactivity. He fell in love with motor racing over half a century ago, and his beautiful sixteenth century Sussex home bears plenty of evidence of his passion. His study is lined with photographs, not only of himself at the wheel but of special heroes such as Fangio, Clark, McLaren and Moss.

Of the many trophies he won there is little sign, an exception being a splendid item of Regency silver displayed not because of the inscription (it was presented for winning the Daily Mail Trophy at Boreham in 1951) but because of the aesthetic pleasure it gives.

Born in Yorkshire in 1919, Alan grew up in the Guildford area, where his father had a farm. On the farm he had opportunities to tinker with vehicles and drive them, “I could drive before I ever sat in a car by watching how it was done.” His mother managed to get him taken on as an apprentice at Dennis Bros, maker of trucks, lawn mowers, fire engines and refuse carts. Alan’s commitment to cars and motor racing had already been confirmed, with trips to Brooklands and Donington.

Like many other young men of the time, he scented that war was coming and joined the Territorial Army as a truck driver. Finding himself near Reims in late 1939 he did what any right-thinking person would do in the circumstances — he tackled the lap record for an army truck.

Alan’s interviewer for a place at Clifton College for Officer Cadets was Capt Rodney Walkerley, The Motor’s racing correspondent. Alan must have kept his youthful hero-worship under control, for he was accepted and ended the war as a major in the Middle East.

For over a year he was self-employed, turning his hand to car repairs, paint spraying, anything. It was a frustrating period; he was rapidly approaching 30, the desire to go motor racing was still burning inside him and yet there seemed no way of achieving his ambition. Then came a stroke of luck. There was a vacancy for a salesman at Dennis Bros, and he was appointed Midlands rep.

He says: “On my rounds I came across a dealer called Bob Hamblin. We teamed up and sold a lot of trucks — and I do mean a lot. One day Bob said to me, ‘You’ve helped me make a lot of money and I’d like to do something for you.’ ‘Okay, buy me a racing car,’ I said. He looked askance until I explained about the Coopers and their 500cc car. Bob was as good as his word and bought me a Cooper, while I supplied the JAP engine. “I put it together with Gordon Bedson, a flight engineer with BEA, who went on to design most of the Kiefts. In 1949 I competed three times, coming second in class at the Great Auclum Speed Trials, fastest at Luton Hoe and third in my first race, the Blandford International. It was an encouraging start. I sold the first car to a woodchopper called Ken Tyrrell and bought another Cooper.

“With the JAP engine we weren’t going to get anywhere in 1950 but I took a few wins, mainly at Brands Hatch. I’d become friends with Eric Brandon and Jimmy Richmond and we laid plans for 1951, the first fully international year for the formula. Eric was a Cooper driver while Jimmy, being 22 stone and expanding, could not, but still wanted to be involved in racing.

“We persuaded Norton to let us have some engines, and John Cooper made us his works team. This meant we still bought our car, but at a discount, and Cooper co-operated with spares.” Translated, this means that the Ecurie Richmond drivers were able to get, say, wishbones off the shelf and were not shown the tube racks, jigs and welding torch and told to get on with the job. “Francis Beart looked after my engine, and I rate Beart as the number one.” Alan says. Ecurie Richmond flowered in 1951, and I would normally expect to finish one-two, and would sometimes toss a coin beforehand to decide the order, unless Moss was competing. Some people at the tirne said we had better equipment, but it was really a case of a more professional approach, because we didn’t have real money.”

With 500cc becoming the International F3 class in 1951, there were a number of European races. Being able to command starting money of perhaps £200 or more, Ecurie Richmond cleaned up in more ways than one. In the space of three days, Alan won the Luxembourg Grand Prix and finished second to Brandon at Silverstone. As well as many victories in Britain, Alan won abroad at Draguignan and Grenziandring, and finished the year runner-up to Stirling Moss for the BRDC Gold Star.

“By the end of the year John Cooper decided to build an F2 car, and Eric and I were to be the works drivers. Four were to be built initially, one being bought by Bob Chase for Mike Hawthorn. Since Eric lived close to the Cooper works, he made sure we got the very best parts, leaving the rest to this guy Hawthorn who, and not many people know this, had once been an apprentice at Dennis Bros.

“When we all turned out for testing, Hawthorn was so much quicker than either Eric or I it was embarrassing. He was five seconds a lap faster. He was running with a very special nitro fuel but I didn’t think that was the sole reason for the difference. Eric said not to worry, it would be okay when we started the season, but I knew we were up against someone very special.

“In fact the only time I ever beat Mike was when I took his girl friend, Ann, from him and married her.” They are still happily married, with two sons and a daughter. Noel, the younger son has just completed his first year in FF1600.

Alan’s assessment of Mike Hawthorn was correct. On Easter Monday at Goodwood, Mike became an overnight sensation by winning two races, and finishing second to Gonzales in the 41/2-litre Ferrari Thin Wall Special in a third, while Alan brought his car home first in a handicap. Hawthorn starred in the next major race, the Daily Express Intenational Trophy at Silverstone, though he was greatly delayed with gearbox problems in the final.

If Hawthorn was the new ‘golden boy’, it fell to Brown to give Cooper its first World Championship points, when he finished a creditable fifth in the 1952 Swiss Grand Prix. Another steady drive in the following race, at Spa, brought him sixth (Hawthorn was fourth). He finished last in the other two World Championship events in which he competed that year, the British GP (where he qualified in the top half of the grid) and the Italian (where the Coopers were a good 30mph slower on the straights than the Ferraris). He came equal 12th in the World Championship. Ecurie Richmond continued its winning ways in F3, a highlight being a win for Alan at Boreham with a lap record, which still stands but which he still does not believe, of 90.3 mph.

Eric Brandon, Alan’s team mate, had not enjoyed his transition to F2 as much, and the two men pursued different paths. In 1953 Brown was entered by Bob Chase in a Mk2 Cooper-Bristol under the banner Equipe Anglais. In the meantime he had become much in demand as a test driver for companies such as Kieft, HRG and Vanwall.

January 1953 saw him driving a works Cooper Bristol Mk1 in the Temporada. In the Argentine Grand Prix, President Peron ordered the organisers to open the gates to the vast crowds which hadn’t been able to get into Buenos Aires circuit. The result was people spilling onto the track, and Farina spun into them with fatal results.

“I was half a second behind when he had his accident, and the crowd mushroomed with people hitting my car.” Alan finished eighth, but retired in the Buenos Aires City GP at the sarne venue a fortnight later. “This time the place was nearly deserted”.

Back in Europe, he had a sketchy season with the Chase Cooper-Bristol, retiring in the British and German GPs and coming twelfth in the Italian. It was still a very busy season, since he was driving for Francis Beart in the Beart-Cooper F3 car, with which he had a great deal of success, and Bob Chase had a couple of other interesting Coopers to play with.

One was a Cooper-Bristol chassis fitted with a 1900cc Alfa Romeo engine and a Ferrari-style body, and modified to a de Dion rear axle set-up by Chase’s mechanic Bernie Rogers. “It was a dreadful car, no power at all and it wouldn’t handle. Eventually, when Duncan Hamilton tried to get it off the line at Goodwood, the back axle dropped off.”

The other Chase/Rogers production was the conversion of Mike Hawthorn’s F2 Cooper into a sports car. This served Alan well, and apart from a short period when it passed into other hands, he has been associated with it for more than 30 years. The three outstanding victories he had with it, all in 1954, were the British Empire Trophy (run as a handicap), the Dutch Grand Prix (run for sports cars) and, with Bob Said, the Hyeres 12-Hour race.

It fell to Alan to be the first works driver of the Vanwall Special, which in 2-litre form was entered for the 1954 Daily Express Trophy. He began promisingly enough from the front row in his heat, but the heavens opened and he was sixth when he had a monumental spin at Woodcote. He recovered to finish sixth and the first 2-litre car home, beating Rolt’s Connaught by two lengths. In the final, he lay fifth, and the leading 2-litre, when an oil pipe broke. It was to be his only race for Tony Vandervell, for “the Guvnor” had his eye on a promising youngster called Peter Collins.

That year, too, he turned out in Kenneth McAlpine’s Connaught ALSR (MCA 200) which he recalls as a “beautifully balanced and powerful car, but over-engineered. I held a class record at Brands Hatch for 13 years with that car.” For much of the season he struggled with Bob Chase’s new Cooper-Alta (he shudders at the recollection) while continuing to be a front runner in F3 with the Beart-Cooper.

Alan’s fruitful relationships with Bob Chase and Francis Beart ended for the 1955 season. He had moved on from F3, and Chase decided to run Mike Keen. It was an indifferent year; like so many professional drivers who flirt with GP racing, he had reached a plateau in his career. He still had his drives, but they were less frequent.

1956 saw him signed as a regular driver with Ecurie Ecosse, and he picked up some decent early-season places. Then at the International Trophy Meeting in May 1956, he got out of the Ecosse D Type, having finished fourth in a good field which included works Jaguars and Aston Martins, and announced he would race no more. He was approaching 37 and had achieved all he was going to do behind the wheel of a racing car.

At the time he was working for his friend, John Coombs, running a Ford main dealership. This he left, and set up a small garage with Ken Tyrrell, who had himself retired from racing following a nasty shunt at Goodwood. At the suggestion of Reg Tanner, Esso’s competitions manager, Alan and Ken, with Cecil Libovitz, began running an F2 Cooper which was entered as a works car.

This arrangement ran in 1957 and 1958, entering drivers such as Jack Brabham, Innes Ireland, Carroll Shelby, Harry Schell, Masten Gregory and Bruce McLaren. The garage was taking up a great deal of time, and Ken had other plans in mind and moved on. Shortly afterwards Alan was approached by Rodney Clarke to become the sales director at Connaught Engineering which, after the sale of its racing side, was continuing as a car dealership.

It was not long, however, before Rodney and Alan had a difference of opinion, which was resolved when the three other directors bought Clarke out and formed Connaught Cars (1959) Ltd, with Alan as managing director. The following year an agreement was reached with Paul Emery to use the Connaught workshops to produce a range of Emeryson racing cars, but it was not to be a long-lived association. “Paul was a doggedly independent man, a brilliant engineer but no businessman.”

During its brief life, the Connaught/Emeryson tie-up made a few F1 and FJ cars which, though not on a par with Coopers or Lotuses, at least launched the career of Mike Spence. A single Climax-powered sports car was successfully campaigned on the hills by Ray Fielding.

At Reg Tanner’s suggestion, and with Esso’s support, Alan imported a 1963 Ford Galaxie to offer some competition to the Willment car in British saloon car racing. Employing drivers of the calibre of Jim Clark, Dan Gumey, Masten Gregory and Jack Brabham, the Alan Brown Galaxie (and later a Mustang) was popular and frequently successful. “We gave it up in 1966 because neither Jack nor I had much stomach for the politics which were creeping in.”

Subsequently Alan entered Frank Gardner in a McLaren M1, owned a number of garage businesses, spent some time in California, and is now looking around for something else to occupy him.

A handful of Grands Prix does not amount to much in the history books but it is a great deal more than most drivers achieve. More than anything else, though, he enjoyed himself, at a time when racing was fun and the social life almost as hard as the sport itself.

Alan’s study is a treasure trove of nostalgia covering nearly 20 years’ close involvement with the sport. It was good to him not only in terms of the experiences he had but with the friends he made. He had his full measure of chances, and when he decided to hang up his helmet it was on his own terms. ML