God's speed

Chaplain to both Queen and BRDC, Canon Lionel Webber is the force behind the remarkable Retro 97, taking place in and around Basildon on July 5. Simon Taylor meets a unique character.

Lionel Webber is a man of God, he is Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral and Chaplain to the Queen. And, for more than 20 years, he’s been Rector of Basildon. Around the sprawling Essex New Town he’s a familiar figure: baptising, marrying and burying, sitting on town committees and parish councils, visiting the elderly and the infirm, helping the young and the homeless, tackling with hustling energy and high good humour the endless seven-days-aweek tasks of his calling.

But Lionel Webber is also, to the bottom of his cassock, a motor racing enthusiast. Parked outside his church is his red 3.0-litre Alfa Romeo 75, bearing the registration J3 REV. On his study walls are paintings of Michele Alboreto and Gerhard Berger, of Hawthorn and Collins, of Jimmy Clark. Motor racing history books are split equally with the religious volumes on his shelves.

His love and understanding of the motor racing world and its people make him the inevitable choice to mark the passing of one of its number. The service he conducted for Denis Jenkinson, a non-Christian, was an extraordinary exercise in liberal judgement and sympathy. He told the congregation that Jenks was now in another place, saying hello to Fangio and Senna, then arguing vociferously with God that He did not exist. He clearly knew Jenks well…

Lionel’s love of motor racing dates back-to his early post-war trips to Silverstone in the Swallow sidecar of his grandfather’s 16H Norton, his father on the pillion. They cheered on his grandfather’s hero, Villoresi, to win that first post-war international in 1948, and celebrated at The Green Man on the way home. Now, as British Racing Drivers’ Club chaplain, he counts Silverstone as his second home.

After national service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers — driving a Sherman tank on the vehicle training course — he spent three years in an Anglican monastery. “Dad sent me MOTOR SPORT every month, and during meditation l would hide it in the folds of my cassock, put my hood over my head and catch up on Jenks and The Bod.”

Sunday is always his busiest day, of course, so his circuit visits tend to be for practice and testing, but on Grand Prix weekends his services are carefully timed. “The other Sunday we had an afternoon service for the Scouts, which I delayed until after the TV coverage had finished. Then I announced the result in church for those who were interested.”

When Lionel conducted a moving service of thanksgiving for the life of Duncan Hamilton, his son Adrian proffered a case of wine in gratitude.

Lionel (who likes his pint) refused the wine, but asked instead for a ride in the 1953 Rolt/ Hamilton Le Mans-winning Jaguar C-type. Adrian responded by tossing him the keys and telling him to take it away for a couple of hours. “It was unbelievably moving, driving this car that had scored such a great British victory with two great British drivers. After a good blast, driving in my dog-collar and shirtsleeves, I pulled into a side road and just sat there, thinking about it. I had tears in my eyes.”

Lionel wears his collar at all times, but says, “I’m not the sort of bloke who’s always out looking for converts.” He remembers going to a Crystal Palace race meeting as a boy and being astonished to see a clergyman in the paddock. “I thought, what’s he doing here? What’s all this got to do with him? “

And at one of the practice days for last year’s British Grand Prix I was wandering down the pit lane, and I stopped to take a close look at the suspension and brakes of Schumacher’s car. The Ferrari mechanics were delighted and made a big fuss of me. I think they reckoned that for qualifying that afternoon they were going to have the Church on their side!”

He enjoys finding God in rather unexpected places. “God’s a bit bigger than all the rubbish we try to enclose him in. I was at the Coys Silverstone meeting last year, looking at a front-engined Ferrari Dino F1 car. I stood and ogled it for a few moments, and then I said, aloud: ‘Only God could have designed that’. A man passing by heard me, grinned, and said: ‘You’re absolutely right’.”

Ferraris are a special favourite. Fiat UK, which has supplied a minibus for him to bring the disabled of the parish to church, lent him a Ferrari 348GTB for a weekend. “The man who delivered it was showing me how the radio worked. I said: ‘If you think I’m going to be playing the radio when I’ve got that heavenly music roaring away just behind my left car, you must be crackers.”

Now Lionel is embarking, with his usual relentless enthusiasm, on a which combines his love of motor-racing with the life of his community in Basildon. St Martin’s is a modern church and has no steeple, and Lionel wants it to have the world’s first glass-and-steel freestanding tower, 90 feet high, to hold a peal of bells from a redundant church in nearby Colchester which dates back to 1431. A grant has come from the Millenium Commission, but further money has to be raised.

Lionel’s knowledge of local motor racing history tells him that 75 years ago a speed hilldimb was held at the village of Laindon, now within the New Town area. The huge entry included the likes of Parry Thomas, Leon Cushman, Woolf Barnato (campaigning an Hispano Suiza in his pre-Bentley days), Raymond Mays and Archie Frazer-Nash. Lionel’s idea is to celebrate the anniversary with Retro 97, a remarkable fund-raising event on the public roads around Basildon.

Once Canon Webber has an idea, he’s very hard to stop. His local influence is such that the Essex Police, the Chief Executive of the City Council, the District Engineer and the Fire Service have all bowed to Lionel’s enthusiasm. A 3.4-mile road circuit will be closed to traffic for the afternoon of Saturday, July 5, and a heart-warming display of cars and drivers will take to the roads, led by drivers of the calibre of Stirling Moss in a Maserati 250F and Chris Amon in a Formula One Ferrari.

The Gordon Bennett Napier from the National Motor Museum, the Parry Thomas Leyland Eight from Gaydon and many other wonderful machines have been promised, from a Gulf Mirage to the ram CanAm Ferrari, from a Jaguar D-type to the XJ13, a DB3S, a Gulf Mirage, a Type 57 Bugatti, an Indianapolis Lotus and many more. As this is the 70th anniversary of Archie Scott Brown’s birth there should also be some Lister-Jaguars in evidence. There will be motor club displays and trade stands, tea and wine throughout the afternoon, and in the evening, a champagne reception, followed by a celebration dinner and charity auction to be conducted by Brooks. Lionel’s enthusiasm has even persuaded the chef and staff of a top London hotel to provide the catering.

It sounds like a most unusual day, but then Lionel Webber is truly a most unusual man. His wife Jean tolerates his love of cars, which include not only the Alfa (“trouble with that registration number is that it’s like driving with your trousers down — if you carve somebody up they know immediately who you are”) but also a Series I Jaguar XJ6, campaigned in the occasional historic rally, and a 1965 MG Midget, found as a wreck and which Lionel has mystifyingly found time over the years to restore. He’s also owned a Mini Cooper, Frogeye Sprite, Lotus-Cortina, RS2000, Audi Coupe and other Alfas. In his youth he had a drive in an F3 Cooper, and he’s also done the odd serious rally, “but I was never any damn good”.

But Good is just what he is. This is a good man, spreading his own joyous view of what life is really about. And it works, too: spend an hour with him, and you leave feeling better than when you arrived. When the new bell-tower at St Martin’s is finished, it’s good to think that Lionel’s love of motor racing will have garnered some of the funds to build it. On July 5 you should beat a path to Basildon to see his historic pageant and watch knowing that, as you do so, you will be helping a little too.