Home-made hero

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136

In just two years Peter Westbury became Britain’s top hillclimber — in a self-built car. Then he hit the tracks. By Gordon Cruickshank

Too bad there weren’t any mobile ‘phones in 1971, or Peter Westbury might be in the Formula One record books. When BRM needed a driver for the Italian Grand Prix the team rang for him – but he was on holiday and out of contact. So they called Peter Gethin instead. Result? Gethin: perpetual fame as the fastest GP winner ever. Westbury: a nice suntan.

Not that recognition has ever bothered Westbury too much. He’s twice been British hillclimb champion, but he got just as much pleasure out of building the car. He’s a grand prix driver (by the skin of his teeth) but he’s more proud of his unsung contribution to circuit safety. He keeps a yacht in the West Indies, but got a kick out of building his own house extension.

He seems mildly surprised that anyone wants to dig up ancient motoring history, but settles down with a mug of tea to recall how a mechanical mind got him into cars, planes and boats.

“My dad was a frustrated engineer who let me build a special I’d planned since I was 14 – a Buckler chassis, Falcon body, MGA engine, and disc brakes scrounged from Abingdon’s Le Mans MGA.” It also gave him his first taste of competition. “I came up against Jenks in his Porsche in my first sprint and I beat him!”

After a degree in mechanical engineering, instead of moving into industry he moved out of London, to this pretty village among the North Downs woods where we’re sitting, and began to build cars. Keen to get into competition, he installed someone to run the family importation business and set up Felday Engineering. “It was just a front to let me compete. But my wife wouldn’t let me circuit race, so I went hillclimbing.”

In 1961 he bought a Formula Two Cooper but couldn’t make it perform uphill, so he decided it needed a serious power boost. Four-pot Climax out, Daimler V8 lump in. It took plenty of re-engineering and an all-new wishbone suspension on the rear, but through ’62 it painted Westbury’s name all over the hills. It was his first season of driving, yet he was beating the top climbers; Arthur Owen, that year’s champion, predicted that he’d be the next king of the hills.

At a soaking Shelsley he set a target nothing else could reach, even Tony Marsh’s superfast BRM. “It was just so tractable,” he recalls with glee. “You stuck it in gear and it would just potter off up the hill.” Motoring News picked him out as a future star in its Personality Parade, “despite being virtually unknown at the beginning of the year”. They also mentioned “the fastest beard in hillclimbing” the little goatee he wore then, and still does.

His plan for ’63 was simple: shed weight and add torque. Over the winter he cut away the back of a Lotus 20 Formula Junior chassis to make room for the Daimler unit, and added a supercharger on top, sucking through a huge 2in SU carb. A new rear end had reversed lower wishbones and twin radius arms, all built by Westbury in his workshop. If you ask how he knew about suspension geometry, he shrugs: “It’s just engineering. I just learned about setting-up as I went along. We used to go to Brands sometimes to try things out, but you could only do four laps before it ran out of fuel or got too hot.” Yet you get the impression a lot of thinking went on first

With its tall, angular body and upswept megaphones the Felday-Daimler looked like nothing else on the hills, and with 200 shrieking bhp, went like nothing else too. A string of wins and a clutch of records propelled Westbury to the title Arthur Owen had predicted the year before. How to follow that? Lofty England, MD of Jaguar, sent over the 4.5-litre version of the Daimler V8, but Westbury did not bite: “It sat outside for months; eventually I put it into my Bedford transporter. It would do 100mph fully loaded!”

Instead he was tempted by new technology. He had become great friends with mechanic Alf Francis, then working for Rob Walker nearby: “Alf introduced me to Tony Rolt of Fergusons, who had built the 4WD P99 Formula One car. I think it was Alf who suggested that an ignorant driver like me might suit the P99 because I had no preconceived notions from circuit racing.”

Since Stirling Moss’s single win in the car in 1961, it had been an awkward oddity that few liked to drive – a solution looking for a problem. Now someone had done the maths: if the problem was ascending Prescott PDQ, then P99 might equal FTD. “And it worked. I could make that car do things other people hadn’t managed,” Peter recalls. Boosted by the 2-5-litre machine’s double grip and lacking everyone else’s reservations about the car’s balance, Westbury did it again. British hillclimb champion 1964.

Not only that, but he was so confident of the title that he ran a parallel exercise abroad, in the European Mountain Championship. This involved a BRM V8-powered Lotus 23 and those, long, long climbs we’ve never had here: “I loved it, really loved it. I had to do enough meets here to win the title, but I missed some of them to go to Europe.” It grabbed him enough to plan a serious assault on the mountains for 1965.

Impressed by the feel of 4WD and the power of the BRM engine, he decided to marry them together. BRM had commissioned a 4WD transmission for the small V8 when all the F1 teams thought that was the way ahead, so parts existed already. But typically Westbury didn’t follow the simple path of converting the 23; he sat down and planned, and built, a full monocoque hull. This elaborate folded steel structure had to allow room for a rear engine, front gearbox, and two propshafts, and it was no small feat to build it at Felday’s workshop in Forest Green. This was at the end of 1964, when most race-car builders were still watching Lotus to see if the monococque 25 was a quantum leap or one of Colin’s feints.

But BRM was very slow to provide the transmission parts, and as complexities mounted, the ’65 season ticked away. It was only at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day that the Felday 4, looking like a butch Lotus 23, hit the track. Fate scripted the perfect ‘little guy’ debut. Rain fell, and the Felday leapt away from the pack to one win and a second place. Suddenly Westbury was a track name, too; that second place was his in his first-ever race: “I’d had professional drivers testing it, but I found I could go quicker. At which point I decided I was going racing whether my wife liked it or not”

As he says, 1966 was “a messy year” with few outings. But he did get the chance to advise the world’s greatest driver. Jim Clark was without a run for the Guards Trophy at Brands, and Peter offered the Felday. Clark couldn’t get the hang of the car in practice. “I knew Jim well,” says Westbury. “He and I both had Twin Comanches, and he, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and I would often be found talking flying.” Discussing the problem, Peter said, “you’re just not accelerating early enough; try it four yards earlier than you think possible”. Three laps later Clark was 4sec quicker. In the race he’d made fastest lap when the engine dumped its oil and he was black-flagged.

Tyre advances soon sidelined 4WD, but BRM continued F1 experiments, using Westbury as test driver. In fact he ‘bought’ the 4WD car: “Alfred Owen [BRM’s chairman] would not compete on a Sunday for religious reasons, but it was OK if someone else owned the car. So he sold it to me for 5/-. And when they heard Jimmy was going to Ollon-Villars with the Indy-winning Lotus, they sent me along to duff him up! Of course, it broke down.”

By now driving looked a better deal than building, so in 1967 Westbury bought three Brabham BT23s and went Formula Three racing, with Mac Daghom and Derek Bell. He pulled off his first international victory at Silverstone – in just his sixth race. The year after, driving for Graham Warner’s Chequered Flag outfit, he took the French F3 title: “I got paid a lot better over there. I was much better known in France, Italy, Germany, and I still get fan mail from there; almost none from here.”

The money might have been better abroad, but it did not quite stretch to F2, as Westbury found next. In 1969 he stood in for Derek Bell who had just signed for Ferrari. And discovered a new skill – slipstreaming: “My first F2 drive was at Monza, and I was quickest except for the works Ferraris. I’d never sat in an F2 nor seen Monza before. We were lapping at 150mph – for a hillclirnb guy this was daft. But I just hate slow circuits, and I loved the old Monza, where you didn’t lift off”

Buying his own Brabhams, he raced in the European F2 series for four years. As a privateer it was a struggle against richer teams, but he did well to score points in each year: “My budget was too tight. I was making one engine last three races. And it was always last year’s unit. But I was learning the Nürburgring bit by bit, and I loved that; they paid me serious money to go there.”

His memory for circuits was an asset. At the ‘Ring in 1970 he beat his friend Jochen Rindt, in a works Lotus, to pole by 2.5sec — but had to ease off in the race, coming third: “I couldn’t afford to write the car off.”

The same year he got a call from BRM — stand by for the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The big time — nearly. While practising, the engine put a rod out. End of F1 career — apart from that Monza near miss in ’71. And he’s perfectly sanguine about his friend’s good fortune. “That’s just how it was then. They couldn’t find me, so Pete got it. Never mind, eh?”

Meantime he was also driving sports Lolas for Scuderia Filipinetti, and their Ferrari 512P at Le Mans with Mike Parkes: “A cow of a car. Just too big and lumbering; but fun too. It just sat on Mulsanne at 218mph and you had a snooze, as long as you didn’t miss your braking point.”

Sicily was the scene of another challenge — the ’71 Targa Florio in Filipinetti’s Lola T212: “I walked most of the 46 miles over five days, until I could run a film in my mind of the whole circuit.” When Mike Parkes had a fuel problem on lap one, Peter took over —68th out of 70 runners. “Three laps later we were 10th and I’d broken our lap record. Boy, was I angry. But it showed I’d learnt the circuit” They ended up fifth overall.

There were a few saloon drives, and a seat in Col Ronnie Hoare’s Daytona at Le Mans in ’72, but that year Peter decided to wind up Felday and switch to management, running F2 Renault-Alpines for John Coombs. Team politics soon drove him out of that; yet he continued to visit circuits.

“Jo Bonnier got me co-opted into the Grand Prix Drivers Association in 1970. Yes, I’d been ninth in the German GP in my F2 Brabham; but what did it was that I was the only driver with an engineering degree, and they wanted a safety delegate who could talk to engineers.” For four years he licensed circuits around the world. “I once had to sneak out of a hotel in Brazil the back way because I wouldn’t license the local circuit and the Brazilian journalists wanted my blood.” Once again it was internal politics which turned him away, to the more relaxed sport of sailing large catamarans. And he turned his passion for flying into an earner, becoming a freelance executive jet pilot

Nowadays he’s more or less retired, still in the same house, still keeping an eye on the family firm. “I’m happiest pottering in my workshop,” he says cheerfully, possibly forgetting his two current projects — digging a croquet lawn into the Surrey hillside and repairing fire damage on the 50ft catamaran he keeps in Trinidad.

After so many years away from the sport, he’s being drawn in again. He’s just been invited to join Les Anciens Pilotes, and is due to demonstrate the newly restored Felday-Daimler at the Goodwood Festival: “And I’d really love to drive the P99 again.” Just a hint to its owner…

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