Racing the way it was
Giving up a job to go motor racing shows serious commitment – especially when funds are tight
Odd how one thing triggers another. Since I wrote about Roger Nathan, his name keeps cropping up – for instance, when talking with John Markey, who runs the private sales wing of H&H Auctions. Although he has now mostly retired from racing to concentrate on the business from its showroom at Hindhead, he was a prolific racer who ran the Targa Florio, became a works saloon driver and got to Formula 1 – or at least Formule Libre in an ex-F1 machine. And he was one of Roger Nathan’s happy customers, buying and racing one of the eponymous timber-monocoque machines. “Roger was onto a winner there. It was very light, handled well,” he says of the wooden wonder, “but people were scared of the timber construction.” Nevertheless it was the Costin-Nathan he took to the punishing Targa Florio – and not as you might assume backed by a healthy private income but scraping together the cash for a season race by race. It takes you back to a way of racing life long gone.
It began with a Lotus 6: “That was a cheap way in – a racing car I could use on the road. It was my everyday car, and I went on holiday in it!”
Trading up via a tweaked Mini to a broken Emery GT in which he fitted a Cosworth – “an absolute flyer!” – then a Diva GT – “a disaster, a travesty. Couldn’t make it handle, but then no one could” – and a Ginetta, he began to race abroad in the World Sportscar Championship, getting to experience Spa, the Nürburgring and Vila Real in Portugal. “A fabulous circuit. Yes, there were cobbles and lamp-posts and tramlines, but that’s the way it was. We didn’t consider the dangers then, it was just the way you raced. You had a choice – you didn’t have to go…”
Markey did have a job – with his engineering background he became technical manager at Fiat’s UK operation – but chucked it in to race full time, even if that meant pulling pints off-season just to pay for his racing. “It was an obsession,” he says. “I’d have sold my soul to race.” That was a deal he didn’t have to do, as far as we know, but by 1966 he was part of the travelling Brit pack who turned up wherever start money was on offer, many sleeping in their vans.
“We were gypsies,” he says. “After a race at Vila Real we’d ring Paul Watson, who negotiated our entries and start money, saying ‘what next?’. He’d say ‘there’s a hillclimb in Switzerland’ so we’d go there, then ring home again and find there was £200 on offer for a race in Sweden, so off we’d go.” It was a hand-to-mouth existence that went wrong in Italy. “With my friend in his Chevron B8 I did the 1000Kms at Monza, on the banked circuit, then set off to Sicily for the Targa Florio with my Costin-Nathan towed behind my Maserati 3500. But that was worthless then – just a few hundred quid. It broke down on the way but the Maserati factory fixed it – free, because we were going to the Targa. I got to Sicily but my co-driver didn’t turn up so I had to fish for another.” Through Jo Bonnier he found someone, the nephew of a Bolivian tin millionaire, but after John had put the Nathan ahead in the class, his co-driver took over, crashed, and walked away. “He just never reappeared,” says John, clearly still riled. “by the time I could collect the car everyone had gone and I didn’t get my start money. I had nothing in my pocket – I got to the autostrada and couldn’t pay the toll. The police gave me a lift to Bologna so I could have some money wired from my bank.”
Things became more settled in 1970 when John went to BMW, where as competitions manager he would later manage the dealer team in the vigorous ETC, while in 1969 he took on that Formula 1 Cooper-Maserati, once steered by Jochen Rindt and Vic Elford. “I bought that from Colin Crabbe,” Markey recalls, “for £1500 including two spare engines, and I drove it round the streets of Bourne to try it out!” After some Formule Libre fun he came back to sports cars, driving Paul Gresham’s ex-Willment Lotus 30 – and here’s a comment I’ve not heard before. “Bloody good car, the 30! And bloody quick – it matched a McLaren M6B fastest lap at Brands.” Much modified and updated to 40 spec, and latterly packing a full Weslake GT40 unit, that device ran in the funky Pink Stamps livery and John posted three seasons of success in it “until the fat wheels broke an upright and sent me into the bank at Mallory!”
Things got tough for BMW Concessionaires in the mid-70s, what with recession and the three-day week, and Markey opted to leave – “they gave me a CSL!” – before landing a Toyota works seat in saloons and then racing those piercing Group 2 Mazda RX-3s in Production Saloons and the ETC with David Palmer. “Mazda gave us some help but we prepared the cars ourselves. Sad – that could have been competitive if Mazda took it seriously. They made 230bhp and revved like hell, but it was not a lovely noise. Ralph Broad made an official complaint about it, and I’m still deaf in one ear!” That was still a bit shoestring, “although a sweets firm backed us. We practically lived on those sweets in the season.”
Somewhere in the mix Markey raced an AMC Spirit with a Formula 5000 engine – “Hopeless. I was always one for lost causes…” and a 660bhp McLaren M6, the machine he recalls with most longing. A Mazda-powered Thundersports Ginetta provided a not hugely triumphant wrap-up to John’s three decades of racing in the mid-1980s – “the Walkletts were 30 years behind the times” – before he formed a restoration business with Peter Colborne-Baber. “We built Proteus C- and D-type replicas very, very carefully – too carefully to make money on them.”
With the rise of historic racing he and Peter began to prepare classics for competition before deciding to follow different paths, John’s to H&H Auctions to create a private sales operation. “Some vendors don’t like the publicity of an auction,” he says, “and some worry that if their car doesn’t sell first time, people may shy away from it afterwards.” That’s why John is based at the company’s Hindhead showroom where customers can pore over a car without the time pressure of an auction viewing, and negotiate in private.
For someone in the business he’s very frank about the market. “I don’t like what’s happened in the last five years – cars in the hands of investors, not enthusiasts. How can an E-type be worth more than £100,000? There are thousands of them.” Does that mean he foresees a bubble burst? “No, I’m not convinced there will be a collapse. In 1989-90 it was triggered by the banking crisis, as it was all borrowed money. Now it’s all cash – these people own these cars. But the market is levelling out.”
Perhaps John should have cashed in his Ferrari Testarossa (1980s version), but he enjoys driving it too much, in between the MGB and Austin Big Seven. He has returned to racing in historics too, sharing various cars at Spa, Le Mans Classic and Silverstone Classic with his son Stephen who coaches drivers and prepares historic cars. And there’s a Costin-Nathan in H&H’s Chateau Impney sale this month, which John’s been poring over with Roger Nathan…
When left was right
Trust Motor Sport’s readers to answer an abstruse query
Success. Last month I posed readers the challenge of digging out an example of a left-hand-drive car with a left-hand gearchange. Step forward Nick Anderson from Crawley, who points me to the Riley Pathfinder which topped the British company’s range in the mid-1950s. This large, sophisticated 2.4-litre twin-cam four-door came well equipped – a heater was standard, not the norm in the Fifties – and offered buyers the choice of either two comfortable front seats or a full-width bench.
Which meant finding somewhere for the gearlever. Presumably Riley, with its proud reputation for quality engineering, did not feel a column change with its inevitable ‘ankles and elbows’ jointing was going to be good enough, especially given the substantial re-engineering needed between right- and left-hand-drive variants. Instead, customers received the straighter, more positive linkage of a floor-by-the-door change nudged into the outside corner of the bench – on whichever side the steering wheel found itself.
Just to prove it, Nick found a left-hooker example (top) for sale at Netherlands classic car dealer Lex Classics, whose pictures I’ve borrowed.
Nick, I’m sorry we don’t do prizes, but give yourself a pat on the back.
Round Britain whizz
A coastal adventure for E-type owners – and all to raise funds for a good cause
Fancy driving your E-type Jaguar around the coast of Britain? E-type expert Philip Porter wants to hear from you – but don’t worry, he isn’t going to make you do the whole 3600-mile periphery. The plan is a relay run by the E-type Club, which Philip founded, formed of 18 one-day stages of about 200 miles a time starting near Goodwood right after the Revival and running from September 12–29.
Participants can do just one stage or as many as their stamina holds out for, the overall aim being to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. To that end passenger rides will be auctioned off for each day. Porter himself, a top author and historian of the model, will drive one of his two historic E-types, 848 CRY, which as well as having a busy race history in period went on to appear in the film The Italian Job. Let’s hope they don’t meet any sinister black Fiat Dinos on a mountainside. More details from [email protected]