The Racing Mechanics



Continued from the March Issue

”Alf” Francis

In order that there shall be no misunderstanding at the outset, the writer would like to make clear that he has never met the subject of this present article, and, to show how the years pass, when your Editor ‘phoned the other day and said in a commanding time, “What about ‘doing Francis?”, he replied with what dignity be could muster, “Bill, I’m so sorry to be so out of date on motor racing these days, but who is Alf Francis?” All of which is of course, disgraceful in the extreme, but, needless to add, Boddy was very right, and to exclude from this series the man who, in large measure, has been associated with the Moss successes would be absolutely unpardonable.

Under the sting of the editorial rebuke, a letter was at once dispatched northwards to an appropriate address, and in two days’ time back came one of the nicest replies ever, full of praise for “his” driver, and written in that refreshing Continental style of absolute frankness and cheerfulness which our own nation seems to lack, signed “A. Francis. Alf.” Which seemed at once to put us on good terms, and to a limited extent absolve the writer from the crime of his personal ignorance.

The Francis story is notable for the confirmation it gives of the truly ecumenical nature of craftsmanship, especially as applied to the technicalities of motor racing. Its influence stretches beyond national barriers and finds final fulfilment between man and man alone, in mutual personal respect and joy in the doing of a good job.

“You don’t work for Stirling so much as with him,” Francis says.

The son of a Polish garage, proprietor. Francis is now some 37 years old, and his career started way back when he served a three-year course in mechanics, and then became apprenticed to his late father’s business. Came the tragedy of 1939, when young Alf joined the Polish Army and saw the murder of Warsaw at first hand. To us, perhaps, a man playing the piano in the moonlight; to him the end of his native city and everything that represented home and kindred.

He was taken prisoner, but escaped to Roumania, where temporarily he found employment as a specialist in oil engines. When the grey hordes threatened again he took his departure to France, re-joined the Polish Army, only again to sense the bitterness of retreat against hopeless odds. When France fell he was evacuated to the U.K. With the help of the Army authorities he set to and gradually mastered the English language, and in 1944 passed as a Master Motor Mechanic with the Polish Ministry of Industry and Transport Commission. He married that same year and departed for the Normandy “do” with the 1st Polish Armoured Division, and finished up in Germany when Hitler finally rid the world of his own filthy presence.

Now, with a small daughter to care for, poor Francis, like so many others, watched from afar the final sadness of his native land, and set his face to rebuild life, anew, with nothing but his skill and a happily married background. He began in London, where opportunity offered as a semi-skilled fitter, but rapidly rose to a better position, until, at his wife’s suggestion, he tried motor-racing work. In 1948 he joined George Abecassis as his chief mechanic with the Grand Prix Alta, and was with Abecassis and Heath when these two decided to build the first H.W.M. Then came the ever-memorable Continental seasons of the H.W.M. folk, which did so much to ensure that at least some “wearing of the green” took place where it counted most, with Alf as head mechanic. As a direct result, the meeting with Moss followed, when Stirling joined the team. In Alf’s own words: ” … end of 1949 met Mr. S. Moss, who then joined the team, and we became very good friends and proudly, I must say, we spend most happy hours motor racing …”

The year 1950 saw our subject become naturalised, and in 1952 he left H.W.M. to join Peter Whitehead, and spent the next season there. He then accepted an invitation to become Works Manager to Ray Martin Motors Ltd., who, of course, built the Cooper-AIta for Moss, amongst other things. Then came the Moss switch to Maserati, when Alf went with him as personal mechanic, first privately, and then under the official auspices of the Modena folk, and that just about brings things up to date, except that Moss’ contract with Mercédès-Benz has, perhaps, robbed Alf of his chief ambition, which is to be fully associated with Moss during a season when he becomes World Champion, as he(Alf) is convinced that he (Moss) will be. And so say all of us.

So there it is, and to have prepared motor cars for some 94 first-class events, and to have had a big hand in the building and development of twelve new racing cars in six years is no ordinary record. Indeed, it shows again the extraordinary capacity for hard work that is so essential to this game of being a mechanic. But then we have already seen that these men are different, both in skill and enthusiasm and that incredible capacity to “keep going when the rest have stopped.” Further, they keep going cheerfully, and for that the Army was excellent training. With the Army behind you as an experience, in a very real sense, a pile of outer covers behind the pits becomes a deck chair on a sunny day, and the front seat of a 3-ton Bedford or 7-ton Commer a Slumberland mattress!

Consider for a moment the events, outlined by Raymond in his book on Stirling Moss, that happened between Reims and Bari from a certain Monday night till the next Thursday, when, due to a combination of misfortunes, Alf went for practically four whole days without more than a snatched “kip” occasionally, driving single-handed a van with “duff” steering over a thousand miles, and even at the end was wide enough awake to change the wheels on all the cars, so that the drivers could practise the following morning. The man who is capable of being spoken to after that is man indeed, and it gives some idea of what the job can entail.

Why do they do it? Because however blasé you become it’s fun at bottom, and such people never grow up psychologically. It’s individualistic, it’s adventure, and in spite of all the “tears and sweat” there’s the underlying fun and good humour that always saves the situation. Perhaps the “Continental circus” motor-cyclist boys between the wars had it in the fullest measure, perhaps not, but as we have seen it’s an International spirit, and now that the financial side of motor racing makes conditions less pinched, the cementing of International relationships goes ceaselessly on. Says Francis: “ … I have my best memories with H.W.M. as their head mechanic, particularly with S. Moss, Lance Macklin, Louis Chiron, Fischer of Switzerland, G. Abecassis, Giraud-Cabantous of France as the team drivers, and Mr. Heath as ‘the boss’ . . .”

But however that may be, surely few mechanics may look back on a season so full of portent as Moss’ last year, and did any pair ever have such foul fortune as came their way during it? Imagine the soul-searing agony of the broken de Dion tube at Silverstone, or the even more provoking affair of the oil tank at Monza, when you go away convinced that “Mr. Maserati” makes his motor cars out of, — well, you know what.

But to offset that, imagine the joy of winding the winch and pulling the same car up into the van after the “day out” at Aintree, when there is no doubt that the same Mr. Maserati has the sun shining from a very peculiar part of his anatomy.

And so it goes on, one day a pleasant stop for a glass or two of vin rouge at some “Café-Bar” with ample time to spare, the next “pressing on” hour after hour with the wretched wagon getting seemingly slower, trying to catch the boat, with the kilometres stretching to miles and the “two-thirds” calculation haunting you.

Funny, too, how sometimes the beautiful piece of craftsmanship that is the engine slips back into the chassis, or the bottom rings pop into the bores like magic, whilst at other times the infernal contraption swings back and traps your hand against the bulkhead several times, or the expenditure of two thumb nails and the ruination of a decent penknife achieve nothing. But there it is, that’s the job, and how well worth while it all is when your race is over, the car has done well, and you can spare the odd few minutes in the Paddock to sit on the rear wheel and hear all about it from your “bloke.”

“A. B. C.”