Looking back with Reg Phillips

It is not every day that you meet a cheerful man of 62 who has been competing, for the fun of it, in speed events, trials and rallies, having built himself 20 specimens for the purpose, and who is looking forward to another season of speed hill-climbs in a Ferrari. Such a person is R. W. Phillips, Chairman of James Fairley Steels. D.S.J. and I went to meet him again the other day in Birmingham, on the very spot where his steel business was started over 100 years ago, to talk about his sporting motoring career. Reg and his wife are cheerful, extrovert people who have obviously enjoyed their close contact with amateur competition motoring; this is evident as soon as one meets them and the jokes and amusing reminiscences begin to flow….

Coming from a distinctly anti-motoring family, Reg had to start his motoring the hard way. He remembers going as a boy to near-by Shelsley Walsh from 1932, as Londoners went to Brooklands, and becoming a great fan of Basil Davenport’s, so that a Meccano clockwork motor was made into a working model of the “Spider”. His first taste of personal special-building, for which he was to become so well-known, occurred while he was in the Army in Italy, when he contrived to insert a Ford V8 engine into an Austin 8 truck. Because of his passion for cars he had been sent in the pre-war period to the obvious place for a Birmingham boy, Austin’s at Longbridge, where before the war he was greatly inspired by the twin-cam Austin racers and Lord Austin’s enthusiasm for motor racing. All this worked out well, because Reg worked in Austin’s Production Planning Department and met a girl who also worked there and who is now his wife.

Naturally, he started motoring with a standard Austin 7, sold for £2 to acquire a Morgan 3-wheeler, This was a side-valve model of unexciting potential, so there were few regrets when a cylinder cracked. At this time Reg showed his stamina by riding to London and back from the Midlands on a 2-stroke Francis-Barnett motorcycle, the petrol for which cost 5p each way. An Ulster Austin introduced Reg to trials, and in his first such event, the Hagley & District MC’s Spring Trial, he won the GH Cup in the 1 1/2-litre class. After the war he tried an Austin 7 Open Road two-seater with a modern blower tacked on and this was followed by what can be regarded as the first Fairley Special, a Ford Ten engine in an Austin 7 chassis, with a cowl like that of the much admired twin-cam racers and, at first, a coat of green paint. Reg followed the Ken Wharton dictum at this time, that if a special took more than a fortnight to build it would be too heavy. A true Fairley Special followed, derived by putting a Jowett Javelin flat-four engine into the 1948 ex-Briggs’ Norton 500 chassis. The engine was nicely amidships, which kept the occupants’ feet warm, and they sat high up, “on top of the ‘bus”. A body of sorts gave this car the appearance of an ant-eater with its nose in the mud, so it was named “Ardvark” All the running-gear was Ford, except for the gear-box, which was probably from a Hillman Minx.

The next step was to make a proper tubular frame to take the Javelin components. At the time the excellent Charles Grandfield of Jowett’s was having a few problems with the Javelin and was glad to provide Reg with an engine and hear what transpired. “The car did everything except overheat,” its builder recalls. The chassis was 400% home-built. This Fairley was raced at Silverstone, Gamston, etc., but was really a trials’ car. It led on to a purely Ford Ten trials-car, using Austin 7 front wheels and an undivided Ford axle, with which Reg and his friend Raymond Baxter of BBC fame had much fun.

It was now that the late Holland Birkett got the 750 MC Six-Hour Relay Race off the ground, and Reg was responsible for a team of three Austin 7 Specials for it. Experiments with an Austin 7 powered by a Norton 500-c.c. engine and Austin 7 back axle (which survived), led to a neat two-seater sports-car using an Austin chassis and a Ford to engine. It made a useful tow-car. From this came the idea of a small four-seater coupe with power-operated hood, the engine a Jowett Javelin, the body of aluminium, with the possibility of going into production and selling this Fairley at around £750. In fact, the project never materialised and only one prototype was built but it did get the Steel Industry concerned as to whether aluminium might take over from steel for car bodywork! The advent of the Jowett Jupiter would have probably killed the project, anyway.

A rather dull period of hard work building up the steel business that an Uncle had bought in 1921 followed, but Reg did some rallies and then liked what he saw of Prescott. He at once went home, set up four bricks on the workshop floor as engine supports, and constructed a hill-climb car round a 4.1-litre Ford Mercury V8 engine. This took ten days to complete, using two tubes for side-members, Austin 8 axles and springs, and a 5.3 axle ratio, one gear up the hill being sufficient. Using the road tyres of the time, and on the then casual sprint courses, it isn’t surprising that the driver was more often than not “all crossed up”! Liking speed hill-climbing, Phillips next acquired a standard Cooper with an ex-Wharton “iron” 1,000 c.c. JAP engine, towing it to meetings behind the Javelin-engined coupe “Bluemobile”.

Encouraged by this rear-engined racer, Reg now constructed a splendid Fairley Special, by placing across the back of the Cooper chassis a 1,460 c.c. single-cam Coventry-Climax four-cylinder engine. It had to be offset but fitted quite neatly. The Norton gearbox was retained but not being intended to take such loads, its internals broke up and were satisfactorily replaced by new ones, made of Fairley steels. A new driving chain had to be used after every run and the chain salesman was so efficient that Phillips gave him a job; he is now a highly regarded sales-executive of the James Fairley Steels. For a time the Climax was made to do without a radiator but later one was fitted at the back of the car. After the power had been improved by supercharging, this Fairley single-seater sprint car really motored…. It didn’t exactly stick to the road, however, so Reg then built his own chassis for it. The result was sensational, coupled to Phillips’ skilled and determined handling of the Fairley, with his wife’s support always at hand. In 1960 he made best-time-of-the-day at his beloved Shelsley Walsh (he is an MAC Committee man), in 37.33 secs., but his most satisfying climb, he says, was in 1961, when he got within one-fifth of a second of Tony Marsh’s time in a works BRM, reputedly running on nitro fuel. Thinking of nitro, Reg recalls an occasion at Shelsley Walsh when Wharton let him take his Cooper 1000 up the hill in the wet, and of how “arms-crossed” it was all the way to the top, as Reg hadn’t realised that the engine was a nitro-burner and therefore that much more powerful than his own….

From that peak in 1961 to 1967 it became necessary to concentrate on the steel business, as Phillips was now Chairman. He did not altogether foresake motoring sport, however, using an E-type Jaguar coupe in sprints, helped by Lofty England, but without much success. He then wondered if a Mini-Moke might not make a good hill-climb vehicle. One was acquired, a blower bolted on, and this provided fun for Reg, Baxter and Baxter’s son. Phillips’ love of the sport then took him to better things. He bought a standard Chevron 8B from Peter Lawson, the BMW engine of which was fabulous, going to 9,000 r.p.m. with a standard crankshaft. This was converted into a Fairley-Chevron sports-racer, GP Metalcraft cobbling up a body.

Next we find this inveterate specials-builder actually buying a car! The 138 had been sold, to someone who soon wrote it off, and a new Chevron B19 acquired. This was followed by the ex-Peter Gethin 2-litre Cosworth-powered Chevron B25, single-seater used in sprints during 1972-73. Reg was now departing from the funnier Specials and getting on to more serious things.

The B25 was made into the well-known Chevron-Fairley hill-climb car, with the engine enlarged to 2,200 c.c., tuned by Alan Smith of Derby, given 24-volt starting, and the radiator moved to the back. With it Reg broke the 30 sec. barrier at the 1976 August Shelsley Walsh meeting. This car was sold to John Stuart and Reg then decided to go in for a fast road car with which he could also continue his hill-climbing career. With the latter aim in mind thoughts of a De Tomaso were discarded and when a new Ferrari 308 GTB was seen in a Birmingham showroom, a quick deal was done. It is shaping up well, although I did not know that when Reg took me up Loton Park in it we could easily have lost all the brakes. On the way home a front wheel nearly came off, upsetting the brake-pad location.

In his long motor sporting career Reg Phillips has managed some rallies in works’ cars, such as Jowett Javelin, Mk. I Ford Zephyr, Austin Westminster, Ford Anglia, and Sunbeam Rapier. He has been co-driver to chaps of the calibre of Peter Harper and Raymond Baxter, finishing fifth in the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally and coming in first in his class in the 1954 Tulip Rally. He began as a trials’-driver, of course, and netted the British Trials Championship in 1953. He has enjoyed TV appearances, as when the BBC filmed the Jaguar Le Mans team-cars at MIRA in 1951 and in the first TV Trial. Now, with 37 years’ of the sport behind him, Reg is as keen as ever, and as full of the joy of living as ever. He intends to run the Ferrari in the appropriate class at all the British hill-climb courses, interspersed with some sailing and moving house to Devon. His steel business supplies steel, in the raw or fully machined, as required, to the Motor, Engineering and Oil-Rig Industries. Ford cars figure prominently in his business fleet. Overall, Reg loves talking about all aspects of motor racing we did this so thoroughly that D. S. J. all but missed his homeward train. – W. B.