Industry insight: Willans Safety Harnesses

Accidental success

Britain’s motor racing business has a lot more elements to its success than the Cosworth V8, front running chassis and the Hewland gearbox. Thriving cottage industries can also meet world class standards, and one such, a Hampshire garage, provides a story with a 20-year-old twist for regular Motor Sport readers . . .

Willans Safety Harnesses could be found in half the GP cars on the 1987 Brazilian Grand Prix grid, or in the hundreds of Van Diemen Formula Fords which are typical of the equipment the modern GP aspirant needs to succeed.

From Reynard to Ralt, via race and rally saloons, to the restraint systems for both of Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challengers and numerous waterborne racers, belts made by a dozen or so Winans employees maintain a grip on those accepting the exhilaration and danger of speed.

Yet the tale of how Willans became so widely accepted goes back only 20 years and has strong links with this magazine. For it was in these pages (Motor Sport, March 1967) that Michael Cotton profiled the racing career of former Lotus-backed Formula Junior pilot John Fenning, in part three of a series entitled The Cost of Motoring Sport.

Today, Mr Fenning is one of the few who can drive a Formula One car or leave it, according to mood. For he has his own “ex-everybody and his dog” Wolf WR2-Cosworth, as well as a choice of Lolas (1100 Ford Junior and 1.5 Twin Cam T55) as visible evidence of how he resolved a personal racing priority. “During 1966-67 I tried all sorts of things as an alternative to motor racing — skin diving, flying, all kinds of activities. But none of them really turned me on the same way as racing. Later in 1967, after that article appeared, I had a Brabham BT21C twin-cam, but this time I was going racing with a commitment to my wife to do everything I could to make it as safe as possible. New helmet, overalls, the lot. I looked around and saw that one GP driver, a young lad called Jackie Stewart, was using safety belts in his BRM.

“I resolved to find out more, and contacted his employers at BRM, who told me the belts came from a Ministry of Defence supplier, RFDGQ, at Godalming in Surrey.

“My calls eventually put me in touch with one of nature’s gentlemen, a Second World War Major, always nicknamed ‘Dumbo’ Willans.” The Major was no longer a serving officer, but had tried most of life’s challenges, including the first live ejection from a Folland Gnat, Bronco busting and stunt driving. “Major Willans was also an expert on the proper use and mounting of safety harnesses in the aircraft industry and elsewhere,” recalls John Fenning.

It appeared John was by no means the only customer with designs on the competition use of the harness as “about three” had been released for trial installations, other than those employed by Jackie Stewart.

However, John Fenning is a fast worker when he sets his mind to a project . With Major Willans’ guidance as to how the harness might be mounted in the Brabham single-seater (an ex-hinclimb car), John and his cohorts did a trial installation.

Major Willans was surprised at their eagerness, and happy with the result. Others had hung onto the belts for six weeks without producing anything material. Nothing startling occurred at this juncture, no blinding revelation of the future. As John said: “I simply paid the bill to RFD at Godalming and got on with the Brabham. However, there were always friends calling round, and there sat the car with these funny straps in. ‘What’s that?’ they’d ask and I’d tell ’em . . . it’s called safety belts!”

“Can I buy some?’ seemed to be the next question from most of them. I asked Major Willans and he offered us six sets on sale or return. I was flabbergasted at the trust shown in us, and there was no shortage of single seater customers. “The need to tailor each single seater harness became apparent even before we had done 20 installations. You need different belt lengths to cope with individual attachment points in a single seater, whereas most saloons, fall within a broad band of similar fitments,” says Penning.

It is still true today that the one-offs cause the headaches, “taking about three times as long.” Co-director Harley Morgrette states simply, “that we are a cottage industry has meant that we can respond quickly. Many racing teams consider a 12-hour lead time is more than adequate . . .”

During 1967 RDFGQ was supplying complete assemblies, but was obviously not happiest dealing with one-off orders, their business structured to contracts and repeat business. “Remember that the aircraft business tends to plan five years ahead rather than five hours,” quips John Fenning. Something would have to be done if this promising aid to safety (and speed, through increased driver contact with the car around him) were to blossom into a viable business. Messrs Fenning and Willans discussed the matter until, by late 1967, the Major had RFD’s agreement to produce harnesses to order in a few days. “He was able to do this by stepping into the breach himself and sewing up our requirements in a gutted caravan at Henley-on-Thames,” Fanning remembers.

Although this allowed the business to get off the ground in 1968, with prompting from customers such as John Surtees, it was not the total answer. As John Fenning explains, “the Major was such a nice bloke that all those hard businessmen in racing gave him a tough time. You know the kind of thing: ‘the cheque’s in the Post’. . . ‘just send us an invoice.’ The result was that he was pretty cheesed off after six months or so.”

By the latter part of 1968 a gentleman’s agreement — “there was no need to write things down with a man like that” — was reached. Major Willans would continue making the harness assemblies; John Fenning would sell them and look after the commercial side.

Today the business is constituted under Stockbridge Racing Ltd, in the Hampshire town in which John has lived for all but the wartime years with his bomber crew father. Directors include three members of the Fenning clan (John is married with three offspring between 16 and 23) and Harley Morgrette. Harley was another Brabham racer who arrived from the USA in the seventies and still works both machines and sales organisation (through 40 distributors).

No precise details of turnover, employees or production are given, as John Fenning has experienced the rough end of business rivalries often enough to be the wariest businessman I have interviewed. Output of complete harnesses for motorsports, from rallycross to Grands Prix, numbers “several thousand” annually. Early custom came frorn Formula One, and Harley Morgrette records “15 of the last 17 World Champions had Willans harnesses”. However, as with many aspects of GP racing, it is not easy to identify the product, “because seat belts make too good an advertising space to be ignored.”

Thus the Willans equipment in many GP machines goes under other brand proclamations. This applies to Lotus, Ferrari and Brabham. Tyrrell, Arrows and March do identify the Willans logo. The Frank Williams’ Honda equipe does not use Willans, even though the Williams team owner was one of the first to use the Willans equipment in the days of his association with Piers Courage. Incidentally, Lotus always had black webbing to complement the JPS colours. As ever it was constructed in the traditional parachute harness materials, but supplied from small batches rather than 10,000-metre runs of the traditional blue.

About half-a-dozen workers occupy a brightly lit but modest workspace over JC Fenning showrooms. “We used to be British Leyland, but fell out with Auntie two years ago over numbers,” says John.

He has wisely invested in a Dennison strain gauge to check the breaking point of harness and attachments, prior to production of routine or one-off items. The worth of such checks is illustrated by a story which I will have to edit.

One of the most prestigious racing companies in the world insisted on supply of their own space-age metals to mount safety harnesses. Before making up a set of webbing on the proferred materials, John and company stepped across the road. They applied the strain gauge’s hydraulic ram and diaphragm compression of oil (piped to a gauge recording up to 10,000 lb of destructive effort) to the new wonder attachments. “They broke like candles,” reports John, with obvious relish! A Formula Ford harness carries 14 steel “tongues” which link straps from shoulder to crotch to lap. Touch those steel connectors and you will share my admiration of the Willans system. For this stamped stainless steel, to standards imposed by the aircraft industry, has no sharp edges and co-operates with a spring-loaded centre section tested to 37G.

How do they get the sharp edges from that tough stamped steel? “It’s rumbled around by stones to get the edges off” confirms Fenning. Incidentally, as with safety helmets, Willans now insists that new equipment is used after an accident, encouraging clients to send back the harness for destruction and allowing a small discount on the replacements.

At 50 years of age, John Fenning proved as entertaining as he had to our reporter of 20 years ago, and I could have written an appreciation of his racing activities with equal ease. Even when working space is doubled in the near future, I expect Willans to retain its cottage industry character with a worldwide reputation. JW.