EARLY EXPOSURE TO THE RACE TRACK SPAWNED A LIFELONG PASSION FOR RACING AND A SUCCESSFUL CAREER
It was one of those moments that seized the young Frank Sytner and committed him permanently to the motor racing fraternity. His older brother took him in 1954 to the first race at Aintree, where the spectator entrance lay through a tunnel beneath the stands. Frank had never seen a racing car, but as they emerged from the tunnel Ken VVharton’s BRM V16 bellowed past in a wall of noise, followed by Reg Parnell in the Thinwall Special. He has, he says, never recovered from the excitement of that moment; nor has the medical career his doctor father envisaged for him. Cars and racing have been his paramount love ever since, with business and pleasure closely interleaved.
Sytner compares his thriving car dealership group with a race-team, where everyone down to vehicle-cleaners loves cars, and it is a fact that it grew from motor racing. Having abandoned further study first to follow and then join in the sport, he had to pay for it, and the car business seemed an obvious source of funds. That Aintree epiphany was made possible by the success of The Cavern, a little jazz club his brother started in Liverpool in 1957, which allowed him to indulge his car interests. When he sold out (pre-Beatles), the brothers began to buy and sell cars, but the emphasis was clear: Frank’s first road car, at 17, was a Gp2 racing Mini, ex-Christabel Carlisle. After a few races, he went halves with Frank Williams in an Austin A40 for the 1962 saloon racing season, and hasn’t stopped since.
This compulsion to race was not out of any conviction he could be a world champion: “I thought at first I didn’t have the bottle; it was later on that I realised I did, and wished I’d gone for it earlier. But I am always delighted just to be out there on the track, challenging the full-time professional guys.” And not uncommonly beating them.
In those early days, he raced whenever a car deal brought enough cash to fund the next event, but soon realised how restrictive this was. Temporarily retiring in the mid-sixties, he and his brother spent the next few years building up the business to a point where he could afford to plan a season, not to mention take a crew to help. “I’d been doing it all solo, driving for miles, unloading, racing, then loading up and driving home to start work on Monday.” Having launched the current business in 1969, he restarted racing in 1970, following the Formula Ford route with an ex-Scheckter Merlyn; then into aubmans with a Matlock. Amongst the Midlands enthusiasts he mixed with were Willie Green and Anthony Bamford, who gave Sytner the chance to drive some of the JCB historic machines.
He soon bought his own classic, an Aston Martin DB3S, but there were few suitable races for it until he and journalist Tony Dron hatched a fifties series for the many such sportscars which had nowhere to run. This began a new avenue which expanded when Willie Green retired from his all-conquering role in historic racing and Sytner took over the JCB drives. Nowadays he is most likely to be seen hurling the D-type or GTO Ferrari round Silverstone in a gigantic tussle with Gary Pearson or Robert Brooks.
By 1975, his racing had become intense, running two Mattocks in Clubmans and Formula Libre as well as the JCB Birdcage Maserati and Lightweight E: “It was fever pitch. I must have done 50 races, sometimes at two different meetings in a day, sprinting between them in a Porsche Carrera.” In the next few years he also raced in FF2000 and Sports 2000, winning a variety of titles he can scarcely list (“That’s just history. I don’t keep records”), though it did include Silverstone Driver of the Year.
But if the personal trophies don’t seem tremendously important to Sytner, the British Saloon Car Championship is. Beginning with the BMW County series, he decided he wanted this title, which offered both good racing and excellent promotion for his BMW-centred company. His team of GpA 635s finished runners-up in 1985, but it was the M3, run with Prodrive, which finally brought him the prize in 1988, as well as the 2-litre title in 1990. He ran a privateer M3 in 1991, but then decided, having achieved his goal, to retire from modern racing to expand the Sytner group to its current £200 million turnover.
Ironically, the long-established Sytner-BMW association came about by default. In 1969 the Sytner brothers had taken on an Alfa Romeo dealership, only to have it poached from them a year later. BMW then approached them, and they signed up, at a time when the Bavarian product was dearer and more specialised than the Italian one. The group now also handles Mercedes, Ferrari, Audi, VW and Lind-Rover, and is sole importer of Alpina-BMWs.
In contrast with his modesty over matters racing, he is unreservedly proud of the realisation of his business strategy since abandoning modem race series. And just as “racing improves the breed”, he feels the competitive urge on track has sharpened his business drive, too. He is also outspoken about the “financial engineers” who run many dealership groups, contrasting these with his staff of enthusiasts. For this year Sytner looks forward keenly to the Louis Vuitton historic series, where the rapid JCB D-type will meet some tough rivals, but he has no more championship goals. “You can’t be luckier than I’ve been. I’ve experienced all types of racing and achieved what I wanted, and now I can enjoy one branch without being upset if I don’t win.” We were talking immediately after the VSCC Silverstone opener, when a jump-start penalty saw the laurel-wreath removed from his D-type, and he was quite philosophical. “Well, that’s racing.”
Though the DB3S has gone, he still has a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica, and relishes the chance to drive anything new and fast. “My morning priority is ‘what am I driving today?”‘ He is on the board of the BRDC, and as devoted to racing as ever, planning to run Bamford’s Testa Rossa at Monaco and the GTO at Coys. It is, he says, never a chore. “When I wake up on a race day I still get the same buzz I did when about to set off to Oulton Park to meet Frank Williams with the A40 all those years ago.”