An engineer’s mind, Lancaster pilot’s backbone and quick wits made FRW ‘Lofty’ England a truly great team leader, says Robert Edwards
When considering the career of FRW ‘Lofty’ England, one salient, but lowering point, leaps out. At the time of his reluctant retirement in 1974 he was about the only senior man in the British motor industry who had done every job in it and the only one who had been apprenticed as a proper engineer. He was, at that time, chairman of Jaguar which had become a very different firm from that he had joined in 1946.
It was now subsumed into the British Leyland, a bloated gobbling behemoth run by Stalinist bean-counters with commensurate levels of commercial efficiency. England was struggling against an agenda of management central planning and its tra liti al shop-floor response, a V-sign preceding the longest strike in the industry’s history. The principles of ‘I’ree collective bargaining’ remember that prevented Lofty playing a proactive role in his own backyard, and, disgusted, he retired early, handing over to Geoffrey Robinson, who later found rather better-merited fame as Peter Ma nd I son’s personal banker.
How lowering it was for him we can only guess now, for he died aged 83 in 1995, but it is significant that Lofty to.pk the chance to turn out at just about any Jaguar enthusiasts’ gathering fbr the rest of his life. An apprenticeship with Daimler was a sought-after start in 1927, even jilt was a second choice to Bentley. It was to W
that the young Frank Raymond Wilton England applied originally, but fruitlessly. As it transpired, Bentley Motors was be no more by the time he finished his apprenticeship in 1932, rounding off a happy five years coming second in the inaugural RAC rally, driving one of Laurence Pomeroy’s splendid Daimler Double Sixes.
An ex -Daimler apprentice who hung around Brooklands enough was bound to be in demand as a racing mechanic, and it was Tim Birkin who signed him up first, to assist in that ill-fated adventure, the Blower Bentley. His boss was Charles Newcombe, and when the firm started to fall apart, Newcombe and England went to work for Whitney Straight.
Straight was not messing about; one of the richest men in the world, heir to a vast American fortune, his race team wanted for little; headquarters were at Bush House in the Strand, and their Maserati cars were prepared in Milan, by Newcombe and Lofty, working under Giulio Ramponi, and ferried about Europe by the team, one of whom was James Robertson Justice, who later found fame in another area…
Straight’s enterprise was successful, but short-lived; he quit while ahead, the team was sold off and Newcombe and Lofty went to ERA. Lofty was unimpressed with Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon and it was not a happy association. A brief sojourn at Alvis suggests racing had begun to pall slightly, but he was back at ERA in time to get fired in the autumn of 1936.
His race career remained promising; he had come second in the Manx motorcycle Grand Prix, on a Rudge-powered Cotton, a few days before Mays let him go, whereupon he teamed up with Dick Seaman. He had seen the often slapdash preparation of Seaman’s car by the ERA works and spent happy months helping at Seaman’s private garage in Kensington. It was an interim measure, though, as in November 1936 Seaman signed a provisional contract with Mercedes-Benz for the 1937 season, which was to be a full-time job, so Lofty’s main task was to prepare Dick’s venerable Delage for sale to the White Mouse garage in Hammersmith, from where the Siamese cousins Chula and Bira ran their racing activity. Lofty went too.
By 1938, after 11 years in the car business, it was time for a proper job and he took one at Alvis as a service engineer. As a military contractor, this was a reserved occupation during the war, so he started pilot training in 1941 and qualified as a multi-engined flyer, courtesy of the US Army Air Force. He stayed in Texas as an instructor until 1943, when he returned to Britain and the RAF in time to take part in daytime bombing missions over Germany, flying Lancasters.
After demobilisation, he returned to Alvis in Coventry to see the devastation his German opposite numbers had wrought upon it. Alvis had little new to offer post-war but, across town, there were developments.
By the time he joined William Lyons at Jaguar Cars in 1946, he was something of a catch. A fully-trained engineer, a proven race mechanic and, perhaps as usefully, a man equipped with a mantle of authority, courtesy of the RAF, which sat well on his 6ft 5in frame. And he knew it. Nominally he was service manager, but when it came to competition, Lofty knew good when he saw it. Having seen the struggles of Birkin, the style of Straight, shenanigans at ERA, and the skills of Seaman and Bira, he was uniquely qualified to pass judgement on matters relating to motor racing.
But racing had a slow start at Jaguar. Money was tight and the Jaguar product was to be aimed squarely at the solar plexus of the owner-driver carriage trade, and such a target had always been expensive. The idea of the XK120 was an interim one, designed to demonstrate the virtues of the XK engine, bodied skimpily with minimal liabilities for such imperatives as tooling.
In the hands of the few owners lucky enough to buy one, the 120 performed strongly and it was not long before the idea of a modest works effort took hold. Initially the drivers were pre-war acquaintances; Peter Walker, Bira and Leslie Johnson. Several requests by Stirling Moss for a drive were turned down, possibly as a result of Johnson’s dismissive opinion of the lad.
Moss, famously, managed to borrow Tommy Wisdom’s XK to walk away with the Dundrod TT in 1950, and Lofty and Lyons hired him on the spot.
Clearly, the XK was heavier than need be. The purpose of competition was to win endurance races, which sold cars; a car could be light without being fragile, and the Jaguar solution, designed and completed in under five months, was to place the XK engine in a lighter frame with wind-cheating bodywork The result, the XK120C, was to provide Coventry’s finest hour.
The Jaguars were strong and reliable, the engines not hugely stressed but they lacked a capacity advantage for serious racing. For the 1951 Le Mans, they were up against 19 cars with larger engines than their own 3442cc six, 16 in the same class. England’s strategy was to send Moss and Fairman out at high speed to tax the more experienced opposition, allowing the two other cars, of Whitehead/Walker and Johnson/ Biondetti, to conserve themselves. Johnson’s C-type broke an oil pipe first, followed by the Stirling’s car, leaving Walker and Whitehead to win by nine laps. As a type debut, it was impressive; as a driver debut, Moss’s lap record of 105.232 mph was even more startling.
By contrast, the ’52 event was a disaster. Aerodynamic modifications to the nose resulted in low pressure under the bonnet; the water pumps of all three cars started to cavitate, with the resulting air pockets turning to steam and restricting the water flow. They were all out in the first hour.
For 1953, the old bodies were back and the cars were fitted with disc brakes and triple carburettors. The importance of the great endurance races to the business was vast, and the 1953 C-types reflected that.
First, second, and fourth was the result, adding momentum to the sales of the XK120 of which the ‘C’ was – notionally – a derivative. Over 12,000 XK120s were sold and its descendants, the 140 and 150, brought the total to over 30,000.
The England philosophy, that of rigorous discipline enforced by a trip into the outer darkness for the disobedient, was basic to Jaguar’s strategy. Lofty knew well that racing drivers get carried away and that to allow slippage in this matter could invite disaster. It was important to prove, for example, that pit signals were more than suggestions, as the sacking of Duncan Hamilton for disobeying orders at Reims in ’56 made clear. Neither he nor Lyons was doing this for fun, after all. Well, Lyons certainly wasn’t…
Character, height, and an acerbic wit, allied to matchless experience, substituted for telemetry in those bygone days. As a bomber pilot was in complete control of his aircraft even if his navigator outranked him, so Jaguar’s racing team was run by Lofty. The racing manager is a corporate animal, committed to creating the best result for the entrant. The driver is not always of the same opinion. Conflicts were few but memorable.
Naturally, the C-type’s success inspired a flood of applications to drive it and to obtain use of the engine in specials, only some of which were truly worthy. Lofty sorted through them ruthlessly. George Abecassis, John Cooper and John Tojeiro had no problems, but others did. By the time Abecassis and Cooper had launched their XK-powered specials, attention at Brown’s Lane had shifted to the D-type.
It was more than a development of the C-type; the ‘D’ became the apotheosis of the Jaguar marque and, despite its monocoque tub, was surprisingly simple in its execution. The 1954 Le Mans saw its debut and it came second, 87 seconds behind the Gonzales and Trintignant Ferrari to make the closest finish yet; and this with the possibility of Ferrari having broken the rules. Tellingly, England forbade any protest. It was possible there had been a rule infringement, but to say so was, to England, tantamount to sour grapes.
Jaguar won again in 1955, the year of the crash, and to his dying day Lofty maintained Mike Hawthorn was not to blame. He left it at that, not being one to burden anyone else with guilt, but came down hard on anyone who did not emphasise Hawthorn’s innocence when describing this uniquely horrible episode. He was prone to describe scribblers as `comedians’ anyway along with anyone else who set themselves modest targets and failed to achieve them. Offending them, if they had offended him, seldom cost him any sleep.
Jaguar’s last works season under Lofty was 1956. Pleasingly, the Le Mans race was won by a D-type, the Ecurie Ecosse entry of Flockart and Sanderson. The works team, its Le Mans swansong under Lofty, was more muted. An early prang took care of two cars, with the third dropping too far back to be effective with a cracked fuel pipe.
Jaguar announced its withdrawal from racing in October. It did not rule out re-entry and implied this was only a sabbatical. Jaguar was thriving, the racing activity had improved the road cars and, more pertinently, costs were going up yet again.
Thoughts of more racing burned in the factory fire of February 1957, but the success of privateers, notably Lister, gave Lofty huge satisfaction. The development of the Lister-Jaguar was not actually Jaguar’s initiative, it came from ShellMex BP, Jaguar’s old sponsor. The loss of such a successful team made ShellMex nervous and the success which Esso-sponsored Ecurie Ecosse was enjoying allowed Jaguar to profit passively from their success.
Lofty was a prominent sponsor of Ecosse. As the team was using ex-works cars, they received as much backing as Lyons and England could afford. For Lister, however, all they needed was engines. Further, there was no bullshit about Lister’s and England appreciated that. He became a fan and the letter he wrote to Brian Lister upon the death of Archie Scott Brown in May 1958 was a masterpiece of tact and sensitivity.
Later that year a further temptation was offered when Guy Vandervell offered him the entire F1 Vanwall team after Stuart Lewis-Evans was killed. Lofty declined.
So, as racing changed and Jaguar prospered, Lofty became deputy MD in 1965, acceding to the Chair in ’72, triggering his retirement – the irresistible force of centralism had met the immovable object of vast and opinionated experience. Lofty probably had more sympathy for the shop floor at Leyland than was appropriate – anyone forced to build the Allegro was quite entitled to down tools. BL was probably rather less efficient then than ZIL, but the resurgence of Jaguar under Ford via the efforts of John Egan went a long way to make up for the humiliations of Leyland; in fact it delighted him, as did the return to racing, using that same V12 he and his old friends had put together back in the dark days.