He may not have looked like a racing driver, but Leslie Johnson’s performances improved as he reached higher echelons, as Bill Boddy explains
Leslie G Johnson (LGJ) had a garage business in North London and became well known for a notably successful competition career. He began serious participation, as so many did, in club trials of the pre-WWII period: he contested the 1934 MCC Land’s End and Edinburgh trials in an Aston Martin, the ’36 Land’s End in an MG, and the ’37 Exeter Trial in a Ford.
Also in 1937, he acquired the Type 55 Frazer Nash-BMW with which Miss Goodban had just been very successful in that year’s Gloucester Trial. This was the car with which the perspicacious H J ‘Bill’ Aldington had replaced the chain-drive Frazer Nash cars he had been selling when, at last, demand for these essentially sporting offerings began to diminish. The BMW from Munich was so different: supple suspension yet excellent roadclinging, smooth six-cylinder engine and streamlined bodywork. Most of us wanted one. Johnson did well with his. (I used one for a Bugatti OC Night Trial but was less successful, running over a grassy hump which served as a roundabout and tearing off parts of the clutch mechanism, much to Aldington’s disgust!)
Having made this sensible choice of a competition car, LGJ promptly won the important Coventry Cup Trial, having finished fourth on Boxing Day in the first Ford Enthusiasts Club Trial.
He started the 1938 season well, too, by making best performance in the MCC Torquay Rally special tests. In the MCC Exeter Trial, Motor Sport reported the BMW as making a ‘very rapid and spirited climb of Fingle Bridge% Johnson followed this up with ‘an excellent ascent of Vine Hill, being very neat up the even steeper Upinturn, mostly using second gear’. He won the Lawrence Cup Trial in May from Hutchison’s V12 Lincoln Allard Special. At Shelsley Walsh he drove a different Type 55 FN-BMW with a supercharger.
In 1939, Johnson acquired a 17 2-litre 328 BMW. With it, he took a First-Class Award in the February Bossom Trial and was runner-up to Allard’s Allard Special in the Coventry Cup Trial, having tied with Burroughs’ Ford V8 in the deciding Beechy Lees acceleration test. The next day, LGJ went well in the punishing Southsea President’s Trial, which broke many cars. He won the Bernard Norris Cup in the Colmore Cup Trial, too, and took an outright victory in the wintery FEC Croydon Rally.
Johnson next did a spot of racing, winning the short and long handicaps at the Crystal Palace in the BMW. In the 1939 Land’s End Trial, his BMW made best time for his team in the Barton Steep restart In the RAC Rally, LGJ made best time in the first test at Brighton but slid too far in another; his BMW, however, along with those of Fane and Murray, won both Team prizes. He was second in the sportscar class to A H Langley ‘s FN-BMW at Prescott in May. And there was more racing, too, LGJ’s BMW beaten by just 3sec by Abecassis’ ex-Cowell, 2-litre Alta in the Imperial Plate at the Crystal Palace Summer Meeting. Johnson took part also in long-distance rallies, so different from mud trials: in the 1937-39 Scottish Rallies, his Frazer Nash-BMW won its class.
He was very adaptable, clearly.
Not particularly tall, always neatly dressed, hair parted, Johnson looked like a serious and determined businessman, not a racing driver. But he would rank as a first-class racing driver in the immediate aftermath of the war.
His transition from trialler to racer began in earnest with his acquisition of the 1937 4-litre sports/racing Darracq that had served Connell so well at Brooldands and elsewhere before the war. It made its first appearance as LGJ’s car at the 1946 Elstree Speed-trials, driven by Peter Monkhouse. The owner then drove it, at Prescott, being second in class to Bear’s Bugatti by 0.6sec, and 1.4sec quicker than Hutchison’s Allard. At SheLsley, in the wet, the Darracq made fastest sportscar time (47.44sec). Coming down the hill in the Darracq afterwards, with crowds of very wet people walking down, Jenks said, “Rev the engine, that will scatter them”. To which Leslie replied, “That would hardly be fair today, would it?”
Johnson now went to Ireland for the Ulster road races, and was third in his heat, and came home with the Winston Churchill Cup for fastest lap in the Seaman race, the BMW finishing second to St John Horsfall’s Aston Martin.
At International Prescott, Sydney Allard beat the Darracq by 0.4sec. But it won its class at the Cofton Hackett sprint Johnson flew out to Bouley Bay in an Airspeed Consul for the hill-climb, but despite a magnificent ascent, he finished behind both the ohv Allard and Monkhouse, who was also driving Johnson’s Darracq.
Trials totally abandoned for racing by 1947, LGJ went fast in practice at Jersey, but in the race the Darracq lost top gear and was sixth. It came seventh in the GP de Europe at Spa, and Johnson also ran it in the Mille Miglia with John Eason Gibson. In the British Empire Trophy in the Isle of Man, the outclassed Darracq caught fire. But back at Prescott, it had another class win, Motor Sport saying that Johnson ‘handled it faultlessly, with none of the snaking and frantic wheelsawing indulged in by so many drivers, and he held vicious slides in the wet at the Esses in his usual style’.
At the beginning of 1948 came the news that Johnson had bought the ERA concern, now that Raymond Mays and his followers were busy with the V16 BRM; Humphrey Cook remained on the Board of Directors. The Darracq was sold to Major Guy Gale, but the ERA deal was not concluded until the end of the year, because the business papers had been lost and were never found; a story for someone here! The 100 per cent effective ERA voiturettes had been developed into the E-type version which, under the new Formula, were eligible for Grand Prix racing. Two E-types had been built and Johnson drove GP2.
He moved the works to Dunstable, and I remember that he took me to see the new organisation, in a large Chevrolet. One somehow expects a fast drive with a racing driver behind the wheel, but on this occasion, I was disappointed at how sedately Leslie drove.
Unfortunately, the E-type ERA was not successful. Johnson drove GP2 after H L Brooke had had little joy from it and had sold it back to ERA Ltd. In 1948, LGJ managed fifth place in the Isle of Man British Empire Trophy Race behind older ERAs. At Zandvoort, a practice accident made GP2 a non-starter, and at the British Grand Prix it retired when a driveshaft broke. It also retired from the Montlhery Coupe de Salon race with a split fuel tank.
Things were little better in 1949. After a third and a fifth at the Easter Goodwood races, a bearing collapsed and put EH Johnson out of the international Jersey Road Race. Hoping for some prestige, GP2 was taken to Montlhery fora record attempt, but due to the fuel tanks splitting, this had to be abandoned. In the 1950 European GP at Silverstone, the supercharger packed up. That was enough. Leslie sold ERA Ltd to the Bristol Aeroplane Co and turned for solace to a Jaguar X1(120.
At Palm Beach in the USA, the Jaguar was fourth, second in class to an Indy-type racer. In the Mille Miglia of 1950, Johnson was a splendid fifth, only one hour behind the victorious Ferrari 195S of Giannino Marzotto. At Le Mans in the near-standard XK120, with Bert Hadley as his co-driver, Johnson had to retire with clutch failure after lapping at almost 100mph, in comparative silence.
LGJ was by now virtually a Jaguar works driver, having impressed William Lyons with a win in a 1949 Silverstone Production Car Race in HKV 500 at 82.80mph, from Peter Walker’s XK120. But he had won the 1948 24-hour race at Spa for Aston Martin, his 2-litre Claud Hill push-rod, co-driven by St John Horsfall, covering 1769 miles at 72.07mph.
In a Jaguar X1(120, in that fearfully wet TT at Dundrod in 1950, won so ably by Stirling Moss, Johnson and Peter Whitehead took, with him, the Team Prize in the XK120s. In the 1951 TT at the same Irish circuit, Johnson finished third in a C-type Jaguar and, with Walker and Tony Rolt, again scooped the Team Prize.
Johnson then went to America and won his class in an XK120 (JWK 651) at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and he and Moss afterwards took this Jaguar to Montlhery and drove it for 24 hours at 107mph.
In the 1951 Mille Miglia Johnson had to retire, as did Moss, with brake problems, but at the Paris track he used his only-slightly modified XK120 for an Es. hour at 131.83mph and an s.s. hour at 131.2mph.
It was in 1952 that LGJ achieved what I described in Motor Sport as ‘perhaps the finest post-war accomplishment’, covering 16,852 miles in seven days and nights, at an average speed of 100.31mph. His supporting drivers were Moss, Hadley and Jack Fairman, with Mortimer Morris-Goodall and Desmond Scannell at the depot. The Jaguar XK120 fixed-head coupe broke world and international records by up to 72 hours.
There was also another Mille Miglia outing, Jaguar sending disc-braked C-types to Italy for Moss and Rolt while Johnson ran his privately entered drum-braked C-type. Leslie’s fuel tank split.
Still not entirely confined to Jaguars, Johnson shared a 4.1 Nash-Healey with Tommy Wisdom to finish third at Le Mans in 1952 behind two works Mercedes-Benz, covering 2146 miles at 91.49mph. In 1953, the 4.1-litre Nash-Healey was entered by the Nash Company itself and, with Johnson and Hadley, finished 11th.
All of this is sufficient, I hope, to prove what a very versatile and successful British driver LGJ was. A heavy smoker, his health deteriorated and caused him to give up motor racing. He succumbed in 1959.