Physical disability was no barrier to racing success for Archie Scott Brown, one of the best-loved drivers in a golden age of motor sport
By Nigel Roebuck
Of late much has been written about Jimmy Clark, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death, and an indication of his greatness frequently cited was his absolute domination at Spa-Francorchamps, in its fearsome original 8.76-mile guise. Clark won the Belgian Grand Prix four times on the trot, from 1962 to ’65, and, until his Lotus 49 failed him, dominated the ’67 race, his final appearance at the circuit.
Many, including Stirling Moss, took issue with Denis Jenkinson’s contention that the ‘old’ Spa constituted the ultimate test of a racing driver, more so even than the ‘old’ Nürburgring, but Jenks was immoveable on the subject. What made Spa different, he maintained, was that it was so fast, and therefore so unforgiving. Precision – delicate placing of the car – was crucial, and so was self-belief.
Spa was a circuit which might have been constructed around the sublime talents of Clark, and it was no surprise that his effortless superiority was always seen to such advantage there. Yet Jimmy, truth be told, loathed the place. In his first Belgian Grand Prix, in 1960, he witnessed the aftermath of Chris Bristow’s fatal accident, and later in the race Alan Stacey, one of his Lotus team-mates, also lost his life.
Even before this, though, Clark had dark memories of Spa. On May 18 1958, while the Formula 1 brigade was contesting the Monaco Grand Prix, he took part in his first international race, the Grand Prix de Spa, at the wheel of the Border Reivers D-type Jaguar. It was a track the like of which he had never seen, and he admitted that it frightened him.
That being so, Clark was circumspect in the race, and eventually finished eighth. Quite early on he was lapped by the leader, Masten Gregory, and the experience stunned him: “Masten went past me like a bat out of hell, his Lister-Jaguar sideways, his arms crossed up and fighting the steering. I remember thinking, ‘If this is motor racing, I’m going to give up now…’”
At the time Gregory was locked into a fierce battle with another Lister, driven by the man synonymous with the marque, Archie Scott Brown. By lap six Scott Brown had regained the lead, but at Club House, the fast left-hander before La Source, his car slid wide, clipped the stone memorial to Richard Seaman, then hit a stout road sign and somersaulted, immediately catching fire. By the time the unfortunate man had been extricated from the wreckage, he had suffered appalling burns, from which he died the following evening.
Scott Brown had fallen victim to the capricious weather for which Spa has always been infamous. On so long a circuit, a ‘local’ shower can fall on just a corner or two, and this is what happened at Club House that day: the Lister was travelling at a ‘dry’ pace when it arrived at a wet corner, and Scott Brown, being ahead of Gregory at the time, was the first driver to find it.
Although familiar with Scott Brown’s career, and a great admirer of his ability, Clark had met his fellow Scot for the first time only the day before the crash, and was shattered by this, his first encounter with tragedy in motor racing.
He was not alone. Archie Scott Brown had been deeply loved within the British motor racing community, and also by the fans, who adored his spectacular style.
I was a kid when I first saw Scott Brown drive, at Oulton Park in 1955. I knew that in some way he was physically handicapped, and on the way to the circuit my doctor father told me a little about him.
During her pregnancy, Jay Scott Brown had contracted German measles, and in those days – the late 1920s – the potentially dreadful consequences for an unborn child were not recognised. Archie’s left arm was normal, but he had no right forearm or hand, and his severely shortened legs were without shinbones. Extraordinary work by Naughton Dunn, an orthopaedic specialist surgeon, improved the situation markedly, but still none could have predicted any sort of normal life for this young boy, let alone that he would race cars, and do it brilliantly.
A while ago I spent a memorable afternoon with Brian Lister, in whose cars Scott Brown so excelled. “Archie’s natural sense of balance was extraordinary,” he says. “Apparently he always won the ‘slow’ bicycle races at school. I’ve always believed that if Nature, God or whatever takes something away at birth, it compensates by giving something back – you know, the way blind people are often much more aware of sound, and are very strong on musical pitch, and so on. And I think it was the same with Archie; he didn’t have a right hand, but his balance was exceptional.
“Roy Salvadori said that he and Tony Crook wondered, when Archie first came on the scene, if he really knew what he was doing. Within a very short time, they realised that he did. In fact, Roy then said, ‘He proved it beyond all doubt, because he was quicker than I was…’”
Even in the context of 1950s motor racing, when grip was in short supply and the four-wheel drift much in evidence, Scott Brown’s cornering technique was flamboyant, particularly in cars with real horsepower, like the Lister-Jaguars he raced in 1957 and, all too briefly, ’58.
Remarkably, his disabilities were not common knowledge among many race fans at the time, for they were seldom referred to, save in the broadest terms, and there was nothing in his driving to suggest that he was other than fully able-bodied. So many times I watched him recover the Lister-Jag from impossibly lurid slides, but it was not until I saw him one day in the paddock that I came fully to appreciate the miracle of what he could do with a racing car.
In point of fact, Lister believes that Scott Brown’s handicap was less of a drawback than might have been thought. “He was able to push the stump of his right arm on to the rim – and he could turn the wheel with it. Our cars had light steering, so that helped, and a left-hand gear lever, too. With a right-hand lever, he would’ve needed some kind of attachment, but he’d probably have managed it, knowing him.
“Archie would always put his right ‘hand’ in his pocket, and I don’t know if that was necessarily self-consciousness. It could well have been a matter of simply resting the arm.
“I remember once he was driving us somewhere, and he asked Josie, my wife, if she’d like a cigarette. He then got the matchbox out of his pocket, pushed it open with his thumb, got a match out, closed the box, and somehow held it so that it struck the match…
“At Aintree in 1956, he asked Josie if she would pass his gear to him – his crash hat, overalls and so on, and a glove. ‘Where’s the other glove?’ Of course she suddenly realised what she’d said – but Archie treated it as a huge joke! He got her laughing, so as not to embarrass her, and in fact probably took it as a compliment, which unconsciously it was.”
Twice, in 1955 and ’57, Scott Brown won the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park, and the first of those victories gave him particular pleasure, for at the 1954 race, following a protest by Sid Greene, the stewards of the RAC Competitions Committee declined to allow him to race. His licence revoked, Archie was then inactive for two months, but lobbying by friends and supporters, including Stirling Moss, led the committee to think again.
Greene, the patron of Gilby Engineering, had himself lost an arm in an accident, after which he was allowed to compete only in sprints and hillclimbs. Denied a ‘full’ racing licence, he suggested the same should apply to Scott Brown, but there were those who suspected that his motivation came from the fact that the main opposition to his Maserati A6GCS, driven by Roy Salvadori, came from Archie’s Lister.
“Despite their great rivalry,” says Lister, “Archie and Roy always got on exceptionally well. I never thought for a second that Roy had any part in the business with Sid Greene, even though he was driving for him.”
Whatever, once Scott Brown’s licence was returned, he took particular relish in beating the Gilby Maserati. But while his entries were henceforth accepted without question in British events, such was not the case abroad, and that was heartbreaking for one of the very fastest drivers of his time.
If Archie were almost unbeatable in British sports car racing, he also proved immensely fast in a handful of Formula 1 races with Connaught in 1956, and his performances bear a little study. At the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting, his first in a Grand Prix car, he qualified second to Moss’s factory Maserati and held Stirling off for half the race, until his fragile car failed.
Three weeks later, at the Aintree 200, Scott Brown put his Connaught on pole – by more than two clear seconds! – and was again comfortably in front when, as at Goodwood, a piston broke. Finally, in the International Trophy at Silverstone, his car went the distance, and he was beaten only by Moss.
The Connaught team was so desperately under-financed that undertaking a full F1 season was out of the question, but four cars were entered for the British GP at Silverstone, and there Scott Brown qualified an impressive 10th in the 28-car field, quickly picking off the Ferraris of Castellotti and de Portago before losing a wheel 16 laps into the race.
This was to be Scott Brown’s only Grand Prix. Connaught entered cars for Monza, but after running impressively on the first day of practice, Archie was informed by the authorities that he would not be allowed to race. Only recently they had rejected an application for a new competitions licence from Sergio Mantovani, an Italian driver who had lost a leg in an accident at Turin the previous year.
“Archie was incredibly quick, that one day he did drive at Monza,” says Lister, “even though the circuit was obviously new to him. I remember Fangio coming into our pit, watching Archie go by, then grinning and saying something in Spanish which I didn’t understand, but which was obviously very complimentary! We were all devastated when he wasn’t allowed to race.”
There was some small consolation for Scott Brown a month later, at Brands Hatch. In those days races for F1 cars were frequently run at British national meetings, and on this occasion Archie’s Connaught held together, allowing him to win comfortably from team-mate Stuart Lewis-Evans and Salvadori – in the Gilby Maserati 250F.
Scott Brown had won in a Grand Prix car, but he was never to race one again. Although Connaught stumbled into 1957, the financial situation was now terminal, and soon the team disappeared from sight.
“He was heartbroken when Connaught went under,” says Lister. “The cars had pre-selector ’boxes, which of course suited him, but still some of his F1 drives were extraordinary. Think of his first race, at Goodwood, when he had a hell of a scrap with Moss and Hawthorn, and got ahead of them. No-one will persuade me that a Connaught was superior, or even equal, to a works Maserati 250F or BRM.”
From now on it would be sports cars only for Archie; fortunately it was also now that Lister built the Jaguar-powered car that was to be his masterpiece. In 1957 Scott Brown was as good as unbeatable in British sports car racing, and at the end of the year the team went off to compete in New Zealand.
“We never had a contract,” Lister recalls. “I think I paid him a retainer, as well as a percentage of the prize money, but I can’t really remember, to be honest. It wasn’t a matter of his driving for me – we worked together. We were mates.
“If Archie had a weakness as a racing driver, it was that he was so instinctive that he used to drive around a handling problem, or whatever. He wasn’t very good at analysing what the car was doing. At the New Zealand GP, for example, he was leading, and then he came into the pits and said to the mechanic, ‘I think there’s something wrong with the tyre pressures’. In fact, something had broken, and the wheels were leaning out at 45 degrees!”
By 1957, the attitude of foreign race organisers was starting to change. Without problem, Scott Brown was able to share a D-type Jaguar with Henry Taylor in the Nürburgring 1000Kms, where he proved startlingly quicker than the similar cars of Ecurie Ecosse. Team patron David Murray was far from amused, but later in the year, needing a driver to stand in for the injured John Lawrence, he offered Scott Brown a drive in the Swedish Grand Prix.
Again Archie was highly impressive, and Murray soon offered a permanent drive. It was tempting, of course, not least because this was a Scottish team, but ultimately Scott Brown became suspicious of Murray, and decided to stay put with Lister, who also sold a car to Ecurie Ecosse for 1958. It was assigned to Gregory, and at Silverstone, in the sports car race at the International Trophy meeting, Masten fought with Archie before eventually pulling away.
“The defeat by Gregory unsettled him,” says Lister. “In fact, I think it shocked him – that he could be beaten by a similar car. Hitherto he’d sometimes been beaten by cars from another manufacturer, but this time it was another Lister, and one not even prepared by the works. I think both he and I had underestimated Gregory. Masten may have been a bit of a madman, but he was also a very fast driver. There’s no doubt Archie wanted to prove – at Spa – that he was still the master, as far as Listers were concerned, and it was a hell of a race for the first few laps, until the accident happened. The conditions were about as dangerous as they could have been – dry corners and wet corners. It’s such a desperate shame that he overcooked it…
“The doctor who treated Archie was the same one who had treated Seaman, and in both cases he gave up on them immediately, and said they couldn’t possibly survive. Fire was such a terrible hazard in those days.
“Mind you, if they had managed to keep him alive, whether he could have been happy with his life I would doubt, because he was a very good-looking character. Apart from his disability, he was extremely handsome, and, according to Josie, a marvellous dancer.
“After his death, his father said Archie had told him to tell me I shouldn’t feel too bad about it, and he also said that it may have been for the best, bearing in mind the problems Archie could have suffered in old age, with his feet and so on. Perhaps he said that to make me feel better, I don’t know.
“Did I worry more for Archie than for other drivers? I worried about every driver. That was the part that I didn’t enjoy. During a race there were other things to think about, but beforehand, and when a car was being built, all the time I was concerned that what I was doing was going to cause someone to be injured or killed.”
In the wake of Scott Brown’s death, a degree of animosity built up between Lister and Ecurie Ecosse. “Within a few days, Archie’s father, with whom I had an exceptionally good relationship, phoned to ask me if I’d taken out a life insurance policy on him. I said no, of course not, and he said, well, someone has. I contacted the RAC’s John Eason-Gibson, and asked him to find out who it was; he called back, and said it was in fact Ecurie Ecosse. John pointed out that Scots always insure their employees, and he was sure it was an innocent thing. Well, perhaps so, but I can tell you that neither of Archie’s parents ever received a penny from it. The way things were in the ’50s, there was a great deal of money to be made from insuring the top drivers, I suppose…
“That was one thing. The other was that I was at Le Mans in ’58, helping Bruce Halford and Brian Naylor with their privately entered Lister. I was staying in the same hotel as Ecurie Ecosse, and over dinner David Murray and Wilkie Wilkinson started saying that Masten Gregory was a superior driver to Archie. This was less than a month after Archie’s death, and naturally I was very upset about it. Bob Gibson-Jarvie, a member of the team, came to me afterwards and said, ‘Will you accept my apologies, on behalf of Ecurie Ecosse, for that display of bad taste?’ I said, ‘I’ll accept it from you, Bob, but I’ll never forget it’. And I never have. Murray was a peculiar man. He was loathsome, actually…”
Lister admits that even now, all these years on, he is still trying to adjust to the fact that Scott Brown was killed, and in one of his cars. “I’ve had some very, very vivid dreams since the accident – not often, but once in a while. I’ve seen Archie in the dreams, and been desperately relieved that apparently he’s all right, and then I’ve woken up, realised it was only a dream, and… it’s a bit of a shock.
“People have asked me if, had Archie not been killed, I’d have gone on racing as long he wanted to, and it’s difficult to say. If, for some reason, I hadn’t been able to build another car that was successful, and realised that the only way was down, I would have withdrawn. No-one can go through life in a competitive game, be it scientific or artistic, and produce the goods all the time. I had it pretty easy: I was lucky in the conception of the car that I got together, because the chassis didn’t change very much, and of course I had the wonderful association with Don Moore, who did our engines. On top of that, I was blessed with one of the most brilliant drivers that ever lived.
“I look back now, and wonder if I’m just someone who’s getting on in years, and remembering things better than they were. However, history shows us that there are great periods in anything, whether it’s Greek architecture, furniture design or whatever, and I’ll always believe that the ’50s was a great period in racing.”
A little more than a year on from Scott Brown’s death, on August 1, 1959, Lister was at Brands Hatch. “Peter Blond pranged one of our cars very heavily, I remember. I was driving back to Cambridge, and heard on the radio that Jean Behra had been killed in Germany. He was a brilliant driver and one tough little man, Behra. I admired him tremendously, and there had been some discussions about him driving for us. Then I got home, and my wife greeted me with the news that Ivor Bueb, who’d often driven for us, had died from injuries received the previous weekend. I just thought, ‘That’s it – I don’t want to be part of this any more’. The fact is, it was never the same for me after Archie.”