Last chance saloons

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194

The season was over, yet the title of first British saloon champion still lay vacant… Two men buckled up to sort it out 

By Gordon Cruickshank

For the Silverstone Classic meeting in July the organisers plan to reassemble the entire grid of the 1948 British GP. But they’ve been beaten by the MSA British Touring Car Championship people, who at Brands Hatch in March reassembled the entire grid of the title-clinching race for the first British saloon championship, 50 years ago. They even managed to bring together 100 per cent of the drivers involved. Both of them. 

Why only two? Because after an entire season of racing there was a tie for the title, decided by a penalty shoot-out in the shape of two five-lap races. To celebrate the championship’s golden anniversary, both those drivers, Jack Sears and Tommy Sopwith, returned to Brands recently to relive that dark and dismal October afternoon, complete with matching Rileys. 

You can tell the event was a long time back: Sopwith walks into the room, says his hellos, looks at the pictures of the day on the wall and asks “was it raining?” Jack Sears goes over to Tommy with an original programme for the event and they pore over it. “Graham in an A35! I’d forgotten he was there. And John Sprinzel, and John Webb in that Jensen 541.” 

There’s a contrast between these two: Sears the gentleman farmer is thoughtful, ready to talk, taking time to thank people who ask for an autograph. Sopwith the businessman, in tinted glasses, is urgent, crisp and glad that Sears is apparently able to remember everything. They sit down to recall the day that one became a champion and one a runner-up. It’s a fine double act – Jack setting the scene, telling a tale, Tommy coming in with a punchline. “Jack’s very persuasive – I’ve been dragged here to celebrate coming last!” He can’t be that reluctant – he’s due to drive a 3.4 Jaguar at a BTCC Thruxton round shortly.

There was plenty of saloon racing before 1958, but one man saw the benefit of a championship – Ken Gregory. Better known as the manager of Stirling Moss and the man behind BRP, Gregory in 1957 was the BRSCC secretary, running sports car events and the 500cc F3 series. “We were always looking for variety,” he says, “in case the regulars were bored with the bark of 500cc singles.” It wouldn’t be much of a contest if the powerful new Jaguar 3.4s won everything, so the scoring gave equal weight to victory in all four classes: if you kept winning the 1200cc class in your Austin A35 you stood a good chance of coming out ahead of the heavy metal. The trouble was that there were two consistent drivers who kept on winning their classes – Sears and Sopwith. Not that it began that way: Sopwith would only be beaten once during the year, by Mike Hawthorn in a similar Jaguar, but in the early season Sears was losing out to Jeff Uren in a Ford Zephyr with a special three-carb cylinder head. 

Now the 2.6-litre Austin Westminster Sears was racing was his own car, and he was not in a position to modify it. In an excellent PR deal, BMC competitions boss Marcus Chambers had agreed to look after the mechanical side of the car if Sears bought it and entered it. From today’s sponsor-laden viewpoint it looks quaint, but then it was more than fair. “Going racing was a relatively expensive business,” says Sears, “so for me this was a wonderful solution.”

But why the heavy Austin Westminster? “I was contracted to BMC, rallying for them and racing my own A105 during 1957, so I knew the car well. Winning races would be good publicity for them, so Marcus Chambers sold me an ex-rally Westminster. I wasn’t an engineer but if the works were going to look after it I knew it would be reliable. I just had to get it from Norfolk or Abingdon to the circuits.”

Hearing Sears say all this, Sopwith’s eyebrows soar. “I’ve only just discovered that Jack’s car was works prepared! Lofty England just took my cheque and left me to get on with it.”

Not so Chambers, who took action. He knew that to match the Ford Sears needed a similar set-up, but the BMC competition department couldn’t turn one round in time. So he went to Speedwell and asked them to produce one in five minutes flat. They did, too, putting everything else on hold until Jack’s car could also inhale through three SUs. It made a huge difference, and Sears rapidly topped up his tally. The rules allowed drivers to drop their two lowest scores, which forced Sopwith to dump one victory, bringing Sears up to match him.

As their paired victories mounted it looked increasingly likely that they would repeat their double finish at the final round – and then what? You can’t share a title. Jack recalls the discussion. “The BRSCC asked if we were prepared to settle it by the flip of a coin, and we both said ‘not bloody likely! We haven’t spent a whole season racing for that.’ So they went off to think again.” 

No-one, not even Marcus Chambers, now in his nineties, can remember whose idea a race-off was. Not me, says Gregory; nor me, says Brands lynchpin John Webb (though he does remember driving one of the Rileys down from Les Leston’s workshop. He adds: “Who won? Bet it was Sears – he was the most determined driver I ever knew.”). But it appealed to the two protagonists, so the back-up arrangement went ahead for the last round. Chambers agreed to supply two matching rally-prepared Riley 1.5s, which was a canny move – even if the Jaguar driver won, BMC would get the exposure – and since no two cars are ever identical, the format would be two five-lap races, with a car swap between.

Sure enough, at a damp Brands Hatch in the last race both men topped their classes, closing the season with maximum points, and the stage was set for the tie-breaker. Rather than wait until the end of the programme, the club decided it would run the challenge immediately, so the BMC mechanics brought the two Rileys to the startline. With no competition numbers, they decided one would run with lights on so the timekeepers could distinguish them. At this point the two drivers did flip a coin: “Tommy won the toss,” says Jack, “so he took the faster car first. I expected him to beat me, and he did. I just hung on as close as I could.” There were 2.2sec between them as they stepped out into the rain and swapped mounts for the sequel.

“I made an excellent start,” recalls Jack, “and led into Paddock. Then it was just a case of hanging on, saying ‘don’t spin, don’t spin’ and watching him in my mirror. Then I thought, ‘I should be looking through the windscreen, not in the mirror.’ We didn’t get any pit signals, so it was just a case of going for it.”

Thin tyres hissing on the wet track and tiny exhaust pipes buzzing, the two little saloons splashed under the flag, watches clicked, and when the two weary men pulled up at the end of their third race that day they had their result. By 1.6sec Jack Sears was the first British Saloon Champion.

Sopwith would have been entitled to grumble – he had won nine out of the 10 races and set eight fastest laps. But that was not the way of things then. They both agreed with the idea, and accepted the result. While Sopwith shrugs over it now, he does add that Equipe Endeavour could have made good use of the £100 Sears received.

“It was barely a business,” he says of the team named after his father’s Americas Cup yachts. “It made very small profits, if any. We had a little support from tyre and oil people and a little bit from starting money.”

Not that Sears’ BMC backing amounted to very much. “I was never paid a retainer,” explains Jack. “You got a daily allowance, and you paid your hotel and other expenses out of that. And then there was the prize money. I kept a record of everything I won in 1958 – it’s in the book somewhere.” 

He means Gentleman Jack, his new biography. Despite the fact that he has a firm place in racing history, Sears never felt inclined to produce a biography until author Graham Gauld recently persuaded him that it was about time. Sears is surprised when I put my review copy on the table – “is it out yet?” – and he picks it up and scans it, anxious to hear what I think. “I really didn’t want it to be about race results. Those are dull, you can look them up anywhere. I felt it had to be full of stories. I wanted to remind people what a wonderful time it was, to capture the ambience.”

He leafs rapidly through looking for the prize money figure; Sopwith, who has not seen a copy before, looks over his shoulder and says, “My God, what a lot of pictures!”

“I wanted to get in as many photos of racing as possible,” Jack explains, diffident as ever, “so that even if people found the words boring they’d have plenty to look at. Ah, here we are. My prize money for 1958 totalled £837.5s.” Which no doubt helped towards the Austin-Healey he raced in the GT series in 1959.

Already friendly as rivals, the two were soon on the same side, after Sopwith retired from driving and took Sears into his Jaguar team for 1960, alongside Mike Parkes. Was it different racing for Sopwith?

“I didn’t get a retainer from Tommy either, or prize money, but boy did we live well! He was the ideal patron: he provided the best of everything – hotels, food, mechanics. Tommy’s cars held together longer than John Coombs’ cars. And of course there was the Pimms party after every race.” This paddock soirée at the Equipe Endeavour caravan was a famous feature of the racing season, a chance to re-run the day’s racing, glass in hand, and wash the circuit dust away with a snifter.

“Look,” Jack says to Tommy, still deep in his book. “I must show you this one.” He flattens a page at a shot of himself in the Westminster looking in his mirror and beckoning Tommy through in the much quicker Jaguar. Chasing him in another 3.4-litre Jag is Mike Hawthorn. Sopwith chuckles. “Oh, it does my ego good to see that.”

A talented driver in his own right, Sopwith doesn’t really need a boost. “I’d always admired Tommy as a driver,” says Sears, “though I’d never had a duel with him as we were in different classes. But I thought that if he could duel with Mike Hawthorn he must be pretty quick.”

It was a discussion with his father, founder of the Sopwith and Hawker aircraft companies, that made Sopwith switch from driver to team manager. “While I was driving my father said to me ‘are you going to be World Champion?’. I said, ‘no, I don’t think I’m good enough.’ ‘Well, why are you bothering, then?’ came the reply.”

With a pair of 3.8 Jaguars, plus an Aston D4GT for GT races, Endeavour’s wrangles with the John Coombs Jags made Sears a crowd favourite. Yet he was free to maintain his BMC connection.

“Marcus Chambers would ring and ask if I could race a Healey at Sebring, and Tommy would always say yes.” For a further couple of years BMC used the Sears factor in races, rallies, and even Le Mans, while Sopwith ran him in E-types and Ferraris. But after John Willment started his team and Sopwith turned to powerboats, it was in Fords that in 1963 Sears won a second saloon title, door-handling a Willment Cortina or Galaxie around the country. It was the big American machines which finally toppled the Jaguar domination, and Sears was central to that. “After I won in the Galaxie, the Jaguars never won again,” he says with satisfaction. Yet the scoring system which produced the 1958 tie-breaker frequently meant a smaller car took the British saloon title, until the Super Touring era from 1991 made two litres standard. However, there was never the need for another race-off.

Before Jack and Tommy go outside to where the Rileys are waiting, we watch the film of the event, complete with the perfect Cholmondley-Warner voice-over. Sears and Sopwith have never seen this piece of film, and are amazed by the conditions. “Look how wet it is, and how dark!”. Like the rest of us they chuckle over the laboured humour. “If it gets any darker they’ll need radar!” laughs the announcer, slightly too heartily. A comment about Jack’s gleaming white short-sleeved shirt – “not so much ‘drift’ as ‘Dreft’ – prompts Jack to remember his race wear on the day. “I just took my jacket off and tucked my tie in.” Which is what he’s done today, too, as we head to the startline. And he has brought his old race helmet along.

It’s years since Sopwith came to Brands Hatch, and Sears puts his hand on Tommy’s sleeve to warn him “be careful – Paddock is much tighter than it used to be.” Smart new buildings aside, Brands broadly remains Brands, and both men are itching to get going. These aren’t the same Riley 1.5s, though they are rally cars. However, even historic rally cars are today more modified than racers back then, and these are trimless with roll cages, full harness, fire extinguishers and all the kit. Finally the photographic runs are done and the two drivers are let loose, one with lights on as 50 years ago – but no rain. Of course, this isn’t a race, merely a reminder of history, but somehow lap by lap the engine notes are peaking a little higher, the tyres finding more kerb, the bumpers getting closer…

Afterwards there are autographs to sign and hands to shake. Sopwith fidgets during more photos – places to be, you know – while Jack patiently answer questions with a gentle charm as though genuinely surprised that his career is of any interest today. He goes to see Tommy off, but despite having a long drive ahead of him, returns to sign books and programmes. Again he loses himself in the photos in his book, smiling. “There’s no comparison to today,” he says. “For that first saloon race I drove to the circuit, won the race, and drove back for dinner. We were racing because we loved it, not to earn money. It really was a golden era for competitors.”