Part-time power broker

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Richard Heseltine

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Broker by day, racing driver in his spare time, Eric Thompson not only held his own against the pros at Le Mans but beat a World Champion in his sole Grand Prix
By Richard Heseltine

Were someone to achieve something similar today, their accomplishment would likely be obscured by a blizzard of hype. But it was different then. Taken out of context, Eric Thompson’s World Championship Grand Prix tally of one solitary start might infer also-ran status. Except nothing could be further from the truth. When this Lloyds broker turned purveyor of rare motoring books took to the grid at Silverstone in July 1952, he was aboard an unfamiliar – and unproven – car. Following two hours and 49 seconds of racing he came home in fifth place. Behind him was former World Champion ‘Nino’ Farina. Not bad for an amateur.

“My reward was two World Championship points and £83.6s.8d,” recalls the former sports car regular, now a mere stripling at 90 years of age. “Naturally I was delighted. My retainer at Aston Martin was £25 for the season.” Not that money ever really entered the equation, the ever-friendly Thompson being the epitome of the gentleman driver. Racing was something he did during his downtime and he did it well. And not for him mere 10-lap club thrashes between hay bales – Thompson’s membership of the British Racing Drivers’ Club coincided with his first ever race, his second start being the Le Mans 24 Hours…

“Before the war we lived in Cobham, which was only a few miles from Brooklands, so we used to go across as a family to watch the races,” he recalls. “I also went to Donington for the 1938 British Grand Prix where I watched Tazio Nuvolari with absolute amazement. My brother had an Alvis Speed 20, which he entered in the Lands End Trial that same year with me acting as designated ‘bouncer’. It had a very long wheelbase so wasn’t ideal. We then saw a Jabberwocky Ford V8 for sale; the salesman was Dennis Poore, my future team-mate at Aston’s and Connaught. Anyway, we did the 1939 Exeter Trial, my first competitive driving event where I collected a Premier Award, but then the war came along.”

Motor sport would have to wait and Thompson wouldn’t venture trackside until he was 28. “Robin Richards – whom I’d met in Italy during the war – had bought a HRG 1100. Well, the French AGACI drivers’ club challenged the BRDC to do the [1948] Paris 12-Hour race at Montlhéry. Peter Clark produced four HRGs, two 1100s and two 1500s, for the team. Robin needed a co-driver so he asked me. That is how I became a racing driver. I was made a member of the BRDC too, as I couldn’t very well compete unless I was affiliated. We trundled around for hours on end on what was the long circuit, which went off into the countryside and back again, and had a wonderful time [en route to fourth in class].

“Robin and I thought racing was great fun so we decided to do it properly. Clark and Jack Scott both had HRG Aerodynamics and reckoned they were no good, so they’d had Monaco Motors turn them into stripped-down lightweights; we could join the team if we could find a suitable car, which we did after spotting an advertisement in the Evening Standard for a ‘shop-soiled and obsolete HRG 1500 chassis’. We paid Charles Follett £475 and towed it from Piccadilly to Surrey behind my 1921 Vauxhall 14/40. It was snowing at the time.”

Shortly thereafter our hero arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the June 1949 running, but with a new co-driver. “Robin turned the car over during testing at Boreham and broke both legs, so I did the race with Jack Fairman.” Thompson recalls the race being largely uneventful, save perhaps for the traditional sprint start. The car wouldn’t spark into life, despite him “pushing some knobs, waggling the gearlever, kicking the clutch and so on”. On eventually getting away he picked his way through the tail-enders before handing over to Fairman at 7pm. By half-distance they were running in a respectable 15th place. Come the flag, they had vaulted to an astonishing eighth overall and netted a class win in the process.

And, having survived one round-the-clock classic, Thompson, Fairman and ‘The Mobile Galosh’ departed for Spa where they took their second 24-hour class win in a fortnight. Which is all the more remarkable as Thompson recalls with typical understatement: “The fuel tank came away from its mountings and we had to effect a repair using rope and a broom handle. The body was also held together with string. It was in a bit of a state by the end of the race.

“After that I won a couple of handicap races at Goodwood and then sold the car. I thought my racing days were over but then John Wyer – who had been the MD at Monaco Motors and was now Aston Martin’s team manager – phoned me at the office and asked if I’d like to test a DB2 at Silverstone. Charles Brackenbury, who was a wonderful old soak, went out to give us an idea of what a correct lap time should be. Jack Fairman was there, too, as was John Gordon who later made the Gordon-Keeble motor car.

“John Wyer had a gift for pairing professional drivers with amateurs like myself. As long as you behaved, he was all right. If you didn’t, you got the treatment. If you made a mistake, though, he was incredibly generous in not blaming you; he would give you the benefit of the doubt. I was offered a drive at Le Mans for 1950 and was paired with Jack. Unfortunately, he went off the road on the way to the circuit, damaging the car and breaking his wife’s neck. John Wyer considered him unfit to race so I was teamed with Gordon in a development hack known as the ‘Sweat Box’. It lasted only eight or so laps before the crank broke. That was my first race as a works driver.”

While his day job as a marine insurance broker paid well, one thing Thompson lacked was time. “We used to get two weeks holiday a year and every other Saturday off. I had a living to make and had to plan my racing around work, although every once in a while there would be a funeral that I absolutely had to attend… Wyer said it was no good me turning up for one or two races each year and I’d better get in some practice. Tom Ayrton kindly loaned me a Bugatti Type 51 and I rather foolishly bought a Cooper-Vincent, which was very fast in practice but always broke down in a race. It wasn’t quite the experience I was after.”

Though more than useful in sprint races, Thompson’s metier was clearly endurance events: 1951 would witness arguably his finest achievement. “That year I was paired with Lance Macklin in the works DB2. He was very much the coming man and a very, very good driver, as long as he could be bothered. We drove in four-hour stints and while I was in the car he’d disappear off to see some bird. We were lying about fifth or sixth at half-distance and had stuck religiously to the imposed rev limit. Wyer then gave us another 300rpm to play with and for the last 12 hours we drove flat out. I remember Brian Shawe-Taylor in the lightweight Aston, and just slowly, slowly gaining on him. When he went through White House he would lift off or brake ever so slightly. I knew that if I could go flat through there I would have a few more revs and could pass him on the straight. The chase was wonderful and we were stationary for only 11 minutes during the whole race. Lance and I finished third overall and won our class. To do so well with a road car up against 4.5-litre Talbot-Lagos and the Jaguars and so on was, well, pretty special.”

The following year’s running, by comparison, was less successful. With the arrival of former Auto Union man Eberan von Eberhost, Aston Martin had upped the stakes. As chief engineer, he conceived the slab-sided DB3 in time for the ’52 Le Mans race. “There were three cars, the one I shared with Reg Parnell being an experimental coupé; it was too heavy to be competitive and we were out before long. The DB3S was much better – well balanced, very forgiving – but none of us finished in 1953. And in the following year’s race I was given the 4.5-litre Lagonda, which I suspect none of the professionals on the Aston team wanted to drive. That was the year when all the works cars went out in accidents, two of them at White House. They were insured by Lloyds and I remember getting slow handclapped when I walked into the office on the Monday after the race!”

It was aboard a DB3S that Thompson enjoyed one of his higher-profile wins, in the ’53 Goodwood Nine Hours, a full 12 months after a fire at the same venue almost claimed him. “In ’52 I’d been driving the DB3 with Reg (pictured on p92). There was a trail of smoke coming out the back which wasn’t affecting the performance but, when I came in to hand over, instead of Reg jumping in he took my arm and pulled me away as the car went up in flames. There’d been some confusion over strategy and the car was overfilled with fuel – a red-hot brake caliper sent it up with a whoosh and John Wyer got badly burned, as did a mechanic. In ’53, we were running near the front for much of the race and on the last handover Reg informed me that it had no clutch; I drove away on the starter motor. All the Jags fell by the wayside and we won. We were lucky.

“My busiest years were 1951 and ’52, though, and I’d also started driving for Rob Walker and particularly enjoyed his ERA-Delage. Tony Rolt had been driving for him but went to Jaguar, so Rob needed a driver. He was a wonderful chap and I did quite well with his Connaught A-Type [including two wins at Snetterton in ’53].”

Yet it was with the factory Connaught equipe that Thompson would start his one and only World Championship Grande Epreuve. “I was in the office when the phone rang. ‘This is Rodney Clarke,’ said the voice on the other end. ‘We’ve got a reserve entry for the British GP with the new car – would you like to drive it?’ Practice was on Thursday but I had an important meeting with a ship owner so I promised I’d be there on Friday in time for second practice. I was told not to exceed six-three as if I did everything would go through the roof. Well, my single-seater experience was pretty limited, and Rob had also entered his ERA-Delage for the supporting Formula Libre race, which followed immediately after the Grand Prix. This required a rapid adjustment of driving techniques since it had a two-stage supercharger, a Wilson pre-selector gearbox and so on.

“Anyway, I was just happy to be in the Grand Prix but about eight laps in the rev counter broke which slowed me down a bit. In the interests of not blowing it up I began to fall back, but I gradually got the hang of things and caught Dennis Poore in the sister car. After a pitstop I caught and passed Farina; he was having a problem with his Ferrari’s plugs and me getting past him didn’t help his mood. He was not at all happy and sat on my tail for a while, doing his best to intimidate me, but eventually he dropped back. I finished fifth behind Dennis which was a great result in what was Connaught’s first Grand Prix.”

There would be no further World Championship outings, although Eric Thompson would round out his frontline career with the marque. “After five years doing Le Mans with Aston’s, I elected to partner Ken McAlpine in the 1955 race in the Connaught AL/SR. It was enormously noisy and very fast. I was waiting in the pits to take over when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes was launched into the crowd. Naturally everyone was in a very sombre mood and our car was out with a holed piston on lap 60. We then did the Goodwood Nine Hours and fared little better, with Ken pushing the car over the line at midnight [to place 16th].”

Save for a speed trial at Boreham in a half-litre Jason (F3 car) a year later, that was the end of his motor racing career. “You couldn’t make a decent living out of it and I was never tempted to turn pro,” he smiles. “It was wonderful fun, but it was obvious to me that I had to stop. I had less and less time to go racing as I progressed up the Lloyds hierarchy. And besides, I’d run out of grandmothers to bury…”

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