Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

Seeds of expansion

Barrie Williams has a long motor sport history – including a little-known connection to the NMM 

There was a pleasing circularity about the inaugural Bromyard Festival of Motoring in April, thanks to that irrepressible local hero Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams, saloon, sports, historic and just-about-everything-else racer. Snipping the ribbon to launch the event, the perpetually cheerful Whizzo let loose 130 diverse machines around his normally quiet home patch, from vintage bikes to race and rally cars to classic sports cars and his own Welsh Rally-winning Mini, plus a parade of Morgans – the first three-wheeler was built here in the town. Loudest vehicle was the rumbling 18-litre V12 350hp Sunbeam ‘Bluebird’ brought over by the National Motor Museum – which in a way Barrie’s family helped get off the ground.

How so? Because in the 1950s Barrie’s father provided a lot of cars for Lord Montagu’s fledgling new museum, cars that had come to rest at the family garage and engineering works in the Herefordshire town. 

“People would bring them in for repair,” Barrie tells me, “but money was short and if they couldn’t pay, they’d just leave them there.” It wasn’t always due to cash flow. “A fighter pilot brought in a 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam with a cracked block, and my dad spent ages stitch-welding it together. Then he contacted the family and found the owner had been shot down…”

Needing space for his new karting venture, Fasta Karts, Williams Sr wanted rid of these old vehicles and Lord Montagu heard about it. “I remember him turning up with his agent in plus-fours and tweeds,” says Barrie. “He took my parents to lunch to negotiate buying the lot – about 15 or 16 cars plus a charabanc. He paid what looks like pennies today. But getting them out meant knocking a wall down and Dad made him agree to that first!” 

The visit caused a bit of a stir in the quiet town as Montagu had just come out of prison and the scandal was still front-page news, but before long the wall was down and the cars were being loaded onto lorries. “There was a Trojan, twin-cylinder Rover, Clyno, a couple of Bullnose Morrises, a little Wolseley, an A7 Swallow… I think the Sunbeam went to Beaulieu too,” Barrie recalls. “And the Maxwell charabanc and lots of motorbikes.” 

Barrie’s dad was a Sunbeam works rider until he crashed on the Isle of Man, and he and his brother then raced Austin 7 Ulsters. Barrie remembers going with them to Longbridge to see Austin chairman Leonard Lord. “We were taken into the factory and shown the engines and bodies of the 750cc single-seaters. To me they looked just like those tinplate Schuco toy racers, so I said ‘Look, Dad, baby Mercedes!’ Leonard Lord wasn’t too pleased.”

Among the photos Barrie showed me was a wonderful early motor caravan built by his grandfather. It might have been the perfect support vehicle for the bike-riding Williamses, years before paddocks got crowded with its glassfibre descendants, but it was long gone by then. “It was built on a Model T Ford chassis,” Barrie explains, “which my granddad extended using a slave axle and sprockets and chains. He used it for fishing trips all round the country. Eventually he gave it to the lad who helped him build it, who said he would restore it but he took the chassis off and sold it.”

With two gears and 20bhp this wooden-hulled land-yacht would have been no cross-country sprinter, but it was a stately pioneer of today’s air-conditioned high-speed hotels. Even if they don’t have tasselled curtains.

Some of the Williams cars remain at the National Motor Museum, as the Montagu collection became, including the charabanc, restored to people-carrying duty. “On the 50th anniversary of the museum I drove it around the grounds with Montagu’s family aboard,” says Whizzo. 

He wasn’t allowed to drive the Sunbeam at the Bromyard do, but he did pilot one of his father’s Fasta Karts (which proved a highly successful venture once the old cars were out of the way) down the High Street. “Hee hee, I’d no idea is was so bumpy,” he giggles. Can’t have been half so rough as one of his early experiences: “Dad used to tow me along the street on a sledge behind his Austin 10!” 

Isn’t that a custodial crime nowadays?

Right-hand jive

Before paddles proliferated, drivers had to reach for it – but why is right right and left left out?

Re-reading Derek Warwick’s comments recently about driving the Jaguar XJR-14 Le Mans car triggered a historical query I’ve not been able to answer. Warwick said he never got used to the Jaguar’s left-hand gearchange – rare in a sports-prototype. In those far-off days when you had a lever to yank, not a paddle to pull, the mechanical linkage on a mid-engined car had to be routed around the engine, and in a (normally RHD) sports car the straightest run was to the driver’s right hand. Even on symmetrical single-seaters, while there are plenty of examples of left-hand changes, over time the right side became the convention. 

But my query is about production cars. In a narrow early vehicle there might not be room for four knees and a lever, so many vintage cars had an outside change and as most inter-war European cars were RHD that put the lever by your right hand – witness the classic Type 35 Bugatti. As bodywork expanded a few makers brought the change indoors but still by the right knee; anyone who has climbed into a Derby or early Crewe Bentley will recognise the ‘gearstick up the trouser leg’ scenario that can ruin your sang froid.

In the US and post-war Europe, of course, the driver got a left-hand seat and a central gearbox, or a column shift. But my question is, were there any left-hand-drive cars with left-hand changes, inside or out? I’m not counting column changes, pre-selectors or Cotal shifts, just ‘four on the floor’ – or ‘four out the door’. I once asked WB this and he couldn’t think of one. Can readers?

Second helpings for MS trophy

Grimwade repeats a strong season to lift Motor Sport’s Brooklands Memorial 

Congratulations once again to Julian Grimwade, winner of the Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy for the second year. His 2015 season in his rorty single-seater Frazer Nash Norris Special brought a healthy harvest of silverware including the VSCC Historic Racing Trophy, but he claims he just had a few lucky events. “I’ve peaked early!” he says. Yet again he tied on points with regular rival – and mate – Nick Topliss in ERA R4A, but the results countback sent the cup his way, with another ’Nash pilot, Charlie Gillett, third.

“It was tight all the way with Topliss,” Julian says, “but I’m expecting him to win it this year. He’s planning a serious go this time. And there’s Tom Walker in his Amilcar-Hispano – more torque than me and he’s a bloody good driver. Had a lot of trouble with him last year.” Walker took the 2015 VSCC Metallurgique Trophy for 10-litre-plus cars. 

Meanwhile Julian plans more hills and fewer races this season. “I’ll do all the VSCC hillclimbs and sprints, and Château Impney which was more like a social weekend with some racing thrown in. And probably Etretat again – a bit of French madness. You don’t get start money, you get start cider, and prize wine!”

Over the winter he stripped the Norris’s 3.5-litre Alvis engine, “but it needed remarkably little work. Just the big ends and main bearings.” Given all the events he did, including an outright win at Loton Park, that’s not bad for two seasons of hard racing.