This month I’m going to look back to my earliest connections with motor racing. My father was a very successful amateur racing driver in the 1950s.
Michael Head was first and foremost an army man, but he was passionate about fast cars and spent much of his free time racing them. He was a Jaguar man, loyal to the marque throughout his time in the sport although his last car was a Cooper-Jaguar. It was very much a sport for him, a family social occasion to be enjoyed, and we took a picnic, sat on a rug with a wicker hamper, that sort of thing. Then, after the races, they would stop at a pub. But he was serious about the actual racing, winning about 60 of his 200-plus events.
He started in Sweden where he was Military Attache after the war, and where he ice-raced on the frozen sea. Years later, in 1955, he notably finished fifth in what was called the Swedish ‘Grand Prix’ behind the likes of Moss, Fangio and Hawthorn. I wasn’t yet a teenager at the time but we went to places like Goodwood, Aintree and Silverstone to watch him compete and I well remember him preparing the cars at home when he returned from London. There was a door from the kitchen into the garage and he’d grab some supper and go straight to work on the cars. I was already keen to become an engineer but he didn’t let me do much in fact I probably got in his way more than anything else.
My father started with a lightweight XKl 20 that he bought at the Swedish Motor Show and went club racing in England his cars were always white and he wore a white helmet. He graduated to a C-type that he bought from Tommy Wisdom and which had been made famous by Stirling Moss and Wisdom winning the ninehour race at Reims. It was one of the first cars with disc brakes, I remember, and is now owned by Richard Frankel who allowed me to drive it in a tribute to Stirling at the 2009 Goodwood Revival with my 88-year-old mother alongside. I never got it sideways!
After the C-type he ordered a D-type but Jaguar doubled the price before he got it, so he raced one of Duncan Hamilton’s cars. My father reckoned the car somehow got slower as the year went by, so he bought a Cooper-Jaguar which we towed behind a Standard Vanguard. He had discs fitted by Dunlop, electrics from Lucas and an aluminium body from Williams & Pritchard.
Amusingly a chap called Bernie Ecclestone also raced a similar Cooper-Jaguar and there was an altercation between this young man and my father, in which Bernie came off worst. After the race my mother told me that he came to discuss this with my father and the situation developed, with my father holding him off by reaching out and keeping him at arms length, while Bernie flailed his arms around. Of course I’ve since got to know this man rather well, but he has never raised this incident!
Anyway, father enjoyed some success with the CooperJag once he learnt about rear anti-rollbars and sorted out the understeer. In 1957 he won the Whitsun Trophy at Goodwood against stiff opposition and I still have the trophy at home.
Mother always says he drove fastest when he was a bit angry, so once or twice she was bold enough to make him angry before the start of a race. He had one big crash at Aintree when the car rolled and he suffered with back pain for about 10 years after that.
I didn’t exactly get the ‘racing bug’ from these childhood experiences, but I was determined to be an engineer and later in life the two connected. I was only 12 years old when he retired from racing and my aim was engineering in whatever area that might be. In fact I went into the navy, under pressure from my father, and I enjoyed a lot of that. But I bought myself out, for £195, and went to work on the M4 in South Wales to earn some money before doing an engineering degree at University College in London. Then I got a job at Lola with Eric Broadley, who was a great teacher and an inspirational character. But that’s a story for another day…