From the Wall of Death to Le Mans...

He may downplay his achievements, but daredevil rider turned car designer Chris Lawrence can be rightly proud of taking Morgan to success at La Sarthe
He seems impervious to praise. Stretching selfdeprecation beyond its elastic limits, his eyebrows lift and fall uncomprehendingly at our interest in his exploits. Chris Lawrence dismisses himself as a “travelling chicane” when talk turns to his flirtation with Formula 1. This isn’t exactly true, or indeed at all, but he then trumps that by claiming he was “a hopeless businessman”. And that’s before we run into the thicket of some of his more left-field projects, which include everything from twin-engined sprint cars to V8 Special Saloons via self-penned Formula Juniors and Le Mans weaponry.
Time was when he chose not to bother with the media at all. As variously a wheelman, car designer and respected engine builder, Lawrence was a staple of the motoring monthlies for much of the 1960s and ’70s without ever courting publicity. In fact, he gleefully admits that he once hated journalists. “It was a defence mechanism,” he laughs. “I was profoundly shy as a young man and I think that manifested itself as aloofness. People like John Bolster used to really irritate me so I would often dismiss the press out of hand. I suppose I earned a reputation for being someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly.”
He has clearly mellowed. Inheriting an interest in two-wheeled machinery from his father, Lawrence switched to three wheels in 1952 after persuading his mother to buy him a 1936 Morgan Super Sports for his 17th birthday. Predictably, he soon began campaigning the JAP-powered trike while also adding exotica such as a Bugatti T38 into the mix during his spell at the Royal Navy Engineering College in Plymouth.
Lawrence found a novel way of supplementing his income. “I earned 34 quid a month as a sublieutenant. My mess bill was £36 for the same period.” So thinking laterally — and indeed vertically — he became a Wall of Death daredevil. “I rode an Indian for an old rascal called Bob Scarley. I was paid a fiver a night, which consisted of four or five runs.”
Following further circuit outings in an exworks MG Magnette, which ultimately gained a Microplas bodyshell, and a BMW-powered AFM, Lawrence found greater fame with a second-hand Morgan Plus 4. “I bought T0K258 for £650 and then together with Leslie Fagg and Len Bridge set about preparing it for the Freddie Dixon Trophy, which was a BARC-run championship. My first race with it was on my birthday, July 27 1958. I finished last.” He claimed the title the following season which prompted his decision to form LawrenceTune, with Acton swiftly becoming the centre of the universe for Morgan types.
Not least after Lawrence and team-mate Richard Sheppard-Baron claimed two-litre class honours in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours. This famous win almost didn’t happen. “We bought a car from Peter Morgan and entered it for the 1961 race and got through scrutineering. Then the ACO [Automobile Club de l’Ouest] threw us out. I found out later that Triumph’s team manager, Ken Richardson, had nobbled us. He didn’t want his cars being shown up by a Triumph-powered Morgan.
“For 1962 I went to Peter Morgan and twisted his arm: he was going to submit it as the ACO wasn’t about to turn down a factory entry. Peter thought there was far more to lose from ignominious failure than there was likely to be gained, but he did what we asked although I still paid. I then upset him a little bit. I was going to run TOK but wanted to replace the existing body with one from a 4/4 which had a lower body line and reduced frontal area. Peter refused to help, saying ‘I can’t mix up my models as it will only confuse people’, so I surreptitiously bought parts from the sales department and assembled a body in Acton, with Charlie Williams [of famed metal-wielders Williams & Pritchard] making us a hardtop. We then painted it burgundy — TOK had always been that colour — and went off for the test day.
“Well, the ACO wrote to Peter saying how well the car had gone but could we change the colour to British Racing Green? Naturally I refused; it wasn’t compulsory and besides, I couldn’t afford to have it resprayed again. Peter then told me to bring it to the factory and he’d get it done. I sent [works manager] Len Bridge to drop it off and told him to do so very, very early. I knew that by about 9.55am the phone would light up — I was about eight minutes off. I’d never known Peter be so angry. I’d been mixing up his models and everyone who’d seen the car wanted one; I’d been underhand and dishonest. He phoned me again later that day by which time he’d calmed down. He announced that he was going to introduce a new model — a replica of my car — and it was going to be called the Plus 4 Supersports. ‘And you’re going to build the engines,’ he said. It was the first time that a manufacturer had covered a car tuned by an outside company under its own warranty.
“The funny thing is, I knew we were going to do well at Le Mans. I was pretty sanguine about it. But even though what we did is well known today, the press took little or no notice at the time. If we got a mention, it was usually a few lines saying that a Morgan had somehow won its class.”
Returning a year on with his own design of sports car — the groovily named Deep Sanderson 301 — he would once again fall foul of the ACO. “I drove for 15 hours and 23 minutes with no brakes. I often hear drivers claim their brakes don’t work and mutter under my breath, ‘If you press too hard, too late, then they usually don’t.’ In this instance, the pedal was on the bulkhead: [team-mate] Chris Spender had gone into the sandpit and beat the brakes to hell. Later on we pulled 153mph down the straight — with a one-litre Downton-tuned Mini engine — and were catching the class-leading DB-Panhard at 25 seconds a lap. We were then given the choice of retiring the car or having it disqualified. As it happens, there were no finishers in the one-litre class; the only ‘running’ car was in parc ferme.”
In a roundabout way it was via this shapely device that Lawrence earned his GP chance for 1966, the first year F1 ran under new three-litre regulations. “John Pearce had worked for Cooper,” says Lawrence. “He was a good mechanic and eventually manufactured 301s in kit form as a sub contractor. Anyway, he somehow came into money and bought quite a large garage in Southall having had a caravan with a Bedouin tent alongside it prior to that. John was a bit of a rogue, and one day he came to me with this wonderful idea. [Adopting a South London accent] ‘I can buy the 1964 Monaco GP winning Cooper minus the engine,’ he said. ‘Then we’ll shoehorn in a Ferrari V12.’ I told him that I didn’t have the money to take on something like that. He replied, ‘Well, you’ll be driving the bloody thing.’ That put a different spin on things!
“Rather fortuitously, Chris Kerrison had been at Brands Hatch and demolished his Drogo-bodied Ferrari at Paddock Bend. Pearcey leapt over the wall and offered to buy the engine while the car was still smouldering. We were of the understanding that it was a 250GT0 engine when it transpired much later on that it was actually from a 2505WB, so we had 227bhp rather than 270.”
A partial season for the plucky equipe yielded a high point of fifth place in the Oulton Park Gold Cup — “My moment in the sun,” he says with mock largesse — and bold plans for 1967 centred on a brace of cars equipped with Ted Martin’s eponymous V8s. “John asked me to test one of them at Brands in February of that year. He wanted me to check out some new Firestone wet-weather tyres, which were very good, only I made a rough gear change coming out of Clearways which resulted in me losing the back end: I did a couple of 360-degree spins before going head-on into the main grandstand. I was pretty banged up and clearly wasn’t going to be racing for a while.
“What effectively ended my F1 career, if you can call it that, was the fiery demise of the team two months later. The transporter arrived at Silverstone for The Daily Express Trophy meeting and mysteriously went up in flames in the wee small hours with the Cooper-Ferrari and two Martin-engined cars on board.” Not forgetting two 50-gallon drums brimmed with petrol. “The whole lot had been insured for £100,000 and I’m pretty sure the insurers paid up…”
In between making his World Championship debut at Silverstone in July 1966 and the team’s notorious departure nine months later, Lawrence took time out to double for ‘Jean-Pierre Sarti’ in the movie Grand Prix. “There had been a [metalworkers] strike at Ferrari and the team hadn’t made it to the British Grand Prix. The film’s director John Frankenheimer needed a Ferrari for the staged race which was held the following day. I was asked if I’d mind if they emulsioned our car to look like one. I’m probably on screen for no more than 15-30 seconds; I’m wearing Mike Parkes’ helmet [to tally with that worn by actor Yves Montand] and the back of the car can be seen in one of the pit shots.”
Though not quite at the end of his driving career at international level — he would continue racing variations of the Deep Sanderson and also a Mini Marcos at Le Mans in 1967 — Lawrence gradually throttled back as the decade drew to a close. By now he had become embroiled in engineering the tragically unfulfilled Monica super-saloon. “Jean Tastevin was the chairman of CFPM [Compagnie Francais de Produits Metallurgiques] which made and leased rolling stock,” he recalls. “The Monica came about because he and his people foresaw their activities peaking, so they needed to diversify. Tastevin wanted to build a prestige car and it went from there.”
Lawrence almost missed out on the gig. “He was after a 2.6-litre engine that produced a lot of horsepower because in France there was a tax threshold of 2.8 litres. In doing his research, Jean discovered the LawrenceTune version of the Triumph TR4 engine — the one with our own aluminium cylinder head — and sent me a letter about it. This was in early ’66. I didn’t read a word of French at the time so I put it in my office bureau and forgot about it. A fortnight later I was waiting for a customer and had a better look. Then I realised what it was all about — Testevin wanted 250 engines a year! I went to Paris to see him and his people and after the meeting casually asked what kind of car they were making. They didn’t know yet. I mentioned that I was rather better at designing cars than building engines. They then spoke with the motor sport journalist, Jabby Crombac, who put in a good word for me and I got the job of developing the Monica.”

Fast-forward to November 1974 and an assembly line was in place in Balbigny, near Lyon. After a protracted genesis, which had witnessed engine swaps (Triumph to Martin to Chrysler) and more than a few squabbles, this glorious machine was finally ready for production only to be abruptly canned. “The Arab-Israeli oil crisis meant anything a bit thirsty was having trouble selling and Testevin got cold feet. The deal I had meant they paid costs but there was no real profit margin. The carrot was the UK concession.”
Lawrence subsequently upped sticks and moved to the US where he established himself in the historic racing community, both as a car builder and a driver. He would return from his self-imposed exile in the early ’90s to engineer Marcos’ LM600 Le Mans challenger before designing the Morgan Aero 8’s award-winning foundations and appropriately overseeing the marque’s return to La Sarthe in 2002.
Though nominally retired, he talks with almost puppyish enthusiasm about his latest project. One which is neither cautious nor bethedging, as is to be expected. The patents are no longer pending but we’re not at liberty to divulge what this brave new world is or its intended purpose. Just take it from us that first sight of preliminary drawings resulted in an exclamatory reaction. Utterly engaging and engaged, Lawrence clearly isn’t done yet.