Farewell to a good guy
With the death of Peter Gethin, racing has lost a popular character. But while he’s remembered for a famous victory, that may not be his greatest race
Two young garage hands – well, one mechanic and one younger ‘trainee salesman’, a.k.a ‘floor sweeper’ – could hardly contain their enthusiasm. They were sitting in one of Silverstone’s Woodcote grandstands, spellbound by the 1959 Daily Express Trophy meeting. The winners that day were Stirling Moss in an Aston Martin DB4, Ivor Bueb in a Jaguar 3.4, Roy Salvadori in John Coombs’ Maserati-engined Cooper Monaco, and Jack Brabham scoring his first Formula 1 victory in the 2½-litre Cooper-Climax.
The youthful floor-sweeper had family connections with an RAC luminary. He’d managed to wangle a couple of passes, and had asked the mechanic he was working with – at Dees of Croydon – if he also fancied “a day at Silverstone”…
By the end of that programme the two starry-eyed lads were completely hooked. The mechanic pointed across at the Silverstone pit row and declared “That’s what I want to do. I want to be over there. Those are the cars I want to work on!”.
And the young floor sweeper – with a little more wherewithal behind him – went one step further. He turned to his mechanic mate and announced “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a racing driver!”.
That would-be racing mechanic was Mike Barney – whose tall, taciturn presence would add such strength in coming decades to the Cooper and McLaren Formula 1 teams. And the young floor-sweeper’s name was Peter Gethin, who would become one of the most versatile and widely successful of professional racing drivers, most notably in single-seaters up to and including his famous victory for BRM in the 1971 Italian GP.
Mike told me this story at poor Peter’s funeral in Arundel last December. Mike had been detailed by Bruce McLaren to help on Peter’s Church Farm Racing Formula 5000 McLaren M10A, and had always rated him highly as a racing driver. He leaned on Bruce and business partner Teddy Mayer to give Peter a Formula 1 or Can-Am chance, and in June 1970 Peter was poised for a Formula 1 test at Goodwood when Bruce’s prototype M8A Can-Am car spun into a marshal’s post, killing Bruce instantly.
Peter was then made McLaren’s number two works driver alongside Denny Hulme. His F1 results with McLaren never matched those he had achieved for the marque in Formula A/5000, but Mike Barney recalls another effect his old friend had on the team: “He always seemed to have the most fabulous-looking birds in tow. We were deep into one all-nighter at the Colnbrook works when he turned up with a real dazzler on his arm. The lads just didn’t know where to look, and absolutely could not concentrate. She was just stunning, while Peter was just Pete, chattering on completely unconcerned, seeming oblivious to our staring eyes. I finally snapped out of it and had to ask Teddy to come down from his office and throw out both Peter and his bird, otherwise no way would we finish the car in time! Typical Pete.”
In fact my friend Alan Henry reminds me that Monza ’71 was not perhaps Peter Gethin’s finest drive – which should instead be recalled as his epic win in the 1972 Pau GP when he drove his works Formula 2 Chevron B20 to lead Patrick Depailler’s Coombs-entered March 722 across the finish line by just 0.9sec after 70 nerve-tingling laps. That’s another reason why the congregation at Arundel sealed his funeral service with a thunderous round of applause for him. Peter Gethin was nobody’s softie, but he was a really good guy.
History – a given, not a gift
In my lengthy experience, self-delusion is quite common amongst historic and classic car owners. Many delude themselves that they are proper racing drivers – as opposed to what Jenks and The Bod used to dismiss as mere ‘racing motorists’.
An increasingly serious delusion I’ve found in recent years is that of proper-car owners becoming dissatisfied with the capabilities of their proper car’s proper chassis, and then selling it off “without the history” so they can rebuild their car around a fresh, and more competitive, chassis. This is supposedly to avoid the financial hit of admitting to lost originality, or more specifically of having produced a ‘split identity’ giving someone else the chance to claim what is regarded as their car’s unique identity.
Some perfectly pleasant, perfectly proper chaps have succumbed to this numb-nut concept over the past 20-30 years, and to me it’s perhaps the most damaging form of self-delusion within this specialised world. The inescapable truth is that the previously established history of any artefact simply is not within human gift. It cannot be extracted, nor held back, at the whim of any transitory owner.
For example, if you have been racing an unchallengeably ex-Jim Clark Grindley-Trubshaw, and you decide you might be able to trim an extra second or two around Brands Hatch ‘if only’ you replaced its probably twisted or creaking chassis frame with an ultra-stiff brand-new one, would the resulting replacement assembly still be ‘the ex-Jim Clark’ machine? If there’s no surviving part within that assembly that the great man once touched then the answer plainly has to be a resounding ‘no’.
So would it instead be the ex-Jim Clark Grindley-Trubshaw “now rebuilt around a 2012 replacement chassis”? Self-evidently the answer here has to be a resounding ‘Yes’. I fail to see how any denial of either case can be sustained.
So what of that tired and just-discarded ex-Jim Clark chassis? In this historic racing world of self-delusion it could well have been sold for a song, on the basis of paperwork declaring that the vendor is selling the assembly “without history” or “the Jim Clark history does not go with this chassis” – or perhaps the purchaser signs something stating “I will not claim this chassis’ former history” or “I purchase this chassis ‘without history’…”. I’ve seen them all – and snorted with derision every time.
This is pretty much what has happened in several cases, all of which is fundamentally self-deluding, intellectually bankrupt bulls**t. If I stole the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and flogged it on eBay as “black granite, some lettering, without history” would that change the stone’s real history? Self-evidently it would not, and could not.
Within the historic racing car world what it all comes down to is a competitive owner’s perfectly understandable ambition to protect the commercial value of what he owns and runs. He doesn’t want his rebuilt ex-Clark Grindley-Trubshaw to be perceived as the ex-JC G-T “rebuilt around a 2012 chassis”. And yet that is what it has become.
Equally the new owner of that discarded old chassis, as long as it retains original material from period, undeniably owns a structure in which the great JC once did some deed, completely regardless of whatever the vendor might have specified as being “part of the deal”.
History, once established, is not within human gift. It cannot be changed, nor removed, nor indeed enhanced. Yet the majority of historic racing cars have by now seen many more years as historics than they ever did as international front-runners or prominent club cars in their declining seasons.
Racing a car will progressively consume it. Over time replacement will become necessary if the overall assembly is still to perform competitively. This is well understood and accepted. Many historic cars have now been reassembled around replacement chassis, and in several cases the discarded original chassis has then been recycled to become the basis of yet another car assembly. Many first owners of such rebuilds have bought open-eyed, assuring their supplier they would never dream of “claiming the history” in conflict to the original JC G-T “rebuilt around replacement 2012 chassis”. But just because they don’t claim it, doesn’t mean they don’t in reality possess it.
This is becoming such a common situation that I suggest the historic racing world should now recognise such realities, and offer a category for cars embodying such significant original elements as otherwise discarded or ‘passed down’ chassis frames or monocoque tubs.
As an example there are two versions of 1961 Maserati Tipo 63 chassis ‘0002’ in existence, one used at Le Mans, and its immediate Cunningham team long-wheelbase replacement, assembled round a fresh frame after Le Mans, which achieved a subsequent US racing history all of its own. There’s no question which was which: these are two legitimate cuttings from the same rose bush, yet they share the same identity – as duplicated in period.
The legitimacy of such duplication within the historic racing period, as opposed to contemporary period, is another debate, but in the hypothetical case of JC’s G-T as above, we’d have one car quite properly credited with using the chassis he once drove, and a second car which was once based upon that chassis, but which has now been rebuilt around a new one. And you could bet that the new-chassis version might be 4 5sec a lap quicker than the re-housed original, so that alone should enhance its continuing value. Many would-be historic racers today seek front-running glory above all, while mere history is something that Mr Ego, the owner, can confer or deny as he thinks fit…
As Jenks used to say “Yeah, but…”. Worth thinking about, but without any such self-deluding notions as selling a chassis but ‘keeping its history’.
A racer, a stockbroker and a gentleman
Last year ended in a mournful manner. British motor sport lost two fine men, Peter Gethin’s death after a long illness being accompanied by the very sudden demise of Sheridan Thynne – long-time friend and ally of Sir Frank Williams, tremendously effective sponsorship coordinator for Williams Grand Prix Engineering, and very much the man who promoted Nigel Mansell to ultimate World Champion stature.
In his packed memorial service at South Stoke, Sheridan’s son Piers, hillclimb Dallara driver and McLaren staff man, did a brilliant job – as would Peter Gethin’s son Nick – in delivering a eulogy truly worthy of his late father. Piers’s opening words cut right to the heart of Sheridan’s being, and have never been more justified as he declared: “It is said that to be born a gentleman is an accident… but to die a gentleman is an achievement”.
You see, dear old Sheridan was a toff, an Old Etonian by schooling, related to the Marquis of Bath – well, we all have crosses to bear – and he wore his heritage well. Sheridan was smitten by motor sport from the day that a schoolfriend’s father – Lord Selsdon – shared the winning Ferrari 166 in the first post-war Le Mans 24-Hours race with Luigi Chinetti.
At Eton, Sheridan’s housemaster was a fellow enthusiast, writing motor racing books as ‘Douglas Rutherford’. He then had to endure young Thynne picking him up on the most arcane of detail errors – the pupil marking the master’s homework with abundant relish.
Piers Thynne told a lovely story of his father’s upbringing and mindset. As a boy, Sheridan was being introduced to field sports when – after shooting upon a high Scottish moor – he rejoined his father down by a river where “grandfather had been pike fishing all day, without luck. Suddenly two deafening gunshots rang out. Sheridan had just spotted a pike and, fresh from grouse shooting with his shotgun, had immediately given it both barrels”. Plainly the boy wasn’t going to mess about. In short – a born racer.
He did National Service as a Lieutenant in the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry before middle years as a stockbroker. He raced an 850 Mini saloon in his spare time, and shared a flat in Lower Sloane Street, London, with friends Piers Courage, Jonathan Williams and Mark Fielden. The latter died tragically at Silverstone during the 1963 Martini Trophy meeting while sitting in his Lotus 11 on the pit lane when it was struck by an Aston Martin DBR1 spinning out of Woodcote Corner.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Williams had been racing a black Austin A40 similar to the pale blue A40 campaigned by the unrelated F O G Williams – Francis Owen Garbett ‘Frank’ Williams – probably the most determined racer this country has ever produced.
Come 1981, Sheridan was immensely helpful when I wrote a book on the Williams team. We got on really well, and ever after – until mere days before his fatal heart attack – he would often ’phone for a natter…always involving as much hilarity as (from his side) deep insight and wisdom.
He had remained a firm friend of Frank Williams ever since the days when Frank’s home was a rented sofa. Years later, Sheridan was finding his feet as a stockbroker when he accompanied Frank’s little Formula 2 team to Albi, and realised the best was only just good enough for Le Patron. He told me “there was another Brabham in practice which we kept confusing with ours, and when Piers Courage came in Frank asked me to stick one of his self-adhesive racing numbers – a figure ‘1’- longitudinally, wrap-round style on the upper lip of the car’s nose. Frank was selling these numbers for some fabulous sum at the time; I doubt if any of his customers realised that the boys at Frank’s place had a set of patterns and were simply cutting them out of plain white Fablon sheet. I wrapped this number ‘1’ around the nose lip and then Frank – to my astonishment – came round to inspect it. And he didn’t just glance at it, oh no, he backed off fully 15ft, squatted down, closed one eye and stared at the car head on, long and hard. Then he stood up with a look of pained disgust and said ‘Oh no, Sherry, it’s slightly off-centre. You’ll have to try again…’”.
Typical Sheridan, he then specified the other aspect of Frankism by recalling that when Jonathan Williams was engaged for a one-off drive in the 1968 Formula 2 Monza Lottery GP in Piers’s place (he was driving in Formula 1 that weekend), Sheridan asked why Jonathan thought he had been given the drive. Jonathan dryly explained: “Safe and cheap, Sherry, safe and cheap…”. His services had only cost Frank a dinner, yet on race day he delivered a fine race win, just 0.6sec covering the first three cars; Jonathan in Frank’s Brabham BT23C, Alan Rees’s Winkelmann Racing ’23C and Robin Widdows’ Chequered Flag team McLaren M4A which finished third.
In 1979, while lunching with Sheridan, Frank Williams mentioned that a Leyland Vehicles man would be accompanying the team to the French GP at Dijon as a prospective sponsor. Sheridan asked “who’s going to look after him?”, and volunteered to help.
So he accompanied Leyland’s Steve Herrick to Dijon. He and Herrick discussed the necessity not only of finding funds to co-sponsor the team, but also of a support budget to exploit that sponsorship. Frank’s primary sponsors, the Saudis, agreed to a Leyland Vehicles co-sponsorship deal and into 1980 Sheridan – to his delight – was able to forsake the city in favour of a desk in a cramped corner of Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s front office at Didcot. He remained WGPE’s commercial head for the next 13 years, dealing with British Leyland, ICI, Mobil and Canon amongst many more, while also handling many negotiations with drivers. He was a pioneer of providing circuit hospitality for corporate guests, and became a particular proponent not only of Nigel Mansell, but also of Riccardo Patrese.
But he never forgot those formative years when that small group of motor racing-minded friends had dreamed their dreams in the Lower Sloane Street flat. Though each of them – Frank excepted – had some form of private allowance on which to live. “There was a café in Pimlico Road which did a three-course supper, plus bread and margarine, for five shillings a head, and we ate there religiously – enjoying a far lower standard of living than our parents perhaps expected – purely to save money so we could go racing…”.
Simply getting one’s priorities right, as Sheridan Thynne would have put it…