At the sign of the chequered flag
ALTHOUGH we pride ourselves on the quality of our editorial contributions, we have no illusions as to the reasons why Motor Sport is bought by a large number of readers. As soon as they obtain their copy each month they turn to the classified advertisements to browse through the details of the many and varied cars offered for sale. In this section there is usually a full-page advertisement for the Chequered Flag sports-car showrooms in Chiswick, an establishment which prides itself on being the only 100 per cent, sports-car showroom in the country. The name of this business and that of its owner have shot to the forefront so quickly that we decided to visit Graham Warner and discover the secret of his success.
The story really starts at the time when Warner left the R.A.F., with a gratuity of £200, after piloting Meteor jet fighters during his National Service. Being at a loose end he decided to become a car dealer and commenced business with his own £200 and another £200 borrowed from his brother. With this tiny capital a showroom was out of the question, so the business was carried on from his own house. an undertaking which soon attracted the attention of the local authority, who pointed out that it was illegal to carry on a business from a private house, etc., etc. And so Graham Warner was out of work.
He then joined a company specialising in sports cars and for three years he learned everything that should and should not be done in the motor trade. Following this episode, he joined another company to start a sports-car department, which became an immediate success, but he was taken ill with peritonitis which kept him in hospital for two months, after which he was again out of a job.
By now he had enough confidence in his own ability to sell cars, and with his £500 savings and a loan of £1,500 he launched out on his own in the Fulham Road. The business prospered and at the time of the Suez crisis he was on the point of moving into a new showroom but the owner backed out at the last moment, so Warner took over the premises in Chiswick which he now occupies. Despite Suez the sales of sports cars did not drop appreciably, and by the end of 1957 no less than 1,000 sports cars had departed from the Chiswick showrooms. This was not done by slick salesmanship—in fact the staff are not salesmen at all; to get a job with Graham Warner one has to be a motoring enthusiast first and foremost. This is, of course, important as many people come to the showroom just to look around. and if there is someone there who is willing to talk about last Sunday's Grand Prix without trying to push a TR3 down his throat he will probably come back when he does want a sports car. Warner reckons that a large proportion of his customers are "regulars"; they come in as a teenager for an M.G. TC, then progress through M.G.-A, TR and Austin Healey, then on up to Jaguars and so on.
All cars over a certain price are given a guarantee which is honoured down to the last nut and bolt, and if a car goes wrong it will be repaired even though there are suspicious circumstances. One customer came back with the bearings rattling and complained vociferously. The bearings were changed under the guarantee but it was discovered later on that the young owner had driven the car straight from the showroom to the Motorway and driven it flat out all the way to Birmingham.
Graham Warner bad always been a motor-racing fanatic and his appetite had been whetted at one or two abortive attempts to go motor racing in his more impecunious days. So in 1958 he formed the Chequered Flag racing team, with himself and Percy Crabb as the two main drivers, although the idea was to give his sales staff a taste of motor racing. No less than six cars were used during that season, which overstrained the resources of the company both financially and technically. When the bill was totted up at the end of the year the team had lost £7,000 on the season's racing!
This obviously could not carry on, so for 1959 the team was cut down to the Lotus 7 with Climax engine, de Dion axle and disc brakes which had been used in 1958, and a new Cooper Monaco for Percy Crabb to drive, which was to be prepared for all World Championship sports-car events. Unfortunately, Crabb crashed it at Snetterton during its first meeting, completely writing it off, the only part worth using again being the engine. Such are the vicissitudes of motor racing—a £3,000 car ruined in seconds and a dream shattered. The car was eventually rebuilt at a cost of £1,500 and sold later for £2,000—a loss of £2,500, with nothing to show for it. Since that day all of the Chequered Flag competition cars have been insured at considerable cost.
The year 1959 was quite successful, mainly because of the purchase of a Lotus Elite, which gained a number of wins and places in Grand Touring races. It was burned out in a fire at Chiswick but the glass-fibre body/chassis unit was virtually unharmed. Towards the end of the year, when Formula Junior was getting into full swing, Les Redmond, designer and constructor of the Moorland, offered the plans and prototype of the car to Warner, who immediately took up the offer. The design was modified throughout the winter and the car was renamed the Gemini, which is Graham Warner's birth month.
Eventually the Car was advertised in Motor Sport and in two months Warner received nearly 1,000 requests for details from all over the world. Shortly after despatching brochures and price details he received firm orders for fifty cars together with 50 per cent. deposits! Hardly any of the customers had even seen the car, let alone driven it, as most of them were in the United States. Quite staggered by this response, Warner had to rapidly expand his workshop facilities to cope with the demand. Owing to delays with outside contractors the cars are only just beginning to leave the works in any quantity, and it will be June before the original fifty are completed.
Graham Warner was kind enough to invite the writer along to Snetterton one Sunday when tests were being carried out on both a B.M.C. and a Ford-engined car. The B.M.C. engine was misfiring at anything over 6,500 r.p.m. but the Ford was going well. B.M.C. engines for Geminis will be tuned by Speedwell and Alexander, and the Ford engines by Duckworth. The Ford is producing slightly more power at present, 74 b.h.p. as against the 72 of the B.M.C. unit. As the Ford-engined car was to be raced at the Snetterton meeting the following week it was used as little as possible, and Warner was satisfied to be going round in 1 min. 52 sec.
No cure being immediately available for the misfiring B.M.C. unit it was put back together again and I was invited to step aboard. The seating position can be altered slightly but the Gemini cockpit will accommodate most drivers although Arthur Mallock, who was present for a trial run, had some difficulty in fitting into the Ford-engined car. The gear-lever is high up on the left-hand side of the cockpit and some difficulty was experienced in changing into and out of second and top gears as the elbow has to be lifted to avoid hitting the rear bulkhead. However, once a routine had been worked out the changes went through quite easily. There are absolutely no vices in the Gemini at all apart from the gear-change trouble. Steering is light and positive, accelerator, brake and clutch will give no trouble to anyone, and the road-holding such that very strenuous cornering indeed will have to be contemplated before the car will even slide, and when it does the quick steering soon kills the slide. The 10-in, brakes are almost too powerful, so much so that it is a waste of time braking and going down through the gears before a corner; most drivers will leave braking till the last moment, then change into the appropriate gear just before the bend.
After ten exciting laps of the bumpy Snetterton circuit the rotor arm broke in the Esses, leaving the car with no sparks, Fortunately the car is light (7 cwt.), so the uphill push was not exhausting. My brief acquaintance was long enough to show that the Gemini is a perfectly safe racing car and eminently suitable for the newcomer to motor racing. There is insufficient power to get into real trouble, and in any ease the braking, steering and road-holding are of such a high order that any mistake can be quickly corrected.
With this latest Gemini venture the Chequered Flag Group of Companies now covers four ventures. The showroom at Chiswick sells sports cars only, as does the showroom in Nottingham, while a new building has been erected at Edgware which sells competition and Grand Touring cars. The workshops for building the Gemini Junior are also completely separate.