Pat Driscoll looks back

The well-known pre-war Austin works driver interviewed by the Editor

L. P. Driscoll, “Pat” Driscoll of the Brooklands days, was 70 last year. A bit of a party was arranged for him by his Hayling Island Sailing Club friends; the menu for the occasion was bedecked with a picture of a racing car and the journalists were reminded that Driscoll is very active and a man well worth seeking out.

I had hoped to get there first, as it were, but “Fitch” Allen and Brian Fruën beat me to it, our companion monthly Motorcycle Sport carrying an excellent story last January of Driscoll the Norton exponent, who won his first Brooklands race in 1922 and became the celebrated O’Donovan rider. There remained the chance of obtaining Driscoll’s reminiscences about his car racing, which took me to his house in Twickenham just before he moved in March to his beloved Hayling Island.

Driscoll’s memory, like the man himself, is remarkably well preserved; what follows he told to me almost without pause, and with not a single book or photograph to jog his recollections. His first essay into car racing happened in 1930, when he obtained a blown 1 1/2-litre Hyper Lea-Francis for the JCC “Double Twelve” at Brooklands. This was his own car, bought for the purpose, with C. W. G. “Bill” Lacey of Maidenhead as co-driver. They went up to the Lea-Francis works in Coventry on a Monday, to find the car awaiting them. On the drive home the brakes, which incorporated a Clayton Dewandre vacuum servo, failed at Henley.

They took the Lea-Francis to the Track on the Tuesday, where, after Driscoll’s long experience of fast and hairy motorcycles, it seemed “pretty gutless”. At this time the subject of this interview was running the Brooklands Service Station at Ealing and there they returned with their new car, removing its 4ED Meadows engine and stripping it down in the upstairs tuning shop. The Cozette supercharger was found to be in poor condition and Lacey worked on it for a week, replacing its worn screws and generally doing a fine job on it. Driscoll did the rest of the engine. The Ambrose Shardlow crankshaft, with roller big-ends and three white-metal mains, was 10-thou out of line, so he took it back to the factory. Van Eugen, the Works Manager, was horrified, asking: “Why did you take the engine to pieces?” However, a check on a surface plate confirmed the state of the crank.

A new one was substituted, which was only half-a-thou out. Sammy Lee of the Brooklands Engineering Co. supplied a set of strutted Martlett pistons and Driscoll, disliking Lea-Francis’ method of having a water feed between cylinders Nos. 1 and 2, took the inlet adjacent to No. 4 cylinder, with excellent results, although a piston broke once when running on alcohol fuel. An Amal carburetter replaced the original Cozette and the Lea-Francis was ready to tackle the “Double Twelve”.

In this long and arduous race Driscoll had to replace the exhaust system three times and the back springs, which were mounted in slides instead of trunnions, having too much movement, came adrift. But they came home third in their class, splitting the Alfa Romeos.

The 1931 season opened with Driscoll bringing the Lea-Francis home third in an outer-circuit handicap at the first Brooklands meeting. He recalls that it could lap at 112.8 m.p.h. and that his sister took it round at 106. At the Easter meeting he was leading the Mountain Handicap, in which S. C. H. Davis crashed the 4 1/2-litre Invicta, whereupon he stopped to render assistance. Capt. Waite, who was in charge of the Austin racing department, must have been impressed by this generous gesture and also realising that it would be a long time before Davis drove a racing car again, he signed on Driscoll as a works driver. In order to establish whether Driscoll would prove suitable Waite arranged for Alf Depper, whose first job at the Austin factory had been on a racing Austin prior to the 1908 French GP, to bring to Brooklands an Ulster Austin capable of lapping at about 82 m.p.h., in which Pat was to demonstrate his prowess.

After much quicker lapping on two wheels he found this a tame undertaking and when Depper took the car out he jumped into his 30/98 Vauxhall, rumbled out of the Paddock in pursuit, and proceeded to lap the astonished Depper! Incidentally, this OE 30/98 had a fabric two-seater body and could lap at 98 m.p.h. in touring trim, hood up. It later ran well when raced by Clive Windsor-Richards.

In the “1931 Double Twelve” Pat was second driver to Capt. A. Frazer-Nash in an Ulster Austin 7, but when he took over a terrible vibration shook the car, so he returned to the pits, to discover that the cylinder block had almost parted from the crankcase. They set about stripping the engine, which was very hot after some 11 hours’ racing, Ralph Appleby, who was Driscoll’s excellent mechanic all the time he drove for Austins, going up to the sheds in the Brooklands pine woods to remove the block from the spare car. Alas, this had developed the same crack and although another block was brought from Birmingham during the night, the Austin’s chance was over—the Montlhéry MG Midgets cleaned up the race, in which 13 of them had been entered, compared to nine Austins.

So Driscoll found himself a fully-fledged Austin works driver, who used to stay at Appleby’s mother’s home, Windsor House at Bromsgrove, when his presence was required at Longbridge. In the 1931 BRDC 500-Mile Race he drove the second of the new Zoller-blown side-valve “Dutch Clog” single-seaters, Cushman taking the first of them. The trouble was that the fuel tank rested on the driver’s shins and the U-bolts holding down the motorcycle battery for the coil ignition stuck into their thighs, making them almost impossible to handle properly—”they might have been made for the Inquisition”. However, Driscoll wasn’t going to miss a works drive, so he strapped himself into the constricted cockpit, the only driver to do so, wearing his motorcycling boots, lots of Sorbo rubber padding, and Thermogene wool to protect his back, all this under white racing overalls, and proceeded to lap at 94 m.p.h. But the radiator broke up after some 300 miles.

After that race, at Motor Show time, Waite was anxious to have a go at the Class H six-hour record. An early start was necessary as the light on this October day would soon fade, but that morning thick fog obscured the Track and Cushman, who should have taken the first stint, had to come up from Worthing and of him there was no sign. Driscoll, who in 1929 had taken records on an AJS, finishing in the dark, pressed to be allowed to start and eventually a worried Waite agreed. He soon realised that his No. 2 driver knew what he was about. The record was secured at 90.12 m.p.h. and Driscoll was upgraded to No. 1.

During the winter of 1931/2 he suggested some mods. to the “Dutch Clogs” and with Appleby was allowed a free hand, working upstairs at Austin’s North Row depot in London. The crankshaft had been prone to vibrate and crack, but after new Norton-like con.-rods had been installed another 1,000 r.p.m. were attained by this mod. alone and in three years’ racing no further cracked crankshafts were experienced. This was promising and at the 1932 Brooklands Easter Meeting Driscoll in the jade Austin won the Norfolk Senior Short Handicap at 95.97 m.p.h., lapping at 102.48 m.p.h. from A. F. Ashby’s Riley Nine. Then, in spite of an “owes 15 sec. handicap”, the Austin was second to an aged 12/50 Alvis, setting new class s.s. and f.s. lap records of 89.74 and 103.11 m.p.h., respectively, in the Norfolk Junior Long Handicap. So it went on, Austin’s No. 1 driver chalking up further successes, including fastest average in the LCC Relay Race, backed up by Barnes and Goodacre.

At Shelsley Walsh the “gear ratios were all wrong” for hill-climbing. Meanwhile, Murray Jamieson had evolved his very special side-valve Austin 7 engine, which he had installed in a white Ulster. In 1933 he went for records at Montlhéry on behalf of the works but Davis remarked that he was a better engineer than driver and Waite recalled him before the accident happened. The special single-seater he had been driving was given a long tail and Driscoll took it to Southport early in 1934 to attack Denly’s “fastest 750” MG Midget record, the rivalry between Austin and MG being at its height. Incidentally, the works Austins were taken to race and record venues by Arthur, an excellent fellow who invariably arrived on time. At first a long-wheelbase four-cylinder Austin 20 with open truck body was used, holding one “Dutch Clog” car. Driscoll used to pull the leg of Hancock, who designed the Twenty, saying he had catered for the Funeral Trade, but the Police Morris-Oxfords of those times couldn’t catch Arthur in Austin’s racing transporter! Later Arthur graduated to the first of the diesel Austin lorries, which also transported one racing car at a time, the white side-valve car being transported in this. The Austin team drivers had to provide their own personal transport. Driscoll had an Austin 10/4 as well as his 30/98, Dodson a Ford V8, Ralph Appleby an Austin 7 saloon, while Goodacre also drove an Austin.

To revert to Southport, the record bid was a series of disasters. On the Monday Driscoll was slowed by clutch slip. A gale blew on Tuesday. On Wednesday, however, he materially exceeded 140 m.p.h. in one direction (and the s.v. Austin was out to better the o.h.c. MG’s 128.62 m.p.h.), but the timing wire had been set to record the speed of Field’s Sunbeam “Silver Bullet”, and was so far above the ground that it rode over the Austin and cut Driscoll’s face. The bleeding couldn’t be staunched in time for a return run.

The high winds returned on the Thursday and Friday but on the Saturday Driscoll tried again. The little car snaked and ran off course, being very difficult to hold, but took the National Class H f.s. kilo. record at 122.74 m.p.h.; once again the timing thread cut Driscoll’s face. On this run the engine was taken to 8,700 r.p.m., and wheelspin let this rise to 9,000 r.p.m. A series of Class H Brooklands’ Mountain lap records also fell to Driscoll, before Everitt’s o.h.c. MG proved superior to the s.v. car. On the outer circuit the Austin’s new long tail made it decidedly tricky.

The Jamieson engine was put into road-racing cars, but at first the exhaust burnt away and then the car destined for the German driver Burggaller was behind time, so Driscoll’s own Austin with the Southport engine was sent instead. The second car was finished too late for Driscoll to qualify for the International Trophy and when it was ready it was sent to Shelsley Walsh with a normal Austin 7 “wire” gear lever, which bent, putting Driscoll off, although he won his class, in 46.16 sec.—the proper racing gear-lever was lying on the bench in the works. Incidentally, top was forward-right, as. on a Bugatti—”a nice movement”.

Driscoll always kept one car as his, but Sir Herbert Austin had been much impressed by Turner’s handling of a four-speed Ulster at Southport and asked Driscoll to let Turner drive his car at Donington—as it was actually Sir Herbert’s car, what could Driscoll do? However, the engine had to be kept at 6,000 r.p.m. for starting and out of the corners, which was more than Turner could cope with. At Brooklands Driscoll, in the first of the new cars, put the class Mountain lap record at 72.87.m.p.h. at Whitsun.

The side-valve cars were no good on the outer circuit by 1935, because the valves burnt out, stelliting being unknown then. So they were confined to short races and sprints, Driscoll, using the new tubular front axle, raising the class Mountain lap record to 74.95 m.p.h. at the Autumn BARC meeting. At Shelsley Walsh “Bill” Wisdom chatted up Sewell and got Driscoll’s car for the Ladies’ class, which seemed to be unwise and proved so, as she destroyed all the valves on the Friday and the car ran badly after an all-night rebuild. Kay Petre, says Driscoll, managed much better as he let her try the car at Brooklands, whereas poor Mrs. Wisdom didn’t take advantage of some pre-Shelsley practice. But the s.v. cars used to wander about the Brooklands bankings and he wonders if this contributed to Kay’s collision when Parnell’s MG slid into the Austin before the 500-mile Race.

At the May Shelsley Walsh hill-climb Driscoll won £100 for fastest 750-cc, climb, in 43.4 sec., third fastest of the day, with Sir Herbert there to see him do it.

By 1936 the Jamieson-designed twin-cam Austins were ready. In an Easter Mountain race Driscoll spun at the banking bend on the first lap, when his foot got jammed on the accelerator, Bert Hadley (“a very good boy, but lazy”), out for the first time in a s.v. Austin, being very concerned not to collide with the faster car, which oiled his plugs. In the International Trophy Driscoll was going well when the engine of Earl Howe’s ERA literally disintegrated and a lump of its con.-rod went through the Austin’s oil cooler, causing loss of oil; contemporary Press reports refer to Driscoll’s helmet being dented by flying metal but attribute this to the Austin losing a con.-rod!

Shelsley was very wet and the engines refused to run on all four cylinders. At the Macclesfield speed trials twin rear wheels were used and, unknown to Driscoll, Jamieson had given his car a locked differential, so that it was dangerously out of control. Driscoll drove for the last time in a race at Donington, where he was leading Mays’ ERA in the Empire Trophy with 600/700 r.p.m. in hand when the engine refused to fire up after a refuelling stop. The end piece had broken off the Scintilla, the only time one of these excellent magnetos had let Driscoll down. Bira drove a s.v. Austin but, like Turner and others, failed to keep the revs high enough, being chided by Prince Chula for not going faster.

Driscoll is very interesting about the ability of these Austin racing engines to rev. He says the twin-cams were intended to run up to 14,000 r.p.m. when finally developed and did 8,500 as raced. But at the 1935 Brighton Speed Trials, knowing it wouldn’t be wanted again, he took a s.v. engine to 10,500 r.p.m. Peter Moores was astonished that such high engine speed was possible, not realising this when racing his replica s.v. Austin single-seater.

At the 1936 Blackwell Hill Climb, near Bristol, Driscoll crashed badly in the wet in a twin-cam car, when a steering ball-end broke and he hit a tree. He was badly hurt, being partially blind for two years, and the Austin written off. He never raced again but recovered and took up sailing, following his father’s passion for boats, buying Sir Max Aitken’s “Easyboat” and sailing her in the Round the IoW race up to five years ago.

At the time of this interview Driscoll didn’t have a car, transport being provided by his wife’s fully-automatic Austin 1800, which she wants to change for a Triumph Stag. But he still drives 250 miles in a day with great enjoyment and has only comparatively recently sold an Austin Healey Mk. III and a Mini Countryman with a very special 1,275-c.c. engine, which Driscoll tuned so that it would do 75 m.p.h. in 2nd, 95 in 3rd and 115 in top gear, and he keeps fit by daily rides on a bicycle. A remarkable man! (This interview by no means recalls all his racing successes, which have been chronicled elsewhere.)

Motor racing and a sense of humour seem to be a good recipe for a long life, for Hadley, Goodacre and Dodson are all going strong. Certainly motorcycle racing under O’Donovan’s tuition helped Pat Driscoll to master car racing. He recalls sharing the Derby-Miller with Gwenda Stewart in a BRDC 500-Mile Race after drivers of the calibre of the Hon. Brian Lewis had turned it down as too dangerous. After a few laps in the car at high speed Driscoll found it all quite easy and to his liking, to Douglas Hawkes’ astonishment and relief. After two wheels, any four-wheeler felt safe!—W. B.