Ken Wharton won rallies, trials, sprints, hillclimbs and races. He drove Ford Zephyr BRM V16, Cooper 500 and Jaguar D-type with equal facility. Bill Boddy was impressed
Ken Wharton was taught at Clewer House College in Birmingham, and also at Smethwick Technical college, before joining his father’s engineering business, Fred Wharton & Co.
His father had been a keen racing cyclist in the 1920s but, with the garage facilities at Smethwick, Ken, at the age of 19, took up motor racing.
He began modestly with an Austin 7. At the second Donington Park Meeting of 1935 he was third in the five-lapper for cars of up to 850cc, beaten only by the experienced Kenneth Evans in a supercharged MG Midget and Else’s unblown MG. Alas, Ken’s father then had a go at the August Donington Park races, and lost the Austin on his first lap. It rolled twice, but he escaped with nothing more serious than a tom shirt.
Back at Donington in 1936, Wharton’s grey-painted A7 was third in the 850cc race, ahead of a Ford Special and the Else MG, and later that season he was there again, netting fourth place in the 10-lap Junior Handicap at the Nuffield Trophy Meeting, behind Else, Percy Maclure’s Riley and Handley’s MG Midget He then travelled down to Brooklands that August and essayed a Mountain Handicap. He managed fourth, after a spirited tussle with the more modem Hermon.
For the remaining few years of peace Ken was building up the business, and then the war precluded his motor racing. But when that was over, his enthusiasm and versatility were unbounded. By 1948, he’d prepared three different cars, which were variety personified.
The first of these creations, a J4 MG Special, its engine perhaps inspired by the pre-war defeat of Wharton’s A7, was second to John Cooper’s Cooper 1000 at Shelsley Walsh in the 501-1100cc Racing Car class, even though he was driving with an anlde sprained on his way home from the Lisbon Rally. He was, however, eighth-fastest overall, in 42.17sec.
At the Summer Prescott of 1948, he repeated this form, winning the 501-750cc Racing Car class, in 48.51sec. It was to be Ken’s day at the Hants and Berks MC’s hill-climb at Burghfield Common, over Neil Gardner’s private mad with a banked corner on his estate. He made FTD, with his car as beautifully crisp as his driving. Even Moss in the Cooper 500 couldn’t beat him on that occasion.
By now Wharton had also embraced trials, taking a Premier Award in the 1948 MCC Sporting Trial at Buxton in his 1190cc Ford-powered Wharton. This was the forerunner of the very specialised trials specials, which had engine and occupants as far back on the chassis as possible, and ‘fiddle’ brakes to aid directional control. They changed the one-time concept of virtually normal trials cars, grip aided only by a rear petrol tank and spare wheels, tackling observed sections spaced about the country; the new breed, being unroadworthy, had to use trailers, causing the tests to be located in one area. Very dull for spectators who liked country drives.
It was with a car of this type, with an A7 chassis and a Ford Ten engine, with which Wharton now embarked on his remarkable onslaught on the RAC British Trials Championship. He was well placed to win this in 1948 and again in ’49, with outright wins in most of the events that counted for this important accolade, such as the SUNBAC, which included Birdlip, a restart on Starunore, Juniper, which only two other drivers climbed clean, and other severe hills and driving tests. Wharton had beaten them all in this final round of ’48, which at the prize-giving Lord Howe was to describe as the new ‘Blue Riband’ of Trials, before awarding Wharton with the trophy, which before the war had been the Gordon Crosby Trophy for the winner of the Brooklands Mountain Championship.
KW started the 1949 trials season well, taking the Coventry Cup in the NW London MC’s event of that name, which embraced seven severe sections and tests. For a change, he used his old sprint car, the engine seemingly of BMC origin.
The RAC Trials Championship was decided with tests at Prescott, a road section, and ascents of Gipsy Lane, Corndean, Cold Slad, some easier hills, and the once-dreaded Juniper, Catswood and Longridge, where Lord Howe checked the cars in — so trials were not yet transformed to sticking to one territory. KW used his Ford/Austin Special with non-divided front axle. He was up against 20 similar cars, seven of them supercharged, nine V8-powered, some blown. But he secured the 1949 championship easily.
The following year, Wharton turned to 500cc (Formula III to the FIA) racing with a Cooper, but not before he had won the Gloucester Challenge Cup for the best showing in that club’s trial, and the Alexander Duckham Cup in the Bristol MC’s Roy Fedden Trial. This incredibly adaptable driver also won outright the Tulip and Lisbon Rallies with a Ford Pilot. Out of luck at the Royal Silverstone Race Meeting, KW had a class win in a Ford Ten saloon at the Clee Hill half-day trial. Nor was Shelsley Walsh forgotten — third-fastest in the Cooper 1000 (39.89sec; 38.28sec in practice, which would have beaten Mays’ FTD in the ERA). In Scotland, he excelled in the Bo’ness hill-climb, beating Dennis Poore’s s/c 3.8-litre Alfa by 0.06sec. At Rest-and-Be-Thankful, Poore reversed this, by 0.04sec, Mays (ERA) being just 0.72sec slower. Then, down at Brands Hatch, KW won his heat, but nothing else. Retribution came in Holland, where Wharton’s Cooper finished third in the International 500cc race. It was only sixth in the BRDC Silverstone 10-lap race, but its ambitious driver soon had a fresh target to aim for.
After Shelsley Walsh in September 1950,1 wrote: “Wharton proved himself at the top rank of sprint exponents. Not content with breaking the 1100cc record in his Cooper 1000 in 40.54sec, he really turned on the power in the wet and got Peter Bell’s 2-litre ERA up in 38.83sec, beating Raymond Mays’ Zoller-blown ERA by 0.17sec. Just to show it was no fluke, Ken then went up 2.53sec faster than Ray in the rain. Even Ray’s friends have to admit that he should know the way up Shelsley much better than Ken.” This was not as fast as Poore’s Alfa Romeo or Allard’s Allard, but it won two classes.
Then Tenby must have been fun, as Wharton broke the hill’s record in his Cooper-JAP, was second in class with a Kieft 500, won a sportscar class with a sports Cooper, and had the fastest saloon, a Ford V8. To close the 1950 season he had been second in the British Hill Climb Championship behind Poore.
In 1951, Wharton followed his three trials championships with that onslaught on the British Hill Climb Championship. This series had been started in 1947 with five qualifying events, extended later to 16, at eleven venues. KW made light work of this, taking the title from 1951 to 1954 and tying with Tony Marsh in 1955. He used his vee-twin Cooper, the Cooper-Norton, and the famous ERA R4D which he owned with Ron Flockhart.
This very famous car had given Mays his three titles and dominated Shelsley Walsh, but it was by now some 20 years old. Space precludes mention of all the successes Wharton had with it but, as it had for Mays, it gave him the hat-trick, plus three FTDs at the Brighton Speed Trials in 1954-56, and the course record twice (23.23sec in 1956).
The Shelsley Walsh record fell to him, too, his Cooper having been supercharged for 1951. At Bo’ness, he won all three classes and set FTD, and at Zandvoort, he was third in an F3 race. He then set a new Prescott record in the Cooper-JAR.
In 1952, Wharton was again brilliant at Bo’ness, beating Poore’s Alfa Romeo to a new course record; he also did this with Bell’s ERA, which was second-fastest. He was second in his heat at Jersey with the latest-type Le Mans Frazer Nash, and at Prescott was again “quite outstanding”.
I remember being at Bo’Ness with Mr Wesley Tee, then-owner of MaroR SPORT, when he stood on the edge of the course taking some wonderful LAT photographs, especially of Poore and Wharton in R4D, after which he regarded the latter to be the top driver and never mind all those Italian aces!
It was in 1952 that Ken also made his GP debut, finishing fourth in the Swiss race in a single-seater Frazer-Nash.
KW had a bad time in the unfortunate V16 BRMs, but was third at Goodwood and second at Charterhall. That year there were a few drives in Frazer Nash and Cooper-Bristol cars and better luck with BRM in 1953, when he got five firsts, two seconds and three thirds. He was also third and a class-winner in a Frazer Nash in the TT with C E Robb.
He remained with BRM for 1954, scoring a couple of wins, a second and two third places, with 11 fastest laps in these races. But these were only minor Formula Libre events. After coming second in the heat preceding the Albi GP, he crashed heavily while attempting to keep pace with his team-mates — Juan Fangio and Froilin Gonzalez.
Wharton also drove in those entertaining saloon-car races with a Ford Zephyr with Mays cylinder head, and surprised us when he beat the field in an Austin A95.
His versatility had also extended to appearances in Jaguars, Alfa Romeo, and with the Owen Organisation’s Maserati 250F in four 1954 GPs.
Then he drove for Vanwall in 1955, hospitalising himself in a practice crash and being delayed by a broken oil pipe in the British GP at Aintree so that the car he shared with Harry Schell was last. At Monza, the fuel pump broke away on lap one, but he had been second at Snetterton’s Redex Trophy F1 race.
He also went out to Montlhery with BMC’s troop of cars furlong-distance runs, being given an MGA, which managed 102.54mph for 100 miles, and in a Series II MGA KW lapped at 114mph.
He was there again with a DB3S Aston Martin for the 1000-kilometre race, but the gearbox gave out.
In the 1954 TT, the Jaguar D -type he shared with Peter Whitehead was fifth and second in class, but in the 1955 TT he was badly hurt when his Frazer Nash Sebring was involved in the seven-car pileup in which Bill Smith and Jim Mayers were killed.
Wharton went out to New Zealand in January 1957, and his Ferrari Monza was leading the sportscar event at Ardmore when he crashed, with fatal consequences.
A truly talented British driver, Ken Wharton deserves to be remembered.