Simon Taylor's Notebook

Tony Southgate has gone from the 750 Motor Club to Formula One glory and Le Mans, and then back again

The 750 Motor Club has always served as a nursery for budding designers. The first Lotus to race was Colin Chapman's Austin 7-based MkIII, which dominated the 750 Formula in 1951, and led to some of the most innovative and successful F1 cars of all time. Eric Broadley's first Lola was a homebuilt Ford 10-derived special: it won the club's 1172 championship in 1957 and spawned a long line of sophisticated racing cars.

One Austin 7 special-builder, who went on to a glittering four-decade career designing race winning Formula One and Le Mans cars, has returned to his roots in retirement. Tony Southgate started building his first car in 1958: as a £4 a week apprentice design draughtsman he took two years to finish it. The smart little grey car with yellow wheels taught Tony the rudiments of race car design: "It looked very shiny, because it doesn't cost much to keep a car clean, but I raced on remoulded tyres because I couldn't afford new ones." Scrutineers were more lenient in those days.

The Southgate Mk1 's short life ended in a comprehensive engine blow-up. With no money to mend it, Tony promptly retired as a racing driver and signed on as a race car designer. Eric Broadley had now graduated to building Lola F1 cars for John Surtees and Roy Salvadori, as well as a string of small sportsracers and Formula Juniors, but it was still run from a shed in Bromley with just five full-time employees, including Broadley. Tony was paid £13 a week, and would draw a part upstairs, then go downstairs to make it: "Eric taught me to weld, but the important bits, like wishbones, he still welded himself."

Tony worked with Broadley on the design and development of the Lola GT, which Ford turned into the GT40. He moved briefly to Brabham — then run by Jack himself and Ron Tauranac — before returning to Lola. Dan Gurney was a T70 customer, and he persuaded Tony to move to California and join All-American Racers. But, after designing a hugely successful Eagle USAC car which finished 1-2-4 in the 1968 Indy 500, he was lured back to England to join BRM.

Tony's P153 and P160 won GPs for four different drivers, and BRM lifted second place in the 1971 Constructors' Championship. The team's Yardley sponsorship totalled just £25,000 — at a time when the team budget was £25,000 for five chassis, £36,000 for 12 engines and £5000 for gearboxes.

Tony was at UOP Shadow when Chapman came knocking, and doubled his salary "As a designer Colin was always my idol, but he wasn't easy. Working for a genius you are always on a knife-edge. I had to sort out the Type 77, a nasty car; always breaking." By the end of the season the car was reliable, and competitive. "Mario Andretti was fantastic to work with. He was so brave. He won the Japanese GP by staying out on wet tyres, and he was on the canvas by the end." After Lotus it was back to Shadow, and then Arrows and Theodore, before Tony moved away from F1 to earn a new reputation as a sportscar designer.

At Ford he produced a Group C car [the C100] and the RS200 rally car, and then came the charismatic Jaguar sports-prototypes for Tom Walkinshaw. The XJR-9 won the 24 Hours in 1988 with Lammers, Dumfries and Wallace, and in 1990 the XJR-12 clinched a magnificent 1-2, with Martin Brundle heading the winning line-up. Tony designed long-distance racers for Toyota and Ferrari (the 333SP, of which 39 were eventually built) and then went back to Walkinshaw to mastermind the Nissan Le Mans project, which brought a third place at Le Mans in '98 behind the two Porsche GT1s. Finally he was hired on a two-year design consultancy by Audi, which wanted to download all his knowledge and experience in the marque's bid to win Le Mans — which it duly did in 2000.

After the Audi stint "I was knackered. The Germans had sucked me dry." Tony had now designed racing cars for 14 different teams over a 34-year period and decided it was time to retire. But he couldn't quite kick the motor racing habit. For some time the 750MC, still clinging to its philosophy of cheap racing, had been running a kit-car championship. Within a month of leaving Audi Tony went to Lincolnshire to see Jeremy Phillips at Sylva and ordered a Phoenix kit. It was built up for him to full-race spec with all the trimmings for just £15,000: "I couldn't believe it. At Audi we used to spend £15k on a new upright!"

Running on Webers, the Sylva's 1800 Zetec engine has 160bhp: "It only weighs 535kg, so it's quite quick. I've resisted the temptation to change things — it wouldn't make a lot of difference, because the rules are quite strict." He does about half a dozen races per year, including the Silverstone Six Hours relay, a 750MC institution for which Tony's Tigers lines up a team of five Sylvas. It's a cheap and fun way to go racing, with full grids, and Tony usually runs "in the front half".

How reassuring that someone who has worked in the exalted atmosphere of Formula One and top Le Mans teams can find fun and relaxation in a clubby kit-car championship. Clearly, throughout a high-pressure motorsport career, Tony Southgate is one man who has always managed to keep his feet on the ground.