Motor racing’s history is peppered with significant private entrants – highly professional operators who were content to provide cars for others to race, in return for the joy of being involved. In Formula 1 terms you think at once of Rob Walker, whom Stirling Moss, at the zenith of his career, chose in preference to a works team. Or the ever-benevolent Tom Wheatcroft: without Roger Williamson’s tragic death, that partnership would surely have gone on to great things.
Some private entrants did such a good job that the manufacturer was happy to remain in the background, providing the hardware and letting the entrant get on with the development. In sports and touring cars, Ford’s relationship with John Willment and Alan Mann typifies this. And if a private entrant’s preparation rivalled or bettered the works teams’ efforts, he would attract the best cockpit talent.
John Coombs, in his own racing, in his business life, and in his 20 years as a successful entrant, has always been a perfectionist. His cars were invariably immaculate, turned out in his favourite colours of off-white or light grey. Every detail had to be right, or the person responsible would feel the sharp edge of his tongue. He was a hard-nosed operator who did not suffer fools, but he would always provide the very best for his drivers, and they rewarded him with a lot of wins. If he thought a manufacturer wasn’t providing him with a good enough car, he would apply pressure. Without Coombs, Jaguar would never have produced the Lightweight E-type.
Today, still immaculate himself, he looks decades younger than his age, which unbelievably is 87. His memory for detail is sharp, his delivery staccato and humorously deadpan. He and his wife Ellie live in Monte Carlo now, but their UK base is an elegant lakeside apartment, where Ellie serves us a beautifully presented, and very English, lunch of lamb chops and cheesecake.
As we talk, John jots down from memory a list of the men who drove for him. There are more than 30 names, including three World Champions (Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill), all-time greats (Roy Salvadori, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney), men who died before their greatness could flower fully (Piers Courage, François Cevert, Patrick Depailler), and a fascinating array of characters from Jo Bonnier to Colin Chapman, from Johnny Servoz-Gavin to Walt Hansgen, from Ron Flockhart to Michael Parkes.
John’s clout with Coventry came not only from winning races, but also from heading up a very successful Jaguar dealership. The family firm, Coombs of Guildford, was founded in the 19th century as blacksmiths, wheelwrights and coachbuilders, but John built it into a substantial car business. He started racing in 1949 with a Cooper sports car powered, rather oddly, by a Rover 10 engine. “We were also Rover dealers, and Maurice Wilks of Rover helped us. It was too heavy, really, but we got it to rev to 6500rpm. Then I went Formula 3 racing, first with a JBS, then a Cooper-Norton and an Erskine Staride.” John had more than his share of F3 glory, as far afield as Madrid and Chimay. He won a 100-mile F3 race at Silverstone and set an outright lap record at the forgotten Welsh circuit of Fairwood – which stands in perpetuity, for that track is now underneath Swansea Airport.
“I did the Goodwood Nine Hours twice. In 1953 Tommy Sopwith and I shared a Cooper-Bristol. Not long before the finish at midnight, after we’d done just about the whole bloody nine hours, I lost it on oil at St Mary’s. The car dug in and cartwheeled, but it landed on its feet, and I wasn’t too badly knocked about. I saw the ambulance coming, so I ran off like a hare. You get in an ambulance, you can never be sure when you’ll get out. So they were all blundering around in the dark, looking for Coombs.”
A test with the Connaught works team followed. “[Connaught director] Rodney Clarke tried Roy Salvadori, Jack Fairman, Ian Stewart and me at Snetterton. Salvadori was fastest, of course, but I was next, and they ran me in a few single-seater races, including Monza and Modena. But Roy was in a different league. We went testing at Goodwood and he offered to lead me round. Every corner on every lap he was just absolutely on the flat-out limit, two wheels on the dirt to straighten the corner, you got all the mud and muck in your face. To stay with him for long was impossible. He said to me, ‘Coombs, you’ve got to be prepared to hurt yourself.’ I didn’t see it like that.”
For 1954 John bought himself a 1.5-litre Connaught sports-racer. “They only made two. Fabulous engine, but the car was too heavy. So mid-season we bought a Lotus Mk VIII – the first streamlined one, with the big tail fins – and put the Connaught engine in that. For a 1500 it was very quick. At the first Boxing Day Brands Hatch I won the 1500cc race, and in the unlimited event I had a good go for the lead with Tony Crook’s 2-litre Cooper-Bristol. Finished half a second behind him, and ahead of a C-type Jaguar. Second in the 1500cc race was David Blakely – that was about three months before Ruth Ellis shot him. I remember him as big-headed, and a womaniser. But you could say that about quite a few racing drivers.
“I had a Lotus Eleven next, but it was getting more difficult for me to get away from work. I’d arrive at Goodwood too late for practice and have to start from the back of the grid. I had a good day at Mallory Park, won two races against Brian Naylor’s Lotus-Maserati, got out of the car and decided, ‘That’s it’. But I’d enjoyed motor racing so much I decided to carry on as an entrant. Ron Flockhart, who was a great mate, was my first driver. When he was committed to the F1 BRM or the Ecurie Ecosse D-types, I used my old friend Roy Salvadori. I bought a new Lotus 15, and Colin Chapman wrote across the bottom of the invoice that at no time were we allowed to lead the works cars. Made me sign it. Of course it didn’t mean anything, and we still beat the works cars, which made Chapman livid. Roy drove for me for six seasons, and we won a lot of races together.
“Roy was a hard man. Stirling Moss said to me, ‘Your mate Roy is the dirtiest driver I know.’ At Aintree once, when Mike Hawthorn was leading in the works D-type, Roy got his DB3S Aston inside him on that long right-hander and pushed him wide. Afterwards Mike stormed up to him in the paddock. He was at the thumping stage: ‘You f***ing do that to me ever again, and I’ll put you in the f***ing wall.’ At Crystal Palace in the Mk2 Jaguars, Jack Sears was holding Roy up, and Roy went over the kerbs, got inside him, and Jack was in the barriers. Jack had been playing around with him, and you couldn’t play around with Roy. When he was in the car a curtain came down, and it didn’t matter who you were, he was out to beat you. He’d treat his greatest mate the same way. If you think about it, all the really great drivers have been tough buggers.
“In 1959 we had a Cooper Monaco with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Maserati engine, because the 2.5 Climax was not yet available. In the sports car race at the May Silverstone Aston Martin decided to enter only one car, for Stirling Moss. Roy, as an Aston works driver, was a bit miffed at this, and was determined to beat Stirling, so we put him in my Monaco. He led from the start, but then he came round pointing to the back of the car. Reg Parnell, running the Aston pit, shouted across to me, ‘Your man’s in trouble’, but I said, ‘No, he just wants a plus or minus back to Stirling on his board.’ In fact Roy was struggling with a completely undriveable car. Parnell put out the hurry-up signs to Stirling, but Roy kept going flat out, even though the car was darting all over the track. He won the race by 4.6 seconds, and afterwards he said, ‘That’s the most difficult car I’ve ever driven.’
“Then my mechanic called me over to show me the back of the car. The bolts holding the rear transverse leaf had sheared, so the rear wheels were flopping over from side to side. But Roy was always flat out, even if the car was falling to pieces. Even if he had a huge lead, he didn’t know how to ease up. He went upside down in the lake at Oulton Park once, but that was when a tyre burst. And at Snetterton he rolled his 3.8 Jaguar in practice. We bashed out the dents and he did the race.
“We had a second Monaco with a 2-litre Climax engine, and ran Jack Brabham in that. Jack was a hard man, too. No need for mirrors on his car, because he always ignored whoever was behind him. In testing he’d do a lap, come in, get out, grab a couple of spanners, adjust something, get back in and off again. I said to him, ‘Jack, what’s the point of my hiring mechanics when you try to do their job as well? You adjusted the rollbar, but how much? Now we don’t know where we are.’ He was a brilliant racer, a brilliant setter-up. We ran Bruce McLaren, too: almost as fast as Jack, but not quite. And not a hard man at all, much too nice for that.
“Our friend John Young talked me and Roy into doing the Monte Carlo Rally – in a bloody Ford Anglia. Two doors, side valves, 1172cc, 32bhp. Neither of us wanted to go, but John took it all frightfully seriously. In Glasgow we all squeeze in wearing our thick coats and, as we get to the start line, John at the wheel, me in the back, I quietly put my foot between the two seats onto the gear lever and ease it into neutral. The revs go sky-high. ‘My god’, says John, ‘The transmission’s broken already.’ We drive down through Scotland, it’s snowing and icy, and a bread van overtakes us. Roy says, ‘You know, Young, you’re really driving rather well.’ He had some canine laxatives in his pocket, and said to John, ‘Would you like a toffee?’ and popped one in his mouth. We didn’t hear much out of John after that.
“In Paris Roy and I wanted to retire gracefully and have a good dinner, but John insisted we carry on. We had a big row which culminated in all the maps being thrown out of the window. ‘Never mind,’ says Roy, ‘We’ll just follow everybody else.’ He was driving now, and in that little Ford Anglia on ice he was absolutely terrifying. At one point Roy caught up with John Gott, who was a serious rally driver as well as being the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire. He was in a works Austin A90. Roy couldn’t make him move over, so he went past him on the inside, leaning on him a bit. Gott was furious, came up to us afterwards and said, ‘That was despicable. People like you shouldn’t be allowed in rallying.’ Maybe he was right. Amazingly we got to Monte Carlo 88th out of 233 finishers and qualified for the final mountain section, although the front wheels were pointing in different directions, probably because Roy had hit a few things on the way. Next morning John was waiting in the car all keen to do the last section, but Roy and I were still tucked up asleep. So we were disqualified.”
Meanwhile John’s Jaguar dealership was booming. “From time to time I’d be summoned to Coventry for lunch. Sir William Lyons’ office overlooked the car park, with Alice Fenton’s office on one side – she’d been with him since the Blackpool days – and Lofty England’s on the other. If you arrived in anything other than a Jaguar, by the time you got to reception there’d be a message from Mr England: ‘Kindly get that thing off the forecourt and park it out of sight.’ Lunch would be in the directors’ section of the works canteen, no liquor of course. Lyons sat at the head of the table. ‘Good morning, Coombs, how are things going?’ ‘Very well, thank you, Sir William.’ ‘Tell me, what do you find are the popular colours at the moment?’
“One day I was there and Lofty told me they had five unsold D-types. I said, ‘I’ll give you £6500 for the lot.’ We go into lunch, and Edward Huckvale, who was the finance director, leans across and says, ‘Right, Coombs, are you going to make a sensible bid?’ I say, ‘I’ve made my bid and it’s a very sensible one. Don’t spend too long thinking about it, because when I leave here it lapses.’ ‘What’s this?’ says Sir William. ‘Coombs wants to buy some D-types, sir’, says Huckvale, ‘but he hasn’t made a proper offer.’ ‘You’ve got that wrong. I don’t want to buy them. You’ve got five cars you want to get rid of.’ Sir William says, ‘At Jaguar we don’t have anything we want to get rid of.’ After that it went a bit quiet. But as I was getting into my car to drive home Huckvale’s secretary came trotting out. ‘Mr Coombs, Mr Huckvale says you’ve bought the cars.’ Imagine it now: five D-types for £1300 each…
“We raced the Jaguar 2.4 when it first came out, and then the 3.4, with Flockhart. And Duncan Hamilton drove it on a very warm May day at Goodwood. Back then we didn’t strip the cars and the heater was still fitted. Somehow it was stuck on full, and Duncan was a big man, so it can’t have been nice in there. But he won, beating the 3.4s of Sopwith and Gawaine Baillie.
“Lofty asked me to give the American Walt Hansgen a drive in the 3.4 at the British GP meeting. In practice he was most spectacular, coming through Woodcote on full opposite lock and tearing the tyres off. I told him it wasn’t the quickest way round, and he’d be beaten by Sopwith. But fortunately Sopwith lost a wheel, and we won. Another chap Lofty asked me to try was the Australian Bob Jane. That was at Aintree. He was a big-headed individual, wanted us to change everything on the car, but it didn’t make him go any better. In the race he somehow got into the lead, and he was weaving all over the place to stop Michael Parkes and Jack Sears from getting by. So coming through Melling Crossing Michael hit him firmly up the arse, and he spun off. Afterwards Jane was fulminating about Pommie bastards, but Michael just said, ‘Look, old chap, in this country we like to give the faster chaps room to come by.’”
The Mk2 version of the small Jaguar saloon arrived for the 1960 season, and race crowds were treated to hair-raising battles between the blue 3.8 of Tommy Sopwith’s Equipe Endeavour, driven by Sears or Parkes, and the white Coombs 3.8 driven by Salvadori. “We built up the cars ourselves. We’d buy naked bodyshells from Jaguar, take off all the lead, weld the seams to make them stiffer, and take out everything we didn’t need. Then, to get back to the legal weight, we’d put blocks of lead low down in the floor to get it to handle as we wanted. We offered some of the engine and chassis tweaks on our road cars, and occasionally a customer would say, ‘I want a Mk2 exactly like the racing cars. Can I buy one?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, we can do it, but with the welded seams and everything it’ll be ridiculous money.’ ‘I don’t mind, I’ll pay.’ That made it a completely different car.
“One of Roy’s best races with the Mk2 was at the May Silverstone in 1960. The rivalry between me and Sopwith was pretty intense now, and Tommy lined up Stirling Moss to drive his car. Roy led to start with, then Stirling got by and led for eight laps, then Roy got through on the inside at Stowe and led to the finish. Afterwards Stirling complained that Roy had been tapping the brake pedal going into corners to flash the brake lights and try to make Stirling brake earlier. Roy said he’d only been switching the headlights on and off to move backmarkers out of the way. All good stuff. Roy won the sports car race for me that day as well, in the Cooper Monaco.
“Lofty called one day to say Colin Chapman was considering a 3.8 as his everyday road car and wanted a demo drive. I suggested he should have his demo by racing my car at the British GP meeting. He had an unbelievable battle with Sears in the Sopwith car, swapping the lead over and over, side by side past the pits. Chapman was a fantastic driver, and he won for us by a fifth of a second – and he did buy a car, too.
But you could never really trust him. Years later we did a deal with him to run Ronnie Peterson in a new Formula 2 Lotus, and two days later he changed his mind. A deal with Lofty England was a deal. You could gamble everything you owned on his word.”
In March 1961 Jaguar announced the E-type, and a month later it made its racing debut at Oulton Park. “Lofty organised two pre-production cars, a grey one for me and a dark blue one for Sopwith. Roy in our car led Graham Hill in Tommy’s until his brakes went away, and he fell to third behind Innes Ireland’s Aston Martin DB4GT. But the next month Roy won at Crystal Palace, from Sears in the Sopwith car, and gradually we got it sorted out.
“For 1962 I decided to run two top-line drivers, and I asked Graham Hill to join us alongside Roy. He said, ‘How much?’ I said if he drove for me and no one else outside F1 I’d give him £1000 cash, on top of the usual share of start and prize money. I’d already known Graham a long time, and we became very, very close friends. He was the greatest character, and I adored him, but he was an impossible man to have in a racing car. We were at Goodwood testing one day with one of the Mk2s. I did 10 laps in the car and I thought it was pretty good. He arrived in his aeroplane, went out, came straight back in, said: ‘It’s f***ing terrible.’ We spent all day changing everything, springs, shockers, roll bars. My man Roland Law was logging each change, and finally Graham said, ‘Now, leave it like that. Don’t touch it.’ Roland took me to one side and said, ‘Do you realise, he’s now got it back to exactly where it was when he started this morning.’ When I told Graham he said Roland was a liar, got into his plane and flew off. But we used to have fun together. Travelling abroad with the F2 car with Graham, there are stories I can’t tell you…
“That first E-type of ours, 850006, was initially registered BUY 1, but then became 4 WPD. During 1962 we tested a lot. Graham complained about the understeer and asked for toe-in on the back, which Jaguar’s test driver Norman Dewis said was a mad idea. I said, ‘Well, he’s a Formula 1 driver, so let’s give him what he wants.’ That made it a second and a half a lap quicker. But it became clear that, against the Ferrari GTO, the E-type was never going to make a competitive racing car. So I bought a GTO. I said to Bill Heynes, Jaguar’s chief engineer, ‘Your car is too heavy. Look at that bloody great engine, like a pendulum. If you don’t do something about it I’ll just have to race my Ferrari.’”
Jaguar’s Experimental Department borrowed the Coombs GTO and had a careful look at it, and over the winter of 1962 4 WPD was sent to Coventry and entirely remade into a new car, with aluminium monocoque and body panels, cast alloy engine block, alloy wheels and many other changes. The result was a car some 110kgs lighter than standard, and 45kgs lighter than the GTO. It immediately found success in Hill’s hands during the 1963 season, and Jaguar went on to build 11 more Lightweights. The busy Coombs equipe was still racing the GTO and an Aston Zagato in GT events, and one or more 3.8 Mk2 saloons, but Salvadori, uncomfortable in a two-driver team, had left to join Tommy Atkins. At that year’s TT Coombs joined forces with Maranello Concessionaires to run two GTOs for Hill and Parkes, with Sears in the E-type. “Mr Hill and Mr Parkes crossed the line two-fifths of a second apart, and Mr Sears was fourth. Our start money and prize money came to about £3000.
“We worked hard on the detail of our race cars. We made extended hubcaps to speed up tyre changes in pitstops, and we rigged up a linkage so that jacking the car up also opened the fuel filler. We were the first to hang the shoulder straps on elastic from the roof of the car, so during driver changes you could grab the straps easily.
“When it was time to sell the GTO, we couldn’t give it away. It finished up with that strange man J A Pearce at Slough, who dealt in scrap spares. He put the engine in a Cooper to go F1 racing, and then the whole team was burned out in a mysterious fire in the Silverstone paddock. The GTO sat in the scrapyard with no engine, and later ended up with Jack Sears.
In the 1970s Jack offered it to me for £45,000, and I laughed at him. Now GTOs seem to fetch about ten [£10 million].
“Lofty rang me one day and said, ‘I’d like to try this Scotsman, Stewart, in the Lightweight E-type.’ I said, ‘I thought he’d retired?’ ‘No, not Jimmy, this is his little brother, Jackie.’ ‘He can’t have had much experience. Well, he can test the car, but you pay.’ So we go to Silverstone, and a little Mini arrives, a little lad gets out, shakes hands with everybody, very polite. I tell him, ‘Get in the car, get yourself comfortable, go out and do five laps, settle yourself in.’ ‘I’ve driven my brother’s E-type road car,’ he says. I say, ‘I think you’ll find this a bit different.’ So off he goes, and across the silent circuit listening to him coming through Abbey there’s no change in engine note. Sounds like he’s going through there flat. I think, ‘This won’t do’, so I hang a board out, call him in. ‘Look’, I say, ‘You obviously didn’t listen the first time. You’re here for us to take a look at you, not to prove how fast the car is. You may be used again, but the way you’re driving you may not be.’ Send him out again. After seven laps he’s under the outright GT lap record. So we sign him.
“Later, in my F2 period, we ran a Matra for Jackie. Testing with him was a model of how to do it. In the car, out on the track, couple of laps, in, adjustment, out, couple of laps, in, adjustment, out. He used to say, ‘Whatever you did last time made the car feel better, so do it a little more.’ Then, ‘Now you’ve overdone it a bit. Take it back a fraction.’ Never wasted time, totally professional. Mind you, he was always losing things, the key to his hotel room or his car keys. You had to look after him.
“Flying with racing drivers was always nerve-racking. I remember coming back from an F2 race at Albi in Graham’s plane. Jochen [Rindt], Jimmy [Clark], Jackie [Stewart], and a mass of luggage, way overloaded, and I remember thinking, if this lot goes down I won’t even rate a mention in the obituaries. And flying with Jack Brabham into Fairoaks, which had no lights and didn’t operate after dark. It was about 9 o’clock at night and we came in blind. Very hairy. Graham and I flew up to Jimmy’s funeral, and we called in at Lotus in Norfolk on the way back. It was getting dark and Graham was playing darts in the works canteen. I said, ‘Graham, if we don’t leave now I’m going home by taxi.’ When we got to Elstree he was flying over, blipping the throttle, trying to get them to turn some lights on.
“When Graham and the others were killed that foggy night in November 1975, coming into Elstree, they should have been refused permission to land. Apparently Elstree had sent three or four others away. I suppose Graham insisted on coming in, thought it would be all right. The boys all had their cars there, it was late, and they wanted to get home…
“I was very close to the Hill family, and I’m godfather to [Damon’s sister] Samantha. Graham and I were in business together, we had a Jaguar dealership in Chichester. A month before he was killed he asked me to help him run his F1 team. I said I couldn’t do it – we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes together on that. When he was killed Bette asked me to sort out his affairs, and tidying everything up was a nightmare. All sorts of people came out of the woodwork. Man rings up, ‘I lent Graham a DFV, I’d like it back now.’ ‘Fine, bring along the receipt.’ ‘Oh, there’s no receipt.’ Another said, ‘I bought a car from Graham, I gave him the money. Can I have the car now, please.’ There were a lot of things like that. But later I was able to help Damon when he needed it to keep his career going. And he really came good, made a worthy World Champion. He’s doing a fine job as president of the BRDC, he’s much more than just a figurehead.”
For years the superb preparation of the Coombs cars was the responsibility of Roland Law. “The racing cars were worked on in the main garage, and we had Roland and two mechanics to look after three cars. They never complained, they worked when they wanted, went home when they wanted. They’d drive the transporter, work at the circuit, work back at the garage. I used to say to them: ‘See that man over there? He’s our driver, and he relies on you to stay alive. Every time he gets in the car, you’re keeping him in one piece.’ Roland was a star, the best mechanic I ever worked with. In the end he went to Tyrrell, and worked on Jackie’s car.”
In 1964, in a radical change of philosophy, John Coombs went Formula 2 racing. “Our Jaguar programme had done a lot for the name of Coombs of Guildford, but Jaguars weren’t going to win any more. The new 1-litre F2 had just been announced, and Graham said he wanted to do it. We got him a Cooper-Cosworth – first time out at Crystal Palace he was second to a young unknown called J Rindt – and then we got him a Brabham. For 1965 we went to BRM’s F2 engine, basically half the engine Graham was using in his F1 car. He beat Jimmy Clark at Snetterton, and was second to Jimmy at Crystal Palace and Rouen. We got a monocoque Lotus 35, too. And I bought the first customer Can-Am McLaren for Graham to drive in big sports car races. At the end of the season we took it to Riverside for the LA Times Grand Prix, and then sold it to an American.
“For 1967, and the new 1600cc Formula 2, Graham had moved to Lotus, so we supported Piers Courage and his McLaren M4A. Piers could be very quick, but he always tried too hard, and he had a couple of big accidents in our car. Such a delightful, charming boy, but I don’t think he should have been a racing driver. I tried hard to get him to give up. Then we ran Matras for Jackie Stewart and Johnny Servoz-Gavin. In the ’69 Eifelrennen Jackie came round at the end of lap one all on his own. I thought there’d been a big accident behind him. We hung out the ‘Slower’ signal, but he still broke the outright circuit record – with a 1600cc F2 car. Took 10 seconds off Dan Gurney’s F1 record. We ran a Brabham for him in 1970, and took it to Fuji for the Japanese GP and won that. Jack Brabham drove it for us too. He and [business partner] Ron Tauranac had a strange relationship. They never seemed to speak to each other. When I wanted new springs and rollbars for the BT30 Ron wouldn’t let me have them, because they were for Jack. Jack had to get them himself.
“I wanted to buy the Brabham team when Ron decided to sell, but Bernie Ecclestone got in there quick, and Ron told me he’d already done a deal with Bernie. I ordered a new chassis and I went down for some bits, and Bernie and Ron were there. ‘How’s the new car, Coombs?’ ‘It’s fine, Bernie, thank you.’ Then Bernie says, ‘Hey, Tauranac, come over ’ere. Coombs says his new car is a bag of shit.’ Bernie loves all that, he’s terribly naughty. I’ve done lots of deals with him, and he’s impossible. Whatever you offer, it’s not enough; whatever he offers, it’s always derisory. Occasionally you can meet in the middle. Last deal I did with him, I bought five classic cars as a job lot – two Ferraris, a Gullwing, a Daytona in bits, something else. Bernie is a character, wonderful company.
“We also ran in F2 for Elf, with some great French drivers. François Cevert: wonderful personality, brilliant pianist, and of course bloody good-looking. Women chased him like mad. Once, when Ken Tyrrell was crossing swords with Jackie, Jackie was getting a bit too bouncy, and Ken said, ‘François is as quick as you, and next year he’ll be quicker.’ It was a tragedy that he died. Servoz-Gavin was another one for the women. Smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, had bad teeth, but women everywhere. When I was running him in the F2 Matra he never used the hotel room we’d booked for him. Eventually he said, ‘John, don’t bother with the room. I always find someone to sleep with.’ Then he’d turn up at the track looking as though he hadn’t slept at all. But he won the European F2 Championship for us in 1969.
“Patrick Depailler I was very fond of. I got very close to him. You had to do everything for him, because he was totally disorganised. He fell out with Ligier because he went hang-gliding when he should have been testing, and hurt himself. He could have gone back to Ligier for 1980, but he decided to go to Alfa Romeo where he could be number one. I pleaded with him not to, I even flew to Paris to try to make him change his mind. And that Alfa killed him.
“At Guildford, I gave up on Jaguar during the British Leyland fiasco and switched to BMW. But you can’t keep your independence as a BMW dealer, and I’m not very good at being told what to do, so in the end I sold it and moved to Monte Carlo. But I’ve never stopped playing with cars. I like the Goodwood Revival – I’ve run Mossy in a 250F Maserati, Martin Brundle in a D-type – and I still buy cars that take my fancy. I have a small workshop at Guildford, with a wonderful man who has worked for me for 17 years, and he can make anything. We’re doing a very special E-type at the moment. I’ve got a 328 BMW, another E-type, an XK120, a Porsche 356 four-cam and a 356 Speedster. And I always wanted a Type 59 Bugatti with a proper two-seater body. I bought a chassis from Uwe Hucke, and we built it. Took years, but now it’s finished and it’s fabulous.”
Through the 1950s and ’60s, the name Coombs in the entrant column would guarantee a beautifully prepared, competitive car with a top driver at the wheel. Now, apart from the Goodwood Revival, John’s days as an entrant are over. But he hasn’t finished with four wheels. If you’re driving along the Moyenne Corniche above Monaco and you’re overtaken by a Type 59 Bugatti, with an immaculately dressed man at the wheel and his glamorous wife at his side, that’ll be John Coombs, who seems to have discovered in his enduring fascination with cars the secret of staying young.
Matters of Moment, November 1954
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