The editor and the writer met not so long ago, and amongst other things the conversation turned upon the subject of how little had been written about motor-racing mechanics, those good folk whose work plays such a very important part in the general structure of motor racing. It was decided that a short series of articles, each dealing with a single personality would probably be the best way of remedying this deficiency, but after careful thought, it was subsequently decided by the writer that it would be inappropriate to tackle such a series without an adequate introduction to the subject as a whole. Obviously, a string of achievements with which a particular person has been associated would be dull and uninteresting, and therefore some more “personal” approach had to be attempted. The writer was not willing, however, to subject his victims, all of whom are known to him personally, to the “sensational press” type of attack, so that the solution seemed to be to outline the work of the mechanics in a general way first, and then to hope that the subsequent pen-portraits, if they justify such a title, would fit in to the general background, thus leaving the poor subjects some reasonable measure of generality to hide behind. Besides, the writer very much wants to stay friends with them all afterwards!
Well then, firstly, what do we mean by the term “mechanic”? It was honoured by the late Sir Henry Royce, who proudly claimed it as his own, so that there need be no suggestion of inferiority attached to it; but nevertheless, the fact must be faced straight away that in the fullest and best sense of the term, a “real” mechanic is usually a salaried working chap, distinct, in many ways, from the driver or the chef d’equipe.
Let us also say straight away that he is the salt of the motor-racing earth. Before 1927, and occasionally afterwards he rode with his driver, sharing in the risks and the adventure to the full, and it was obviously during those years that there were laid the foundations of that almost sacred relationship between driver and mechanic. The loyalty (and one may assume in many cases, affection) implicit in that common responsibility for building the car and driving it to the finish of the motor race was something that it is obviously not proper for the “outsider” to probe, and it continues in essence to this day, more especially where a driver is racing privately.
In such cases, the mechanic usually receives a weekly salary, little or no overtime, and his recompense for the inevitable late hours and hard work is a nice handful of notes if the car does well, a good time during “off duty” hours on Continental trips, a sojourn in a decent hotel when travelling, and no need to “punch the clock.”
These, and doing the job be loves, are his main rewards, and there can be few less-rewarding situations, and certainly few less secure. If married, the wife is there to remonstrate when he gets home at 2 a.m. (and flops into bed still somewhat dirty because he is too tired to have a bath) and to have a “moan” at his absence on the Continent for days on end. This may be very unkind to the ladies. But the wife is not born yet who fully understands why it is that if you decide to “just run over the tappets” at 5 p.m., fully intending to take half an hour over it and be home to supper, you look at your watch at what seems to be ten minutes later, and say “. . . me! It’s half past nine already.” Most would agree that basically it is a job for the unmarried man.
It is during those late-night “sessions” that the true worth of the mechanic emerges. The vast majority manage to keep cheerful (some even become quite human) during such periods of stress, and however tired or “fed up,” nothing is skimped or “left till the morning.” It is during these times, too, that the driver shows up at his true value. The sensible ones will keep out of the way, not offering “helpful” advice, but will content themselves with bobbing in and out, bringing the odd bottle of beer and ham roll, or brewing the “char” as requisite. Others, mercifully becoming fewer in number, motor out with their latest lady friend and come in, somewhat inebriated, when the job is three parts finished, with a fatuous remark that sets hands curling round a 7/16 by 1/2 inch “open-ender.” Others there are who can somehow “pitch in” and pull their weight without impeding the natural flow of conversation that goes on. Very revealing, too, that conversation can be. They are likely to hear just how well drivers really do drive, just how generous some people are, and just how useless are the others; how much So-and-so gave for the Blank Special and what retainer Bloggs got from the Fuel Barons last year, and the real reason why certain motor cars retire from motor races!
With the coming back into favour of the works teams things cannot be quite so free and easy. Overtime is sometimes “laid on” officially, and there is usually a degree of supervision that must inevitably detract a little from the friendly atmosphere of the private stable. Nevertheless, if the Team Chief is wise and capable he will not crush out the essential individuality which is the essence of the team spirit. Under these circumstances the racing mechanic is usually better paid than his counterpart with the private stable, but does not get quite the same opportunities of mixing with the rest of the équipe when out “on the job.” Most teams encourage the maintenance of the link between mechanic and driver, keeping as far as possible the same mechanics and drivers paired throughout the season. So the old traditions are preserved, and one can still set that happy bond in quiet chats in the paddock, and more particularly just before the start — those ghastly moments for the driver, when some need solace, others encouragement, and some the understanding glance. Yes, the mechanic is normally a psychologist, too.
Tributes to the work of the mechanics have, been paid by many drivers, and many there are whose reputation is largely owed to careful preparation, and really quick pit-work. A good set of mechanics can save previous seconds during refuelling and wheel changes, seconds that are often dearly repurchased by the driver if lost. An improperly wired oil-cap, a badly fitted copper washer in the lubrication system, a wrongly-placed brake pedal; these things have cost races before and will doubtless do so again, but if the driver is served by good mechanics he can forget such petty worries, and concentrate on the job of driving.
Amongst the other tasks that the mechanic is called upon to do in short races, where applicable, is to go back to the paddock and, with a few cheery words, take the driver’s wife’s mind off things for a few moments, when he himself feels far from cheerful.
There sometimes comes the really cheerful moment when he walks to the other end of the paddock to welcome his victor home. “Good show “is about the limit of praise that the driver may expect as the engine is switched off and the crash hat removed, but coming from someone who knows the situation intimately, it is worth all the other high words of praise put together.
Other times there are, mercifully few, when the car fails to return, and, when all the others have gone home, the mechanics have to go out and gather up the remains, often with their minds full of unsaid prayers for the driver in hospital, preserving outwardly a masterly calm, but inwardly feeling very lonely people.
So the great game goes on, some with works teams, Some private, some in business as tuners, and let us not forget to pay a tribute to the great band of pure amateurs who “mechanic” for the fun of it. All have shared the common experiences of the game; week-day trips for tests at deserted airfields, picnic meals in the paddock, or by the roadside, late hours, nights in the back of vans, odd meals and parties at assorted hotels and cafés, triumph and tragedy.
Always the talk seems to centre on racing cars and the latest improvements thereto, the latest “scandal” about the opposition, and what happened to So-and-so at the Mille Miglia last year. So the months and the years pass, and the store of memories, funny and sad, builds up.
When we go to a motor race and see it from the grandstand, how little do we really see of the background behind it all, but let us never forget to honour the mechanics and their profession, for it is a noble one which perpetuates a rare and valuable asset that is one of this country’s chief glories — craftsmanship. Add to that loyalty and enthusiasm, and you are very close to true human greatness. — “A.B.C.”
* * *
If you go into “R.R.J.’s” study at his home in Weybridge, you will see on the wall a faded picture of a youthful-looking enthusiast at the wheel of a Blackburn-powered Morgan way back in the ‘twenties, and one of the old Motor Sports shows a similar scene. Turn up Barré Lyndon’s “Combat” and you will see the same figure, now somewhat older, photographed as a member of Randall’s team for one of the “Double Twelves,” and in one of Prince Chula’s books dealing with Bira’s 1937 season you can read that one of his rivals in a Mountain Handicap was “R. R. Jackson — Alta.” So “RRJ” is no stranger to the racing game, and even today he is still quite capable of hopping into the cockpit of a motor car that he has tuned, and driving it fast enough to satisfy himself that it goes properly. It usually does. Today, “RRJ” is what one might call “attractively white-haired,” but still maintains an abnormally keen approach to motor racing. He is one of the few who have genuinely “seen it all,” and yet who will still wax keen over some idea for improving a racing car. He seems to take an almost impish delight in devising something that seems revolutionary to other people, but which is really just the outcome of experience and logical, objective thinking. In slow and most amusing speech he will, after having assessed the added power, add sonic remark like “Now don’t let’s forget that we must keep the device on the road.” The overall picture, you see. The writer remembers very clearly his first meeting with “RRJ” to discuss, many years ago now, a projected motor car for the late Joe Fry. It was all highly secret at the time, of course, and known to us as the “1864 job,” but Joe’s unhappy passing and various other factors prevented it reaching completion. Quietly, logically, “RRJ” had worked it all out. Two Citroën front ends, back to back, four-wheel drive and steering, a 2.9-litre Alfa-Romeo power unit, torque-limiting clutches to eliminate wheel spin and many other novelties designed to produce a master sprint car that would be literally unbeatable in Fry’s capable hands.
With this project, too, was associated Zillwood Milledge, who shook us all to the core by appearing in summer camping attire when the snow lay deep and crisp and even.
It all seemed to a junior employee simply fantastic, but as the design all fitted together on the board one appreciated that it was no wild flight of fancy and came to a new appreciation of the”RRJ” skill and vision. He is indeed one of the very few people who can carry that sort of thing through to completion, never hesitating to call in outside specialist help if needed, never failing to know his limitations — how great those assets are! One recalls the serious dissertations on the technique of four-wheel steering, delivered by “the great man” (as Hutchison once called him) with just the same tone of voice as if lecturing on the roadholding of a Morris Minor. Thus do the two major characteristics of the man come out. If he is the consulting engineer, the job never “goes sour,” and he maintains his kindly approach whether he is working with the managing director or the most humble draughtsman. All that matters is the job in hand. That legendary commodity which is said to baffle brains just does not exist in his make up, nor is it tolerated in others.
Another memory springs easily to mind to illustrate this delightful fearlessness of “RRJ’s” technical approach. Discussing possible ways of making the legendary Freikaiserwagen go quicker, ” RRJ” and the writer dallied for a cup of tea on the way back from Bristol. The revolutionary suggestion put forward by “RRJ” was to add another cylinder, making the engine a radial three, and when it was suggested “Mightn’t that be a bit difficult?” R2J (as he once rather amusingly signed himself) proceeded to draw the bones of the idea on a hotel serviette — every detail was clear in his mind before making the suggestion in the first place. The writer retired abashed.
True, all this has little to do with the normal mechanic’s lot, but “RRJ” is more than capable, and indeed prefers to do the actual “screwing together” too, ably assisted by Jim, his confederate for many years past. Literally nothing goes into a motor car until it is right. The writer has seen him standing in the pouring rain on a Bristol airfield, solemnly checking the dimensions down the length of an S.U. needle before trying it in the motor car. Most other people would accept the fact that an OX needle was an OX needle, but not the subject of this article.
Useless to repeat the age-old definition of genius, but the thought is applicable. Watch him handle a special connecting rod for a “500” or assembling a back axle, and you will see the real mechanic at work. Spotless cleanliness, careful fitting, both are second nature to him, and thus did cars like the Hutchison Alfa, the Freik, the Bentley Jackson, and many many others go so effectively.
Likewise the “twin spark” head of Stirling Moss’ Cooper springs from the same fertile brain. Another facet of the “RRJ” character is the capacity for remaining calm. Dennis Poore once drove a 500 device at Goodwood, and he appeared past the paddock, going extremely fast without the exhaust pipe which had obviously fallen off somewhere round the circuit. “Those machines are apt to catch fire when that happens” came the quiet voice from under the “fisherman’s hood.” Catch fire the car did, and we watched the poor driver deal with the situation once he became aware of the blaze behind him, pulling off into the paddock and leaping out from under the screwed on steering wheel just in time. Not a muscle of “RRJ’s” face moved.
Although endowed with more than the ordinary sense of humour, you have to work hard sometimes to appreciate his fun. His vocabulary invariably includes such words as “the vehicle,” “the apparatus” or “the device,” these terms applied to things that the ordinary mortal would call by some more conventional nomenclature. You have, in other words, to read the fun or the meaning into what he says. The writer remembers asking him once (really wanting to know) what was the “RRJ” view of Richard Seaman’s skill as a driver, for the great English Grand Prix driver had his car tuned by “RRJ” way back in the ‘thirties. The reply was “he was a very good driver — just that — but coming from whence it did, there was no need to add more, provided you knew “RRJ.” Similarly, “Bira doesn’t break motor cars” was his contribution to a discussion on whether good racing drivers should be technically-minded. “RRJ” saves his conventionally-expressed emotions for subjects other than racing cars. Once he and the writer lunched together, and were served with two portions of chicken that were so tough that they were literally inedible, but in spite of the normal impediments to easy mastication that come with advancing age, “RRJ” rocked with laughter at the occurrence, to the amazement of the waitress, who simply could not understand why her india-rubber offering should seem so funny. Like all who have an inborn sense of humour, “RRJ” laughs first at himself.
Was it Hercule Poirot who referred to the “order and method in the little grey cells”? Certainly to appreciate that thought fully, to do a bench test with “RRJ” is instructive. Everything is laid out properly, and the results immediately noted down in his large round handwriting. The bed doesn’t run out of water at the crucial moment, or does the coupling burst asunder, and the whole programme goes through on schedule, the behaviour of the engine being read and interpreted carefully. Alter one thing at a time, digest before you fiddle and, above all, don’t start till everything is right, those are his rules. He has, too, an extremely logical and wide-awake approach to the help that Industry can give.
Never do you hear him condemn a complicated device like an oscillograph or a sound analyser. If these instruments can help him probe further into the operation of a racing car power unit he gladly accepts the help they can give, provided only that he is satisfied that the story they tell is a true and directly applicable one.
Talk of new fuels, or fuel injection, and he will at once set about the job of finding out for himself, listening to all the outside information, digesting it, and then applying it. Again, he never exceeds his “terms of reference” with a motor car. The owner who comes to him with lurid schemes for improving an old motor car is sometimes disappointed in the advice given: If you can’t afford a full season’s racing don’t try — cut your coat according to your cloth — at all costs make sure you reach the starting line, finish and get the best possible value out of what is, unavoidably, an expensive sport.
Experience is the great teacher, and Robin Jackson would be the first to admit you never finish learning, but it is essential to humble yourself and admit the old adage that the more you know, the less you think you know, in motor racing particularly. Finally, in “RRJ” there is that happy link with the old world of pre-war racing, especially Brooklands. A stone’s throw from where he now operates, the old Byfleet banking is still discernible, and one is permitted the thought when one sees “RRJ” emerge from his test house, perhaps removing his gas mask which he has been wearing as a precaution against the poisonous exhaust fumes of a “double knocker” operating on some super carburant, that times have indeed changed, but that the shades of the old outer-circuit cars are not far away. It is impossible not to feel at home with such a friendly soul, and somehow the tall figure with the flowing white hair, kindly hands and boyish eyes, dressed in an old sports coat, grey trousers and an open-necked shirt seems to be of the very essence of the motor-racing scene. Verily, a great mechanic — long may he be spared to the game. — “A. B. C.”
miscellany, August 1997
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