Looking back with Tony Marsh

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One of the greatest of British hill climb champions was Tony Marsh who won the RAC title in 1955, ’56 and ’57 and, after a varied career in other departments of the sport, returned to the hills to score a second hat-trick in 1965, ’66 and ’67. Just to keep his record tidy, he became a British champion in 1975, ’76 and ’77 as well, but this was in the senior age class of the snow sport, ski bobbing (imagine a bicycle on skis) and since he was won a title every year since that snow has allowed the champion­ship to take place, and been runner-up in the most recent World and European Championships, it is highly likely that there will be trophies for 1985, ’86 and ’87 as well. It seems appropriate that a mail who spent the first part of his sporting life going up hills under power, and the second part coming down hills under gravity, should now live in the Hampshire village of Steep.

Tony Marsh was born in Stourbridge, Worcs, in 1931 and the surprising thing is that he was not hooked on competition driving from an early age. His father had driven an fwd Alvis at Shelsley Walsh and, once, a Riley 9 at Brooklands. His father’s brother’s career included driving a Singer at Le Mans and his father’s sister, Mrs Valerie Palethorpe, had held the ladies’ record at Prescott. Tony’s sporting interest lay in dinghy racing and it was a pure accident that he became involved in motor sport.

After school at Uppingham and a year spent at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, Tony had gone· into, farm management. One day, aged twenty; he was out on his motorcycle when he, saw a Dunlop sign saying “next left”. Obediently he turned left and found himself watching a “mud plugging” trial and promptly fell in love with a Dellow. The motorcycle and the family hack, a Morris 8 of which he had the use, were sold and a Dellow with a supercharged Ford 10 was bought. Sailing, which had occupied most weekends during the summer, suddenly took a back seat as he discovered he could use his car the year round, trials, rallies and driving tests in winter and sprints, races and hill climbs from spring to autumn.

Ron Lowe who, with K. Ci Delingpole, made Dellows, clearly saw in the youngster a driver out of the ordinary and he took him under his wing.

The 1952 season saw Tony as an unofficial works driver with a special lightweight Mk II Dellow (reg L WP 757) which was fitted with a methanol-burning sprint Ford Ten engine for hill climbs and sprints and with a “petrol” Ford Ten engine running blown or unblown in other events. Eventually young Marsh could do a complete engine change in just thirty minutes. A few years ago Tony was able to trace and buy this car and sympathetically restore it.

A friend of the family had become something of a fan of Tony’s and he had some quiet words with his father. Marsh Snr said, “I wouldn’t want you to think that you couldn’t beat Ken Wharton (then the undisputed king of the hills) because you hadn’t a suitable car. What about a BRM?” Marsh Jnr gulped, “I’ll have to think about it,” he replied. In fact, after consultation with Ron Lowe, the Marshes bought the ex­Peter Collins Cooper Mk IV which was fitted with a 1,260 cc V-twin JAP engine. On his second outing with the car, in a 1953 Hagley Sprint, Tony managed to win with a new course record, a feat made all the sweeter since the old record was held by Peter Collins with the same car. As well as using it for hill climbs, Tony also did some Formula Libre racing and enjoyed some memorable dices with Les Leston in a similar car but found that the engine tired rather quickly.

For 18 months, until near the end of 1954, Tony learned his craft as a driver. “Driving was almost secondary to my enjoyment of motorsport. I liked having a nice car and keeping it in top condition. I liked the atmosphere of the sport. The attraction of hill climbing was always the intimacy between myself, the course and the machine. I’d walk the course, practice and compete, under those conditions you have to get it exactly right by instinct, there’s no time to look at the rev counter, you use your intimacy with the hill to place yourself within an inch of where you should be.” It’s like the instinct of a 100 metres athlete.

“I enjoyed circuit racing, particularly long races, where if you take one corner wrong it doesn’t particularly matter. After all, on the hills you try to win at the highest possible speed whereas the trick in circuit racing is to win at the lowest possible speed.”

Towards the end of 1954 a new Cooper Mk 8 was bought and fitted with an 1,100 cc JAP engine. As well as proving an extremely successful car, it helped create a relationship with the Coopers, particularly Charles. “I was usually allowed to be the first or second privateer to be allowed to assemble his new car at the works. My family were in the bacon curing business and Charlie was very fond of York ham. I’d arrive at the works in my transporter, in which I lived, with a large ham and tell Charlie that I’d brought the ham to live off but he could have what was left when I’d finished my car. My car used to be built very quickly.”

Tony Marsh came good in 1955 and, at the end of the season, tied for the RAC Hill Climb Championship with the great Ken Wharton. It was a problem which the RAC had not previously considered and had not established a method to decide a tie-break. After some debate it was decided to award the title to Marsh on the grounds that he had used only one car for the season while Wharton had used his ERA on power climbs like Shelsley Walsh and a supercharged 998 cc Cooper-JAP on twisty hills like Prescott. Marsh’s was the more meritorious performance, declared the club (can you imagine what would happen today if a title was awarded on such grounds, even though they are hard to argue with?). Eventually Tony went to collect his award from the RAC but there was a great debate before he was allowed into the club to receive it for the young farmer was not wearing a tie. Possibly there is a relationship between the sort of thinking which awards a championship on merit and which also insists on certain standards of dress and behaviour on particular occasions.

During 1955, the Cooper-JAP was used} for quite a lot of Formula Libre racing while a “bob tail” central seater 1,100 cc Cooper­Climax sports car was also used on the hills and circuits. “It took) lot of sports car records on the hills but, in races, I tended to finish fourth behind Jim Russell, Ivor Bueb, and the quickest Lotus, whichever that was.”

A growing interest in things· mechanical saw Tony modify and develop the Cooper­JAP during the next season when he again won the hill climb championship, this time from Mike Christie with Wharton concen­trating more on circuit racing. “Poor Mike had spent years playing second fiddle to Ken and then I came along. I learned an awful lot from Ken, incidentally, simply by watching him. Although he was always a little detached at meetings, we became friends. He was a maestro in a motor car but I think he recognised me as a newcomer to be watched. I remember upsetting Ken once at Shelsley. He was filming some of the climbs with a cine camera and as I went by I waved at him. He was furious because, he said, I’d ruined his filming!”

Coopers built Marsh a lightweight chassis for 1957 and Tony took it to his hat-trick of hillclimb titles but that was only one aspect of a remarkable three-pronged season. As well as the hill climb car, Tony had bought an F2 Cooper-Climax and, though he was never rated among the aces with it, he emerged at the end of the year as “The Autocar F2 Champion”. “It was all worked out on a formula of points. International Races were worth more than National races, a 150 mile race was worth twice the points of a 75 mile race and so on. Because of my relationship with the works, I’d received my car early and so was able to take part in more races than some oilier drivers who collected their cars later and who perhaps did not take part in so many races.” A gracious and modest assessment’ from a gracious and modest man.

The third main ‘activity that year was in trials driving. Tony had built his own car, the TMS and finished the season in third place, a single point behind the two drivers who tied for the title. It was one of the last occasions, if not the last occasion, when a British driver performed so creditably in three such disparate branches of the sport.

Having gained a· hat-trick of hill climb championships, Tony had little else to prove on the hills and he became a privateer in F2 with a new Cooper. “I did a few hill climbs with the car just to keep in touch with the hill climb crowd but, though it was good enough for class wins, it wasn’t up to taking ftd.” As a privateer he was able to put on a reasonable show, picking up top six places but never looking like a natural winner. “Just occasionally I’d let my hair down and have a little go but I was always aware of the fact that if I broke the car I had to mend it.”

The Cooper was kept for 1958 and ’59 and part of ’60, the highlight of those years being victory in the first race held at Zeltweg in 1959. A switch to an F2 Lotus 18 (chassis 909, now in the USA) followed late in 1960 on the grounds that with such a car he stood a better chance of his entry being accepted for races, a bit of variety among the Coopers and Porsches. So 1960 passed as before, a welcome addition to the grid, a decent, reliable runner, a man who could finish in the top six and who could occasionally worry the works drivers. He made his only appearance at Le Mans in that year, in a Lotus Elite shared with John Wagstaff which finished 11th and won the Index of Thermal Efficiency. Another highlight was the setting of the first 100 mph ·FJ lap at Silverstone in a Lotus 18. Off the track he also contributed ghost-written road tests of cars to the now defunct Daily Sketch.

In 1961 he found that, with a few modifications, his F2 Lotus could become an F1 car and so, in common with other privateers, he made the transition into F1. The season began well, too with third in the Brussels GP behind Brabham and McLaren. Though only seventh in the Aintree 200, Tony was the first Lotus home, while he finished third in the London Trophy at Crystal Palace and sixth in the Silver City Trophy at Brands Hatch. He failed to qualify for the Belgian GP (engine troubles in practice), retired in the British GP and finished 15th in the German race. It was the sort of record to which several competent privateers of the time could lay claim, though none other could point to performances of the brilliance which Tony had displayed on the hills. Still, the sport was the thing and by selecting his events and living frugally, a competent privateer could join in with the big boys, have a lot of fun and more or less cover his costs. In addition, he drove a Cooper FJ car for the Midlands Racing Partnership, in a year dominated by Lotuses, and extended his workshop to take on the race-preparation of the Lotus 18s of W9Jfgang Seidel and Karel de Beaufort. At the time he was farming one of his family’s properties which he rented.

“I was at the 1961 Belgian GP trying to get the Lotus to start [he failed to make the start] when Raymond Mays approached me, with a suggestion that I should buy a BRM which could be run with a 2.5-litre BRM engine for hill climbs and any Intercontinental Formula races there might be, while a 1.5-litre Coventry Climax FPF engine would be fitted for any races run to F1 rules.” Tony had always a soft spot for BRM and the deal meant that he would receive “semi-works” recognition which would double his starting money, from a typical £350 to £600, though a percentage would go to BRM.

With the BRM in 2.5-litre form Tony made a successful return to the hills, breaking the record at Shelsley Walsh, though in F1 trim the car was too heavy to be competitive in serious company though a win at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch Meeting did give BRM its only victory of 1961. Tony used his Lotus for the French and British Grands Prix, failing to finish in either.

The following year a second car, uprated to take the V8 BRM engine, was bought. Tony was to pay £7,500 to BRM and maintain and enter the car except on certain occasions when it would be entered as a works car. Jack Lewis, another privateer but one who usually had the edge on Marsh, had been offered a parallel deal though without the works’ entries.

At first it seemed like a good idea and Tony sat on the second row of the grid for the Brussels GP and even out-dragged the works car of Graham Hill to the first corner (“I later apologised, telling him it had been a typical hill climber’s start”). Marsh came fourth in the first heat but was black-flagged in the second for receiving a push start. A worrying aspect of the meeting was that both the bell housing and cylinder block cracked because the chassis was not stiff enough, the engine being used as a stressed member, a function for which it was not designed. Jack Lewis was encountering similar problems and the two privateers began not to be too happy with the deal.

Marsh qualified well for the International Trophy, behind most of the works cars and ahead of most privateers, exactly where he should have been, and finished fourth at Pau ahead of Bandini’s works Ferrari. After the engine was returned for a rebuild, however, it was useless, worse than his old F2 Cooper. “I wonder if, after my start at Brussels, a few horsepower had not been ‘lost’. Jack Lewis was having the same sort of problems as me with the cracking of the engine and we reckoned we’d been sold a pup. We initiated legal proceedings against BRM and then suddenly we both had offers to buy our cars back.

“All the hassle of running at that level, worrying about making ends meet, was spoiling the sport for me so I decided to go back to my roots and go hill climbing again. I did just four F1 races as a semi-works BRM driver and, for the rest of the season hill climbing and sprinting the 2.5-litre BRM.

“In 1962 I moved down to my own farm in Steep which I ran until a heart attack in 1972 led me to rent it out. I took a mechanic, Ted Jeffs, down to Hampshire from my workshops in the Midlands. I’d picked up a fair amount of practical know-how over the years and so built a fairly crude car, with a 2.5-litre BRM engine, just for hill climbs. The Marsh-BRM Special had a BRM engine and four-speed gearbox, my own chassis and suspension, Cooper wheels and other odd bits and, though crude, was effective. We took several ftds and were in with an outside chance of the Championship until it was destroyed at Rest And Be Thankful. It was not rebuilt but the engine was put back into the BRM chassis and I finished third in the Championship.”

The following year a new Marsh Special appeared, this was a very small car, Tony working on the theory that a small car would make the climb seem bigger. It was a theory which worked up to a point – you couldn’t scale down the driver or engine. Initially it had a supercharged Coventry Climax FPF engine which was later converted back to carburetters and enlarged to two litres when the blower proved difficult to integrate. With it, Marsh finished second in the 1963 Championship.

Over the winter, Marsh improved the car but others made greater strides and he dropped down a place in the rankings to come home third in 1964.

A radical re-think was in order and so the chassis was re-worked on more conventional lines, being longer and wider. Into the back was fitted a 4.2-litre Buick V8 engine, “Not a racing engine but one in good sports tune, nice and flexible.” It was light and right from the start and Championships followed in 1965 and ’66.

“It takes a year to know a car and then another year to capitalise on it. By the time I’d won my second title people were beginning to talk in terms of a hat-trick and that started to put some pressure on me. To be honest, a lot of my motivation had gone, it was a case of travelling a long way for a few’ runs up a hill and I began to think I’d nothing else to prove, though I did want that second hat trick. Peter Westbury was using the 4wd Ferguson on the hills and that had started to give me problems, especially in the wet. ‘I’d thought of converting my car to 4wd during the winter of 1965/6 but had reverted to a conventional layout for the 1966 season.

“Both Ferguson and the 4wd BRM had gone for ‘a particular torque split but I questioned this. It seemed to me that the only time when· 4wd was an advantage was in a straight line when you needed the traction. In corners you needed rear-wheel drive.

“In order to get the best of both worlds I came up with a new system which was made in consultation with Mike Hewland. Power was transmitted to a Hewland box at the rear then a transfer gear took the drive forwards along a shaft on the nearside of the car. This fed into a little box mounted by the front scuttle in which we had a sprag clutch, and then another shaft took the drive forwards to an adapted Lotus Elite differential mounted near the centre of the car. We created the whole system for £500.”

This system meant that in a straight line there was power to all four wheels but as the car turned into a bend the sprag clutch released so it became a conventional rear­wheel drive car again. “From the box housing the sprag clutch I trailed some wires to a rather obvious switch in the car. The system actually did nothing, of course, but it became generally accepted that I had an electro-magnetic clutch.” Pretty quick, that switch.

Red herrings or no, the system worked and Tony secured his second hat-trick. It’s difficult to recollect any other instance, at least post-war, when a driver has secured two hat-tricks in an important championship with an eight-year gap between them. After the second hat-trick, however, there was nothing else to prove and Marsh quietly retired. He’s been back to the hills a few times since, the most recent occasion being at Shelsley Walsh in August when he was re-united with his 4wd Marsh

Special. On that occasion, as with the odd other sortie, he demonstrated that he has lost none of his skill. He’s rusty, naturally, but the old touch is still there. Like so many other drivers he says, “I’ve turned my back on the sport because it’s so easy to want to get involved again.”

Marsh was the last man to dominate the hills in a car of his own design. Since leaving motor racing, he has gone down hill fast – on his ski bobs “and his continuing success suggests that beneath the gracious gentleman farmer exterior there’s still a highly competitive man. – M.L.

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