Doug Nye

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The mystery machines

Questions of authenticity at Monterey led our writer to query the cause of Ken Miles’ tragic crash in the Ford J-Car

At Quail Lodge, Carmel, over the Monterey Historics weekend, I fell into conversation with a highly respected veteran USRRC and Can-Am racing mechanic. He’d been much amused to see an allegedly ex-works, ex-Senna, ex-Fangio, ex-Tennessee Ernie Ford, ex-St John the Baptist whizzbang sports-racing car receiving much recent adulation, when his first-hand knowledge of the real car’s in-period structure and mode of manufacture enabled him to tell merely from a glance that “…it ain’t the right tub”.

Why so? Because the monocoque chassis’ rivet type and pattern didn’t match the relevant works team’s contemporary practice. They just hadn’t built their tubs that way. So could the original panels have been re-rivetted? No, they could not – at least, not without leaving evidence of the original drillings in which the original fixings had resided. So was all the adoration for “an absolutely original, unspoiled ex-works car” wildly mistaken and exaggerated? Absolutely. The car just was not what it was claimed to be, although in provenance terms the fabric which exists today might be considered to be occupying “the original cuboid of air space”. But nothing more…

Now, way back Frank Gardner had described to me how he had once been given a well paid but extremely daunting drive by Ford Detroit. The blue oval’s British-born senior driver Ken Miles had just been killed in a ghastly accident at Riverside while testing its prototype new 7-litre J-Car. Frank was then commissioned to drive a similar test pattern in a sister car.

He emerged from the experience believing that the crashed car’s experimental auto transmission could have picked up two ratios simultaneously, locking the rear wheels at irretrievably high speed.

I mentioned this to my American mechanic friend, who shifted from foot to foot and just looked uncomfortable. So I asked, “Or do you know differently?” And, very slowly – very reluctantly – he told me his version.

The Ford Motor Company worked terribly hard at the time to sweep the incident under the carpet, to mask the Miles family’s tragic loss with support and relevant words while plainly hoping that the press would not ask too-searching questions about the disaster’s cause. Now, he told me that it was almost certainly to do with a poorly-designed brake pedal mechanism, the geometry of which permitted a balance-bar pushrod nut – or some such moving component in the footbox area – to foul upon the fixed structure. According to this account, in that August 17, 1966 test session, Miles was braking down from around 170-180mph on Riverside’s backstretch when the errant mechanism became fouled, leaving the brakes abruptly locked on – just as Ken would have needed power to balance the car.

In fact it slewed off the road and dived down an embankment, to roll and somersault in the sand. Ken was thrown out, suffering an instantly fatal massive injury to the back of his head – as his crew found him.

The J-Car was replaced by the much-enhanced Mark IV, based upon the same aluminium-honeycomb monocoque chassis technology and including built-in roll-over cage and full safety harness. And within eight months these Ford Mark IVs had won the Sebring 12 Hours (driven by Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti), as a prelude to defeating Ferrari (again) to win at Le Mans with Dan Gurney and A J Foyt. Ken Miles had been narrowly denied 24 Hour race honours by yards – and arguably company politics – in the 1966 Ford Mark II, and was tragically denied another chance. If true, this sad little tale of mechanical misalliance explains a lot.

*****

Farewell to Fearless Frank, versatile racer and king of the one-liners

His many friends and fans were hit hard on August 29 by news of Frank Gardner’s death. Fearless Francis – in so many subsidiary racing categories Australia’s finest – was simply unique. He was a wonderfully versatile racing driver, a fine mechanic, a decent engineer, successful team patron, a ferociously bright and thoughtful man, and a much-loved icon of our motor racing heritage. Outspoken, quick-thinking, naturally humorous, Frank’s one-liners became legendary, and surely many will endure…

In 1973 I was given what I regarded as a dream commission. Urged on by his then British Saloon Car Championship entrant – Adrian Chambers of SCA Freight – Frank was considering putting together a racing driver’s manual, to be backed by the SCA team’s main sponsor, Castrol Oil. I jumped at the chance to help, and thereby embarked upon what proved to be a rib-achingly entertaining few months. I’d drive up to Frank’s home near Huntingdon and we’d natter about the higher (and lower) arts of race driving, and preparation, absorbed over so many years. We seemed to get on like a house on fire, and with his lovely wife Gloria occasionally remarking quizzically “You fellers are meant to be working – not laughing!” we somehow got the job done. And the finished job seemed to go down pretty well.

Frank was never noted as a racer particularly driven to talk about himself. Yesterday held no interest for him, beyond the lessons he had learned. Finally I managed to extract some biographical details, beginning with “I was born in Sydney in 1931… at a very early age, alongside my mum…”. You get the picture? His dad was a trawler skipper, and Frank grew up on – and in – the South Pacific. He was a great swimmer and diver. His uncle, Hope Bartlett, was also one of the great stars of Australian motor racing history, most notably running his 1923 GP Sunbeam and later Bugattis at Sydney’s counterpart to Brooklands – the high-banked Maroubra Speedway. After his father’s early death, Frank went to live with uncle Hope, and at his bus business grew up surrounded by motors and mechanicals. He accompanied Hope to early post-war race meetings “as billyboy”, relating how “…a ‘meeting’ was just a bunch of blokes laying out some oil drums on an empty airfield and then chasing each other round in their cars, watched by about six people, two kangaroos and a porcupine…”

He drove his first race at just 17, in one of Hope’s cars: “When the bloke hiccupped and dropped his flag I dropped the clutch with far too many revs on and by some mechanical freak it all hung together. I pissed off into the sunset and since it was only a five-lapper, by the time the others had coughed their way out of the dust cloud raised by my brainless start, there was no way they could catch me before the flag. So I won my first motor race…” He also tried motorcycle speedway racing, rather less auspiciously: “My first race was at Newcastle, and I got this lot into the lead and was ear’oling it round but there seemed to be one bloke I just could not shake off. I could always hear his exhaust note right behind me, so I kept winding on more and more power until the inevitable happened and I just laid the whole ruddy thing down. I lay there waiting to be run over, but it seemed like ages before the first bloke came past me. I sat there having a good think, and realised I’d been racing my own exhaust, echoing back off the safety fence…”

When he later came to England to join big-time motor racing he became a team mechanic with Aston Martin. “I thought I’d arrived! This was the big time, I was really going to learn here. But bloody hell, it wasn’t all that different from the kind of tricks we got up to back home!”

Years later, perhaps the single most valuable advice Frank put across for aspiring young drivers was, “Don’t trust anybody! In the 1972 Tourist Trophy I had to make up enough time in my Camaro to make a fuel stop, so I had to pull well away from the Capris, Alfas and stuff running non-stop. So I couldn’t hang about in traffic, but I took extra care with all the foreign drivers I didn’t know. Then bugger me if I didn’t come up behind one of the local blokes I thought I could trust, he tried to be a hero in front of the stands, spun out, and I smashed into him.

I got going again, but the passenger seat in my car had broken away and was bobbing around in the cockpit. I tried holding it in place under braking because it was sliding forward and knocking all the switches off, and with servo brakes that was no fun.

“You wouldn’t believe that a 16lb seat would be so impossible to control with one hand, and then it started knocking the car out of gear before it knocked the switches off, so we were coming into these corners out of gear and with virtually no brakes…” – but the suspension had also been damaged, and he finally had to retire.

But above all, Frank’s one-liners will be best remembered. Like the time a cut-glass accented BBC radio reporter at Le Mans asked him, live: “Now Frank Gardner, tell us, just what is it like to drive one of these 7-litre Ford GT Mark IIs down the Mulsanne Straight, at 200 miles per hour, in the wet?”

To which Frank delivered this immortal response: “Well Alan, I’ll tell you, it’s pretty much like tryin’ to have it away on wet rocks…”

Rest in peace Francis – and on behalf of so many British enthusiasts, thank you.

*****

The prince, the Sunbeam and a Land Speed Record bid…

Browsing through some record car photos recently I happened upon one showing a slender-bodied, straight-eight-engined charger apparently being topped up with oil from an everyday watering can.

The engine has something of a Sunbeam look to it, and is in fact ‘Djelmo’, the Land Speed Record contender which Giulio Foresti drove – and crashed – at Pendine Sands in 1927. It was sponsored by the Egyptian Prince Djellaledin and engineered by the Italian Edmond (or Edmondo) Moglia, using a basic engine design by Vincenzo Bertarione, which the Prince had bought from that ex-Fiat engineer’s contemporary employer, Sunbeam.

The Wolverhampton company had set out in around 1923 to create a record car powered by a bespoke power unit, rather than an adapted aero engine, and Bertarione’s 10-litre twin-cam straight-eight design was its solution – then ruled too costly.

While Djellaledin and Moglia (‘Djel-Mo’) were Paris-based, Foresti had become Itala importer in the UK. And on Pendine’s variable sand he lost control of the crab-tracked ‘Djelmo’ at over 100mph, and was very lucky to emerge from a spectacular roll-over without serious injury. The battered slimline car was returned to Paris, never ran again, and reputedly went for scrap just before World War II – another lost might-have-been.