You could get close to your heroes in the fifties. When I was a kid, we would go to race meetings where, for an extra five bob, you could buy you a paddock pass. There were no motorhomes, of course, and the drivers simply hung around, chatting with each other, signing autographs or whatever. If, like me, you were an adoring fan, it was bliss.
Like most of my contemporaries, I worshipped Stirling Moss, but, in truth, at that age I idolised anyone who drove a racing car, and none fascinated me more than Archie Scott Brown. Hours I spent, hanging around sundry Listers, watching this man, whose style on the track was the most spectacular of all.
What made this the more remarkable was that Scott Brown was hardly equipped, on the face of it, even to drive cars, let alone race them. During her pregnancy, his mother contracted German measles, and in those days — the late 1920s — the potentially dreadful consequences for an unborn child were not recognised. Archie’s left arm was normal, but he had no right forearm or hand, and his severely shortened legs were without shinbones. Wonderful work by an orthopaedic surgeon improved the situation, but still none could have predicted any sort of normal life for this young boy, let alone that he would race cars with distinction.
As nature takes away, so perhaps she gives. Brian Lister, with whose cars the name of Scott Brown will be for ever synonymous, has no doubts. “Blind people are often more aware of sound, and are very strong on musical pitch, and so on. Possibly it was the same with Archie; he was born without a right hand, but his sense of balance was truly exceptional.”
You saw that to full effect through a corner like the old Woodcote. In those days, you didn’t look twice at a car on opposite lock, for it was commonplace, the quick way through a corner when grip was minimal. Yet, even in that context, Archie’s cornering technique was flamboyant.
Scott Brown’s disabilities, remarkably enough, were not common knowledge among most race fans at the time, because they were seldom referred to, except in the broadest terms, and there was nothing whatever in his driving to suggest that he was other than fully able-bodied. Times without number, I watched him recover the Lister-Jaguar from impossibly lurid slides, and it was not until I saw him one day in the paddock that I fully came to appreciate the miracle of what he could do with a racing car. As Stirling Moss said, “I’ve seen many drivers with two arms who could have done with as much ability as Archie had in one.”
Scott Brown and Lister were close friends, as well as colleagues. “We never had a contract,” Brian recalls. “I think I paid him a retainer, as well as a percentage of the prize money, but I honestly can’t remember. It wasn’t really a matter. of his driving for me; we worked together. We were mates.”
Lister believes that Scott Brown’s handicap was less of a drawback than might have been thought. “He was able to push the stump of his right arm on to the rim and turn the wheel. with it. All our cars had light steering, so that helped, and a left-hand gear lever, too. With a right-hand lever, he would have needed some kind of attachment, but he’d probably have managed it, knowing him.
“I remember once he was driving us somewhere, and he asked Josie, my wife, if she’d like a cigarette. He then got the matchbox out of his pocket, pushed it open with his thumb, got a match out, closed the box and somehow held it so that it struck the match…
If Scott Brown had a weakness as a driver, Lister smiles, it was that, “He wasn’t very good at analysing what the car was doing. At the New Zealand GP in 1958, he was leading, and then he came into the pits, and said to the mechanic, ‘I think there’s something wrong with the tyre pressures.’ In fact, something had broken, and the wheels were leaning out at 45 degrees!”
Twice I saw Archie win the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park, in 1955 and 1957, and the first of these victories was especially gratifying to him, for a year earlier, following a protest by some sweetheart of a rival, the authorities had declined to allow him to race. Although his entries soon came to be accepted without question in British events, it was a different matter abroad, heartbreaking for one of the very fastest drivers of his time.
Scott Brown’s cause was widely championed, however, and ultimately foreign opposition began to wilt, as logically it had to do: not only was Archie almost unbeatable in British sportscar racing, he had also proved immensely fast in a handful of F1 races with a Connaught in 1956, holding off – until his fragile car broke – Moss’s Maserati at Goodwood, and finishing second to Stirling’s Vanwall in the International Trophy at Silverstone.
This was indeed a racing driver. Also a man of great charm and insouciance. If his Lister had a failing, it was that its brakes were not the equal of its performance, and at Oulton in ’57, as I waited for him to sign my programme, someone asked its raffish driver what he would do if they disappeared altogether. “Go on without ’em, old boy!” came the answer. At 11, I was vastly impressed by that.
The Lister took the first of many victories that day, and Archie was in the lead, too, when he crashed to his death at Spa a year later. Before the race in Belgium, he had lost a battle at Silverstone with the Ecurie Ecosse Lister of Masten Gregory, and was hell-bent on redressing the balance.
“The defeat by Gregory unsettled him,” Lister remembers. “I think it shocked him that he could be beaten by a similar car. He’d sometimes lost to cars from other manufacturers, but this time it was another Lister, and there’s no doubt he wanted to prove at Spa that he was still the master, as far as Listers were concerned. It was a hell of a race between them for the first few laps; it’s such a desperate shame that he overcooked it…”
A little over a year after Scott Brown’s death, Lister withdrew from motor racing. On 1 August 1959, he was driving back from Brands Hatch when he heard on the radio that the French ace Jean Behra had been killed at Avus. “There had been some discussions about Behra driving for us, and then when I got home my wife told me that Ivor Bueb, who’d often driven for us, had died from injuries received the previous weekend. And I thought then, ‘That’s it.’ I didn’t want to be part of it any more.
“Looking back, I had it pretty easy,” Brian says. “I was lucky because the car’s chassis didn’t change very much over the years, and of course I had the wonderful association with Don Moore, who always did our engines. On top of that, I was blessed with one of the most brilliant drivers that ever lived. I can still remember Fangio coming into our pit, watching Archie go by, then grinning and saying something in Spanish which I didn’t understand, but which was obviously very complimentary!
“Certainly, it’s true that it was never the same for me after Archie. I suppose even now part of me is still trying to adjust to the fact that he was killed. We had a bloody good team – but how do you carry on when one of the main members has departed?”
The day Archie Scott Brown died, 41 years ago, was one of typically capricious weather at Spa, with the track dry in parts, wet in others. Archie went off at the left-hander before La Source, where Dick Seaman had died before him, where the modern pits now sit. Invariably he comes to my thoughts when I am there. It was just so the other weekend.