Lunch with... Barrie Williams

The most prolific driver in British motor sport can’t remember how many races he’s done. But Simon Taylor finds Barrie can tell a story about almost every one
Photography: James Mitchell

Forty years ago a struggling young F3 driver came to kip on the floor of the dingy North London flat I shared with journalist Andrew Marriott and fellow F3 racer Chris Lambert. Whenever Barrie Williams came through the door he was laughing. He never had any money, the cars he drove always belonged to someone else, but every race, whether it turned out well or badly, became a hilarious story. Yet behind his humour was serious dedication to his craft, a deceptively smooth driving style, and remarkable car control which fed on his early success as a rally driver.

At 67, he hasn’t changed. Decades of laughter have etched lines on his face: yet he could pass for 20 years younger. And the enthusiasm that bubbles out as he tells his stories belongs to someone 50 years younger, consumed by the excitement of his first race. In fact he fits in more than 40 races a year, and in historic racing his talents are still eagerly sought. Motorsport has been his entire life. Now that Gerry Marshall and Tony Lanfranchi are supping at another paddock bar, ‘Whizzo’ Williams is the last of British racing’s Three Musketeers.

We meet in the White Horse, an unspoilt pub in Silverstone village. Barrie orders a his food and a pint of Guinness. He has a cut lip, having rolled a Cooper-Maserati at Bridge Corner the previous Saturday when a back-marker put him into the gravel. The car was barely scratched, and Barrie raced it next day to third place and fastest lap. He has a reputation for not having accidents.

“Last time I rolled a car was 34 years ago. Snetterton 1972. Old Zak Redjep bounced off the bank and came into us. Gerry, Zak and I ended up in an upside-down pile on top of one another. I was lying in the medical centre having a fag – I used to smoke in those days – and the nurse came in, gave me a bollocking and took it away. Lanfranchi was just outside and he lit up another one for me and passed it in through the window.”

After half a century in motorsport, no-one knows how many races Barrie has done. But name any race and he has a story. “At the 1985 European GP there was a supporting race for Alpine GTAs with pretty useful drivers – Massimo Sigala, Heinz Becker, Oscar Larrauri. Jan Lammers dropped out at the last minute, and they put me in his car. I qualified back on the fourth row, but I was leading by Lap 13, and I
won it. Stood on the podium with the anthem playing and everybody putting different sponsors’ caps on my head.”

Barrie’s father was an Isle of Man works rider for Sunbeam, and ran a garage in Bromyard. “At school my hero was Reg Parnell. So, aged 14, I wrote to David Brown saying I wanted to be a works driver for Aston Martin. I had a lovely letter back saying if you want to be a racing driver you’ve got to do an engineering apprenticeship first and understand cars properly, which was a very good answer to give a young lad. So as soon as I was old enough to leave school I was off to Huddersfield on my little motorbike to do an apprenticeship at David Brown. Another of the apprentices, a lad named Peter Lanfranchi, introduced me to his older brother Tony, who taught me all about drinking and sex. I managed to buy a dilapidated Singer Le Mans to pull the birds, and Dad and I took it to Prescott for my first event in 1957. I broke a halfshaft on the line – I was in tears.

“Going to evening classes at the local college, the apprentices vied with each other to turn up in the best car. Peter Sutcliffe borrowed his mum’s Lagonda, but we ate our fish and chips in it and she complained of the smell. Then he turned up in a D-type, so I think he won that one.”

“Peter Kaye – James Kaye’s father – had a Downton-tuned Morris Minor, and I got him to sell it to me for a knock-down price. First car I raced. By now Dad was involved in karting, building the Fastakart. We sold one to a young lad called Brian Redman, and I think Nigel Mansell had one too. But I couldn’t work with Dad. Our ideas about engineering clashed, there’d be a row in the house and then a row in the workshop. So I
drove coal lorries, and went club rallying with my friend John Griffiths in a Cooper-Mini.

“We had a few wins, and I rashly put my name down for one of the new Cooper Ss. When it arrived I couldn’t pay for it, but I got it on HP, and it was much better than the Cooper because it had brakes. Some mates said you ought to do an International. I said, don’t be silly, we’re only club boys. Anyway we ended up doing the Welsh against the works teams. Our service crew were at a wedding all day Saturday, and turned up in the middle of the night in darkest Wales to service us in tail coats and top hats. It was very wet, very foggy, very nasty, and at the finish we got very drunk, and then somebody said, you’ve won it. We’d passed all the works teams in the fog and we’d won our first International. Worst thing that could have happened, because everybody expected us to win everything else!

“There was tremendous camaraderie in the rally scene then. I did the Swedish with John Davenport when it first became a winter rally. I didn’t think it was possible for human beings to be so cold, and not die. We spent hours digging ourselves out of snowdrifts, but we finished – the first English crew to finish a Scandinavian winter rally. By now it was costing money, of course. We won our class on the Geneva Rally, came back with cups and things, and got a £5 bonus from BMC and a £5 bonus from Castrol.

“Then Alan McKechnie, a friend from Herefordshire, offered me a race at Rufforth in a Lotus Cortina. I was leading, and the top radiator hose burst. I went off on my own water, and so did everybody else, scattering the oil drums. Alan said let’s do something better: how much does F3 cost? John Cooper was about to pack up then. He had one F3 car that had never raced. It was a good deal, but we had to pay cash because it was the end of the week and John wanted to pay the wages.

“It wasn’t competitive with the Brabhams, but I won at Silverstone in the wet. It was Cooper’s last single-seater victory in period. Then my mate Chris Lambert was killed at Zandvoort. We were all talking about it over a pint, and Tony Lanfranchi said to me, Barrie, get out of those single-seaters. Too bloody dangerous. Tony was the godfather, he was the guru you went to for advice. So I stopped F3. I found other people who would let me sort out and race their cars, and I raced anything and everything, from Minis to Rob Beck’s 7-litre E-type, the Egal.

“As I got more results I got more offers, and I did things during the week to keep body and soul together. I worked in a lock-up with David Piper’s old mechanic, Fax Dunn: he serviced Ferraris and I serviced BMWs. We took it in turns to sleep in my Transit van, my old generator gave us electricity, and we wired into somebody’s phone line – we could make calls but we couldn’t receive them. I got an old trailer and delivered cars for a while – somebody even sent me to Moscow. And I started instructing, at Silverstone and elsewhere. I still love doing that.

“If somebody asks me to race their car, the first thing I do is see what it feels like, put some ideas into it. If I’m out there I want to be happy in it. I don’t like twitchy, singing-and-dancing cars. David Wenman’s little Connaught, it’s so easy to drive now. We spent hours setting up Nigel Corner’s lightweight E-type so he had total confidence in it. When he sold it to America, I was flown over to show the new owner how to drive it.”
Of the countless cars Barrie has sorted and raced, what are the favourites? “That Porsche in long-distance races with Max Beaverbrook and Geoff Lister. We had a wonderful time: we won a four-hour race at Paul Ricard. Winning at Goodwood from pole in Dick Skipworth’s ERA was special: Dick’s a second dad to me. The most perfect car I ever drove was that Ferrari GTO that made all that money at auction. I drove the new owner around Silverstone. Quite rapidly.

“A lot of historic racing’s safety worries arise from old codgers trying to relive their past. Some have been brilliant racers in their youth, achieved things the rest of us haven’t done, but they still have arrogance. Then there are some owner-drivers who are extraordinarily rich, they think they have to win because they’ve won at business. But if you put sensible people in cars they will look after them. Racing a valuable car is like getting onto a crowded bus with a Rembrandt rolled up under your arm. You want to get to your stop without crushing it. Last weekend I was in Chris Phillips’ Cobra, Gary Pearson was in Bill Shepherd’s Cobra, both of them worth large sums of money, and we were racing side by side two or three feet apart. We trusted each other, we trusted our cars, we knew what we were up to. If he won, terrific; if I won, terrific. It didn’t matter.

“I’ll stop when I can’t run at the front any more. At the Silverstone Classic I did four races, did fastest lap in my class or overall in every one, so I feel I’m still there. I have to be around cars, racing, testing, listening, learning, passing on knowledge. I like to feel I’m helping. What gear d’you take that corner in? Try third. Don’t whip it. Stroke it, like a lady, she’ll go better.

“I’ve been fortunate, I’ve made a lot of friends. I’ve never made any money, but I don’t owe anybody anything. I’ve cracked along.” Once again that laugh. Whizzo Williams, the oldest teenager on the grid, isn’t going to stop racing, or laughing, for a while yet.