Working with John Wyer

The legendary team chief had a fearsome reputation, but Doreen Green was better placed than most to judge his methods

 

One of my regular correspondents is Michael Green, whose late father Dick was an Aston Martin race mechanic through the 1950s. Michael has a ton of his dad’s tales to tell, but when he told me his mother Doreen was due over from the States, for the Aston celebrations, I had to meet her. Why? She also worked at Aston, as John Wyer’s secretary.

We met at a Heathrow hotel, not far from Feltham where this 82-year-old went to work as a young girl in 1949.

“David Brown had just bought Aston. He had a passion for racing and desperately wanted to compete, but the board [of the family manufacturing group] wouldn’t let him. So he was determined to go racing with his own cars. We built the road cars just so we could race, like Ferrari. But early on, if we built three-quarters of a car in a week that was going some.”

At first Doreen looked after designer Frank Feeley; then a man called Wyer was added to her duties. “There was no competition department as such – we were racing the DB2 road cars – so John was in the experimental department.”

 

Wyer was famously strict, as Doreen recalls. “He never had a cross word with me, but I heard him telling off others… You just didn’t make mistakes. You were fine if you did it right – and you did it quick.”

Wyer also required absolute punctuality. Dick Green, who joined Aston in ’51, was one of the instigators of the famous episode when at their hotel the mechanics trapped the drivers in their rooms with heavy furniture so they were late for a fuming Wyer’s 8am roll-call – and Roy Salvadori escaped down the drainpipe. More revealingly, Dick went in a Lagonda to collect Wyer from his house for a race. “John came down grim-faced and said ‘let’s go’.
Dick said ‘Where’s Tottie?’
‘She’s late. Let’s go.’
‘But here she is now.’
‘You heard me. Go.’ And Dick had to drive off, leaving John’s wife standing there. He was furious because she was late. You had to do what he wanted, do it right and be on time.”

While Wyer ran the racing, Professor Eberan von Eberhorst arrived. “David Brown wanted the Prof to design a pure racer, the DB3, and there was tension all the time between the Prof and John. John didn’t like what the Prof was doing, and Frank was stuck in the wings. He didn’t like the DB3 – thought it was the ugliest car ever. And it was a monster to work on. The mechanics hated it – you had to take the whole body off to work on it.”

Eberhorst was not very popular, even with Doreen. “He would dictate in his broken English and got annoyed when I typed it up and corrected it. Once body-building switched to Newport Pagnell he moved to the drawing office so there was much less tangling. A relief for both of us.”

Von Eberhorst had an eye for a lady. “The mechanics and drivers used to play tricks on each other,” says Doreen with demure glee in her eye. “At one continental race the Prof had an attractive lady in his room – but the mechanics had attached a bell wire to the mattress so all evening chambermaids kept knocking at the door…”

Doreen went to races and test sessions, and once Reg Parnell put her behind the wheel of a DB3S and talked her up to 100mph. She was only a learner at the time. Then they took the new DB3S coupés to Silverstone.

“Roy [Salvadori] got in and was so tall he couldn’t see through the screen, so he threw the cushion out and raced on a rolled-up mac. David wanted the coupés because we needed more speed on the straights, and we took models over to Vickers to test in the wind tunnel.” Interesting point, since the coupés proved seriously unstable at Le Mans.

Of course Doreen knew the drivers well. “Racing then was just a group of enthusiasts, and we never had Monday morning blues. I had a fancy tea set in my office so everyone would be in there. Peter Collins was my favourite – full of fun, always had a smile and a funny story. John called him ‘the boy’. Then in ’54 this lanky fellow strolled in. ‘I want to see the boss. I want to go racing.’ Carroll Shelby. He said he was going to do some local races. I asked if he’d put in entries, and he said no, he was just going to turn up… So I helped him sort out some entries, and got him some starting money and sponsorship. It all seemed a bit vague – two Texans were going to buy him a car, but soon he was driving one of ours, a white DB3S, and Dick looked after him when he wasn’t on team duties.”

At the end of ’54 Carroll brought Doreen a thank-you gift. “A big box of Maltesers – but he sat on my desk and ate most of them.” And those famous dungarees? “He sometimes wore them – but he always wore tasselled slip-on shoes. Shelby shoes, we called them. He and Dick went around a lot together and we stayed friends till he died.”

In 1955 Dick Green went to be competitions chief at MG, but later reconnected with Aston in the US. His time there with Ken Miles, ill-fated drug runner Tony Parravano, privateer Joe Lubin and entrepreneur Kjell Qvale merits a story of its own. I’ll come back to that, with the amazing tale of the motor club in a German POW camp...

But I’ll let Doreen finish with the Aston Martin boat. “David Brown liked boats, and he asked Frank Feeley to design one with an Aston engine, which we built. When they came back from testing I asked how it went. They all burst out laughing – it had sunk! So Aston didn’t go into the boat business.

“We never knew what David Brown would do. The board was not happy; other companies made money, and we spent it. We were his hobby.”

I left Doreen heading for AMOC Brands Hatch and Kensington Gardens. Though there’s now a San Franciscan twang in her voice, Aston Martin is still in her blood.

Gordon Cruickshank