A keen eye for detail

With the passing of John Coombs, Britain has lost another prominent team patron from one of motor racing’s most celebrated eras

When John ‘Noddy’ Coombs died in Monte Carlo on August 3, Bernie Ecclestone emerged as virtually the last of the mohicans – the last of the great British motor racing team patrons whose career had begun as a private ownerdriver. Tommy Sopwith – of erstwhile Equipe Endeavour fame – was not active over as long a period as either Noddy or Mr E, but Rob Walker, Tommy Atkins, Colonel Ronnie Hoare, and now the seemingly indestructible, never ageing, Noddy himself have all gone.

He was 91 and until his very final few weeks looked probably 20 years younger. He had simply never seemed to change, his wavy hair always brushed and set to perfection, his piercing eyes always questioning, checking, supervising. He had a reputation for never being an easy man – tetchy, famously short-fused, ever ready to assume the worst of everybody, rather than to expect the best. He had grown up through the 1920s in the family home at St Catherine’s just on the southern edge of Guildford, Surrey. The main road south passed the Coombs’s then reared through a cutting with an abrupt sandstone hillock on the far side, topped by the ruined chapel of St Catherine’s – once a familiar stopover on the Pilgrim’s Way route to Canterbury and the tomb of St Thomas à Becket. John’s father had been a wheelwright, blacksmith and coachbuilder there.

After building a few car bodies he began trading in cars. He converted the front of his St Catherine’s premises into a four-car showroom with the family living upstairs, and it would be there – post-war – that the Coombs Jaguars would have their lair.

Mr Coombs Sr took his young son to Brooklands and John was immediately hooked. He first competed post-war in an elderly Aston Martin, before ordering a new sports car in kit form from the embryonic Cooper Car Company at Surbiton. Noddy would recall how the family business held a Rover agency and knew Maurice Wilks of Rover very well, so he chose a Rover engine for his little lightweight Cooper frame – most of which emerged with MG power. “It was a terrible mistake” he would recall, admitting “…and one entirely down to me.” The Coombs Cooper-Rover was soon abandoned.

Noddy turned instead to 500cc Formula 3 racing, and through 1951 quickly proved competitive, driving a JBS. For 1952 he bought a Cooper Mark VI and campaigned it in partnership with Alan Rippon as Ecurie Britannique. He was often a frontrunner, but seldom a winner until a great day at Thruxton. Another victory followed in the 100-mile Commander Yorke Trophy at Silverstone.

He enjoyed more success in an Erskine Staride 500 for 1953, but at the Goodwood Nine Hours crashed the sports Cooper-Bristol he was co-driving with Tommy Sopwith. “It was just before the finish, at midnight,” he said, “and Dunlop had run out of tyres. I’d come in for our final pitstop and the boys had to send me out on the best of our old tyres. I believe I lost it on oil coming out of Fordwater. It slid onto the ploughed verge, dug in and cart-wheeled. I dived under the aluminium tonneau panel on the passenger side. The biggest fright was that when it all came to rest and went quiet I felt no pain and couldn’t move my legs…

“During the race the gearlever knob had worked loose and finally fell off. Now during this somersault and the various crashes and bounces I’d fallen onto the lever, which had torn into my overalls and had me locked in there, trapped inside them…”

Quickly identifying the problem he was able to wriggle free, in the dark, and then evade the attending marshals and ambulance men – “I felt fine and didn’t want a fuss” – and he jogged back to the pits across the infield, to find, as he characteristically put it: “Mr Sopwith was furious with me.” In later years he would often refer to his drivers, particularly if they had “let me down” as “Mr Hill”, “Mr Stewart”, “Mr Sears” and so on.

His increasing business commitments and his burgeoning Jaguar dealership at St Catherine’s would eventually wean him away from driving to consider preparing and entering cars for others. When Jaguar introduced the MkII saloon Coombs of Guildford emerged as a regular, variably works-supported, entrant. The evolution of John’s grey-liveried Jaguars registered ‘BUY 1’ and ‘BUY 12’ has become enshrined in the Jaguar legend.

Former Cooper works team driver Michael MacDowel then handled Jaguar team liaisons. He recalls: “I knew John well for more than 50 years. I think I first encountered him in a 500 race at Ibsley, where I was driving the Tiger Kitten and he lapped me at least twice. Then after national service I went to work at Jaguar. I dealt with all the teams and he invited me to work for him in Guildford.”

That was in October 1962, and Mike has worked for or with Coombs ever since.

Mike confirms his boss’s short temper. “He would certainly have a real go if things weren’t right, but among people he got on with he was good company – apart from the occasional BLAST! He was pretty good technically, but he was very quick to spot a potential advantage and exploit it. He was very shrewd, not only in racing and the motor trade, but also in property. And beneath his often irascible exterior he was a deeply thoughtful and immensely caring man. He would help anyone he rated, not just financially but by pulling whatever strings you can imagine, especially where medical difficulties were concerned… He certainly looked after his people, and so many of his friends…”

And why ‘Noddy’? I asked him once and he told me it came from Graham Hill’s kids, to whom he was something of an uncle. In fact I know it pre-dated their birth, and old friends assure me it came from his gingery hair and questing expression when racing his 500s in the 1950s. He just resembled the drawings of Noddy in Enid Blyton’s children’s books. But it would be many years before he would acknowledge his nickname.

In any case, under Noddy’s generalship Coombs of Guildford – with the ever-faithful Roland Law as virtually single-handed regular mechanic – ran Jaguar saloons and the famous development E-Type ‘4 WPD’, assorted Cooper Monaco sports-racing cars, the grey Ferrari 250GTO, and later Brabham, Lotus and Matra F2 cars for such names as Salvadori, Graham Hill, Jack Sears, Mike MacDowel, Jackie Stewart, Michael Parkes and more.

Into the Historic racing era he became a great supporter and regular fixture at Goodwood events and, living in Monte Carlo in semi-retirement, he also supported development of the Prix Monaco Historique. He has left a widow, Ellie, whom he married in 1981, and a stepson.

Doug Nye