V-to-C: "I Worked at T & T's"

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Calling on Geoff Read some time back, to see his remarkable collection of sparking-plugs, in which we are both interested, I heard how he had worked as a boy of 16 at Thomson & Taylor’s before WW2, over on the aerodrome at Brooklands. He already had a reasonable job but becoming interested in motor racing after having cycled to Brooklands to watch the practice (gaining illicit entrance by crossing the railway, to sit on the bank to watch what went on) he decided in 1936 to ask for a place at T & T’s.  Somewhat to his surprise he was accepted as a “grease-boy” in the racing department, but at a lower rate than the wage he was getting elsewhere; and wages were unbelievably low in those times. This was not very popular with his parents but Geoff was overjoyed, even though he had to cycle five miles each way to work, getting into Brooklands through the tunnel under the Track and cycling into the Paddock area, past the sheds of Francis Beart, T & Ts Sales Department, Martlett pistons and Robin Jackson’s, and on along the aerodrome road, past the Hawker sheds, to the workshops formed as part of the old Parry Thomas buildings.

On race days the boy had to display a pass, but on non-race days these were not required and it was possible also to enter the Track by the Byfleet footbridge without showing one; those with business at Hawker’s, the Flying School, Granville Grenfell’s or the College of Aeronautical Engineering’s hanger came in that way. Often four or five members of the T & T workforce would cycle in together and in the summer it was customary to take a short cut across the grass aerodrome, if no flying appeared to be happening, as I used to do when working for Brooklands — Track & Air  magazine (Editor: Capt. O. V. Holmes) in buildings closer to the sewage farm, if I heard a racing car start up in the Paddock. (Incidentally, after we vacated Butt’s Lodge the Editorial office was in a little shed next door, and the racing folk were delighted to learn that there was “a Boddy in the mortuary”, which is apparently what the place had been used for during the war!).  

In the winter fogs this short-cut became hazardous, as although the lads would start off in the right direction for crossing the Wey by the Vickers works, they would invariably veer off and were in grave danger of ending-up in the river. Becoming tired of the long cycle ride, Geoff Read bought himself a Royal Enfield motorcycle, which cost him £1 .This he replaced with a Norton, then a Rudge, ending up with a 1935 KSS Velocette. At T & T’s he learned a lot, but Ken Taylor would not stand any nonsense. One of his fads was that every time a nut was put on a bolt this must first be given a coat of oil. His first job was to go out on the Track, the first time he had been on the hallowed concrete, when John Cobb was trying out one of the 4-litre V12 Sunbeams that T & Ts had rebuilt for Sir Malcolm Campbell, with Bob Readings, the chief mechanic, to whom the lad handed spanners and plugs as required.

He learned to drive a car in this way, when one day after a test session Bob asked if he would like to take the ancient Austin Twelve they used for tow-starting racing cars and as a mobile workshop back to the workshops. As the car had only one door on the drivers side, rather than disturb Bob, he did so, with a little tuition from the passenger, wondering how unearth he would get through the Paddock gates — which must have been at least twelve-feet wide!  He got back safely but, after stopping, forgot to depress the clutch, the Austin stopping with a jerk, which caused Bob Readings to remark: “What do you think it is, a b***** horse?”

Other racing cars Geoff remembers working on include Powys Lybbe’s Talbot-Darracq, many of the ERAs, the lap-record Napier-Railton and he helped with the MG with which Bert Denly, who remains a drinking pal to this day, and Humphries won their class in the 1936 BRDC 500 Mile Race.

As still happens in motor racing, during the height of the season things got hectic, and many all-night sessions were worked. But conditions were not, perhaps, quite so comfortable then; for instance, Geoff recalls that for getting grease off their hands T & T supplied half an oil-drum filled with hot water and some soap, but the best way of removing the dirt was to rub one’s hands in coal-dust, then scour off the grime. He also remembers that if there was a race day with no customers’ cars to attend, the T & T mechanics used to be sent out to help on the Campbell circuit, pushing out of harm’s way any competitor who spun and stalled across the course where the drivers took the 90-deg. right-hand bend at the end of the pits straight, for the corner made the slight rise that followed quite blind, and as there were banks on either side there was no place of escape and stationary cars had to be pushed clear or restarted as quickly as possible!  But this provided a diversion at the short races at Bank Holiday Meetings, and no doubt pithy comments from the boys on the lack of prowess of various drivers. . . At other times they would go back to Brooklands to watch the motorcycle races.

One of the highlights of working at T & T’s was when John Cobb’s twin-engined LSR Railton was being constructed. All the leading mechanics were busy machining and fitting the parts for it and Geoff Read was given the job of painting the unusually-shaped chassis frame, when it arrived at Brooklands. A confident Ken Taylor said to him: “Boy, you are painting the fastest frame in the world,” and he was in due time proved right, for Cobb went out to Utah and raised the record to 350.2 mph in 1938 and to 369.7 mph in 1939, finally raising it to 394.2 mph after the war. In case the normally reliable Napier Lion engines played up, a spare engine was brought over from the Kingsford Smith aerodrome in Australia. Geoff helped Bob Readings prepare these engines for the task ahead of them.

The war saw Geoff Read serving in the Fleet Air Arm for three years. He returned to T & T’s afterwards, working on ordinary cars, although Alfa Romeo and Railton repairs were given priority. But he missed the excitement of working on racing engines and in 1949 he transferred to the Wakefield-Castrol test-house, under his friend Bert Denly, the great little man who held so many World records and race wins on motorcycles and had helped Capt. George Eyston with his record breaking cars. Then in 1952 Geoff went to work for KLG at Putney, testing sparking-plugs. From the photographs I have seen, the test equipment was elaborate and efficient and, appropriately, Geoff’s early work was on racing plugs, for which the tests were done on the famous long-stroke “double-knocker”  Manx Norton motorcycle engine. To get well acquainted with it, he was sent on a three-months stint at the Norton factory in Birmingham. Having gleaned about all there was to know, under the best possible instructor, about the overhaul and general running of this engine, Read used to tune and rebuild the Manx Norton engines used by Ken Tyrrell when he was racing his F3 Cooper-Norton.

Apart from testing plugs at KLG’s. Geoff became involved in the service side of the Company, which involved him in some interesting experiences. For example, Adam McGreggor Dick, who owned the 1906 three-cylinder Rolls-Royce bought new by his father, sent down three 22 mm plugs from it, to be cleaned and tested. So pleased was Mr McGreggor Dick that he wrote to say that if Geoff was ever in Scotland he was to call and have a ride in the Rolls. On holiday there the following year Mr and Mrs Read took up this invitation and after the old car was pulled out of its garage, it started with two swings on the handle, and they were driven round Kilmarnock in the sole-surviving three-cylinder Rolls-Royce. “Marvellous, simply marvellous,” remembers Geoff.

Geoff was now becoming interested in vintage sparking plugs, after being given a Segrave plug and one or two other rare ones.  This prompted him to start a collection, concentrating primarily on different makes, rather than different types of the same make. He now has a total of 276, of which seventeen carry no brand-name. There is even a low-tension-ignition replacement igniter. This far outnumbers my own collection, of about 130 different plugs, and as this is a collectors’ age, I list below the makes in Geoff Read’s collection, which also includes plug-boxes, feeler-gauges and other special tools, advertising plaques, publicity publications and so on.  The plugs are housed in a number of glass-fronted folding travelling-cases, whereas my smaller collection is in two enormous show-cases, Champion, makers of the best-known of today’s sparking-plugs, having so kindly housed them for me, some years ago.

Geoff Read still has an interest in motorcycles — when I called on him he showed me his James-Villiers and a Velocette KSS: he drives a Ford Escort when not riding them. His plugs are as follows:

Aldor, Atlas, AFS, Argyle, Autolite, Aster, Astra, Apollo, Auburn, Ajax, AC, Acme, AP, Arner, Alva, Autoflash, Arga, Amoco, Burnex, Beru, “B”, Bosch, BG, Bendix, Bluemell, Bowers, Bakony, Blue Crown, Brevette, Burton, Brooks, BES, Brita, BWP, Bosna, BB, Big Chief, Bethlehem, BKL, Bilar,  Bowes, Champion, Circofire, Cauco, Crown, Challenge, Castle, Cup, Detonating Plug, Co-Op, 427T, China, Cicio, CSMA, CCCP, Cupples, Cooke, DB, Dering, BDP, Denso, Diamond, De Dion Bouton, Defiance, Dopperuamblitz, Delux, Edison, Electronica, EIC, ER, Eros, Esso, Eisemann, Eyquem, Elecp, EJ, Ferlay, Forward, FMC, FAG, Fuel Ignitor, Fire Injector, Flashpoint, Fanflame, Forbes, Fiat, Floquet, Firestone, FH, Fusealed, FP Super, Gergovia, GMS, Goodrich, GWP, Golden R, GP, Gnat, Golden Giant, General, GTX, Gaby, Goodyear, Heath, Holborn, Hastings, HD, Harley-Davidson, Hitachi, Jumbo, Jolly, Jet, Jet Ignition, JD, Kingston, KLG, Kat9, King, Keuer, KSM, K&A, Lifelong, LO2, LAS,  Lion, Leggets, Lynamite, LM, Lissen, Lodge, Leader, Lloyd, Lucas, LNI, Lecra Spark, Lutny, LB&C, Maxim, Mobelec, Mascot, Macouaira, Magneto, MollaMaserati, Massa, Mossler, Magneti, Minerva, Mea, Motormeter, Majestic, Mico, Motor Craft, Maggeny, Marchal, Matchless, M&S, Mopar, Micadex, MP, MTY, MG Bryan, Nuway, NonoyleNGK, Neutronic Fuse, Oleo, Pep, Pyrex, Prestolite, Power, Perox, Pognon, Prov, Plus, Peck, Prosper, Power Flyte, Periscope, Peugeot, Pacey, Pal, Progress, Prelyo,, Pasha, Prested, Rajah, Renault, Rex, Rentz, Runbakon, Ryder, Riteline, Reflex, Reliance, Ring, R&C, Rubis, Redhead, Segrave, Stewart, Sphinx, Splitdorf, Stitt, Sauser, Sterling, Artco, Sturchitt, Supra Start, Service, Stromberg, Spica, Siemens, Super Igniter, SS, Superfire, Stanto, Standard, Thomas, Thomorat, Triumph, Torque Master, Trojan, Texaco, Unco, Unipart, US Rubber Cpy, Vexi-Vici, Viking, Volvo, Victa, Valier, Victor, VW, Vita, Wipac, Wizard, Worksop, Witherbee, Warrier, W7J. WA, WG, WH, and Yale.     

If anyone can improve on this collection or remembers makes not listed, I know Mr Read would like to hear from them. —  W.B.

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