Chequered history

The Chequered Flag was among the most visible race and rally teams of the ’60s and ’70s. Richard Heseltine catches up with former principal and wheeler-dealer Graham Warner

Well that’s progress for you. Earlier this year another slice of motor racing lore slipped away unobserved and without comment: the Chequered Flag on Chiswick High Road is no more, razed to make way for an apartment block. For anyone who ever pressed their nose against the showroom window, salivating over the contents therein, it should have been a national day of mourning. To some ‘The Flag’ represented Lotus Elites slaying GT giants, to others the war cry of a Lancia Stratos flat-chat and airborne on the Mintex Rally.

A point not lost on erstwhile proprietor Graham Warner, the quietly spoken master of ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’. Sitting in his study, fronting bookshelves heaving under the strain of aircraft histories, he’s happy to talk about the old days, occasionally veering ‘off the record’ as he recalls tales of drivers’ (cough) extra-curricular activities and the strokes pulled by his car-dealer contemporaries. He’s far from sentimental but justifiably proud of his achievements.

“I’d always been interested in cars and racing,” he claims, fixing his gaze at one of the few trophies visible among the flyboy stuff. “I suppose I inherited some of that interest from my brother, who was a designer with Connaught. I’d been a pilot in the RAF, flying Meteors and Vampires, and really wanted to go racing but I couldn’t afford it. That’s why I decided to go into the motor trade. All the guys I watched competing were car dealers during the week so it made sense for me to follow their lead. So in 1954 I joined Performance Cars, learning the business; what to do and more importantly what not to do. I then ran the sportscar department at Carr Brothers in Purley for a spell before deciding to go it alone. I started out with a small showroom on the Fulham Road in 1956 with about five cars in stock. I was 23.”

All that was needed was a business name: “I’d decided early on that I was only going to deal in sportscars. I didn’t want to do the Graham Warner Motors sort of thing so I thought of Pit & Paddock before arriving at The Chequered Flag, which seemed to sum up what we were about. Then the Suez Crisis erupted and a large showroom in Chiswick became available so I signed my life away and took up the lease. Fortunately for me, the crisis soon passed. It almost makes me cry when I think of some of the cars that we had on the forecourt at the time — D-type Jaguar, an ex-Peter Collins Aston DB3S, Ferrari 212 and so on. At one point I bought Brian Lister’s team cars — `Knobblys’, streamliners and the rest — after he stopped racing, and almost purchased the Vanwall stable when Tony Vandervell pulled out of Formula One. We agreed a price but Tony had second thoughts.”

So, with the business finding its feet, it was time to go racing: “My first event was the 1958 Easter Monday meeting at Brands Hatch. We had an Austin-Healey 100S in stock that was raceworthy and quite quick so I had it painted in black and white and headed to Kent. I put it on the front row and finished second to a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica. From there we bought a Tojeiro-Bristol from Percy Crabb which was frankly beyond me, so I let Percy drive it. He then persuaded us to buy a Cooper Monaco. We went to Snetterton for the first meeting of the year where it lashed it down in practice and Percy crashed heavily into the sleepers and spent months in hospital. Fortunately he made a full recovery but of course the car was uninsured so that set us back a little.”

Even so, with a fleet that by now also included a couple of Lotus Elevens and a Climax-powered Super Seven, Warner’s équipe was getting noticed: “I got to know Colin Chapman quite well. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead but he could be a slippery customer. Anyway, I’d bought one of the pre-production Lotus Elites off the Earls Court show stand and gradually modified it, making little fairings for the headlights and Perspex side windows to fit absolutely flush with the body. I then got a brainy chap in an Earls Court mews to build me an engine. His name was Keith Duckworth and he was being helped by a guy called Mike Costin. I seem to remember Keith was working on a sequential gearbox at the time. Anyway, the Elite was hugely successful.”

He’s not wrong. Warner’s battles with Les Leston’s Elite DAD10 soon became a commentator’s dream: “Between 1959 and 1961 I won about 50 races and Les usually came out on top when I hit trouble. He once took me off at Druids which annoyed me, but it was behind the trees so nobody saw it.”

By now the team was growing in stature, its prominence being aided by young PR man John Webb. “Back then he fancied himself as a bit of a driver,” says Warner. “While working with the John Davy Car Hire firm, John persuaded them to let him enter an MG Magnette at Brands. He arrived amid much fanfare, then stuffed it into the bank at Paddock on the first lap, so they let him go and he joined us. He was very good at getting publicity although I never liked the jet-pilot-goes-racing’ theme to some releases.”

And it was at this juncture that Warner’s involvement in motorsport became all-encompassing. Picked by Aston Martin to drive the John Ogier-run DB4 Zagatos, he was already establishing himself as a racing car constructor: “One day in 1959 a chap called Les Richmond came to see me. He’d built a little Formula Junior called the Morland and wanted to build more: we thought it looked like a good idea so took it on. We named it Gemini for no other reason than it was my birth sign. And I can lay claim to having started the link between Ford and Cosworth. Originally we had modified BMC A-series engines built by Speedwell but they didn’t rev, so when the oversquare Ford Anglia 105E engine came out I bought six from Lincoln Motors just up the road and gave them to Duckworth to modify. Graham Hill, who was a director of Speedwell, was not amused. I can still picture him waving his big fingers at me, his moustache bristling…

“Mike Parkes drove for us in 1961. He was a nice guy, a great driver and a talented engineer. His father was the chairman of Alvis and when we went up to see him in Coventry we sometimes used to go out for lunch in a Saracen armoured personnel carrier. We never had trouble parking.

“Anyway, with Mike’s help the mid-engined Mk3 Gemini became a frontrunner, and with Bill Moss also on board we had a lot of success internationally. The innovative Mk4, though, was largely my idea.

“It was very advanced for its day, possibly too advanced as we didn’t really have the finance to develop the design. It was one of the first cars in which the driver sat virtually reclined, with the chassis tubes running over his shoulders. There were side radiators, which was then unknown, with inboard brakes all-round using Mini driveshafts and a lot of offset so we could tuck uprights inside the wheels. Unfortunately we probably went too far with the gearbox. At a time when most constructors had four gears, we had six through a special Jack Knight transmission. It gave us a lot of trouble so ultimately we knocked it on the head.”

By the mid-60s Warner had effectively retired from driving, but not before giving the Lotus Elan its racing debut: “It was awful. The chassis kept flexing. You would arrive at a corner and it would go from understeer to snap oversteer in a heartbeat. I can still remember the rear wishbones after the first race: they’d twisted though 30 degrees. Chapman then asked us to make it competitive so we developed the Elan into the 26R. Jackie Stewart, who was one of our drivers, still says it’s the worst car he ever raced.”

Among the many cars the Elans came up against was Tommy Atkins’s AC Cobra, driven by Roy Salvadori: “We ended up buying it and modifying the car quite substantially as it kept overheating. We fitted a much bigger oil cooler, ducted all the radiator air and had a separate intake for the carbs. We won a lot of races with that small-block car so bought a 7-litre version. That thing gave us no end of trouble in testing. I swear it would boil  its oil. Even so, it was very, very fast and David Piper and Bob Bondurant won the very first of the big long-distance races at Brands with it, which was the only international event won by a 427 Cobra.”

Not that Warner had finished with open-wheelers: “After the Geminis we ran the Brabham F3 cars in 1964 and ’65 on behalf of the factory. We had Chris Irwin as one of the drivers who was very quick. Same too for Roy Pike who had the talent to have gone a lot further than he did. We also ran an F2 car for Roger Mac. Unfortunately we then got involved with McLaren and the M4. It was a pretty little car but a total disaster. We ran Frank Gardner and Robin Widdows in the F2 version with Ian Ashley and Mike Walker in the F3 cars. It was just one crash after another. In total, we made more M4 monocoques than McLaren.”

As the 1960s drew to a close, Warner was forced to face the reality that it was selling cars that paid the bills: “To be honest I think we overstretched ourselves. I didn’t want to drop the ball. In the early ’70s we were briefly involved with the Token F1 team and had a sponsorship deal with Ray Mallock in F3 but I really needed to concentrate on the business so didn’t do much motorsport after that.”

Well, not immediately anyway. When Warner’s squad returned to competition, it was in an altogether different arena: “In 1975 Richard Banks, who’s now an Alfa Romeo restoration expert, kept telling me that I should have a look at rallying. To be honest I wasn’t all that keen. I’d had a go as a driver in the early ’60s (with a Reliant Sabre 6 on the ’64 Monte Carlo, finishing fourth in class) and didn’t enjoy the experience, but he kept going on about the Lancia Stratos and how it would be brilliant for business (Warner was a leading Lancia distributor at the time). Anyway, through Mike Parkes I got an introduction to Cesare Fiorio and bought an ex-works Stratos, engaging Per-Inge Walfridsson to drive on the loose and Cahal Curley for Tarmac events. We got a lot of press coverage but the car was very fragile.

“Our first Stratos was completely destroyed when Walfridsson was leading the Welsh. It was a massive crash and he was lucky to survive. I then contacted Fiorio about getting another car and he told me that there were no more but mentioned a Stratos that had been abandoned by the works in Kenya during a recce for the Safari Rally. Eventually we managed to track down the remains and they left Nairobi airport the night of the Entebbe raid. Well, we rebuilt the car but still had problems so replaced it with a Porsche RSR which was fantastic. Dealing with the Germans was such a breath of fresh air after the Italians. Then John Davenport arranged a deal with us to rally a Triumph TR8 but it was too heavy to be effective.”

Then it all started to unravel: “We got tired of warranty claims for rusting Lancias so switched to Opel. General Motors then insisted we take on a Vauxhall franchise. To cut a long story short, there was a hostile takeover and I lost ‘The Flag’. I returned to aircraft and the restoration of a Blenheim. These days, I’m happy writing about historic aircraft.”

So never tempted to write The Chequered Flag story? Pregnant pause: “I have been asked. I was thinking the other day about how many drivers we had. You know, there was everyone from Jim Clark to Björn Waldegård; Jacky Ickx to Tony Pond. Maybe I should write a history of the team as we didn’t do so badly, did we?” That would be a rhetorical question, then.