Peter Wilson’s Reminisces of Racing Bristols in the 50s

A danger is that, as one gets old, you always think things do not change and they do. Racing nowadays is very different to how it was twenty five years ago so I tried to refresh ay memory by reading up ‘Autocourse’; and on Monday night I went down to see Vivian Selby’s widow, Mabel, in Bristol, and spent a very pleasant evening with her – she’s in very good form – and brought back a few points I had forgotten. Firstly, how did I get to drive Bristols? I think this is maybe worth spending a minute on. I was mad keen on motorcars in 1957 when I was eighteen, and I had an Aston Martin that I had bought for £80 if I remember rightly, and I wanted to run that in something. Sorry, before that a friend of mine who was an expert on Astons reckoned that mine did not look very standard so we dug out a copy of a picture in Autocar that was similar to my Aston and asked them what it was. I got a letter back from Sammy Davis saying that it was his and I subsequently bought it from him for £55 during the war, but that is another story – I wish I had still got it – and he said he would like to see the one that I had got and he found it non-standard.

Rheims 1953. Photo: Louis Klemantaski

Well, I wanted to run it in something and I happened to have a grandmother living in Bournemouth and, during the summer holidays from the Naval Engineering College where I was, there was a speed trial at Poole Park and the entry fee was 7s.6d. so I could afford to run it there and I entered it. As I was going up to the line, Sammy Davis came up and asked ‘Are you the Peter Wilson who wrote?’ I said ‘Yes’. He said ‘Let’s meet in the paddock afterwards.’ We did, and he said it was a waste to run an Aston in speed trials; it was too heavy. ‘Why not run it in a race?” I told him that the cheapest race entry fee I could find was thirty shillings and I couldn’t afford it, so he said: ‘Well, if you are so keen you ought to go and help people; do time-keeping etc; get to know all about it.’ I told him that he was the first person I had met who had ever driven a racing car; so he fixed for me that whenever I could get away, I could go and help people time-keep, lap score, etc. and, come the beginning of the war I had done this quite a lot and I got to know quite a few people.

After the war I was at Boscombe Down and Dickie Stoop was there in the same flight and at breakfast one day he said: ‘What do you think about Spa for the BMW?’ He had got a 328. It was a new chassis he had bought after the war and he had a special body built on it, and I said it sounded as if it would be very suitable. A fortnight later he asked me for my competition license number and I said: ‘What do you mean?’ So he said: ‘You did say you would drive with me, didn’t you?’ So I hurriedly got a competition license and we ran up to Spa for the 24 hour race. That was in 1949.

In 1950 Norman Carlton was running his Le Mans Replic Frazer Nash. He had run it in 1949 as an Aldington entry but he had had a row with Frazer Nashes and he wanted to run it in 1950 to qualify for the Rudge Cup bi-annual event; you had to run one year to qualify for the next. He wanted to qualify in 1950 in his own right so that he could have a go in the Rudge Cup in 1951. As he was going to pay all the expenses himself he wanted someone who would go out and do one or two hours driving while he had a brief rest, somebody who had done a long-distance race and would go out and do that sort of thing. I was in. In the first hour and a half when he was driving, the pressure plate on the clutch cracked. The clutch would not free; would not grip above about four-five or four-seven. I ended up by doing thirteen hours, so it was good experience.

Rheims 1953. Photo: Louis Klemantaski

Then the next two years I drove with Dickie Stoop in his Mille Miglia and then, to my great surprise – 1952, December, at the BRDC dinner – I was approached by Vivian Selby and told that Bristols were going to run a team, and would I be their reserve driver in 1953 at Le Mans. I jumped at it. He then asked me how much I wanted paying for it, and this was quite incredible. I said: ‘Don’t be bloody silly; anything would be welcome.’ So be said: ‘Does £50 a time sound right?’ So we settled for that. As far as I can make out, the decision to run the cars was made largely due co Vivian Selby’s enthusiasm. He used to race Bugattis and other cars pre-war. He joined Bristois in 1947 – 48 on the sales side and got rather fed up seeing a number of cars using Bristol engines not doing quite as well as they should, and sometimes the engines giving trouble when it was largely due to the way they were prepared and installed rather than the engines’ fault and he, during 1952, got George White enthusiastic. Also the ‘G’ Type ERA had been raced rather unsuccessfully using a Bristol engine, and the Bristol had given a certain amount of trouble, so George white more or less gave the go ahead. They bought the ‘G’ Type ERA and, as you all probably very well heard from Percy Kemish, they rehashed the chassis. The ‘G’ Type ERA chassis was made from magnesium ziochonium and acclaimed by the technical press as being exceptionally light – about 95lb. Bristol made it out of a high grade steal and saved 4lb in weight. I do not think they started until November 1952 and they had a hell of a lot to do to get the cars ready for Le Mans. Round about February I went down to Filton and there was a mock-up and, to their great horror, they found they could not get me – in a crash helmet – inside it. One of the snags was the diff is chassis-mounted at the back and the gearbox is mounted on the front of the diff. The tubes of the chassis frame are rather narrowly spaced and the seat has got the gearbox on one side, the chassis frame on the other. You could not get your hips down between the two. You could not get the seat as low as one would like. There was a big cross-member behind the driver and you could not lean back, so the headroom had to go up an inch or an inch and a half if I was going to drive. This was not very popular.

The cars were ready to try at Silverstone in late May and we went there and tried them. The drivers that year were Lance Macklin and Graham Whitehead, Jack Fairman and Tommy Wisdom, with myself in reserve. The cars were quite intriguing to try at Silverstone; they were incredibly noisy inside – an absolutely fantastic noise. The steering was very light, pretty positive with one and three-quarter turns lock to lock. from memory. Handling pretty good; a certain amount of roll but response very, very good. Ride very level; very flat. Performance possibly seemed slightly disappointing at Silverstone because they’d got the Le Mans gear ratios in and really, you know, you wanted to change the ratio for a circuit like Silverstone. However, the cars behaved quite well.

Rheims 1954. Photo: Louis Klemantaski

Round about that time there was a lot of alarm and despondency because there was an ex-Rolls-Royce designer called Tresilian on the aircraft side, who had quite a lot to do with the BBM, and he was walking through the racing shop and saw one of the engines being assembled and commented on the bolt-on crankshaft balance weight. He said that he thought they had made just the same mistake that had been made in the BRM which had had trouble with them. There was quite a panic and he said: ‘No, don’t bother, you know, they are probably alright.’ But he was proved right because the two cars that ran at Le Mans had balance weights come off. They went through the side of the sump and in one case caused rather a nasty fire.

Well, we took the cars to Le Mans and I was asked if I would take the Snipe out so that George White and various other senior people at Bristols had got some transport down there. So I drove out in one of those enormous long-bodied side valve four-point-something litre Snipes that I think had been chauffeur driven round Bristol and London all its life. On the way back with Jack Fairman we finally had to pour in oil rather more quickly than we had to pour in petrol, and so it was not quite the same car when we got back as when we left.

Another amusing incident on transport, going out, was the transporters. Bristols I think were probably – apart from Cunningham – very much in the lead on this transporter business. They had got two articulated transporters very well equipped indeed; each could take two cars one above the other. They had a big door which lifted – hinged up – which provided a good awning so you could work on a car in the shade alongside it, and one of them was equipped with a bench, drill, anJ other various pieces of equipment – very good indeed. On the way out one of them had a propshaft break about forty to fifty miles north of Le Mans, so the other one came on with the tractor unit and that one went back to fetch the second trailer. I went back with them and when we got to the garage where the other one was parked, the garage owner there had taken the propshaft off and was very disappointed that we would not let him straighten it. It was incredible to see what he had done because It was virtually tied in a figure-of-eight knot and he was quite convinced that it was straightenable.

Le Mans (Arnage) 1955 Photo: Studios Lafay, Le Mans

We kept the care at a garage just by a level-crossing at Arnage. The garage could not have been more helpful. It was a reasonable size, about the size of this room possibly, and we had exclusive use of it. The garage owner turned everything out and away we went. The mechanics stayed at the hotel at Arnage which was good – right on the spot – and the drivers stayed at the Moderns at Le Mans, which was much more expensive. I do not really remember terribly much about that race, but before the race Sammy Davis was around and be got people practicing pit-stops, Le Mans type starts, refueling, changing wheels and so on. I was disappointed in a lot of ways because some of the other drivers were not very enthusiastic. They regarded the Bristols as rather noisy little beasts, slightly beneath them. They had been driving much more potent motorcars and they did not take the thing very seriously. As far as I was concerned it was the best thing that had ever happened to me and I was wildly enthusiastic. They had gone to great lengths; they had got quick-lift jacks going very well. They got wheel spanners that Just swallowed the nuts so that when you changed the wheels you did not drop the nuts on the ground and have to pick them up. There was a tube with a spring behind it and one spare nut inside in case you dropped one, and they got down to some quite good wheel-change times – but I do not think we ever had to change a wheel.

Come the race, the Tommy Wisdom car went out after twenty nine laps with crank weights coming off and the Macklin – Whitehead car after seventy laps. The Macklin – Whitehead car went out first lying twenty-second and the Tommy Wisdom car was lying, I think, thirtieth. They were reasonably quick; the best lap was five minutes eleven seconds which compares with a Nash Healey which did five minutes ten point four seconds. The best of the ordinary Healeys, five minutes fourteen point seven seconds. The best Frazer Nash was five minutes sixteen point two seconds and the other Frazer Nash, five minutes twenty point eight seconds. I do not know what the maximum speed was that year. They did time care down the straight spasmodically but they did not publish times for the Bristols that year as far as I can make out.

In particular the great disappointment was when the balance weights broke and everybody was a bit pessimistic. However, Bristols were really, I think, very good. They said: ‘Right, we will enter for Rheims in about three or four weeks time.’ (Four weeks, I think), and they went back. They rebuilt the one car; they prepared the spare car and the two cars were ready for Rheims where they cleaned up the front end slightly – they deleted the spotlights which were a bit unnecessary and they moved the oil cooler out and cleaned up the front very slightly – it still looked pretty ugly.