Interviews with John Gardner on preparing engines for a record breaker, Bill Price on working in the BMC competitions department, Paul Stanforth on conditions in the Le Mans pit, John Harris on driving for the works and Terry Westwood on testing the car for Le Mans.
John Gardner had various jobs at the Cape Works including working in the drawing office and for Healey Marine, Bill Price worked for BMC Motorsport Competitions Department and Paul Stanforth was an apprentice mechanic and part of Healey Le Mans team. John Harris was works driver for Healey including testing for Le Mans 24 hour race and Terry Westwood worked in body shop and experimental division of the Donald Healey Motor Company.
Interviewer: Of course, that was a very important part, wasn’t it, the racing and the rallying because it gave the company very good publicity.
John Gardner: Yes. For the Record Breaker we actually polished six engines which were chosen from twelve engines and then the engines for the actual record attempt, there were two main engines that were the best of those six that went with them. They were polished inside and out. All the conrods were polished and so anything would show up if it wasn’t right. That took a bit of time.
Interviewer: I can imagine, yes.
John Gardner: All by hand. You didn’t have your die grinders like today. It was alright, good work, it wasn’t – there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do, as it were. And at the end of racing, in the early days when I was first there, Donald Healey would sit us all down at the rear of the showroom with the big screen up there and show us his 16 mm films of that and we used to, I had that on about four or five occasions.
Bill Price: I said I’d like a job in the BMC Competitions Department, thinking to myself that I’d got more chance of being struck by lightning, you see? …So, I think about two weeks later I got the letter from the MG Car Company offering me a job as Assistant to Marcus Chambers in the Competitions Department…
Bill Price: …So, I suppose, most of the events we entered with the cars, saloon cars anyway, would have been Group 2 cars. And then the GT cars, of course, when we were particularly talking about Austin Healeys then they came into the Group 3 category…, the Healey was one of the prominent cars, the Austin Healey 3000 was a prominent car in the rally programme…
Bill Price: So there were about a dozen mechanics in the workshop and Foreman, the Chief Mechanic and two Under-Foremen and the Chief Mechanic would allocate the job-sheet to a particular mechanic and he would build the whole car and that would be the engine and everything.
Interviewer: Amazing. And one week it could be a Mini, the next week it could be an MG.
Bill Price: Yes, I mean, to build a car from scratch would take several weeks, you see. Once it’s come off the production line, of course, with MGs and Austin Healeys they were just over there, you know? So, they would drive them round the corner and into the shop and you would start stripping it down…
Bill Price: …talking about Austin Healeys, one of the first trips I did was, I drove a Works Healey. I had the awful job of driving a Works rally car to Dusseldorf to meet up with one of the crews who was coming up from Switzerland and the reason for that was that Peter Riley and Tony Ambrose had been doing a reconnaissance of the Alpine Rally down in the South of France…
Interviewer: So, you were driving this well-tuned rally car,
Bill Price: Oh, it was a full Works,
Interviewer: from Abingdon to Dusseldorf. Were you by yourself or did you have,
Bill Price: Oh yes.
Interviewer: So that must have been an incredible experience then. Did you enjoy it?
Bill Price: Oh yes. I mean,
Interviewer: Did you put your foot down?
Bill Price: I mean, I’ve always loved driving. It was just absolute magic, really.
Bill Price: And I had another trip, just mentioning Healey’s again, and Pat Moss, Pat Moss won the 1960 Liège Rally, an incredible result that was, she was such a lovely person and a brilliant driver and she bought the car from the factory when we’d finished with it and she said to Doug Watts, the Chief Mechanic, “can you make sure you put some bumpers on it before I get it down at Tring, because I don’t want it backed into when I’m down shopping in Tring”.
Interviewer: So, she used this highly tuned Rally car to do her shopping in!
Bill Price: Well, it was just, pretty well, as it was, you know? It was the same spec car, we hadn’t detuned it or put single two carburetors on it, or anything, so,
Paul Stanforth: Working conditions in the Le Mans pits, yes, very different. The danger that they don’t allow now with Health and Safety, in so much as you would be working in the pits, you’d be working on a car and you would be quite used to find a car going within inches of you, doing a hundred miles an hour. There was no barrier between pit lane and where the mechanics were working, so if you happened to turn round at the wrong time or put your hand down, then it was curtains, literally.
Paul Stanforth: I refueled the SR car. In fact, there was one time which I was concerned about. In those days the refueling systems were gravity fed, you would have a great big funnel that you would, the fuel would be poured into, you would then have an alligator clip that you would clip onto the car to stop any static causing sparks there, and then you would literally just pour the fuel into the fuel tank on a gravity basis. This very often resulted in air locks which obviously blew back and sometimes you would find yourself covered in fuel, etc., again, it couldn’t happen today. And this did happen when I was fuelling the SR, had a blow back – I managed to get the fuel in there, put the cap down, sealed the cap, the car went out, never came back so I had a few apprehensive moments thinking, obviously, I hadn’t put enough fuel in it and it’s round the other side of the track and I’m not going to be the most popular mechanic in the pits. As luck would have it, it wasn’t anything to do with the fuel, I did put enough fuel in there, the clutch had failed after about four hours.
Paul Stanforth: I was lucky enough to be there in 1968 when they still had, what I call a proper Le Mans start, when the drivers stand across the track, they then run over and jump into the car, put the seatbelt on, start it and then they are away. I, at twenty, had the job of sitting on the starting grid with the big GTSR car, warming it up to, imagine at twenty while sitting in there with all this going on, all the crowd there, all the noise, all the cameras and you’re sitting there as a twenty year old just revving the throttle. Brilliant!
John Harris: But ’69, I went to the practice with Geoff and we were there for hours and it ran perfectly all right, it didn’t have any problems and then we went out for the race in ’69, Clive and I, and unfortunately John got killed, John Woolfe got killed on the first lap in his 917 Porsche and anyway, what ever went on then, there was an over-heating problem and that was it. And that’s really, how I got to drive for the Works, because I did the testing on the SR before anyone else did.
Interviewer: Excellent. And so, was that more or less the end of the Healey racing team?
John Harris: Yes, 1970. But the car went, the next year, ’70, they took the top off the car and turned it into the XR 37 …
Terry Westwood: After a week of practice sessions at the circuit we had to take the vehicle, the car back, the race car for scrutineering and I vividly recall that one of the tests was the vehicle was taken over, had to be pushed over a height block to determine it had got the ground clearance to allow it to race at Le Mans and what we were told by Geoff Healey before we started maneuvering the car was, not just to push, but lift as well and while we were pushing it, we actually had got our hands under the wheel arches, lifting it, so that it just grazed over the top of this particular block, which would have, if we failed, it wouldn’t have qualified for the Scrutiny.