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John Rhodes

 

I think Motorsport is in the genes as in the old days my parents used to go 'mud-plugging' and they always came back with a trophy. We were just small children at the time but it did still help make it a passion for me. Before the war that was the only kind of Motorsport we had really and even the big manufacturers took part; Grasshopper Austin Seven, Singer Le-Mans, Allard, Riley, HRG 1½ litre, Aston Martins and many more. It was also the beginning of the Abingdon Competition Department’s fame, tuning the MG Magnett Musketeers and Cream Cracker MG J2 Midgets.

My Dad was really keen but they only drove ordinary production cars. My father would go down as far as Lands’ End up as far as John O'Groats and many of the famous hill climbs. He drove a Flying Standard Twelve, fitting a couple of carburettors that he used to tune up a bit. We were too small to go along and were parcelled off to various Grandparents.

In 1938 my parents took me to Donington to see the great Auto Unions and Mercedes racing there and that really set my passions alight as a small boy. Then in 1950 I had the opportunity to go to the British Empire Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man to watch Bob Gerrard in his ERA. It wasn't until I actually saw him that I realised what a great driver he was. We flew over. It cost us £5 to fly from Blackpool to the Isle of Man in a de Havilland Dragon Rapide, with the canvas side, twin-engines and twin-wings. But of course we ran out of money and had to come back by boat and I remember that I was as sick as a dog.

At sixteen I was motorcycle mad and did some grass track racing. At seventeen, no one had production cars; the war had stopped their production, so everyone built specials. I built mine from an Austin Seven that cost just £10. Eventually I joined a Motor Club, The Hagley and District Light Car Club, near Wolverhampton, Where Ken Wharton and quite a few other top racing drivers were members. So when we had some ‘sporting half-days’, as they called them, the competition was absolutely ‘top-notch’; you had to be on the ball. They used to be time trails, driving around car parks racing in-between cones. From there I built better ‘Specials’ which were super-charged and this that and another to try and keep on a par with the Ken Whartons of this World. He was a fantastic driver and drove for BRM before he was eventually killed racing in New Zealand in a Sports Car.

In 1960 a friend of mine, Alan Evans, decided to enter the RAC Rally in an Aston Martin DB2/4 and we won the class in that particular car. Then John Cooper decided to develop a Formula Junior kit car; you could buy the bits and pieces, assemble them and go racing in them. I did this and in some of the very same races as Jim Clark raced in. (My number one hero was Jim Clark) I managed to get a friend of mine to buy the kit, which I built, and we went racing together. I got noticed by Ken Tyrell and people like that having won quite a few races in that car. Then in 1961, partly because of mine and the interest of some other local solicitors and businessmen, they decided to set up their own car club called the Midland Racing Partnership. Among them was David Baker, Alan Evans (who had paid for the car I initially built and drove in 1960), Richard Attwood, Bill Bradley, and Jeremy Cottrell; a very exciting mix of folk. I became a full-time professional driver for them and we did very well but they couldn't continue to pay for a single car for me so in 1962 I left and drove almost every kind for Formula Junior car that had been built. I would drive for anyone who would pay me to race in their car and I managed to survive doing that. It was affordable racing for people like me as long as I could get a little bit of starting money to live on you were ‘home and dry’. I remember one particular occasion when I drove at Brands Hatch in an ‘Ausper’ and I beat the works Brabham driven by Frank Gardiner; that was quite a coup.

After driving lots and lots of Formula Juniors, Bob Gerrard got on the phone and asked if I would you like to drive one of his Formula One cars. Well, ‘Would I?!’

I got best driver of the day at Mallory Park and then I got a chance to enter the 1965 British Grand Prix in one of his cars too. Unfortunately it broke down but at least I got an entry in a British Grand Prix in a Formula One Cooper at Silverstone.

Because I was involved with the F1 car and other Formula Juniors I found myself spending quite a lot of time at John Cooper's factory. His works manager was called Ginger Devlin and I got to know him very well. While I was testing the Formula One car at Silverstone, the works Mini Coopers were there and Ginger Devlin was in charge of the team. Having got to know him I asked if I could have a go. I was lucky because he certainly wouldn't just let anyone drive his cars. I took it out and the first corner I took flat out in the thing and I realised that the brakes were tired and I couldn't use them. So I got to the apex, lifted the throttle, and being front wheel drive that immediately made the back loose. It wanted to go into a complete spin but just before the spin I floored the throttle and it went around the rest of the corner in a complete drift in pools and pools of smoke. And that's why my nickname given to me by John Cooper would forever more be 'Smokin' Rhodes'.

As soon as John Cooper got to know about my exploits in his Mini I was signed up as a works driver and I didn't have to worry about anything after that; I got a good retainer.

I think my technique in the Minis all goes back to those Austin Specials because they had no brakes at all, so when you were coming into a corner too fast you had to throw them sideways. Also I had driven with cross-ply tyres, which were the most slippery things you could possibly wish for, for the whole of my racing life; so I had always been sliding cars. I think Jack Brabham had the same sort of speedway upbringing and knew that sliding the car was the way to go. It isn't anymore, or course, and if people see if you slide they say ‘whoops, he's lost some time there’ but in my day it was ‘The’ best way to go.

After becoming a works driver I won the touring car championship four years running in ‘65, ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68. Also the European Group Two Championship in 1968; we went to all the great circuits around Europe and I was just never out of the car.

Then John Cooper sold out to Marks and Spencer and suddenly I was out of a job again. Fortunately British Leyland had seen what I could do with a Mini and Peter Browning signed me up straight away and doubled my retainer! The money still wasn't huge in those days but then again you could buy a brand new car for £350. £4,000 was a lot of money just for the driving; you could buy two nice houses for £4,000! This was topped-up with bonuses from Shell Petrol, Dunlop Tyres, Girling Brakes and Champion Plugs – if you were winning.

I was immediately put to work including in the new Rally Cross events in which I did very well. That really was my forte; you had four laps to win and I did get the nick name of ‘Mick McManus’ as (like the famous wrestler of the day) I took no prisoners at all. I wasn't the nicest of drivers and if there was a gap I was through it. All sorts of top drivers came aboard Rally Cross such as Graham Hill and Paddy Hopkirk. Financially it was ok too. It was done for TV but at that time they only had one camera to cover the whole race and it was particularly hard racing on the cars. Driving round on full throttle and one bump and you could break the drive shaft. The cars were nowhere near as strong as they are today. We also had no end of trouble with the mud. There was one chap who worked with boats and he decided to put a couple of round rotary windscreen wipers they have on boats on the front of my Mini which worked perfectly well until Roger Clark came across my boughs and stones shattered the whole lot and I couldn't see a thing . We tried everything as the mud was so slippery; you could have gallons of water on board though, with high pressure hoses, but you still couldn't get rid of it. I won no end of those races. I also road-raced Leyland’s team cars quite well but never on a par with the Cooper cars.

Because it was British Leyland I also suddenly found myself racing a whole number of. Different cars; MGBs and Healeys and God knows what.

I raced with Warwick Banks in a thousand mile race at Brands Hatch and we won that outright; it was 500 miles on the Saturday and 500 miles on the Sunday. That was very successful and also financially rewarding. Then I had a class win in the MGB in the Targa Floria with Timo Makinen in 1966. The memories I have of Timo were driving back with him from the race. I had no one else to go with and he was absolutely lethal. Twice the mafia pulled us up for dangerous driving with revolvers drawn and I had to persuade them that Timo didn't speak English and that he was a famous rally driver to get us out of trouble. He also had a theory when driving from the circuit to the hotel that if you pulled yourself out of a queue and headed directly for the people coming the other way they would always get out of the way - which they did - but my God, being a passenger, can you imagine? Mad as a hatter!

I drove the Nurbugring and also at Sebring in the States with Paddy Hopkirk. He was a delightful chap who also enjoyed the parties and a drink. He was so polite to me he said I could go first at the Nurburgring for a big two-driver race there. But of course the tyres were cold. The third corner in was my favourite left-hander which I took in my usual pools and pools of smoke. I had been going around this corner in practice two days running in this fashion and everyone was waiting for me to go around this corner but the tyres were cold and I just went straight on. I landed about twenty foot down on another road and totally destroyed that car and Paddy's drive.

I drove a works 1.3-litre Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite at Le Mans with Paul Hawkins in 1965 and we finished 12th overall and first in our class. I returned in 1966 but the speed differentials at Le Mans were becoming enormous. I think we were capable of 148mph down the Mulsanne Straight in our Healey - basically just a Healey Sprite with a slippery body on it and souped-up a bit - but the GT40's would fly past us at 210mph! And of course it was a straight then, with no chicanes at all. You can imagine the wind as they came past; it was like an avalanche and you had to react instantly. This happened time and time again because the GT40s used so much fuel they kept going into pits and coming out again and we were being overtaken all the time by these very, very fast cars. The rear mirrors vibrated so much you just couldn't see what was coming behind you until they went past and the wind hit you. You actually had to steer into the bow wave of those cars as they came past you at 210mph. And we were also far faster around the corners than the big cars. They would brake early and we would keep on going and go past them but you were never sure if they were going to come back past you or not in the corner but they often didn't because our little cars were so much quicker around the bends but then they would come past us all over again.

Fortunately Clive Baker, the other driver with me the following year, broke the car at about three in the morning. Thank goodness I thought! It was quite a frightening thing to do and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody.

Goodwood hasn't changed since the day I broke the 100mph lap record there in the 1960s in a formula one car; one of Bob Gerard's Formula One Coopers.

Much, much later, in 1999, I won the drivers day award at Goodwood which I was very proud of indeed because I was 72 years of age by then. It poured hard that weekend but a sliding car didn't bother me at all. I always used to love getting the car into a complete drift and I was in my element again.

John Rhodes

John’s Autobiography “Smokin’ John Rhodes” will be published shortly by Parley Books, Somerset. http://www.parleybooks.co.uk/

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