AC Heritage
AC Heritage
Thu 27th April 2017
11:51 am
AC Heritage

My father, Edward Hugh Scarlett, worked as an engineering designer, so it was not really surprising that I started my working life with an engineer/student apprenticeship with Hawker Aircraft at Kingston, Surrey, not far from our home near Richmond. At the end of the five years training, I moved into the Stress Office of Hawkers, which in those days (the 50’s) involved stress calculations on the P1127, a prototype which led to the Hawker Harrier vertical take-off fighter.

In fact, apart from that work, operations at Hawkers, very much military aviation specialists, were somewhat quiet in what was basically peacetime, so like a number of my contemporaries, after a few months I found the small amount of work there rather boring, so a lot of us left for other jobs.

I followed my schoolboy interest in the engineering of motor racing, and approached the Cooper Car Co. who had by then gained huge prestige, helped considerably by Jack Brabham who, Cooper- mounted, had won two World Championships in 1959 and 1960, in the process bringing about the post-war mid-engined revolution, Cooper’s modest mid-engined cars having thrashed the front-engined, rear-drive giants of that period- Vanwall, BRM, Ferrari and so on. So this tiny little company based in a modest building in a side road in Surbiton, not far from my home, had deservedly become vastly famous.

I went for an interview with Guy Griffiths, the firm’s sales manager, who said that although a drawing office job under Cooper designer Owen Maddocks was not possible then, it would happen later, so meanwhile I would I like to work as a mechanic in the little factory? I jumped at the offer, and started in the workshop which gained me some useful extra practical experience learning to weld and sifbronze, skills not included in my aviation engineering apprenticeship.

However, as I made friends with various Cooper people, particularly Owen Maddocks, it became obvious that there would not be any draughtsman vacancy in the foreseeable future. So when I heard stories of Jack Brabham starting up his own racing car manufacture firm, I wrote an enquiring note to him at his garage near Chessington to see if there was any drawing office in the new company. Jack had always been the best sort of Australian, perfectly at home and most friendly to lowly folk like myself, so it did not demand great nerve to approach him.

I was lucky. I began my time in Brabham’s drawing office as a junior draughtsman under the co-founder of the firm and engineer-designer, Ron Tauranac. What was then called Motor Racing Developments had been started earlier in that year, 1961, by Jack and Ron, who had managed to get an arrangement with the Australian company Repco to use Repco’s small warehouse at the bottom end of the major shopping street of Surbiton, Victoria Road. The office was by Hawker standards tiny to my eyes, being a small add-on to what was basically the warehouse, but it was enough then.

In the workshop outside, in due course I found Peter Wilkins, Jack’s most friendly and helpful foreman, who ran the shop; the other great personality was Tim Wall, mechanic to Jack, a most self-effacing, quiet and very effective man in his job.

In fact, we were not too long in that place, partly thanks to an embarrassing workshop accident when Tim was carrying out some work on the Lotus 21 which Jack had recently bought. For some reason, there was a little spilt fuel sitting in the glass-fibre body shell, and when a spanner was unintentionally dropped momentarily across the terminals of the battery, causing a spark, the resulting fire destroyed the Lotus before it could be extinguished, and whilst nothing else caught fire, the smoke made a great mess in the building, including the drawing office and drawings.

The resulting blaze was confined to the Lotus, and extinguished, if not soon enough to save it. The smoke made a pretty awful mess of the contents and the inside of the building, including our office and some of the drawings. To what extent the incident stimulated the firm’s move, I’m not sure, but anyway our next address was out near the remains of the old Brooklands circuit close to New Haw, a village near Weybridge. It was called Weylock Works, and was in a short lane beside a canal; driving up to the buildings on the right of the lane, one came to the drawing office first, then the main workshop next to the racing workshop, and beyond, the new home of Jack Brabham Conversions, moved from its previous base in Chessington.

Ron Tauranac was not an easy person to work for, seemingly changing his mind on how a part should be drawn from what he’d originally said, so that I got into the habit of using a notebook to copy down the original brief; it was comforting to find that this also happened to my fellow draughtsman. But Ron was a very sound designer, not outstandingly original, but an entirely safe, well-engineering planner, so that Brabham products were never prone to structural failure in the stresses of racing, or for that matter practice.

The other draughtsmen were Mike Hillman and later Tony Southgate, who joined in 1963. Both were highly competent draughtsmen, going on after Brabhams to interesting careers. Tony became a notable figure in motor racing, later working for Lola Cars, Dan Gurney’s All-American racers whose Southgate-designed Eagle won the 1968 Indianapolis 500, BRM and Shadow. His drawings were remarkable for their high quality and superb lettering; he was also a most pleasant fellow draughtsman, as was Mike Hillman.

But, of all the folk one encountered, the most remarkable was the boss himself, Jack Brabham. In racing, his hugely competent car control was wonderfully impressive, so that he was never responsible for any serious loss of control and consequent accident. One famous demonstration of this was earlier, as a Cooper- Climax driver, when on the final lap of the Silverstone circuit during an International Trophy event, having trailed Graham Hill for most of the circuit on one side, abruptly changed to the inside on the final corner to overtake Hill and win.

In the workshop or drawing office at New Haw, he always behaved as one of the boys, friendly, joking and helpful, never as some would say he was entitled to, playing the top man and boss but always as one of us. His thoughtfulness was always to be found, as I did once for some reason I was without my usual transport in which to drive back to my Richmond home at the end of the working day; I’d have to use public transport, not the simplest of tasks from that part of the world. Jack somehow got wind of this and came to me saying he was going that way that evening, and would give me a lift home. I was totally overcome, and delighted, so that when we got back, I invited him in to meet my parents, which he did to great surprise and delight of both. This was a typical gesture and example of Jack’s great helpfulness.

Being in such a firm meant that one encountered some most fascinating people, whether customers, racing drivers or other engineers. Denny Hulme, Jack’s fellow Brabham driver, was a frequent visitor, a quiet, always friendly man of great charm. Frank Gardner was another wonderful and entertaining character who taught me some entertaining Australianisms. A less frequent caller but always a delight to talk to was Dan Gurney,  the famous American driver. Whilst, at the other end of the scale, we also found ourselves involved with selling a Brabham Formula Junior car to man called Roy James, who later turned out to be one of the thieves of the gang involved in the Great Train Robbery. We should, I suppose, have been suspicious of the fellow when he produced £1,500 for the car as a big bag of notes, rather than some sort of cheque. Ron was somewhat worried about such an amount of cash lying around the works, and very quickly came over to ask me to drive the bag to our bank at Kingston, which I did, very carefully.

Another friendly, easy to get on with visitor, was the manager of Jack Brabham Motors over at Chessington, Phil Kerr. Within the company itself, there was the young Nick Goozee, operating in the workshop, and later rising to Managing Director of the British branch of Roger Penske’s based in Poole on the south coast. Our office manager was the charming David Mills, sadly dying relatively recently. He always provided our transport to lunch in New Haw proper in his Sunbeam Rapier saloon.

Driving commercially for Brabhams became one part of my time. Ron used me for detail driving, but thanks to some van-driving experience with Cooper’s where I had learnt the whereabouts of a number of racing car component suppliers, I became a driver for the Brabham firm’s transport, initially cars borrowed from Jack Brabham Motors, and later our own van. Suppliers known to me included gearbox makers Hewland Engineering at Maidenhead, the Progress Chassis Co. on the North Nuneaton, and Specialised Mouldings of Crystal Palace, glass-fibre body makers, so I was     quite useful to Ron.

Although the name of the company, Motor Racing Developments seemed fine, it was something of a surprise when it was changed to Brabham Racing Developments. The surprise persisted until later I learnt the reason for the change. Jack numbered among his wide range of friends connected with motor racing a well known French racing correspondent called Jabby Crombac. The friendship was made unusually easy by Jabby’s fine command of English, which he spoke fluently. He explained to Jack that calling cars MRD in France was not ideal, because the initials pronounced in French- phonetically- “em air day”- were dangerously close to the French slang word for excreta- merde - not the optimum of names for anything, let alone a racing car. So that’s why Motor Racing Developments became Brabham Racing Developments.

My employment with Brabhams which on the whole I greatly enjoyed ended after over three years when I left in November 1964 to join Hewland Engineering at Maidenhead as a sort of technical sales advisor. The time at Weylock Works had formed an unforgettable experience, for which I remain very grateful to this day.

Click here for the historic photos from Brabham Racing Developments>>

AC Heritage
Shot taken before I joined Brabhams, of the MRD, a Formula Juniour car on its first test at Brands Hatch
AC Heritage
Workshop shot of adjustments being made to Jack's F1 car
AC Heritage
Jack in a typical drift angle in Daily Express International Trophy race at Silverstone- a shot from my side career as a press photographer