by Harry Pope

John Coombs with racing Jaguar

John Coombs with racing Jaguar

When I was a lad I was a junior marshal for the British Automobile Racing Club. That meant that I went round to various circuits, mainly Goodwood and Crystal Palace, helping out in the office, going round the track as a passenger, running errands. It was unpaid, I was the only one doing this, and I loved being so closely involved with the motor sport I was such an enthusiastic part of.

Crystal Palace race track

Crystal Palace race track

This was in the early 1960s, when the drivers were more accessible to the public, members of the motoring clubs were able to rub shoulders with all, and as a junior marshal I ate with them, even though they had no idea who I was. The Whit Monday meeting in 1962 involved Saturday practice, so I travelled from my Leatherhead home to Crystal Palace via public transport. I seem to recall that I spent the day in the usual way, just running errands, but I knew that one of the Formula Two car owners had a garage at Guildford, which is on the way back via the main road the A3. His name was John Coombs, he had been an amateur racing driver some years previously, and owned a saloon Jaguar very similar to the one used by Inspector Morse. I asked Mr. Coombs for a lift part along the way, but he said that he would have to return via the Cooper garage at Surbiton, as spare parts were required on the racing car.

the front Cooper showroom

the front Cooper showroom

This was driven by Graham Hill, a hero of mine, so when I was asked by Mr Coombs if it was possible to provide him with some complimentary tickets for the Hill family, I was flattered to be able to supply with alacrity. Graham Hill had an identical Jaguar, and they decided to have a race between Crystal Palace and Surbiton. Bear in mind that these two men were drivers of the highest possible calibre, driving two saloon cars that were one step away from being racing cars. The traffic conditions were slight, a Saturday afternoon in South London didn’t have a lot on the roads, roundabouts were easy to negotiate, certainly not as prolific as they are now, and the traffic lights seemed to be permanently on green for us.

No such thing as seat belts, I was a 14-year-old being given a masterclass in driving skills. I sat in the front passenger seat in the car park, waiting for my driver, when Graham Hill pulled up alongside in his Jaguar. He didn’t deign to look my way, revving while Mr. Coombs got in. I looked at my wrist watch, noting the time. Then we were suddenly off, no warning, speeding for the exit gate. We were in front, the other black car less than a length behind. The two cars could have been tied together with elastic, a lot of the time the bumpers were so close you couldn’t have fitted a cigarette paper between them. Other cars seemed to sense that it would be a good idea to move out of our way, because when we were going down a rare dual carriageway Graham Hill would pull alongside, only for ours to brake later into the next roundabout. Two sets of tyres would be resisting the tarmac as they would be screeching round the corners, but to my excited juvenile mind it just didn’t seem to be dangerous. I never said a word during the journey, nor did he, as we pulled into the Surbiton destination just seventeen minutes after departure.

Cooper works in Hollyfield Road Surbiton

Cooper works in Hollyfield Road Surbiton

The Cooper garage was in a strange position. It had been there since the firm was founded by father and son in the late 1940s, on the corner of a B road in a residential area. There was a glass fronted showroom sufficiently large to display two Cooper racing cars, it was before they had embarked on the engineering feat that was to become the Mini Cooper that is so popular these days. The premises went back a long way, accessed by a forecourt that had petrol pumps. We went into the garage at the back, my two chauffeurs chatted to John Cooper, with his engineering staff, the parts were purchased, Graham Hill drove off in his now relaxed Jaguar. No screech of tyres as he went on his way, nor none on ours as we drove the mile to the A3 and the sedate drive to the turn off where he deposited me, and I stood with my thumb out for another driver to give me a lift closer to home.

John Coombs was a little embarrassed about no words being said to me by Graham Hill, who hadn’t even glanced my way. He said ‘Graham says many thanks for the admission and car park tickets, he appreciated them’. The reality was he had no idea where they had come from, cared less, but I didn’t care. Nearly 60 years later, I can still be on those South London roads on that May Bank Holiday Saturday afternoon, holding tight to the sides of the leather seats as I loved every fearless minute. Lucky me.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill

Harry Pope has various books for sale on Amazon, including Buried Secrets, his anecdotal essay of amusing funereal incidents,  Hotel Secrets, all about his disastrous ownership of a 28 bedroom hotel, and the Brick Monster, a children’s character who decided to leave home at the young age of 58, because of his unpleasant personal habits.