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Time with 'Mr Big Healey' - Time with John Chatham

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He was the wild man of racing, a Modsports demon who once tried to electrocute his colleagues and still dedicates his time to Healeys and beer.

Time with John Chatham will, inevitably before the day is out, involve a visit to the pub. It is his natural environment, the place where friends are welcomed, customers entertained and an endless string of unlikely but almost invariably true stories unfolds.

It has always been so. There is a reassuring continuity about the 70-year-old Austin-Healey aficionado’s life which, in 2010, is focused on very much the same things it was in 1970, when the Bristolian was at the peak of his driving career. Then it was Healeys, beer and women; now it is Healeys, beer and one woman, his third wife Vicky, to whom he has been married for over 30 years.

He is nothing if not consistent. Though he has owned and raced Porsches, E-types and MGCs, to name just a few, his love of the Big Healey has never faded. Indeed it is responsible for what he describes as his first ‘orgasmic experience’, in 1952 at the tender age of 12, when Henly’s, the Austin dealer in Bristol, put a red Austin-Healey 100 on a revolving plinth in its showroom. Young Chat was transfixed, pedalling the half-mile down the Gloucester Road from his father’s garage to press his nose against the glass, night after night.

His father Joe was unimpressed. ‘Power and speed cost money,’ John recalls him saying, and in the Chatham household money was something that had to be carefully guarded. Joe and his wife Elsie had risked everything to buy Egerton Road Garage in Bristol, Joe leaving the aircraft industry in favour of an uncertain future as a small businessman.

This was the crucible that forged John – hard graft, practical economics (cash welcome!), and a focus on living for today and providing for tomorrow rather than dreaming about next year. But it also had one other crucial effect, as John explains.

‘We lived on site, and with my parents working flat-out at the garage, my sister Pamela and I were left largely to our own devices. It wasn’t very good for me – I was always a complete rebel. At school, I didn’t like many lessons – and if I didn’t like something, I didn’t do it.’

But he showed a flair for woodwork and metalwork, so it was no surprise that he joined the family business, albeit not immediately, for dad thought the lad should get a proper apprenticeship first and arranged for John to work at the local Rootes dealer, Cathedral Garage.

‘It was a bit rocky going, because I was full of scams and tricks. On the first day I was found pumping grease onto the floor and then wiping it round the joints to make it look like I’d greased them. I was dealt with quite severely: rammed into a 50-gallon drum of sawdust until I almost choked.’

Things continued in the same vein, climaxing one lunchtime when he decided to get his own back on some fellow apprentices who’d been playing tricks on him. ‘We had a cage where the guys used to do their bench work,’ John explains, ‘and the benches there were all-steel. While they were at lunch, I wired the benches to the mains. When they got back, someone touched one and all hell let loose.

‘They couldn’t find out who did it, but I got blamed. I can’t think why,’ he adds with a grin. Aware that the push was imminent, he left shortly afterwards and returned to work for his father at Egerton Road.

John learned the trade fast and, much to his dad’s disapproval, his sporting aspirations grew equally quickly. A Willys Jeep gave way to a Consul convertible with a Mays head, then a Zephyr convertible – ‘a much better woman-puller, as it had a power hood’ – and then, in 1960, to his first Healey 100, SAL 75. Within a couple of years his name was featuring on the results sheets of rallies, hillclimbs, sprints and races all over the country; in 1964 he decided four cylinders were no longer enough and bought a wrecked ex-works Healey 3000, DD 300, to rebuild and race.

It was a phenomenally successful combination and came to dominate late-1960s Modsports racing. In 1968 alone he notched up 28 wins, plus class lap records at 10 circuits all round England. ‘I was beaten overall by a guy who drove three different types of cars,’ John admits, ‘but no one won more in one vehicle.’

I didn’t know John well back then, but I did happen to be marshalling at Castle Combe in spring 1968 when the ‘Red Groundhog’ finished just 1.8sec behind Maurice Charles’ GT40, the pair of them lapping the rest of the field. In fully developed Modsports form on 10in mags, DD 300, even more than most Big Healeys, was a car you picked up by the scruff of the neck – and the burly Bristolian had the biceps to do it. Actually, the mags were specially made by JA Pearce at 10.5in, John surmising – correctly – that no scrutineer would notice an extra half-inch. ‘You always stretch rules’, he observes...

The hectic racing schedule, long evenings in the pub, John’s penchant for chatting up any attractive unattached female within a 10-mile radius and the endless moonlighting that paid for it all, left no time whatsoever for blissful domesticity. Predictably, his first two marriages failed quickly, though his second, to Sandie, did produce two children – Charlotte and Joe. John is not given to wondering what might have been, but you sense regret in his voice when he observes: ‘In those days the ladies of my life didn’t last too long, probably because I spent so much time in love with my mistresses – my cars.’

Domestic stability arrived only when he married Vicky in 1979, but in the meantime the thrusting young unattached motor sport entrepreneur – who by this time had taken control of the garage, his father having retired – played as hard as he worked, which was very hard indeed. As BMC’s emphasis shifted from the 3000 to the MGC, John’s followed, and he got his big break with the offer of a works drive of an MGC GT Sebring in the 1970 Targa Florio – just in time for BMC to close the MGC competition programme.

Undeterred, he took over the entry, teamed up with local driver Alan Harvey, bought the four remaining Sebrings and built one up for the race, only to find that the organisers insisted on treating the alloy-bodied car as a prototype, pitting it against Porsche 908s and Nino Vaccarella’s Ferrari 512. ‘That was a race to finish, not to win,’ he observes – and finish he did, though not without drama as the C did the first lap on five cylinders and the last with virtually no brakes, nudging a parked Fiat 500 into vertiginous oblivion in the process.

An entry in the Vilareal GP followed the same year, sharing Mike Coombe’s Porsche 906; John crept over the line with a broken throttle cable only to be disqualified because he had forgotten to put his helmet on following makeshift repairs. The pair’s foray to the 1971 Le Mans was even less successful: they joined Willie Tuckett in entering the ex-David Weir Porsche 911T/R, but the car failed to qualify and John returned to Bristol despondent and several thousand pounds the poorer.

Chastened, his thoughts turned back to Healeys and historic motor sport. His first task was to rebuild DD 300 ‘to look like it did when the works campaigned it in 1960, right down to the green paint’, but having a competitive racer was not enough. Later he rebuilt a crashed 3000 MkIII, GRX 884D, as a works rally replica and later still he added a third car, OYY 210, an original Healey 100S, to cater for events where torque and nimbleness were at a premium or the six-cylinder cars were too new to be eligible.
Armed with these three tools, he notched up a record in historics that speaks for itself. Winner of the Thoroughbred Series in 1972; second to John Atkins’ Cobra in the 1988 Pirelli Marathon; an unbelievable drive in the same event the following year (from 75th to first to crashing out, fuelled by anger at Philip Young for seeding him so low); leading the team of nine Healeys that won the US-UK Conclave Challenge series in 1990... these are just four of the highlights.

Then there was the two-car entry in the 1992 Carrera Panamericana, OYY for him and another hot 100S for son Joe and Jeremy Barras. OYY’s engine blew spectacularly while John was leading his class, but Joe went on to win. John’s final – and most eventful – major competition was the 1995 London-Mexico with his close friend Steve Bicknell. They suffered two motor fires in Brazil, leading to engine failure in Peru.

John enjoys his notoriety and is a natural showman, but he did it all for fun, not for posterity – he keeps no diary and has long since junked all his silverware. A stroke in 2000 ended his competition career and five years later he did what no one ever thought he’d do: sell DD, to Karsten Le Blanc and Christiaen van Lanschot, for a figure north of £250,000. ‘It wasn’t really the wrench everybody thought it would be’, he says. ‘I’d competed in 21 countries over 40 years. Nothing is forever.’

If this sounds like a man living on his memories, think again. GRX is still in the family and, although Joe no longer drives competitively, John’s younger sons Oliver and Jack both keep the sporting flame alive, Oliver racing GRX and Jack considering joining the family business. Every day there are Healeys to be worked on, paperwork to be avoided, yarns to be told and Courage’s Best Bitter to be drunk.

John Chatham is a lucky man, and he knows it. ‘I’ve got away with lots of things in my life,’ he chortles, observing that in countless thousands of racing miles he has never had a serious injury. ‘I must have a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder. People say to me “Your time will come” but we’re still waiting!’

In the meantime, he suggests, we might as well go down the pub.


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