Interview: Brian Redman

Classic Motorsports: How did you get started in racing?
Brian Redman: I had bought my grandfather’s business, which made mop heads, and I bought a Morris 1000 Traveller’s car in 1959 and delivered mop heads in it all over England. I put a Shorrock supercharger on it and hard brake linings and an anti-roll bar, and I drove that thing like no tomorrow. If somebody passed me, I’d go 20 miles out of my way to get past again. I decided that I’d better get on the track; otherwise, something unpleasant was going to happen.
I entered a race at Rufforth, near York in Yorkshire, an airfield circuit as many of the circuits in England were at that time. Of course, you know the first race I was so nervous and I was being passed by everybody on all sides, but still, I liked it.
I continued racing through that year, also doing hillclimbing and sprinting, which was big in England at the time, and at the end of that year I thought I wanted something a bit more competitive, so I bought a very early 848cc Mini, and I modified it myself. I put a Downton cylinder head on it, an Alexander road race camshaft, and two gigantic inch-and-a-half SU carburetors—and not surprising, it had no power under 4000 rpm. I used to rev it to 7000!
Probably the highlight of that year was when I was invited by Downton Engineering—Daniel Richmond, who was the Mini tuner of that time—to take part in the six-hour relay race at Silverstone. I got there on a Saturday afternoon, and Daniel Richmond came and looked at it, and he said, “Well, whose exhaust is it, old boy?” And I said, “It’s a Pico.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “and whose cylinders?”
“Alexander.”
“Whose camshaft?”
“Alexander.”
And he said, “I see it’s one of our cylinder heads,” and I said yes, and he said, “You do realize, old boy, that everything has to be matched together? It’s a very delicate and scientific process we have of making these engines.”
I got fastest time of the day.
So he came to me that night, the night before the race, with a brown paper parcel under his arm, and he said, “Brian, perhaps you’d like to fit this tonight.” And it was a Formula Junior cylinder head that he gave me. I fitted it that night, but all the Minis had to withdraw from the race because their wheels came over the studs, and a wheel flew into the grandstand and just missed a spectator. So all the Minis were pulled at that time. That was 1961.

CMS: Where did you go from there?
BR: In 1962 I thought I needed something more reliable, and I bought an old XK120 from a friend of mine, Gordon Brown. I only raced it once because I wore a set of new Michelin X tires right off it in one day of racing, and I couldn’t afford to race it anymore. So I bought a Morgan Plus 4 and I raced it and rallied it and hillclimbed it, did standard car trials where you go up a hill in it, and then ran out of money.
I got married in September of ’62 to Marion and gave up racing. I had no money. So I went motocrossing on motorbikes for the next three years, really, but occasionally I would drive for somebody—Harry Ratcliffe in Littleborough, who was the finest tuner of Morris Minors in the world.
In ’65 the same Gordon Brown that I’d bought this XK120 from in ’61 said to me, would I like to drive his XK120 in a local sprint at Woodvale airport near Southport? I said thank you, and I got fastest time of day with it, and he said, “I know this guy Charles Bridges who’s just bought a lightweight E-Type. I’ll get you a drive.”
That was Monday, and the phone rang on Tuesday, and he said, “Can you be at Oulton Park at eight o’clock Thursday morning?” That was my home circuit; I knew the track well. So I got there, and I drove this lightweight E-Type. I’d never driven an E-Type of any description, but I drove it above my capabilities, my safe capabilities, because I knew it was a great opportunity. And I managed to go a second and a half faster than Jackie Stewart’s lap record, and four seconds faster than the new owner, Charles Bridges. So Charles said to me, “Want to race it on a Saturday at Oulton Park?” And I did. And we had a fantastic year with it, winning something like 14 races. We only got beaten once, and that was at Silverstone at the end of the year by Ron Fry in a Ferrari 250 LM, which was definitely a superior beast.
At the end of the year Charles Bridges, who had a garage called Red Rose Motors, said, “What would you like to do next year?” Well, you know, the obvious answer was Formula 3 because that was the only road to the top, really. But I’d just seen a race at Croft, another aerodrome circuit in the north of England, in which Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, John Surtees and David Hobbs had all raced these Can-Am cars, and I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, wow. So I said to Charles, “Well, if I had a choice, I’d buy a Can-Am car.” And so he bought one. He bought a used engine from John Surtees, a Traco 350-cubic-inch Chevy.
The car arrived—again, we were at Oulton Park—and it was a beautiful spring morning with Charles Bridges and the mechanic, Terry Wells, who had come with the lightweight E-Type from John Coombs the previous year. We all stand looking at it, and Charles said, “All right. It’s my bloody car, I’m driving it first.” So he and Terry Wells jumped in it and off they went. Well, the end of the first lap, he lost control at Old Hall Corner, and spun—and stopped a foot from a tree that was on the apex of Old Hall at that time. He got out and never drove it again.
Well, I come to race that weekend at Oulton Park, and it’s raining. There’s this corner called Deers Leap; there’s a corner called Lodge, just before Deers Leap, and you go down a dip, right-handed, round Lodge, down a dip, and up a blind brow, Deers Leap, and cross in front of the pits. In the lightweight E-Type, if it was wet or whatever it was, as soon as I got ’round the right-handed corner I opened the throttle wide and that was it, great. Well, I did the same thing in the T70, and went backwards past the pits, spinning. Saw Charles Bridges clutching the guardrail.
Anyway, we had a very good year in that car, racing it in a combination of club races and international races, where we’d run against Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, etc. At the end of that year I got one of three what they call Grovewood awards, and that was awarded to me by Jim Clark.

CMS: Was that the end of any thoughts you had of giving it all up?
BR: Well, also in 1966 I got the invitation to drive at Spa-Francorchamps with Pete Sutcliffe in a GT40. Charles Bridges, my car owner, paid Peter 60 pounds—at that time that would have been $150—for me to drive. After the first day of practice on Friday I nearly retired from racing. I’d never seen anything like it. Having driven the T70 Can-Am car all over England at high speeds, I thought, boy, I can drive anything, anywhere. But when I got to Spa I thought, boy, I’m in the wrong business. I could not believe the speed of the track. And of course there were no barriers; it was 8 miles of open, public roads, with 200 mph top speeds.
We had a very difficult race but finished fourth. It was a very good result for a private team, and Peter said to me after the race, “You see all these empty Coca-Cola bottles up and down the pit lane? Be a good chap and collect them and get the money back on them.” So I spent an hour collecting empty Coca-Cola bottles to get Peter the money back on them.

CMS: So much for resting on your laurels!
BR: Yes (laughs). But by the end of that year, Charles Bridges’s brother John had bought the garage off Charles. Charles had two younger brothers, John and David, and John became a partner in Chevron cars—so there’s a tie-up there with Chevrons—and David had been entering an English driver called John Taylor in Formula 2. Taylor had had an accident at Nürburgring in which he’d had a collision with Jacky Ickx and the car had caught fire and he’d been badly burned; although he was released from hospital in Germany, John got an infection and died. And David Bridges was looking for a driver in Formula 2. So he said to me, “If you want to turn professional, lad, I’ll pay you 30 pounds a week guaranteed for a year.”
At this time I’m out of the mop business and back in the grocery business, and my father said to me, “You need to decide what you want to do. You spend a lot of time on this racing business, so let me know what you want to do.”
I thought about it, I talked to Marion about it, and she said, “You decide.” So I went to my father and I said, “I’m going racing, Dad.” And he said, “Oh, well, good luck. You can’t come back here if it goes wrong.”
One week after that David Bridges rang me and he said, “We can’t get the new Brabham or the two Cosworth FVA engines that we needed, because you’re not well-known enough.” So we started Formula 2 in 1967 with an old Brabham and an SCA 1000cc engine that was bored and stroked to 1500. And we had a reasonable year. Halfway through the year John Surtees came to us and said, “I’ll sell you a new Lola T100 Formula 2 car and two Cosworth FVA engines.” So we got that and we were then doing pretty nicely.

CMS: At that point, was your decision starting to look like the right one?
BR: Well, in November of ’67 David Yorke, the team manager for John Wyer Gulf rang and he said would I like to drive with Jacky Ickx in Kyalami, the 9-hour race in Johannesburg—and Jacky and I won the race together. I then agreed to sign a contract for ’68 for John Wyer.
At the same time, because I knew the track, etc., Cooper, looking for a driver, signed me to a contract for Formula 1.

CMS: How did that go?
BR: The first race was at Kyalami in January of ’68. The car was pretty hopeless; it pumped oil in every direction and John Cooper just said to me, “Try and do two laps, old boy, we need the starting money.” So I put oil all over the circuit for two laps and then withdrew. But in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama through reliability I finished third behind Graham Hill and Denny Hulme, and with Jacky Ickx we won the six-hour Brands Hatch race, and also Spa-Francorchamps 1000 km, where Jacky put in what I thought was maybe the finest first lap I ever saw, on this wet and miserable track.
On the front row with him was Frank Gardner in a Ford GT40 variant powered by a 3-liter Formula 1 Cosworth engine entered by Alan Mann. On the second row were Vic Elford in a Porsche 907 and Wily Maresse. Now Vic is no slouch in the ring, but at the end of the first lap, Ickx came past the pits—bear in mind it’s an eight-mile track—and there’s not the sound of any other car. More than 30 seconds later came Vic Elford. So Ickx pulled out 30 seconds in one lap. Unbelievable.

CMS: You’ve talked a bit about the different teams who contracted you to drive for them; take us back to the late ’60s. What did it mean when you signed a contract to be a Formula 1 driver in 1967?
BR: It meant about $1000 a race—if you were lucky. Because sometimes they couldn’t pay; you know, there wasn’t any money.

CMS: That’s certainly different from what it is today.
BR: (laughs)

CMS: So you would’ve done better in the grocery business?
BR: Yes… yes.

CMS: At any rate, the year didn’t go quite as you’d planned, did it?
BR: We went back to Spa, where we’d just won the 1000 km in the GT40; now it’s the Grand Prix with the Cooper. The week before the Grand Prix I’d had my best Formula 2 race ever at Crystal Palace, where I put the Lola on pole position ahead of Jochen Rindt and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Clay Regazzoni, Jacky Ickx—everybody—and finished second in the race to Rindt. At that time I had offers from five different Formula 1 teams, and now I got to Spa, one week later, and the suspension broke and I was almost killed. I was one of the few drivers wearing seatbelts, and if I hadn’t been wearing one, that would’ve been it.
The bottom right-front wishbone broke, and I had no steering or effectively no braking. When the surgeon at the teaching hospital got me on the operating table, my arm had been crushed between the car and the barrier, and he looked down at me and said, “Monsieur Redman, it may not be possible to save the arm.” And I just laughed and said, “Thank you, professor.” And he said, “Why are you smiling?” I said, “Because I’m here.” Because to crash at Spa and get away was okay.
So the summer of ’68 went, and of course I’d bought a new house on the strength of the two contracts with Formula 1 and sports car, and now I wasn’t earning anything. But in October, Derek Bennett of Chevron cars said would I like to try a B8 at Aintree, which I did, another local track, and he said, “We’re going to take it to the Springbok Series in South Africa”—do nine hours at Kyalami and then three hours at Cape Town, three hours at Bulawayo, three hours in Lourenço Marques, three hours in Durban, and three hours somewhere else.
I’d had two X-rays taken in England in Burnley at the local hospital, and they said it was okay, but after the nine-hour race in Kyalami and then after the Cape Town three-hour race, the arm was giving some trouble. I called Alex Blignaut, the organizer of the series in Johannesburg, and I said, “Do you know a good bone man in Johannesburg?” He said, “I know the Christiaan Barnard of the bone world.”
So I stopped en route to Bulawayo, and saw this specialist, and he took about 30 X-rays, whereas they’d taken two in England. He sat me down, and he said, “Brian, man, I’ve got two bits of bad news for you: You don’t have any union of either bone, and I’m going on vacation tomorrow.” Now I’d just signed a contract with Porsche, the first race was at Daytona the first weekend in February of 1969, and it was six weeks away. So I said to him, “I have to be at Daytona in six weeks.” And he said, “I’ll experiment; it may work and it may not.” He opened it up completely, took out the ends that weren’t healing, took bone out of my hip, and glued it in place, and didn’t put it in plaster, put it in a sling, and said, “Don’t use it unless you have to.”

CMS: What happened?
BR: I arrived at Daytona, of course I didn’t tell anybody, and I drove one-handed, resting my right hand on the wheel at 200 mph on the banking. Five factory Porsches, 10 drivers, and there was nowhere I could go for 24 hours, but at about eight in the evening, the first of the factory team came in the pits with the engine “ch-ch-ch-ch.” And the engineers examined it and said, “We are finished; they will all break.” And we were out by 10 at night. That was a reprieve.
Then we went to Sebring, to test for 24 hours, a 908; the chassis broke at 20 hours. Porsche said, this is good; the race is only 12 hours. Well, all the chassis broke in the race because the track broke and so it became much rougher. One was repaired and I think finished second to the Andretti Ferrari 512. So that was ’69.

CMS: You drove for Porsche again the next year, didn’t you?
BR: In ’70, because of course Porsche had done so much massive work in ’69 when producing 25 917s, they had about 18 908s. They were racing five of them whilst another five were back at the factory being prepared for the next race, and another five were doing whatever—a huge, huge effort that Porsche couldn’t afford. They made a deal with John Wyer and Gulf in which John Wyer would represent the factory with the 917s, and I was asked by Porsche if I’d drive with my co-driver, Jo Siffert; John Wyer employed Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen.
We tested the original, very poor-handling 917 at the Österreichring in Austria in about September of 1969. John Horsman, the chief engineer for John Wyer, really found what the problem with the car was; it was the bodywork and not as the drivers thought. All the drivers believed the chassis was flexing because it had such terrible handling, but it was the bodywork; it didn’t have any downforce, it had lift at the back. And John Horsman put plywood and aluminum across the rear deck, fastened it down with rivets, and covered it in the valley in the rear deck. We were three seconds a lap faster instantly—just like that.
So we went into 1970 with pretty good expectations. We didn’t know at that time that Porsche-Austria—which was Ferdinand Piëchs’s mother, Louise—were getting what was, in effect, factory support. And in many cases they had experimental stuff that John Wyer didn’t have, which is why I was upset about it.
Nonetheless, if you look at the results for 1970 you’ll see that the Wyer team were predominantly successful. The first race at Daytona, Siffert and I had a lot of trouble. I had a tire blow at about 200 mph, and in those days there was no chicane on the back straight—it was flat-out all down the back—and it did a lot of damage, but we still finished second. In fact, I also did a couple of stints in the winning car of Rodriguez/Kinunnen and ended up first and second.

CMS: You’ve raced a lot of other people’s exotic machinery over the years, and as you’ve discussed, it’s not been without its risks—to you or to the cars. Nowadays, you still drive many of them even though they’ve become priceless collectibles. What are the politics of racing other people’s cars?
BR: Well, it’s a bit difficult. If I’m driving somebody who I don’t know particularly well, somebody’s car, then I usually just say, “If anything goes wrong, whether it’s my fault or the car’s fault or somebody else’s fault, then I can’t be responsible for it.” That’s the only way you can do it.
Some people, like Miles Collier, he understands fully all the implications of racing his valuable cars. And of course, you try to do the best that you can. But I’ve had a couple of near-misses in the Collier cars; one at Lime Rock two years ago, driving the ex-Graham Hill Lotus that he won the world championship in. It was a 1.5-liter, and there was a Cooper 2.5-liter ahead of me going up the hill, and I got about halfway by and the Cooper went off the road to the left and then pulled back to the right. How we missed each other I do not know, but that’s, you know, racing. Whenever you race there’s some racing risks.

CMS: Right. And if you crash something, it’s pretty easy—somebody probably saw whether it was your fault. But an engine or a clutch going, something like that is even more nebulous. If you shift something at 10,000 rpm that’s supposed to be shifted at 8000 that’s one thing, but who’s to say whether a motor was about to go?
BR: Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of gray there—a lot of gray, and a lot of friendships being spoiled!

CMS: You’ve also talked about many of the different co-drivers you’ve had; you’ve lost some, and most of the Formula 1 drivers from that era are dead—and not due to natural causes. Were you scared of dying?
BR: Yes, of course. I mean, anybody who’s not scared usually doesn’t last very long because they crash (laughs)! Even where I’ve mentioned about being at Spa, the night before the race, I’d be lying in bed all night perspiring, thinking about the next day, but once you get in the car and—well, once you get in the car—all of that goes away and you concentrate on the job at hand. But yes, 25-30 years ago, when I looked at the form from my first Formula 1 race at South Africa, Kyalami in January of 1968, 25 years ago most of the drivers were dead.

CMS: Who was your favorite co-driver?
BR: Jacky Ickx was brilliant, young—he was, what, nine years younger than I was when I first drove with him, and he already had more experience. He was superb; he didn’t have any faults, tremendously fast, pretty easy on the car. He should really have been Formula 1 World Champion, but things just didn’t work out for him.

CMS: Tell us your favorite and your least favorite cars.
BR: In the favorite cars, the Chevron B19 2-liter sports racer is just superb, and the further derivations of that: The B21, the B23, the B26, the B31, they’re all great cars. The Lola 332 F5000: fantastic. It was first made in about 1972, the first version of it, and it was still being made in about 1980 as a Can-Am car. Lola produced two new cars during that time to supersede it, and neither of them were as good. They were both good cars, but they weren’t just as good.
The Ferrari 312 PB, which was the last factory Ferrari sports car, was fantastic—I mean, the gearbox is so good, you cannot make an incorrect change. You just move the lever as fast as you can and it’s in. And of course the noise from that flat-12 engine is tremendous revving to 10,000 rpm. Great car. 908/3 Porsche, what a great car. Built only for the Nürburgring and the Targa Florio; 30 seconds a lap faster around the Nürburgring than the 908/2 with the same power, 370 horsepower.

CMS: Your least favorite car?
BR: Porsche 917 in its original trim, probably. Horrible, all over the road, very fast in a straight line, miserable handling.

CMS: What’s your favorite track?
BR: When the race is finished, Spa (laughs). Then the Nürburgring.

CMS: So Spa is probably your least favorite, too?
BR: Least favorite as well!

CMS: You’ve led the life—and are still living the life—that we dream of, not only getting to drive all these amazing cars now and then, but doing it as your livelihood. Has it been as great as it sounds?
BR: Not really, no. I mean, here I am, at 77, still trying to earn a living! Nothing’s changed in 47 years (laughs)! It’s fun. On the negative side in vintage racing, you’re always being aimed at. People are always trying to beat you.

CMS: It’s a pretty good day when you beat Brian Redman?
BR: Exactly. They don’t care how old you are, or anything else.

CMS: We talked earlier about a mutual friend who was very, very excited at the Gold Cup last summer because he had equaled his times from before he suffered a life-threatening illness. You’ve been a race car driver for 50 years?
BR: Fifty-three, yes.

CMS: How do you use experience to compensate for physical ability?
BR: Well, I think the only thing that hurts me now—and I could probably do something about it if I wasn’t so idle—is that in a high-grip car, like a F5000 or F1 car, and some degree a Can-Am car—the grip of the car puts a big strain on the neck. That’s about the only thing. I still can see; I think when I can’t see the road well—not vision-wise, but depth perception, and I’ll know when that time comes—when I feel that the corners are coming up too fast, I’ll probably either go to a slower type of car, which is the obvious thing to do, and still stay involved, or not do it so much.
You know, Phil Hill, about 11 years ago, he said to me, “Brian,” he said, “I’m stopping racing.” I said, “Oh, sorry to hear that, Phil.” “Yeah,” he said, “I can only drive one speed: Flat-out.” And I says yeah, I know, and he says, “I can only drive flat-out for five minutes!” That about sums it up.
Still, I’ve been very lucky to be able to carry on, doing what I did for so long professionally, and still been able to earn a modest living from it.

CMS: Anything else you’d like to add?
BR: Just that whilst the emphasis on safety is obviously correct—it would be stupid to say that it wasn’t—I think it’s taken a little bit away from the racing, from the aura of racing. To me, although I was lucky to be in a tremendous era in sports car racing, maybe the greatest sports car racing era, the 917s, nonetheless to me the real glory days were before the war. You know, when they drove these monster cars with 500, 600 horsepower and miserable little tires that you knew were going to fly apart at any chance, on surfaces that weren’t particularly good. That, if you read the books from that time, I think is a tremendous thing.

CMS: Are you suggesting that took more talent and courage than what you did?
BR: Yes! Yeah, I think it did. No, I don’t think so—it did.

CMS: Moving the other way, what about Formula 1 cars today?
BR: They’re incredibly fast, but incredibly safe—and the drivers are incredibly well-paid!

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