If you stretch your memory back to Series 12 Episode 7, you’ll know Richard Hammond presented a piece on the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) – and touched on the history of the sport.
In that piece he drove one of the BTCC’s first real stars, the Mk1 Jaguar, at the Top Gear test track. During the film he mentions that the infamous getaway driver Roy James was a particular fan of the Mk1 Jaguar and even used one in the great £2.6 million train robbery in 1963. The story goes that he always made a point of stealing one that had been prepared for touring car racing.
As it turns out, it isn’t as clear cut as that. Last month I received an anonymous email from somebody who had a little bit more to say on the subject…
Roy James usually used a MkII Jag, but as the MkI was only discontinued in ’59 he probably did start-off with the MkI. He preferred the 3.4 liter, as the 3.8 had another, much heavier, crankcase (in preparation for the upcoming 4.2) and the 3.4 flat out-handled, out-performed, the 3.8. A James prepared 3.4 was the fastest, best-handling car on the road, and with him driving it nothing could touch it.
A top racer I’ll not name paid ‘a little man’ from Jaguar to sell him the original blueprints for the car, and used the money he demanded for the information therein to help pay for his own racing. The factory de-tuned both the engine and the chassis so a regular punter couldn’t buy a standard car and beat the official factory entries. James didn’t steal a proddie-tuned car, he stole a standard one, and overnight had ‘a little man’ alter the rear wishbones to get the correct geometry for ideal handing. The factory sold cars with faulty wishbones on the rear to detune the handling. For racing, they took out the rear bulkhead and hand-made a new one from better, thicker steel, no pressing-crinkles in it, and fully brazed it in place in a slightly different position, for absolute stiffness. If James had the time he would also do this. James’ ‘little man’ also mounted gen racing tyres and REAL racing Girling discs and brake-pads (acquired by our famous racer via a back-door) and also better shocks. The factory deliberately drilled a stud in the head too close to the cylinder, causing the gasket to burn-out after 6 laps of Brands if you drove hard enough, allowing THEIR car to win, as everyone who didn’t know this was now parked at the end of the fastest straight, engines steaming. I have seen up to 6 cars all in a nice row, all blew at the same spot! Big mod moving it, took time, so a solid copper gasket was used for short-term use.
James also rigged the rear brake-light to be operated by hand, usually causing the chasing police-car to brake far to late, hoicking ’em off the road!
So now you know why the police thought James only stole race-prepared cars. When they eventually found the car some bright spark spotted the mods and they thus assumed this. No, HE modded the cars. He even stole and modded cars on order, for others. This is how he paid for his karting and race-cars. Well, apart from his moonlight job… Several top gangsters ordered the full monty James prepared race-cars for their private use.
The REAL Jaguar factory race-cars were handmade, every panel perfect, hi-tensile steels, thinner where they could, even titanium and alloy bits where they could get away with it, thicker where it was needed. Ditto engines, gearboxes, rear-axles, virtually not a component standard, thin-wall castings, magnesium where suitable, titanium etc. Girling were contracted to make special stuff for them, ditto the tyres etc. But it was all done so well the scrutineers either didn’t spot it or they knew Jaguar would slip them a thick envelope afterwards. Each car was said to be costed at £50,000 each, on the grid. A standard Jag was £2,500 or so?
Then they had to pay the drivers and the cost of a season’s racing!
Cheating – sorry, BENDING the rules – has always been part of racing in any form.
Two 30-something brothers (forget their names, were tall, dark and handsome) ran a building consortium and had just signed a multi-million deal, ordered a car each from ‘my little man with the drawings’ and he suggested £25,000 each car. He had to buy a complete car from a dealer and strip it to each component, totally rebuild it, all panels had the spot-welds drilled out to take the entire chassis to pieces, to be reworked and assembled perfectly in a home-made jig, full welds, not spot-welds. But in this case there were no titanium and magnesium components, these materials were still on a post-war governmental restricted list and barely available to the factories for the odd one-off special, so they were restricted to just a little hi-tensile steel for the bulkheads etc. He suggested a budget of £50,000 per car for a complete season (this included tools and spares, petrol, mechanics, the lot) but please have £75,000 to cover crashes etc., or racing on the continent (extra petrol, hotels, border-crossing bribes etc).
The brothers didn’t even blink.
And ordered the full monty. Twice.
Bernie Ecclestone, one of the group of racers and sponsors we socialised with (he ran a bike shop in my home town and we already knew each other) growled at me that the brothers were spending all that money already knowing they were going to come second. For they could still not beat the factory cars except on the odd occasion when something went wrong! “The bike-racers would go bonkers at such money!”
Believe me, there’s millions of stories like this that never will be told, as most are dead now. None seem to keep notes and write books, and I can only recall a fraction of what I heard on a handful of occasions. Reading the books by Hailwood, Redman and Read, it seems the bike guys were bad enough, but the car guys had humongous amounts of money and lived life fast and furious, there was any amount of girls around them too. Ever see any of the car boys sleeping in the back of a Transit in a lay-by, eating baked beans so they could afford the petrol to get to the next meeting? I’ve met top bike racers doing the GP circuits who lived all season like this. Only Agostini ever lived in a hotel and wined-and-dined like a King.
I met James via a doctor I knew, an ex car-racer, and he on occasion took me down to Brands to watch the practices as there was often bikes there too, we both loved bikes. Thanks to him being so well-acquainted with car-racers and sponsors I sat in the Brands clubhouse drinking tea and chomping on cake listening to very knowledgeable car boffins chatting. But I can’t recall details, per se, not 50 years after and only being a lad at the time and not interested in cars as such, knowing nothing of mechanical things – and I must bare in mind some what I do recall could get me sued by their estates!
I’m not condoning James, he was a villain, but as a person and a racer he was great. I liked him.