RESTORING AN ICON

Rusty parts to racing car

Part 1 - The beginning

A brief reminder for those of a certain age and possibly new information for younger readers might be relevant here. Peter Connew had been on the design team that John Surtees assembled together to design and build the very first Surtees F.1 car, the TS.7. Peter eventually left Edenbridge and decided to draw up his own car and he gathered together a group of young men to help him build it. I was one of that small team. After many trials and tribulations the car actually ran in the 1972 Austrian Grand Prix, driven by a young French driver named Francois Migault. The Formula 1 effort came to an end in October 1972 and the chassis was mated to a couple of different engines for the 1973 Formula 5000 season. In its final appearance, a broken shock absorber sent it into the armco at Brands Hatch and marked the end of the Connew story, until now.....

Several times through the years there have been articles in magazines about the Connew Formula 1 car and how it's designer, Peter Connew had retained many of the components of his creation in sheds at the bottom of his garden in Essex. After the car made its final appearance, the items that were of value to other racing teams or people were sold off and the rest of the car, which was of no use to anyone, became things to be kept, but rarely thought about. For a start, there were the two chassis. One being the original 'thin skinned' version that was clad, early in 1973, with the required deformable structures that F.1 had mandated for that year. Unfortunately, this chassis was never used although when the car was first seen, on a Townsend Thoresen ferry which formed the venue for the 1971 Racing Car Show, it was the 'thin skinned' chassis that people saw.

This was actually the first chassis that was made at the end of 1970 but not the chassis that was eventually to become the F.1 car. This second chassis was used throughout the racing life of the Connew and ended, as mentioned above, with a substantial dent in the right side of the tub where the right front wheel folded back into it on contact with the Brands Hatch armco barrier. Peter had retained both of these chassis, 'stored' for some of the time outside in the garden. Eventually the chassis were moved into one of the sheds and there they sat for many years, untouched, unloved and nigh on forgotten. I know that Peter always intended to restore the car but by 1978 I had moved to north Wales and we had very little contact for quite a time.

In 2011 I lost my wife, Heather, and very soon after I moved across to Malta with every intention of living out the rest of my life there. But things change and after a very happy 30 months, I made the decision to return, not to Wales but to England, where I hadn't actually lived for 42 years. I was free to live more or less anywhere, but knowing that neither Peter nor I were getting any younger, I thought it might be nice to come to the same area where Peter and his family had lived since the mid 1970s. I had this lofty idea that if I was nearby, I might be able to get Peter to consider making a start on putting 'the old girl' back together again.

I found a flat in Chelmsford, not too far from the Connews and at some point, I visited and asked if I might have a look at the remains of the project that dominated an unforgettable, if short, period of my life. On a rare visit to Peter's many years before, I had my photograph taken with the airbox of the car, which was a part of it that I was so proud of back in 1972, having been the sole manufacturer of the wooden buck of the airbox, then the fibreglass mold and finally the finished article. So, I asked Peter if I might take it back to my flat, remove all the old paint and make it look as good as new. He probably thought I was daft but take it home I did. It was so nice to have it in my possession after such a long time. Here you can see a picture of how it looked back in 2014.

Although Peter was still working full time, he seemed to develop an interest in doing a bit of restoration and it was at that point that a gentleman named Richard Hinton came on the scene. There is a forum on the internet called The Nostalgia Forum. I had been a member since the very early part of the century. The idea of the forum is for (mainly) elderly motor sport fans to discuss anything from earlier eras, as long as the subject was motor sport. Richard Hinton came up with an idea to create what he called film shows, wherein celebrities from the motor sport world would come along to the village hall in Hertfordshire, where Richard lives. These celebrities would give talks or be interviewed about their lives in racing, rallying or whatever and various films would be shown to an audience of around 100 people, virtually all of whom were Nostalgia Forum members. I had been to a few of these events and in conversation with Richard, at some point, it was suggested that Peter and I might like to bring a few bits of the racing car along to a subsequent film show. Initially, I know that Peter could hardly believe that anyone would be interested in bits of what had been, in truth, a not terribly successful racing car that came and went in a very short span of time well over forty years earlier. Little did he know!

Fairly soon after I joined the forum it became known about my connection with the Connew Formula 1 saga and I was both surprised and delighted to find that not only did a fair number of people remember the car, they thought very highly of it, which was extremely gratifying. Indeed, a certain Adam Ferrington admitted that he joined the Connew Supporters Club as a young man. So, we begun to sort out a few pieces to take along to the Easter film show in 2015. There were boxes of components buried in the sheds but time had clealy taken its toll, as can be seen by the attached photo. For me it was amazing to see and hold in my hands pieces of steel and aluminium that I had not set eyes on since 1972. We set to, initially with the intention of getting together half a dozen different items that we had actually manufactured in the workshop in Chadwell Heath, although at this point, almost six years later, I can't actually remember exactly what we decided to take.

However, at some point, Peter sorted out from its place in the shed, the front subframe that carried the front suspension of the car, the radiator and supported the nose section. The idea was to try to bolt it onto the chassis to see if it still fitted. It did, so we began the cleaning up process, remembering that this was a square section steel tubular structure which, although it did retain a little of its original chrome plating, was pretty rusty. When the wheel hit the chassis back in 1973, as well as causing a fair sized dent, it did distort the front end of the chassis. so bolting the subframe on was not totally straight-forward. By this time Peter had begun to consider that if we worked quite hard, we might be in a position actually to take the whole chassis to Richard's film show, even though it really wasn't in any state that ought to be seen by the general public. No matter, let's go for it.

Of course, these things just grow and grow and before too long we had located various other components that were connected to the aforementioned subframe and Peter became determined that we would take the chassis, complete with numerous pieces connected to it, to the Film Show, with a view to having something that people could actually sit in, turn the steering wheel and see the front wheels actually move. This seemed like a monumental task but nobody could ever accuse Peter Connew of aiming low....

Peter had discovered that there was a company near Billericay that could apply a type of paint to steel that would make it look as though it had some sort of surface finish, like chrome or nickel plating. The front subframe was rubbed down and prepared for this finish to be applied, as were the two top rocker arms and the two lower front wishbones. The anodised aluminium steering rack housing was still in pretty good condition and with a bit of cleaning up was working very nicely. We had both the steering wheels - the tiny one that Peter had made, (that Francois said was too small), and the one with the cut off bottom that Howden Ganley very kindly gave to Peter, on permanent loan, when we were at the British Grand Prix and which was used in the car from then on. The instrument panel was okay, given that it was aluminium, and several of the original instruments were found, although not the rev counter but Peter sourced a suitable sized one and this was fitted, along with brake and clutch fluid reservoirs and master cylinders.

Steering columns were around and quite quickly the front end of the car was bolted back together, much to our delight. Also, we found that the beautifully constructed front uprights were still in pretty good condition and with some cleaning up they were bolted to the suspension arms. Brake discs were in poorer condition, being cast iron, but even they were cleaned up as well as was possible whereas the brake calipers, being aluminium, had fared much better. All these separate items complete with wheel shafts still fitted together just as they had all those years ago and thus, the front wheels could be fitted. It wasn't sensible to try to fit the front shock absorbers and springs so the front end was made 'solid' by the simple expedient of two pieces of wood of suitable length. The original slick tyres were in pretty poor shape but we found that the unused wet tyres cleaned up very nicely and amazingly, held their air, once inflated.

I must mention our good friend Ralph Colmar, who regularly travelled to Essex from his home in Bristol simply to help us get things sorted out and cleaned up.

Rather than having the rear of the chassis dragging on the floor, we made up a suitably sized block of wood that held the chassis level at the film show and we fitted a wooden panel at the back because at that point we had done nothing to the chassis and it was a bit grubby inside the rear section. It was cleaned up in the area where the 'drivers' would be sitting at the film show. Peter was, and is, very keen that people should be able to get in the car and gain some idea of what it must have been like to be Francois Migault. As can be seen in the attached picture, apart from the battered chassis, all the components that are attached to the front subframe look absolutely sparkling and Peter is to be both congratulated and admired for the time (and money) that got us to this stage.

So, on Saturday, May 2nd 2015, the Connew F.1 car, or at least, part of it, was seen in public for the first time since October 1972. But as it turned out, this was only the beginning.

GALLERY - here are a few more images, with brief descriptions

           

Return to the racing images page or move on to the the next part of the story of the rebuild.