First published in Classic & Sportscar, August 1988
Jack Sears is custodian of his family’s collection – which includes not only racing Bentleys, but veteran Mercedes, Rolls-Royces and a Ferrari GTO. Philip Porter met him and discovered its background.
Jack Sears’ collection is a family affair. His father Stanley was responsible for building it up over many years, and it’s Jack’s and brother Eric’s pleasure to keep it going, acting as guardians while Mr Sears Senior enjoys his retirement abroad.
‘Gentleman Jack’, as he became known in racing circles, was a gifted and able driver during the fifties and sixties: ‘ We used to spend our whole lives on opposite lock,’ he recalled wistfully. Even as a child he had a pedal car when other kids were struggling to control their tricycles, and the cars he raced – GTOs, Lightweight E-types, Cobras and GT40s – were among the most desirable and exciting.
‘My father spent much of his childhood time with his mother’s chauffeur, sitting in the front of her 1910 24hp Renault Landaulette. He says he knew how to drive, in theory, at the age of eight. He gained an engineering degree at Cambridge, and wanted to be apprenticed at Rolls-Royce – that was his great aim. But he went into the family shoemaking business in Northampton instead.’
Stanley’s first cars included a Calcott, Alvises, a Lancia Lambda and a V8 La Salle, but he ensured mum kept up with the motoring times, and persuaded her to buy the Leyland Eight saloon from the 1922 Olympia Motor Show stand, a car The Autocar described as ‘the lion of Olympia’. When he took it for service at Brooklands, Parry Thomas took him round the track ‘at well over 100mph in a demonstration Leyland Eight open three-seater, boatcar. Of course, I fell for it and my mother was able to help me buy at an advantageous price. When I took this car back to Cambridge it was the envy of everyone!'
In 1932 his mother bought a Rolls-Royce Phantom II chassis with body built for her by Arthur Mulliner of Northampton. When the travelling Rolls-Royce inspector happened to be in the area with one of the new, short-chassis Phantom II Continental models, he called in. It had an ultra-lightweight body with fabric-covered roof. Stanley fell for it.
‘I well remember’, he later wrote, ‘going by train to London to collect it. Upon arrival at Euston I told my wife I was going to say something to the taxi driver that I had always wanted to say – “take me to Rolls-Royce, Conduit Street!”’
‘That,’ states Jack, ‘was the beginning of his love affair with Rolls-Royce. He went to the Rolls-Royce schools and knew all about the cars.’
The lightweight body developed annoying rattles and shake at high speeds and it was later replaced by a new 3 ½-litre Bentley chassis which he drove in that form, with only a tester’s seat added, back home. He had a two-door, two-seater coupé body built.
In 1935 he moved south and acquired a farm. Now with storage space, he went collecting crazy. Although he had heard of the London-to-Brighton run he had never witnessed it. Now being in the area he watched the ’36 Run and, well and truly smitten, travelled to Brighton to try to acquire an eligible car. To his surprise nobody wanted to part with their machines but he was put on the track of a Darracq which he purchased with a ‘very small cheque’ and drove back. A complete restoration followed, more mechanical than cosmetic, but the performance from the single-cylinder 8hp engine was disappointing.
In search of something more exciting he tracked down the 1903 Clement Talbot which remains in the collection today, residing currently with Eric and used by the family for the Brighton Run. It has a four-cylinder 18hp engine and a body made from teak by Paris coachbuilders Rothschild et Fils. The body, including wooden mudguards, was in good basic condition – protected by many layers of varnish. Sears, though struck by the performance, realised that a total rebuild was again required. He decided that it was to be ‘up to new standard in every respect, particularly in view of the beautiful coachwork which was an open four-seater, rear-entrance tonneau body’.
Twelve coats of varnish, each flatted by hand, brought out the grain of the wood. Upholstery was red with red bonnet lined with blue and yellow. Sears believes he was the first person in this country to restore a veteran to this standard.
It created something of a sensation, though not everyone approved: ‘Many of the owners of the scruffies,’ he later wrote in his notes on the cars for the benefit of the family, ‘scoffed and said that cars should be left in their original state. I reminded them that when the cars were in their original owners’ hands, they were meticulously maintained by a chauffeur or a groom, and re-varnished every year or two! It was not long before my example was copied and cars began to be well turned-out.’
Jack comments that, ‘for a car of its age it was really powerful and quite advanced. It has propshaft drive, rather than chains which many had in those days. It’s a very straightforward engine of 2.7 litres but it has tremendous pulling power. It’s really quick for a veteran car – it’s comfortable and takes four people in great style.
‘The four-speed gearchange is unusual in that it’s in a straight line with a neutral between each gear, so you engage first and when you want second, you single-clutch, see it through neutral and into second… and so on in a straight line. They go in smooth as silk but you have to double-clutch coming back.
‘It’s an extremely attractive veteran car to drive, and I can see why my father was in ecstasy over it after the very slow Darracq. I can see why he dropped the Darracq like a sack of potatoes!’
In the thirties his father had replaced the Bentley with a Packard on which Jack received his first steering lesson, sitting on his knee. Following a demonstration, a Cord superseded the Packard but this was found to be lethal in the wet with brakes that did not match the performance, and so a drophead 4 ½ -litre Derby Bentley followed. When this car met with an accident, he was lent a Phantom III Continental by his friend Major Cox of the Rolls-Royce sales department at Conduit Street.
He was delighted with this car and managed to acquire it. Indeed he was so pleased with his Phantom III that he managed to persuade his mother to exchange her 1932 PII for a 1938 PIII.
‘We went to the Motor Show at Earls Court and she chose from the Thrupp and Maberly stand a beautiful, close-coupled, four-seater saloon with division and built-in luggage trunk.’
‘It’s been in the family since 1938 and has only done 29,500 miles. The interior is elaborately fitted out with a cocktail cabinet, a vanity set in the armrest and an electric operation for the division and rear blind. It’s a very fine car.’
Both Phantom IIIs ran perfectly until the Second World War broke out, when they were laid up and carefully maintained. Mrs Sears died in 1952 and her PIII, which had only covered 6000 miles, passed to Jack’s father. The car was re-cellulosed in 1959 but otherwise is totally original and drives beautifully today.
A nationwide drive for scrap metal began with the outbreak of war and it was obvious to Stanley Sears that many older cars would meet their fate because of it. Under the acquisition scheme of the Veteran Car Club, he was instrumental in purchasing a large number of genuine veteran cars and storing them in his outbuildings. Personally, he bought many Rolls-Royces.
At one time he had six Silver Ghosts, four 20hps, one 20/25, two PIs and a PII in store. After the war he sold some and restored others, including a 1905 four-cylinder 20hp chassis, a 1912 Silver Ghost Hooper Limousine and the 1923 20hp Lonsdale car.
As Stanley’s sons were particularly keen enthusiasts themselves and enjoyed sharing the driving of the Clement Talbot on the Brighton Run (while father piloted the Mors), he decided to acquire another eligible machine so that each could have one to drive. Thus he purchased from C. R. Abbott the 1904 Mercedes four-cylinder 24hp car with replica two-seater racing body, which had been restored and used successfully in many veteran car events. It’s an 18/28 model with a 4,028cc engine and VCC certificate number 12. It is said to have a maximum speed of 65-70mph and was raced with success at Brooklands from 1906 to 1908 by Tom Faulkner. Mr Sears acquired it in 1950.
‘This car,’ states Jack, ‘is a little unusual in that it has the Mercedes “scroll” clutch, which is quite unlike any other clutch made before or since. It’s really a spring which winds itself around a drum so that when you put your foot down to the floor on the clutch, the spring is released around the drum. When you lift your foot off the clutch, the spring tightens up on the drum and gives you your drive. They have to be very well lubricated.
‘It’s a new experience driving that one because it has chain drive, but it has good pulling power and cruises happily at 40-45mph.
‘The brakes are good. The location of the front axle is elementary and therefore you tend to get wander over rough roads. The trick is not to keep on correcting the wander – otherwise you finish up by going down the road in a series of “Zs”!
‘You just let the car find its own way along. It’s a fun car to drive and goes very well for its year. A top speed in the sixties in 1904 really was quite quick.
W.O. Bentley was against adding superchargers to his cars and when Tim Birkin wanted to, he had to persuade Dorothy Paget to finance a team of three ‘Blower Bentleys’ for Le Mans. Although very fast and quite successful they were, as ‘W.O.’ feared not always reliable and did not win, always Birkin’s dream. Stanley Sears purchased one of the cars in 1955 and Jack told me about it.
‘Tim Birkin drove our car in the 1930 race with Jean Chassagne, and Birkin took the lap record at 89.69mph but the car retired following a stirring duel with Rudi Caracciola in the SSK Mercedes. It’s a 1929 4½-litre, supercharged Bentley with a top speed of 126mph, and it was the number two team car. It finished eighth in the 1929 Irish GP, was fourth the following year, took the class record in the 1930 Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man and finished second in 1930 in the BRDC 500 Mile race at Brooklands driven by Dr Benjafield and E. R. Hall.
‘We’ve never raced it but we’ve done a lot of hillclimbs and speed trials with it over the years. It’s a very “macho” car and really is a “Boy’s Own Special”! The car requires a lot of physical effort to drive because it doesn't handle as well as the 8-litre. The steering is heavier, the gearchange is heavier, it’s heavier on the brakes – it’s a strong man’s car.
‘When you think Tim Birkin was not a particularly strong man but a very wiry individual, you really marvel at the way he threw that car about, on circuits that defy description. In one of the sister cars he raced in the Pau GP, round the streets of the French town, finishing second to a Bugatti. That must have been a monumental achievement.
‘It’s a car that pumps the adrenalin and makes you feel part of history when you drive it.’
In 1959 Stanley Sears took the supercharged 4½ -litre to Herrentals in Belgium, where on a closed road he covered the flying mile at a speed of 125.7mph. The same weekend Forrest Lycett achieved 141mph in his aforementioned 8-litre. When Lycett died Stanley Sears acquired this car as well.
The chassis was completed late in 1931 and was delivered to Forrest Lycett in 1932. It is fitted with a six-cylinder engine of 7,983cc, with four valves per cylinder operated by overhead camshafts. Originally the wheelbase was 12ft but was shortened to 11 and the weight reduced from 50 to 33cwt. It was fitted with an open four-seater body by Corsica but later was given a lightweight Duralumin-framed racing two-seater body. Over the years the car was continually developed by L. C. Mckenzie to improve performance.
By fitting three carburettors, special high compression pistons and other similar work, the engine was encouraged to produce approximately 340bhp.
‘I’ve never raced it because we agreed we wouldn’t. But I can remember seeing Leslie Johnson racing it with some verve at Silverstone. We’ve done speed trials and the odd hillclimb and sprint. The performance is really sensational considering its age. It brings tears to the eyes of many modern car drivers, particularly on acceleration. Performance is adequate not only to keep up with modern traffic but to cruise with it on motorways at comparable speeds. In fact, I go from Norfolk to Silverstone in the 8-litre in the same time as I take in my modern car.’
Jack started driving tractors at the age of nine and had learnt all about crash gearboxes on a 1914 FN by the time he was 12. His first road car was a 1948 Morgan 4/4 which, with his father’s encouragement, he used for driving tests. In 1950 he ‘did’ his first race in an MG TC.
In the next 15 years he drove a wide variety of cars in a wide variety of events. Until 1955 he was a privateer but then joined the BMC Works Rally Team until the end of ’59. As well as rallying he raced for the team and in 1958 won the first ever British Saloon Car Championship in an Austin A105. The following year he raced a Healey in national events.
Above: The Austin A105 that Sears drove to overall victory in the inaugural British Saloon Car Championship, credit Aylesburyape
‘At the end of ’59, I decided I was a better racer than rally driver and when my old rival and friend Tommy Sopwith had retired from racing in ’59 and formed his Equipe Endeavour, he asked me to drive for him in 1960 with the late Michael Parkes. So I then concentrated on racing.
‘I was with him for three seasons and during that time drove 3.8 Jaguar Mark 2s, one of the earliest E-types, a DB4GT Aston and did one race in his 250GT Ferrari.
‘When, after three good years, he closed his team, I thought that was probably the time to stop. But out of the blue came a call from Jeff Uren of John Willment Automobiles asking me if I would drive for them. Initially I drove a Cortina GT and subsequently a Ford Galaxie. I drove for them in ’63 and ’64 and in the latter year the Cobra story started and I had a lot of fun with those. Apart from a Lotus Cortina, I raced a 4.7 Cobra and the Willment Cobra coupé.
‘Then in 1965 I was given a Ford contract to drive as number two to Jimmy Clark in the Lotus Cortina team doing the British Saloon Car Championship, and to drive the Shelby Daytona Cobras in all the World Endurance races. The team won the World Manufacturers’ GT Championship that year which broke the Ferrari GTO domination.’
Talk of GTOs brought us to the Sears example: ‘In 1970 I was staying with Neil and Freda Corner. Neil had two GTOs at that time, and he took me down the road in this one. It was a car I had raced, so all the memories flooded back.
‘He said he didn’t really want to keep them both so if I was interested he’d sell me this one – too good a chance to miss, of course!
‘It was owned from new by John Coombs and his team raced it in ’62 and ’63. It was driven by Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori, Michael Parkes and myself in a whole variety of races. It finished second in the 1962 TT driven by Hill and a year later it finished second again, driven by Parkes. I also drove for Maranello Concessionaires.
‘I think it was an amazing achievement to create a shape that has stood the test of time. That car doesn’t look outdated and it stops school kids absolutely dead in their tracks. They can’t believe it when they see it.
‘The performance is sensational. They were geared to run at 175mph at Le Mans. Its handling is so good. That’s the other sensational thing about the GTO – the amazing surefootedness. It has such a positive, smooth gearbox. A GTO has its own charisma, I think.’
In 1965 Jack Sears retired from motor racing to concentrate on his other love, farming.
‘In recent years we’ve reduced the number of cars considerably and basically kept the ones that are the most fun to drive, plus the Phantom III because of its old family connections.’
With characteristic modesty, he concluded: ‘We have such great contrasts. It’s not the biggest collection, but I think we’ve got some interesting cars.’
Fittingly the last word should go to Stanley Sears, to whom the old car movement owes so much. He decided he wanted to preserve cars for three very sound reasons. Firstly because they fascinated him, secondly because he enjoyed driving them and thirdly, because he recognised that engineering skill and quality of workmanship had been expended upon them.