THE CONNEW STORY

In the early 1970s, motor racing, even Formula 1, was a very different world to what we see today. Just how big those differences were are explained in the following story......

Even to those who would have to admit to being REAL F.1 Anoraks, the name Connew is probably totally meaningless. A single entry in any F.1 records book does not even begin to scratch the surface of what is, I believe, a remarkable story. Of course, I am biased, having been one of the three major members of the Peter Connew Motor Racing team. However, I think anyone who reads it will have to admit, it was a very brave effort.

Peter Connew, who at the time was about 24 years old, had trained as a design draughtsman, and had been working for a company that made, amongst other things, record decks. I was a couple of years younger, and was teaching. We both lived in East London, although 10 miles apart, and rarely actually met. (We are cousins, I should point out.) The odd thing was that I had been an F.1 fanatic since the cradle, while Peter was never in the slightest bit interested in racing cars. Big yankee saloons were his thing. Imagine my utter disbelief when he called round one day to tell me that he had changed jobs, and was now working for John Surtees; working on the design modifications to his new F.1 McLaren, and then on the very first Surtees F.1 car. If you look at a picture of that McLaren, you will see that it had very distinctive side pannier type pods on the side of the car; Peter was responsible for the design of those tanks.

Peter was a fiercely independent character, (still is !) and unknown to anyone, shortly after he begun working for Surtees, he begun the design work for an F.1 car of his own. Of course, he is by no means the first person to feel that he they could do the job on their own, but most never get past the drawing board. Peter did !

I never knew anything about the project until early February in 1971, when I was invited to visit the home of a friend of Peter, in Barking, Essex. Peter took me upstairs, and there, sitting on the floor of an empty room, was a beautifully rivetted, shiny F.1 chassis. I simply couldn't believe my eyes. Nor my ears, when Peter asked me if I would like to join the team ! Would I ? I would have walked over hot coals to be part of such a project.

The outline of the deal was that there was a second chassis in the jigs (in another friend's garage) and all being well, the car should be on the grid at Monaco four months later. Isn't optimism a wonderful thing ? My first job was to make a large scale model of the car, which Peter could take around, suitably painted, to show potential sponsors. By this time, Peter had left Surtees, and was working in a small engineering firm, which enabled him to make some small components in his lunch hour which we could never have afforded to have made commercially. We had a small lathe in the garage, but it was very limited in its capacity.

At this point, I should mention the other two members of the team, both of whom were part of it before me. Roger Doran was a shopfitter, and meticulous in everything he did, while Ronnie Olive was a useful man with engineering. In March, we had left the garage of Peter's friend JG, mainly because his wife was getting a bit bolshy about the noise etc. Peter scouted around, and soon found a small, (very small !) workshop just off the Romford Road at Chadwell Heath, and we were very proud as we moved all our stuff in, because we were now an independent outfit.

I left teaching at Easter '71, with the expectation that 'any day now' the guaranteed sponsorship deal would appear, and we would be on our way ! To make some money, I went to work for the Co-op, in the Funeral dept; while Roger and Ron carried on with their respective jobs. This meant that our time in the workshop was limited to weekends and evenings (as I recall, we worked 3 nights each week) and so wives and girlfriends had to be content with rarely seeing us. Under these conditions things get done terribly slowly, and it became obvious very soon that not only were we not going to make Monaco, but we were going to be very lucky to even make Monza !

I must stress that although we were no more than a bunch of East End lads, working in a lock-up, this was no bodge job. Every aluminium part on the car was anodised, and the steel was chrome plated. All our welding was done by Roger's father, known to us as 'Daddy D', who was an expert welder, and also bought even more enthusiasm to the project. Round about the middle of 1971 we lost Ronnie Olive from the team, as he was not very happy about the fact that 'when' we went full-time on the thing, there wouldn't be any overtime paid. Ron was a good union man, but didn't really understand how motor racing worked. I still recall the discussions. “Look Ron, if we are getting the car ready to leave for a race on Tuesday, and things are not done by Monday 5 p.m you can't just say 'Knocking off time' and go home. It just doesn't work like that.” So Ron left.

As a woodwork teacher, I was going to be responsible for making the wooden patterns for the bodywork etc. And then the fibreglassing. Did I know anything at all about pattern making or fibreglassing ? Not a scrap. Peter's attitude was that there is nothing magic in this world. Common sense, application and half an ounce of intelligence will overcome most obstacles. Of course, he was right. Most of the British F.1 teams at that time had their bodywork made by Specialised Mouldings, but there was no way we could afford anything like that, so it was 'do it yourself'. I carved out the nose section from a light, but very stable timber called Jelutong. With no special equipment imagine the problems in getting a multi-curved, shaped block of wood and filler nearly a metre square to be symmetrical about its centre line !!! Quite !! Anyway, it got done; as did the cockpit surround. We contemplated a fibreglass rear wing, but shelved it in favour of aluminium.

The problem confronting us was always the same; money, or rather, the lack of it. Peter was pouring every penny he earned into the project, but the rest of us could contribute merely time and effort. Of course, a fiver here, and a tenner there would buy quite a bit of material in those days, but the major items required for the car, engine, gearbox, petrol tanks, wheels as well as simpler things like exhaust pipes and windscreens were simply way beyond our meagre resources. Still, the project never stopped because there was always something that needed doing.

It must have been quite late in 1971 when Peter, through contacts made during his time with Surtees, managed to borrow an engine (Cosworth DFV of course) and Hewland DG 300 gearbox. Sadly, they were non-working ones, but real nevertheless. At least we could now put the thing together. I can still remember my excitement on checking the engine number (906) and thumbing back through my Autosports, to find that it was the engine used by Jochen Rindt when he won his first GP in the U.S. in 1969 !! So the car was not a runner, but with some borrowed wheels, at least we could put it together, which would give us something to show to anyone who might have considered sponsoring us.

Peter believed that the only colour racing cars should be was red. So the car was taken to a local sprayer and painted. A very vivid memory (amongst many) is of a winter Sunday evening when the car was taken off the stands and put on the floor, on wheels, for the fist time. O.K, it had a dummy engine and gearbox, no exhausts, no airbox (I hadn't made it yet) and steel bars instead of shock absorbers, but it looked GREAT. It must have amazed the local residents when a group of young men pushed this strange looking racing car out of the yard, onto the main London Road, and onto the forecourt of a local garage. You see, it was the only place with enough light to take a photo. I still treasure that first photo. The following morning, in daylight, we pushed the car out onto the public highway again, and into the car park of the local library, where there was a nice background for some more photos. These photos, plus my model, made up Peter's sponsorship attracting kit, which he carried around wherever he went.

Sponsorship was hard to come by. You can't really blame company directors for being sceptical when they heard how and where the car had been built, although the occasional visitors to the garage (e.g. Stuart Turner, who at the time was Ford Motor Company competition dept head) were always extremely impressed by the quality of our efforts.

It was generally known that Yardley, who had sponsored the B.R.M team for a few years were becoming disillusioned with them. Peter got me to paint up our model in the Yardley 'Black Label' aftershave colours, and off he went to see them. Of course, we did not know that the deal that took them to McLaren had already been done, but Peter's approach sufficiently impressed them for them to ring Phil Kerr of McLaren and ask if they might help us out in some way. To their eternal credit, they did too, as you will learn later.

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