“Sliding it was like touching the hem of god’s Nomex” Charles Lucas recalls. This ’60s hotshoe made a name in F3 before ruffling feathers in a 250F. Luke recounts a busy driving career spanning Formula Three to historics. Charles Lucas recalls, for Ian Wagstaff, the joy of racing his 250F plus the high jinks when he shared that Pinner Rd flat with the likes of Piers Courage and Frank Williams. Photography LAT/Rex Features.
It all seemed out of place. In the corner of the Silverstone paddock was a Maserati 250F – then a far cry from the ERAs and Bentleys that graced VSCC meetings – parked next to a Plymouth Road Runner. Sitting in the sedan was a trendy young man reading a Superman comic.
The young man’s friends were just as puzzled as the VSCC stalwarts. As part of the F3 ‘set’, Charles Lucas had a reputation as a front-runner, capable of charging from last, following a spin, to first in an international race at the same track. So, what was he doing at a VSCC meeting and with a car barely tolerated as an ‘historic’, having been admitted to such racing just over a year before?
In 1964 ‘Luke’ had been “the new boy tagging along” with the Formula Three crowd – Piers Courage, Jonathan Williams – that was based behind motor trader Cliff Davis’ lot on the Goldhawk Road, London. The team, Anglo- Swiss Racing, had a pair of ‘clone’ Lotus 31s built by Roy Thomas. “Parts usually arrived at night, hot from the back door of Lotus’ stores,” Luke says. “I did not ask questions.” ‘Tom the Weld’ also created a 23 for Charles, later becoming his éminence grise when Luke formed his own team.
“When I first walked into Cliff’s premises, my future unfolded,” Luke recalls. “On one side was Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley, who was manager of the shambolic Scirocco F1 team. On the other was Roy Thomas, who I thought was a genius, knocking up chassis and wishbones, anything you wanted. Roy Pike also had a shed there. It was a little racing coterie, heaven on earth.”
Luke had first got to knowWilliams during a boring exercise at the Royal College of Aeronautical & Automobile Engineering and soon became part of the circle that was based around Davis’ yard. The fact that both Charles and Piers had been at Eton probably helped: “Piers was a lot brighter than me and a year older, so I did not know him very well but we did meet through the school automotive club, of which I was secretary. It was at Eton that all of the trouble started and years of irresponsibility followed.”
Luke moved into a flat on the Pinner Road, Harrow. Fellow inmates included Courage, JonathanWilliams and Charles Crichton-Stuart, while one Frank Williams could be found sleeping on the sofa and dealing in second-hand cars. “Nothing was too much trouble for Frank,” says Luke, recalling how he looked after him following “an attempt to tunnel my way out of Brands via the bank at Clearways in Piers’ Lotus 22”. Horsley and Innes Ireland were also resident for a time: “Piers kept a Merlyn in a pool of oil at the bottom of the garden where we spent our time fiddling with things we knew precious little about.”
Williams and Courage were racing Merlyns in Formula Junior and sportscars, so it did not take much for Charles to be persuaded to buy a car of the same marque. There was an instant rapport between Piers and Luke, a close friendship that was to last until the former’s tragic death in the 1970 Dutch GP, Luke acting as best man when Piers married Earl Howe’s daughter Sally.
Charles was due to come into a sizeable inheritance on reaching 21. His grandfather had devised the idea of pre-stressed concrete during the Great War. Luke’s father was keen on motor racing and would go to Le Mans, probably more for the parties: “After he took me to Aintree in 1957 [where Charles first saw the very 250F that he would one day own], all thought of academic achievement went out of the window.”
Piers was easily able to persuade Luke to form an F3 team with his inheritance. For ’65, a pair of ex-works F2 Brabham BT10s was converted into F3s.To the uninformed spectator, it appeared an impressive operation. The smart blue, red and white livery of the cars was matched by seemingly everything else, even the drivers’ sweaters. ‘C Lucas Engineering’ sounded serious yet that masked the fact that these were young men enjoying themselves. But Luke points out that “it was not all about ‘fun’ for Piers and Jonathan.
They were serious about their racing – bar the odd hiccup like Zolder” where ‘The Eng’ had its maiden win. Legend has it that Williams was so drunk the night before that he fell asleep on a billiard table. The team seemed by then to have too many drivers; an old Lotus 22 had been retained but Peter Gethin had come on board, apparently because Luke fancied his girlfriend. There were those in the paddock who were not impressed and thought Lucas, Courage and Williams J were acting above themselves.
“We had no business plan as such,” Luke recalls. “I only did it because I was fond of Jonathan and Piers. I did not select drivers on their ability but because I wanted to be around them. Luckily, they happened to be quite good racing drivers as well. The same with Peter; he was a nice guy. It was hardly a way to run a team.”
Shortly after Zolder, CLE entered the prestigious F3 race that accompanied the F1 Silverstone International Trophy. Piers and Jonathan tussled with the Chequered Flag’s Roy Pike. Williams retired but Courage scored a magnificent victory. The team had established itself, while Piers was on his way to Formula One. Note that ‘the guvnor’ is not mentioned in all this. While he still swanned into the paddock in a succession of flashy road cars, his own season had come to an end. He had run with the leaders at Croft, only to spin, and had hit problems at Oulton Park. At Pau he retired after spinning 12 times in the wet having qualified a respectable fifth. It was later discovered that the car had suspension problems, but his confidence was shattered and he did not race again that year.
By the end of ’1965, Luke’s operation was arguably the top F3 team, which led to Colin Chapman asking it to enter the Lotus works cars for Courage and Pike: “We brought a smart transporter from Ian Walker; it had never crossed my mind that crossing the Channel with it would cost a lot more than just a trailer. It ended in tears at the end of the year after a spat with Mr Chapman over our contract. Andrew Ferguson ran another 41 for Jackie Oliver, which purported to be a development car, so we lost half of our Firestone money, which was a lot.”
While all of this was going on, Luke had also shown free thinking with a diametrically opposed form of racing. Also driving in F3 was Boley Pittard, who, over a blackberry and apple pie in Jim’s Cafe, mentioned that he’d heard of an old F1 car on sale for about £400 in Italy: “I didn’t even know what type of car it was. I had a Fiat estate, got a trailer and sent him to buy it. A week later he came back with a battered estate (“a slight altercation with an Alp”) and a dilapidated racer.
“We hooked it behind Cliff Davis’ 1957 Cadillac Eldorado and towed it down the Goldhawk Road. I let the clutch out, clouds of muck came out of the exhaust and, extraordinarily, it started, giving me a fright. Not realising the fragile state of a seven-year old sintered clutch, I went straight into the back of one of the proboscis of the Cadillac, so it all started on the wrong foot.” Coincidentally, the clutch had expired on this very Maserati, one of three ‘lightweights’, when it had so inspired Charles by leading the ’1957 British GP “that it had changed my life”. Disdain was shown by everybody in Davis’ yard: “The gang thought it was a heap of junk.”
Piers reckoned that they could have acquired a couple of Cosworth engines for the money. Luke could not win: “I was also disapproved of by the VSCC people because I was a young, modern racing driver, intruding on their territory.”
With the formation of CLE, the clan transferred to Railway Arches, Ravensbrook. When BRP closed its Highgate works, the team moved into there: “The 250F was just stuck in the corner and was considered to be my toy. Piers did one lap in it, got out and said, ‘that was hell’.”
Luke successfully returned to modern racing in ’1966 with a 41 but says he “had trouble getting in it”. ‘Tom the Weld’ was still angry about Lotus and reckoned that he could make a better car than the 41. The result was CLE’s Titan: “Roy Pike put it, unpainted, on pole at Silverstone first time out… then I took him off at Stowe on the first lap and won. That was when we got our downdraught engines working and everybody had to have one. Roy Thomas discovered that if you drilled the heads, screwed and stuck the pipes in with Araldite you could achieve a much cleaner airflow into the motor. We sold a lot of 1-litre MAE units in a busy six-month period.”
By then, Dick Crosthwaite had rebuilt the 250F, which was driven to victory in period by Fangio and Behra. Over three years, Luke won 12 races: “It is extraordinary that we were so casual about the Maserati. If I’d known what it would be worth, I might have driven it differently. Sliding around Woodcote was a spiritual experience, like touching the hem of God’s Nomex.’
By 1971, however, Luke was having trouble with the engineering business, which had by then moved to Huntingdon, to the relief of the Highgate Hill locals who suffered every time the dynamometer was run: “I had creditors to pay and knew Neil [Corner] would look after the Maser. I remember seeing it go down the road and thinking that I had made a terrible mistake.
Neil occasionally let me drive it, but it was not the same.” At the Nürburgring, Charles had to apologise to Corner for failing to resist the temptation to “nudge” a W196 being driven by Karl Kling. Fangio, who was present that day, ran his hand over the 250F’s bonnet. “Es bueno verte de nuevo,” he remarked. Charles said it was good to see him to. The translator gave him a look: “He’s talking to the car, not to you.”
“For some reason,” Luke recalls, “poor old [Lord] Hesketh bought a Birdcage, perhaps to keep me happy. That was wonderful, so I threw it around. Once at the Österreichring, I was so far ahead that Alexander put out a sign saying ‘cocktails’, so I stoped for a quick drink.”
CLE continued in F3 until the formula changed in ’1970. It was also successful making Formula Fords, many going to the US, but depended on replacing broken bits to make a profit: “Business dried up with the fuel crisis. We were relying on exports but the phone stopped ringing.” Luke eventually returned to Yorkshire to become a “useless farmer”, but not before a spell as motorhome driver for the fledgling Hesketh team.
In 2007, Charles was reunited with his 250F when Corner held a “birthday party” for it at Croft. He found that he could no longer drive it with the same verve. Many years earlier, Patrick Lindsay, a doyen of 250F historic racers, had noticed that Superman comic. He was suitably critical, so Luke asked him what he was reading. “Madame Bovary,” came the reply. “That probably explains why I drive like Superman and you like Madame Bovary,” was Luke’s retort.
‘IF I’D KNOWN WHAT THE MASERATI WOULD BE WORTH, I MIGHT HAVE DRIVEN IT DIFFERENTLY’
Clockwise, from above: ’60s fashion shoot with Ferrari 275GTS and Boley Pittard to Lucas’ right, and Courage to the fore; Maserati with the team transporter; enjoying the 250F in period and on its ‘birthday’ at Croft in 2007.
From top left: Piers Courage at Oulton Park in Lucas’ Formula Three Brabham, 1965; ‘Luke’ in 2007; leading Derek Bell at Mallory Park, in ’1967; in his historic-racing days.
‘I SELECTED DRIVERS I WANTED TO BE AROUND. LUCKILY, THEY WERE QUITE GOOD AS WELL’