John Sprinzel on speedwell

John Sprinzel co-founded Speedwell in 1957 to race-prepare BMC A-series-engined cars. He recalls tuning by pipe smoke, working with Graham Hill and giving BMC big ideas.


‘I was the one who employed Graham Hill, back in the early days of Speedwell,’ says John Sprinzel. ‘He was a terrific engineer, and had been engines boss at Team Lotus, where he had a great reputation developing the Coventry Climax, although I’d known him back when he was an apprentice at Smiths Instruments and his sport was rowing. But he wanted to race the cars he was building, and Colin Chapman wouldn’t give him a drive as so long as he employed Hill – he needed him in the workshop, he was simply too good an engineer.

‘I knew Colin, and we came to an agreement – Graham would come to work for Speedwell, freeing him from his contract of employment at Lotus, so that he could be signed as a driver for 1958. Hill’s deputy at Lotus – a certain Keith Duckworth – replaced him in the engines job, and the rest, as they say, is history. Keith founded Cosworth and Graham went on to win the “triple crown of motor sport” [winning the Formula One World Championship, Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours].

‘Although Graham was a superb development engineer, it was mostly George Hulbert who designed Speedwell’s engines, as he’d been the one who built my racing Austin A35. George did his cylinder head testing by literally blowing smoke – he was a pipesmoker – through the port and into his reshaped heads, with a Perspex cover over the other side so he really could watch the shape of the airflow through them.

‘This built on the work of Harry Weslake. When I worked at Healey and my own garage at Lancaster Mews prior to Speedwell, I had Harry design me a prototype cylinder head which we then copy-mouldmilled for our production versions. Speedwell also used this process, but as Harry had designed the A-series’ heads originally, I figured he’d be the right person to do a modified version. Both my Weslake heads and Speedwell’s Hulbert-developed versions were made by the same team of engineers, who knew little about complete engines but were really good with the auto-shaping tools.

‘By the time George Hulbert devised the Speedwell Elf, he’d started building engines using a sealed, soundproofed engine brake dynamometer, which is what gave him such an advantage.

Hardly anyone else had a dyno back then, and even the one at BMC’s Abingdon works was barely used. They were very noisy in operation, and with Speedwell being based in suburban London, it was imperative to find a way to use it without anyone overhearing. George had a background in structural engineering. He was American, even though he went to an English public school, and his family’s business back in the US was in the concrete industry, rescuing bridges that were about to collapse among other things. But he was an absolutely brilliant, natural engineer who knew exactly how to get what he wanted out of an engine.

‘He got David Jones to design Speedwell’s camshafts, which was the key to the Speedwell A-series’ superior torque. Dave’s cams were particularly good for low-rev power, while those used by folks like rival Mini tuners Downton Engineering and Cooper got screaming revs but were pretty useless at low revs. This wasn’t very good for rally and road cars, but was better suited for racing. ‘I remember thinking that the Elf wasn’t worth Speedwell bothering with, because it was heavier than an ordinary Mini, but I know why it came about. Back in the very early days of the Mini, long before the Cooper or Harold Radford’s conversions, we used to work with Wood & Pickett. They trimmed the interior of my Sprite and some of the early Speedwell Mini conversions we built. Wood & Pickett was very successful in the early Sixties – it had a trimming shop in a pedestrian walkway leading up to Wembley Stadium, which helped with publicity.

‘We had a lot of customers from the London entertainment scene back then. All three Walker Brothers bought Mini Vans from us with big sound systems fitted in the back. It didn’t take long for this to become big business – the Rolling Stones were early customers, and before long Wood & Pickett sold out and moved to a big, impressive new workshop in West London.

‘A senior director at BMC with lots of dealerships in London saw what Speedwell was doing with Wood & Pickett, and asked us what we wanted from a Mini. So we said, “Why don’t you do your own luxury version? The ones we build end up with Wood & Pickett bits on them.” BMC took our advice on this – pretty much for the only time. The Elf and Hornet were the in-house luxury Minis that resulted. They also broadened the colours available – we did several in a kind of yellow chrome colour which seemed especially popular with Italian customers.

‘This interaction with BMC influenced the development of the Cooper too. People forget that it took a long time for the Cooper to make an impact. I drove the prototype on the Tulip Rally and was soundly beaten by the Renaults and Abarths. The Cooper S only came good later on with BMC rally camshafts which delivered much more low-down torque, just like David Jones’.

‘‘But we didn’t want to get involved in all the flashy Radfordstyle stuff at Speedwell – if customers wanted that we’d contract it out. And this is where George, Graham and I diverged. George and I liked to build special performance cars for individual customers, and George didn’t like the way the customising scene was emerging, “If it doesn’t go, they’ll chrome it!”, he’d say. But Graham wanted to sell lots of boxes of crap to people, mass-produced stuff. That was when the company was wound up and Graham became chairman.

‘Unfortunately, Graham had no experience with financial management whatsoever. He used to rely on me for that. I also knew about publicity. I’d trained as a journalist, and knew that the best way to succeed was to get our cars into magazines, through road tests or motor sport. Once Graham was running the company, he was at the mercy of various management accountants who didn’t know about this sort of thing, and the end was inevitable.’

John Sprinzel
John Sprinzel / A Mini showdown for Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill and Jim Clark in a support race at the 1960 British GP at Silverstone Ken Kee’s Speedwell-sponsored 1152cc Cooper, June 1964 George Hulber & Graham Hill opening a new Speedwell Agent, ‘R Sturgess’ Speedwell’s showroom on Finchley Road.

John Sprinzel
John SprinzelSpeedwell’s Peter Lacina assembles an engine, January 1966. A Speedwell-sponsored Rally Cooper S 3D Pantograph milling of alloy cylinder heads, 1964 Reg Vennner, Graham Hill’s predecessor as the factory foreman. Hill and Sprinzel handing over a car to car dealer Danny Margulies, one of Hill’s early sponsors.

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