Birthright

The address on my UK birth certificate is “Caravan, Arkley Garage, Arkley, Barnet”. I tell people I am officially a Gypsy under British law (which is probably true anyway) but the real reason for living in a caravan was that my parents were having a new house built nearby.

There was still a shortage of housing in Britain after WW2 and, as they knew the Morris family who owned the garage and the paddock behind, they bought a caravan and paid a weekly rent. They even had running water connected. Luckily, it was summer and the weather not too cold.

The garage back then was the usual two petrol pumps and one mechanic, offering general service, until John Britten bought it in the mid-1960s.

I grew up in Arkley, near Barnet just north of London, and while still a teenager at school I had a Saturday job at the garage while it was owned by Britten, a well-known sports car racer of the time. He expanded the garage, selling all kinds of sports cars: MGs, Morgans, TVRs and others. I got to clean cars all day, except when I was chosen for other dirty jobs.

Britten dominated his class in the ModSports category, in initially a yellow Lenham-bodied Austin-Healey Sprite, and later a much modified orange MG Midget. His team also ran a second orange Midget for an Irish lady named Gabriel Konig and even had a pair of custom-built MG Midget pickups as tow cars for the racers – painted orange, of course.

In late 1969 Britten designed a special conversion based on the Austin-Healey Sprite / MG Midget, which he called the Arkley SS.

I had a hand in mixing fibreglass and resin to mould the first few made, but then John decided they would probably sell okay, so the moulds were sent out to Lenham; a sub-contractor already known for various fibreglass mouldings and his racing MGs and Healeys.

From those messy beginnings did my stellar race car building career begin! Through the years I later worked on all types of race cars including Formula Fords, F3, F3000 and IndyCars, then twelve years in Formula One, until I relocated to Australia in 2003.

Britten sold complete Arkley cars, or kits of parts for customers to make their own. It is thought they sold about 1,000 before he sold the business in the mid-1980s. He went on to build up the very successful Tecno chain of camera shops and then even owned the Brands Hatch circuit in partnership with Jonathan Palmer, before he died in 2009.

The original moulds are now owned by Peter May, who used to work for Britten, and I believe the parts are still available from him.

I always promised myself one day I should try to find an Arkley, but when I put the word about in Australia I was told that there was only one known in the country. I contacted the owner in Sydney, but the car is in parts in his shed awaiting restoration and he does not plan to sell.

Then, a couple of years ago my mate Paul Unicomb, who is a local member of the Sprite Club, told me there was another one advertised for sale in Sprite Torque, the club magazine. I called the number and spoke to the owner; a retired mechanic.

To read the rest of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe today for either the digital copy or the printed version.


The BMC Experience Issue 18. Jul-Sep 2016 Magazine

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