As we stood there at the top of the Pass looking down at Santa Barbara and the rest of the world, we decided that what California needed most was a new club devoted to the energetic promotion of motor racing. Thus was born the California Sports Car Club.
Soon after this Louis Van Dyke and I took a couple of MG TCs to the midget track in Gulver City to investigate the possibility of racing there in some sort of a sports-car event, and Phil Hill saw them run. The next day the future world champion turned up at International Motors: made friends, bought a red TC and went to work as a tuning specialist in our shop. Here, except when away at a race, he held court 'among the foreign car owners, drivers and enthusiasts of Southern California' for the next seven or eight years. Both Joe Doakes and Clark Gable always felt their engines ran best after Phil had dealt with them. Often it wasn't even necessary that he make any actual adjustments sometimes both owner and engine seemed satisfied if he merely listened knowingly to the hissings and gurglings of those mysterious SU carbs and laid his understanding hondson the valve covers.
In those first years after the war the young club held numerous time trials and hill climbs; but the members always talked and dreamed about the day when we would actually stage a real ace. The time to do so arrived, I remember, when Phil and two other drivers made a test run on a course at the Santa Barbara airport where we had been sending single cars off to race against the clock. At the end of the day's activity these three drivers (were the other two Arnold Stubbs and one of the Pollock brothers?) lined up their cars and, at the drop of the flag, took off together for one lap around the short course of this rather narrow road while we worried about what would happen when they all arrived at a sharp corner. Of course nothing disastrous happened they all reached the finish line beaming, convinced that we could now actually race on any two-lane road without further experience. yet, a few months later when we did finally stage the first genuine sports-car road race in the West, Phil Hill did not participate -he was at the Jaguar works for instruction on the newly born XK 120. I recollect that the dozen or so cars which made up the field at that historic event at Palm Springs early in, 1950 was as ill-assorted a collection of vehicles as one could ever expect to meet on a starting grid. There was a V-8 "Edwards," an Allard, my XK-120 (the only one in Southern California), a blown TC, a Riley, a Singer, and half a dozen MG-TDs. I do not now remember all who met to do battle that murderously hot day, but I know that Bill Pollock was there along with E. Forbes-Robinson, myself, Sterling Edwards, Fay Taylor, Tom Frisbey, and Jack McAfee.
Like many other XK-120, drivers soon to come, I quickly learned that day how to race without brakes, but ultimately came to grief because the Jaguar factory had not yet discovered that the throttle linkage of those first XKs could go over center and stick firmly wide open. Halfway through the race, without brakes, I changed down for a right-angle corner and found myself" accelerating under full power instead of sIowing down; but fortunately the sand was soft.
Those early races of 1950-51 and '52’ which usually averaged 20 to 40 cars for the main events,
constitute the most memorable period of those" good old days," for not only did all the competitors know each other quite well but the spectators also knew all the drivers and, I suspect, each other, too.
By the first races of the 1953 season, we were drawing entry lists of nearly 200, and it soon developed that we were mostly strangers racing against strangers before 15,000 other strangers. I liked it better in those pioneering days when each new event was an adventure on an untried circuit.
Surprisingly, most of those early circuits were true road courses, not airport layouts. Even the various Palm Springs courses used for the first four or. five events were mostly made of. narrow roads rather than runways. The rest of the. early courses were even better - Torrey Pines was marvelous, Pebble Beach the best, Golden Gate Park excellent. Of course, Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen were still true road courses in those days, made up of normal country roads and village streets lined with ditches, fences, telephone poles and buildings. Strange that we started racing on genuine road courses; then went steadily from bad to worse as one airport circuit after another came into use. This may be better than no racing, but that's about all that can be said for it. The driver who never drove at Pebble Beach or on the original Watkins Glen course has never tasted of the real thing.
Fortunate indeed are those drivers, crewmen and spectators who can in their mind's eye still see some of those early races on those genuine road courses. Do the present events have the heroic character of those epic races when Phil Hill, in a variety of smaller-engined cars, did battle with Bill Pollock, Michael Graham and others in ever more powerful Cad Allards? Do you remember the first Pebble Beach when Phil had to start in the back row with a dead engine? (The clutch release of his Jag had collapsed and could not be disengaged.) As all the other cars disappeared up the straight Phil's Jag was bucking along in low gear on the starter. After 20 yards
it came to life and Phil was off on what I still think was the most brilliant drive of his ca~eer. He was driving with no clutch and soon no brakes, so a missed gear change could have meant disaster. The broken clutch pressure plate introduced such unbalance that the gear lever was a. four-inch blur and sometimes almost impossible to grab. Yet he won. I lost the clutch control in my Simca half a .dozen laps from the finish at Pebble Beach in 1952, so I know just what an incredible feat Phil pulled off in that Jag by driving an entire race there with this handicap.
For me those "good old days" are rendered even better in retrospect by the memory of the fine performance of those two Simca specials I built with the help of Bill Pringle. Two days after completing the first one we earned a place on the starting grid at Pebble Beach beside Jim Kimberly by qualifying 0.2 second faster than his two-liter
Ferrari! I like to think Pringle and I did much to enliven things in thosel days by our heated but never angry battling with Johnny von Neumann, Bill David and that delightful camel driver, AI Coppel, for supremacy in the 1,500-cc division. I think our teams, always so neatly turned out, did much to give an air of glamour and elegance to a sport not considered very respectable at a time when we desperately wanted to create an image of the sports-car driver as different from that of the Tshirted, leather-jacketed hot-rodder as possible. We succeeded, too, long. before Pirelli coveralls became the uniform of the day, by dyeing something we got at Sears Roebuck to match our car's paint.
Not only did we race on road circuits that many.. of today's drivers would shudder at, but we also raced on the half-mile dirt oval at Gardena; not because it was the ideal sort of racing but because it was a practical way to raise money for our club-money that was useful in staging the next road race. It may have been dirty and dangerous but I found it tremendously exciting and there enjoyed some of the most satisfying racing I've ever' experienced. You've never really raced until you've tried it on dirt! That track was also thescerie of some highly spectacular accidents including the sensational flip executed. by AI Moss in an Allard when he seemed to remain suspended upside down 10 feet above our heads as several of us drove by underneath!
Until Ernie McAfee met his death at Pebble Beach about 1956, the crashes there had been often amusing, generally spectacular, but never fatal. Stan Mullins started it in the very first race on the old short course which had a brief graveled section; he slid into a tree and almost tore the backside off his MG, although his own was undamaged. Don Parkinson twice did his best to demolish his Jag there, yet was never personally bent up. I remember a badly shaken Jim Kimberly climbing out from under his once-beautiful Ferrari on his one and only appearance at that course. Then there was the twin-engined special from the East (owned by Lou Fageo) I think which hit a tree broadside and sent Porsche engines flying all over the place. And, of course,
Basil Panzer in his big Allard unexpectedly astride some hay bales, undamaged but with all four wheels off the ground. In those early days the SCCA was actively staging races in 'the East, mid-West and Northern California, but for some strange reason the Los Angeles Region was dragging its feet and protesting that no one was ready for racing, despite the fact everyone else was already doing it. At the 1951 race at Elkhart Lake the National body of the SCCA asked me to carry an offer' back to the California Sports Car Club whereby we would take over the Los Angeles Region for the SCCA. Nothing came of it then, as we did not care to give up our name and autonomy. Eventually the local.region did get off the dime and ineptly tried to help rather than hinder the cause of racing, but there was always ill will between the two Southern California organizations.
Does anyone still remember the arrival in Hollywood of Phil and Dorothy Payne, the young English couple in that ancient "Brooklands"- Riley 9 which was surely' the world's most spartan sports car? They really had driven it across the U.S., back in 1947 when most foreign-car owners felt like heroes if they even ventured South to Newport Beach in a TC. I knew a,talented mechanic when I saw one and hired him on the spot. Unfortunately, as soon as he could afford it he bought the semi-hotrod V-8 Baldwin Special and went back to England.
However, a more lasting impact upon our world of sports-car activity was made by that other English couple, Ken and Mollie Miles, who are still with us. Ken, with his succession of very special MG specials, took over the trophy-collection department of the 1,500-cc, division for a number of years and was, in my opinion, the best sports car driver in the U.S. during that period. He did an equally colorful job of piloting the California Sports Car Club.
Not all the recollections of those days are of racing activity. Cars themselves seem~d more exciting then, because we had seen so little interesting equipment. Of course, the very rich and very eccentric Tommy Lee owned a first-rate stable of French Talbots.
Looked after by Mal Ord, these sleek competition coupes were only to be seen now and then, at midnight, roaring, up Outpost. Drive or along the two-mile straight across the Valley by the reservoir. Louis Ritter, the New York furrier, was another Talbot fancier. .
Each winter he arrived with a custom-bodied Talbot more spectacular than the previous one. When he ran short of funds, Figoni et Falaschi and Saoutchik closed up shop. There were a couple of fine prewar Alfas around, too. Tommy Lee had a 2.9 Spyder I once had the privilege of driving. It screamed like a mad banshee and even though I took it up through the gears to 90 only once, I was sure I had alerted every highway patrolman in San Bernardino County and I haven't been back there since'. I suspect that few enthusiasts whose memories go back to those early days of. sports-car activity actually were aware that we almost had a road course in 1949-50, courtesy of the same Tommy Lee. He had some property out on the desert near Lancaster (an airstrip and a small castle). He had a two mile course roughed out with construction work well under way,_ when one day he stepped out of a window of a tall office building and came to the untidy end everyone had predicted he could surely meet at the wheel of a motor car.
From Lee's estate, Phil Hill bought a 2.9 Alfa which he raced briefly. And then he bought a Ferrari. But the most precious memories of those early days of sportscars and motor racing in southern California are of intangible things: the pride and satisfaction we all took in getting the sport started against considerable odds; above aiL the genuine sense of comradeship we felt for our fellow drivers.
Last year I saw this same camaraderie still in existence-not among the hordes at Sebring or Riverside or Elkhart Lake, but among the fewer than 20 drivers who make up the field at the exclusive Grands Prix of Europe. While in Monaco, directing a film on racing for the CBS "Twentieth Century" program, I was close enough to this group to realize that within their thin ranks lived this intangible bond and delicate kinship in which we too had had a place when we were 30 and not yet 300 or 3,OOO! When we were not always friends yet never enemies-but perhaps like brothers in. this strangely undefined order that somehow passed out of existence almost before we realized that it had for a moment taken us into its mystical warmth. I n Monaco I stood outside this brotherhood of which I was once a part, seeing its reality and filled with sadness that r. was no longer of it, yet taking pleasure that here, far from Pebble Beach, XK Jaguars, Allards and Simcas, was Phil Hill, once one of us back there, now to become Champion of the World.