Time with John Chatham will, inevitably before the day is out, involve a visit to the pub. It is his natural environment, the place where friends are welcomed, customers entertained and an endless string of unlikely but almost invariably true stories unfolds.
It has always been so. There is a reassuring continuity about the 70-year-old Austin-Healey aficionado’s life which, in 2010, is focused on very much the same things it was in 1970, when the Bristolian was at the peak of his driving career. Then it was Healeys, beer and women; now it is Healeys, beer and one woman, his third wife Vicky, to whom he has been married for over 30 years.
He is nothing if not consistent. Though he has owned and raced Porsches, E-types and MGCs, to name just a few, his love of the Big Healey has never faded. Indeed it is responsible for what he describes as his first ‘orgasmic experience’, in 1952 at the tender age of 12, when Henly’s, the Austin dealer in Bristol, put a red Austin-Healey 100 on a revolving plinth in its showroom. Young Chat was transfixed, pedalling the half-mile down the Gloucester Road from his father’s garage to press his nose against the glass, night after night.
His father Joe was unimpressed. ‘Power and speed cost money,’ John recalls him saying, and in the Chatham household money was something that had to be carefully guarded. Joe and his wife Elsie had risked everything to buy Egerton Road Garage in Bristol, Joe leaving the aircraft industry in favour of an uncertain future as a small businessman.
This was the crucible that forged John – hard graft, practical economics (cash welcome!), and a focus on living for today and providing for tomorrow rather than dreaming about next year. But it also had one other crucial effect, as John explains.
‘We lived on site, and with my parents working flat-out at the garage, my sister Pamela and I were left largely to our own devices. It wasn’t very good for me – I was always a complete rebel. At school, I didn’t like many lessons – and if I didn’t like something, I didn’t do it.’
But he showed a flair for woodwork and metalwork, so it was no surprise that he joined the family business, albeit not immediately, for dad thought the lad should get a proper apprenticeship first and arranged for John to work at the local Rootes dealer, Cathedral Garage.
‘It was a bit rocky going, because I was full of scams and tricks. On the first day I was found pumping grease onto the floor and then wiping it round the joints to make it look like I’d greased them. I was dealt with quite severely: rammed into a 50-gallon drum of sawdust until I almost choked.’
Things continued in the same vein, climaxing one lunchtime when he decided to get his own back on some fellow apprentices who’d been playing tricks on him. ‘We had a cage where the guys used to do their bench work,’ John explains, ‘and the benches there were all-steel. While they were at lunch, I wired the benches to the mains. When they got back, someone touched one and all hell let loose.
‘They couldn’t find out who did it, but I got blamed. I can’t think why,’ he adds with a grin. Aware that the push was imminent, he left shortly afterwards and returned to work for his father at Egerton Road.
John learned the trade fast and, much to his dad’s disapproval, his sporting aspirations grew equally quickly. A Willys Jeep gave way to a Consul convertible with a Mays head, then a Zephyr convertible – ‘a much better woman-puller, as it had a power hood’ – and then, in 1960, to his first Healey 100, SAL 75. Within a couple of years his name was featuring on the results sheets of rallies, hillclimbs, sprints and races all over the country; in 1964 he decided four cylinders were no longer enough and bought a wrecked ex-works Healey 3000, DD 300, to rebuild and race.
It was a phenomenally successful combination and came to dominate late-1960s Modsports racing. In 1968 alone he notched up 28 wins, plus class lap records at 10 circuits all round England. ‘I was beaten overall by a guy who drove three different types of cars,’ John admits, ‘but no one won more in one vehicle.’
I didn’t know John well back then, but I did happen to be marshalling at Castle Combe in spring 1968 when the ‘Red Groundhog’ finished just 1.8sec behind Maurice Charles’ GT40, the pair of them lapping the rest of the field. In fully developed Modsports form on 10in mags, DD 300, even more than most Big Healeys, was a car you picked up by the scruff of the neck – and the burly Bristolian had the biceps to do it. Actually, the mags were specially made by JA Pearce at 10.5in, John surmising – correctly – that no scrutineer would notice an extra half-inch. ‘You always stretch rules’, he observes...
The hectic racing schedule, long evenings in the pub, John’s penchant for chatting up any attractive unattached female within a 10-mile radius and the endless moonlighting that paid for it all, left no time whatsoever for blissful domesticity. Predictably, his first two marriages failed quickly, though his second, to Sandie, did produce two children – Charlotte and Joe. John is not given to wondering what might have been, but you sense regret in his voice when he observes: ‘In those days the ladies of my life didn’t last too long, probably because I spent so much time in love with my mistresses – my cars.’
Domestic stability arrived only when he married Vicky in 1979, but in the meantime the thrusting young unattached motor sport entrepreneur – who by this time had taken control of the garage, his father having retired – played as hard as he worked, which was very hard indeed. As BMC’s emphasis shifted from the 3000 to the MGC, John’s followed, and he got his big break with the offer of a works drive of an MGC GT Sebring in the 1970 Targa Florio – just in time for BMC to close the MGC competition programme