So many Horsa glider pilots were killed in the latter stages of World War Two, especially those taking troops into Arnhem, that the Army made a big push to train replacements. One such, at Brize Norton, was the 18-year-old Ken Gregory; but peace came just as he qualified, leaving him with mixed feelings for the rest of his life over missing the lethal action. His survival enabled him to become one of the most influential personalities in post-war British motor sport.
Ken, who has died aged 87, left the Army in 1949 needing a job immediately. His father had died when he was five, leaving his mother, who trained as a nurse, to bring up two sons in the north-west of England. By chance, Ken was sent to the Royal Automobile Club, Pall Mall, for an interview with Colonel Barnes, who ran its competitions department. Ken knew nothing about motor sport then but was delighted to be employed on general office duties for £5 a week, allowing him to rent a tiny garret in Hampstead. The work was hectic, with motor racing finally taking off again after the war, and there was the exciting prospect of the forthcoming 1949 British GP at Silverstone.
Ken was a quick learner with first-class administrative skills and a driven personality, inclined to work days, nights and weekends. Accurately, he saw a future for motor racing that was nothing like the amateur days of the past and into the 1960s he was a key figure in making that future happen. This frequently grated with more traditional types and even Denis Jenkinson once wrote that Ken Gregory was the kind of creature one might find under a stone. Writing about Maserati 250F chassis numbers, ‘Jenks’ accused Ken of the criminally deceptive act of changing the chassis number of the ex-Moss car. But Ken was totally innocent, the ‘guilty party’ being the Maserati factory itself, and Jenks was forced into settling out of court, with a long apologetic correction. Some people just didn’t like the controversial Ken but he was a genuine enthusiast, simply decades ahead of the game in his clear thinking.
As a director at Brands Hatch, Ken was largely responsible for turning a fledgling club circuit into a major international venue; most famously of all, as the manager of Stirling Moss, and a director of Stirling Moss Ltd, he is credited with creating the very image of a modern professional racing driver as a marketable brand; and later, as a Formula 1 team owner, he introduced an entirely new form of commercial sponsorship in which the cars and the team bore the name of the backer, not the constructor. Think of Red Bull Racing today and it seems perfectly natural – but back in 1959 the creation of Ken’s Yeoman Credit Racing was shocking to some F1 diehards.
Ken’s powerful influence in the future of British motor racing started while he was working at the RAC. Deeply impressed by the Half-Litre Car Club, he struck up an immediate and close friendship with another dynamic personality, the 19-year-old rapidly rising star of 500 racing, Stirling Moss. Ken was appointed assistant secretary of the HLCC, lifting his pay by £1 a week and entering a way of life involving relentless, constant work.
Ken showed promise as a driver in 1950, with a works Kieft in the inaugural car race meeting at Brands Hatch – by then the new home of the HLCC (which later became the BRSCC) – an event that he himself had organised. Ken then won the Junior Championship title at Brands Hatch in 1950 with a Cooper and, in November of that year, Kieft took 14 international records at Montlhéry, with drivers Stirling Moss, Ken Gregory and Jack Neill.
However, too busy to pursue his own driving career, Ken stuck to work. Stirling had moved in to share Ken’s flat, apparently to hide all his girlfriends from his parents, and Ken naturally became increasingly involved in the logistics of Stirling’s career. From 1952, Stirling asked Ken to take the job on formally, which he accepted.
In the following years, as Stirling’s international racing schedule became even busier, it was impossible for Ken to attend all the meetings. With young Moss out of contact for much of the time, Ken increasingly turned to Stirling’s father, Alfred, when it came to the business decisions.
Ken was quite capable of making bold decisions on his own account, all of which turned out to be wise moves. An example was the purchase of the Maserati 250F for Stirling’s 1954 season, as told in full in Ken’s revealing and entertaining book Behind the Scenes of Motor Racing. Published in 1959, it has the fresh feel of recent events.
The purchase of the 250F was inspired by Herr Neubauer of Mercedes-Benz. As Sir Stirling Moss recalls today, Ken acted boldly: ‘He did it without my permission or knowledge and it came as a bit of a shock. For one thing, we had to find the money, but it was the right decision. I owe a lot to Ken.’ Stirling showed the required star quality in the Maserati, enabling Ken to meet Neubauer again and get Moss into the Mercedes-Benz team for 1955. On that occasion, too, Ken had to exercise his own authority in Stirling’s absence.
From 1955, Ken also managed the easygoing Peter Collins and in 1957 he started the British Racing Partnership F1 team with Stirling’s father; but the world came crashing down for the Moss camp when Stirling had his serious accident at Goodwood in 1962.
Ken later changed direction, becoming a publisher and launching the successful Cars & Car Conversions magazine. Moving on again, he became a major operator in the business aviation world before he retired to Northumberland and, finally, Spain.
Ken Gregory should always be best remembered, however, for his wide-ranging, deep and long-lasting contribution to motor racing as we know it today.