By John Sprinzel
Rallying great Donald Morley and his wife Val (Domleo) visited our little island of Molokai recently. Don and his twin brother Erie were probably the fastest of the Healey works drivers of the ’60s. Valerie successfully co-drove for several of the top ladies, including Pat Moss and Rosemary Smith. In 1961, the twins were the only car to complete the arduous Alpine Rally without penalty, and in five successive years managed three penalty-free runs to gain one of the rare silver cups. On their first sortie in 1960, a failing gearbox on the last day left them only top gear with which to tackle the notorious Quatre Chemins section, robbing them of an Alpine Cup. This was the final sting in the tail of an already incredibly tough event, which winds its way through the foothills of the French Alps on the narrowest tracks imaginable, with unfenced drops virtually the whole way. Many a brilliant run has ended on this section, which is regarded as one of the most difficult stages in European rallying. Target times were always based on the fastest time achieved on the previous year’s event.
Over the next two years, Don and Erie were brilliant without penalty, winning overall both times, but in the following year, their axle exploded on the very final hill climb. I was in the car following them onto the start line of the climb, and I have rarely seen two sadder faces, as this disaster robbed them of a gold cup for three consecutive unpenalized runs. Only driving greats Stirling Moss and Ian Appleyard ever achieved this feat in the 25 or more years during which this tough event was run.
What is even more surprising is that Donald and Erie are fulltime farmers, competing just for the sheer fun of it. Their first overall victory was in their privately owned Jaguar on the Tulip Rally in 1959. When Marcus Chambers offered them a work’s drive in the big Healeys, their only condition was that they couldn’t drive at harvest time, which considerably cut down the number of events in which they could take part.
Donald is the most unusual ace you could wish to meet. Quiet, shy, and well-mannered, balding from an early age, he took on a totally different appearance behind the wheel, which led to his teammates nicknaming him the Devil.
On my recent trip to Australia, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of several British car clubs, and an additional treat of lunch near Melbourne, with four of my old mechanics from the Donald Healey days at Grosvenor Street. That these guys were still enthusiastic about working for Donald and I some 40 years later was certainly a tribute to the atmosphere at Healey’s London operation. Some of the revelations over a banger and mash lunch were quite surprising. Bruce Dowling moaned that I had sent him to the head shapers to collect some modified cylinder heads in his new Mercedes, only to discover that there were over 30 heads to load into his pristine car. Owen Holmes revealed that they had tested a Healey at over 100 miles an hour down London’s Cromwell Road. “Well,” he said, “the customer complained of a rattle at 100 mph, so we had to try it at that speed, didn’t we?” Johnny Green phoned during the lunch to apologize for not coming. He lives in Perth, which is about as far away as NY is from LA. A rather long way to come for a lunch! He reminded me that I had asked him to collect some important spares using my Lambretta motor scooter. “Sure, boss, no problem,” would have been the usual reply to more or less any such request. What he didn’t tell me, though, was that he had never ridden a scooter before, and after a taxi forced him onto Mayfair’s sidewalk, he decided he really didn’t ever want to ride one again.
After three hours of such revelations and memories, it was time to head for the Victoria Club premises of the Jaguar and Healey club. These must surely be the finest motor sport club premises anywhere. In beautifully carpeted and furnished rooms, the walls are hung with sensational photographs, posters, and signed memorabilia. A fine crowd listened to me waffle on about the “good old days” of the cars they so enjoy, even though most of them were not even alive when Abingdon and Coventry turned them out. The questions were as varied as the different sports cars which they drove, and it seemed that a good time was had by all.
The Sprite Club of Australia had their meeting in a very friendly pub in Sydney; however, torrential rain foiled plans to use a marquee with ample space to display their cars. So we moved to the upstairs of the local pub. Although crowded, and an acoustic near disaster, a most enthusiastic and lively crowd enjoyed a terrific dinner and were patient enough to let me present their annual awards, then regale them with Sprite stories from those early days. With this being a one-make club, the questions were even more specific, and showed an interest not only in the cars themselves, but also in the character of the men who designed, produced, and competed with them. It is good to see that there is a keen awareness of the past, and that those times will live on through these young peoples’ enthusiasm.
Lastly came a trip to Queensland, where the vast distances of the Australian continent were considerably reduced by the ride north with Tony and Kerry Bennetto. Tony, who runs the Bug Eye Barn and keeps many of these old cars up to scratch, is well known to those who attend the annual Hershey swapmeet where his Oz sense of humor has either amused or amazed many U.S. British car enthusiasts. At the end of the journey, Healey historian Ray English’s Sprite Museum provided a meeting place for enthusiasts in the Brisbane area. The gathering of cars provided a fine contrast with the more usual Abingdon products, and was as varied as Austin A 40 Devons and an Austin A 90 Atlantic.
Britain’s attempt to produce an American style sports car—the Atlantic—was the first automobile I ever drove around a racetrack. I had tried a few laps of the old 14-mile Nurburgring on an open test day long before ever deciding to be a competition driver, and although enjoyable, I could see why the A 90 was never a success. Another of my mechanics from many years ago, Nairn Hindorf, drove us around Brisbane in his Austin Maxi, Morris 1800, and 1275 Mini GT. My wife Caryl, who owned one of those cars first time around, pointed to the bruise on her knee which she got climbing into the back seat, and remembered the many times this had happened back in the ’70s!
Finally, I was sad to hear of the passing away of Peter Garnier. Peter, who was one of England’s leading motor sports journalists, edited The Autocar for many years. In addition, he was an excellent co-driver, and sat beside Stirling Moss and Healey ace Jack Sears on many an event. He also let me drive him on a rally in his highly modified Standard Vanguard, which had plenty of TR2 bits added. I recall we had an unscheduled delay when a farmer blocked the route, holding his shotgun as a deterrent to our progress. Peter also navigated for me in a works Ford Cortina on the magnificent East African Safari Rally. We had modified a stock model out of the Nairobi showroom, after Vic Elford wrote off our intended car. A Cornishman—as was his pal Donald Healey—he wrote Donald’s excellent biography, and when I spoke to him a few weeks before, he sounded as full of enthusiasm as ever. He was 81 years young.