I think all of us involved with Goodwood Motorsport are very much saddened this week to hear of the death of Jack Sears, at the age of 86.
AUG 10th 2016
Doug Nye – Remembering Gentleman Jack
‘Gentleman Jack’ was absolutely as the nickname which always embarrassed him suggests. He was the most friendly, charming and approachable of all near top-drawer British racing drivers who made their names during the 1950s and ’60s, not least upon our Goodwood Motor Circuit.
Most of the obituaries you will see published will focus upon his having won the inaugural British Saloon Car Championship, back in 1958. But while he enjoyed that laurel he would always readily put it into proper perspective. He had been encouraged by BMC Competitions Manager Marcus Chambers to buy an Austin A105 for the series, in which he was confronted by the sister Jaguar 3.4-litre Mark I saloons of Tommy Sopwith and Sir Gawaine Baillie. Because the BRSCC organised that Championship on a parallel-class basis, with class winners earning the same placing points, what Jack had to do was to win his class at every round.
However, early that year he was beaten by Jeff Uren driving a Ford Zephyr Mk II with a three-carburettor Raymond Mays cylinder head. Marcus Chambers promptly had the BMC specialist tuners Speedwell produce a three-carburettor head for the Sears A105. Thus equipped, Jack was able to beat the Zephyr, triggering the memorable Brands Hatch moment when commentator John Bolster in his best glass-shattering tones announced that “Sears has just passed Uren…for the first time – hah, ha, ha, haaah!”; terribly risqué stuff for the time and a bit of fun which, I believe, got Bolster fired from that role.
However, that inaugural Championship’s rules involved having to drop one’s worst finishes, and since Tommy Sopwith had been happily winning overall this points taxation system cost him more than it cost Jack. Suddenly it looked as if there was going to be a tie for that inaugural title. Someone at the BRSCC then proposed to Jack and Tommy that if they remained tied at the end of the final round at Brands Hatch they should toss a coin as the title decider.
In his autobiography ‘Gentleman Jack’ (Veloce Publishing, 2008),
Jack Sears recalled: “We told them to have another think… They contacted Marcus Chambers and asked him about supplying two identical cars so there could be a run off between Tommy and me if necessary. He provided a couple of rally Riley 1.5s for a match race at Brands, if needed.
“We practiced in the cars and predictably one was a little quicker than the other. So then it was a question of who drove which car first? There were no numbers on the Rileys so the BRSCC decided one car would race with its headlights on and the other with them off.
“In the actual saloon car race I was fastest in my class and Tommy fastest in his. So we were tied and now we had to face the race-off and they did it immediately.
“It was pouring with rain and two BMC mechanics drove the Rileys round to the startline for us. It was incredibly tense - like a shoot-out with six-guns. We spun a coin for choice of car, which Tommy won so I knew he had the faster car and would beat me. Quite predictably he won the first 5-lap race. We then swopped cars. It was dreadfully wet and I remember taking a rag from my pocket and wiping the soles of my shoes before I got into the car he’d just been driving.
“I made an excellent start, and then it was just a matter of really going for it despite the rain. When they announced the aggregate times I had beaten him by just 1.6 seconds. So I became the 1958 British Saloon Car Champion, for which I won the princely sum of £100…”.
Jack had been born into a well-to-do Northamptonshire family in 1930. The family fortunes had been founded in the shoe-manufacturing business but Jack’s father, Stanley Sears, was more interesting in engineering and particularly large-scale chicken farming, settling at Bolney in Sussex. In 1944 Jack entered Charterhouse School at Godalming, learned to drive on the farm and at 17 was given a Morgan 4/4 for his birthday, later replacing it with an MG in which he dabbled in minor sprints and driving test events but wanted to race.
In 1950 he finally made his circuit-racing debut, at a Goodwood Members’ Meeting, spun, but still finished. He studied at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, and in 1951 drove father Stanley’s splendid 1914 TT Sunbeam in the opening VSCC meeting at Silverstone. He bought and raced a Cooper-MG, and when the family interest in the shoe business was sold his father bought Uphall Grange farm in Norfolk. Jack married his long-time wife Cicely but continued racing – graduating to a Jaguar XK120 and becoming very friendly with diminutive little Archie Scott-Brown who would become Brian Lister’s works driver in the fleet little Lister-MG – which Jack also got to drive occasionally.
For 1955 he ordered a 2-litre Lister-Bristol, showing well before rolling the car at Club Corner, Silverstone, being thrown out but escaping with a bruised shoulder. My first-ever published work was actually a drawing I did of the incident for a Jack Sears feature in ‘Motor Racing’ magazine, at the start of 1964. When I told Jack about it in later years he roared with laughter, clapped me on the back and guffawed “Oh my dear boy – bless you!” – typical Jack Sears…
He competed in numerous rallies, including the Tulip, the Liege-Rome-Liege, RAC and Monte Carlo events, ultimately as a BMC works driver in Austin-Healeys before the Tour de France Automobile in the 1960s for Jaguar. Through 1959 he had begun driving for his former rival Tommy Sopwith in Jaguars, and into 1960 added the Sopwith-run Equipe Endeavour Aston Martin DB4GT. He campaigned works Austin-Healeys in the Sebring 12-Hours and Le Mans 24-Hours and memorably dueled with Colin Chapman in Jaguar 3.8s at Silverstone, the pair clicking door handles, side-to-side.
In 1961 Jack drove Sopwith’s Ferrari 250GT SWB in the famous debut race for the Jaguar E-Type at Oulton Park, which Graham Hill won in Tommy’s new Coventry charger. Jack was disappointed, especially when Sopwith assured him the outcome – Hill scoring a storybook debut win for the XK-E - was simply because Graham was a better driver…
Campaigning the Jaguars and a works MGA through 1962 preceded a move to Ford for ’63 when Jack received a ’phone call from another former adversary, Jeff Uren – by then managing the new John Willment Automobiles racing team. They had acquired a 7-litre Ford Galaxie V8 in the USA and wanted Jack to drive it in the British Saloon Car Championship. Pending its arrival the new Cortina GT would be his mount. The Galaxie in Jack’s hands proved near unbeatable, and he and Willment shattered Jaguar’s long stranglehold on British touring car competition...
Jack also co-drove Ronnie Hoare’s Maranello Concessionaires-entered Ferrari 330LM/B with Michael Salmon at Le Mans – and they finished a fine fifth overall. Drives in Ferrari 250GTO and Ford EFLO programme Cortina GTs in America brought further success. And in the 1963 Oulton Park Gold Cup meeting Jack drove the first Lotus-Cortina to third overall and a class win.
Into 1964 he found himself driving Cobras for the AC works, and famously – in preparation for Le Mans – he clocked 185mph on the M1 at 05.30am in their special-bodied Cobra Coupe while exploring its maximum speed a la Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. Sadly, in that year’s 24-Hour race itself co-driver Peter Bolton had one of the Coupe’s tyres burst at high speed and crashed badly.
At the Brands Hatch British GP meeting, Willment got into a muddle on the starting grid for the supporting GT race. Jack was judged to have started in the Willment Cobra from the wrong slot, and he was black-flagged. Shooting back into the pits thinking “something must be hanging off my car” – he found instead an official “….telling me I’d started from the wrong place, this was my penalty and now I could continue, which is when I went off down the pit road waving my fist and effing and blinding at everyone. I left in last place….I was so angry I think my first lap was around two seconds faster than my practice time, and I was passing people left, right and centre…”.
So he was – and it was sensational! He caught Jackie Stewart leading in John Coombs’s famous Jaguar E-Type ‘4 WPD’, and ripped past him to win. He had hurtled from last to first in one of the most sensational races ever run on British soil. We all stepped back, mouths agape – this was a side of ‘Gentleman Jack’ we had neither seen before, nor really suspected. Sears the Tiger had emerged, red in tooth and claw…
In the Willment Cobra Coupe he finished 5th in the South African Kyalami 9-Hours and for 1965 was signed-up to the works Lotus-Cortina Ford team in parallel with a works Cobra Daytona Coupe drive in the FIA GT World Championship, the cars run by Alan Mann. With Dr Dick Thompson Jack finished eighth at Le Mans, and with Sir John Whitmore second in class in the Reims 12-Hours.
But in mid-season Jack was given a drive in the works Lotus-Ford 30 Group 7 sports-racing car, and that September saw him testing the 5.3-litre V8-engined Lotus 40 variant at Silverstone when the unstable, vicious car got away from him and crashed violently, rolling over him, nearly severing his left arm, cracking several vertebra and inflicting burns and scalds.
It was the end of ‘Gentleman Jack’s serious racing career, but he would serve motor sport most nobly for many more years as a Director and then President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club. His own personal car collection had grown to add a Ferrari 250GTO to the many early veteran and fine vintage cars that father Stanley had collected.
At last year’s Revival Meeting I drove Jack and his former Cobra Daytona team-mate Allen Grant – and Allen’s wife Dixie – around through that weekend. Jack had been hoping to drive one of the Coupes in their high-speed demonstration, but RAC regulations being what they are it proved impossible since he would have had to wear approved crash-hat, multi-layer romper suit, gloves and goodness knows what else and “Quite frankly Doug – I just can’t be bothered with all that…”. He was really down, but after a quick discussion the alternative emerged of him driving Paul Vestey’s Willment Cobra roadster – the 1964 Brands Hatch heroine in effect – to lead the formation lap of the TT Celebration race. He wouldn’t need a romper suit for that, and in the assembly area he carefully removed his superbly-cut sports jacket, painstakingly folded it – as a gentleman naturally would do – and placed it safely in the Cobra’s boot. Then he drove out for what proved to be his last public hurrah – and we loved him for it, and from his post-drive reaction I am pretty sure he also really appreciated those sadly fleeting few minutes.
The previous evening I had driven him and Allen and Dixie Grant back into Chichester through the traffic. There was much chatter, and reminiscence and laughter. And then suddenly Jack was jabbing a finger towards the windscreen and barking at me “There Doug – he’s left a space – Go For It!”. Then he remembered himself, and added “…dear boy”.
Racers you see. Real racers. They do grow old…but, God bless them, they seldom grow out of it…
‘Gentleman Jack’s son David Sears became very prominent as driver and team director in his own right, of course, and today - to Jack’s entire family, and to his many friends - we offer our most sincere condolences for their loss. Remember the good times. In so many ways Jack Sears represented the very best in British motor racing… We will remember him with deep affection, and respect.
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