Doug Nye: Jack Sears and a dominating Galaxie you could buy

26th July 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

The Bonhams auction Sale at the forthcoming Goodwood Revival meeting in September will be offering one of the most iconic of all British Champion racing saloon cars. It is nothing less than the mighty 7-litre Ford Galaxie 500, campaigned by the John Willment Automobiles Racing Team, and driven to the title by the late, great Jack Sears.


It is the car which finally overturned many years of total dominance by Jaguar of the British production saloon car racing scene, breaking that stranglehold irrevocably in the Silverstone May meeting of 1963. It had been the BRDC at Silverstone which really popularized racing for otherwise humble production family cars with its introduction of a 1-Hour Production Car race in its early ‘Daily Express’-sponsored May meetings.

And for years through the 1950s and into the 1960s if you wanted to win a saloon car race overall on British soil in effect you had to drive a Jaguar. Initially the enormous Mark VII saloons had ruled the roost, Stirling Moss famously describing how the Mark VII’s chassis actually handled surprisingly well “while the body trailed along behind like a scarf”. The compact – in relative terms – 3.4-litre Mark I saloon followed to top the touring car pile, and eventually it gave way only to the Mark II with 3.8-litre XK-series 6-cylinder engine… which of course was the key to the Coventry cars’ success because Lord knows in pure drivability and handling terms – certainly on the public road – a mishandled Jaguar could be an accident looking for somewhere to happen. They were, in truth, an acquired taste. I was a fan… but a pretty sceptical one.

In 1961 American star driver Dan Gurney put the car amongst the pigeons by bringing to Silverstone an American V8-engined Chevrolet Impala. The writing was on the wall as he outran all the Jaguars, piling on the horsepower down the straights and teetering his heeling, tyre-squealing ‘Yank Tank’ on a fine knife-edge round the corners. He seemed to have the race won, done and dusted, when one of the Chevvy’s pressed-steel wheels pulled off over its studs, and disappointed Dan three-wheeled into trackside retirement. The Jaguar brigade heaved a sigh of relief, and won yet again – dominance sustained for another year.

A contemporary British magazine story covering the Willment team described how: “In about November of 1962 Twickenham, West London-based, Ford main dealer John Willment discussed with long-time motor racing friend Jeff Uren the possibility of forming a serious racing team for the coming year.

Whenever Jack finished in the great Galaxie he won - but occasionally out of luck as here at Snetterton with collision damage, having fallen over a Mini-Cooper…

Whenever Jack finished in the great Galaxie he won - but occasionally out of luck as here at Snetterton with collision damage, having fallen over a Mini-Cooper…

“Convinced that an American car was the answer and that the time was ripe, Uren went to Fords and laid down their proposals. It was agreed that John Willment Automobiles Ltd would run three Lotus-Cortinas and a Galaxie. Racing headquarters were immediately established at Twickenham, a squad of qualified mechanics employed, and the workshop stocked with full engine tuning facilities.

“When it became obvious that the Lotus-Cortinas were not going to be homologated (not officially accepted as racing saloon cars, but as GTs instead), Ford promised Willment the first three available Cortina GTs. These were delivered to Willment on 23rd March; on 6th April at Oulton Park – the day after the car was officially announced to the general public – Jack Sears finished fourth overall behind three 3.8 Jaguars…. This was followed by similar class wins at Goodwood and Aintree. Uren has great admiration of Jack Sears, having raced against him himself… and asked him to drive both the Cortinas and the forthcoming Galaxie.”

However, through 1962 – while Jaguar continued to dominate the overall results in British saloon car competition – real revolution was fomenting in the minds of John Willment, and his experienced saloon car racing friend and future team director, Jeff Uren. They considered importing into Britain an American-made NASCAR-prepared stock car with sufficient muscle to put the medium-capacity Jaguars very firmly in their place – which would be second, not first.

As one 1963 report put it: “This time the invasion was brought about by John Willment, one of England’s largest dealers, and (Jeff) Uren, now his competition manager. Working together with Holman (& Moody in the US), they imported one car in the spring of the year (1963) and at Silverstone in May veteran touring car driver Jack Sears whipped the Jaguars. He repeated the trick in June and in July led a 1-2 Ford finish in a preliminary race to the British Grand Prix, with Sir Gawaine Baillie placing second (in a sister Galaxie).”

Easter Monday Goodwood 1964 - Jim Clark’s Lotus-Cortina just gets the drop on Jack Sears’ Willment Galaxie at the start of a truly memorable Goodwood saloon car race.

Easter Monday Goodwood 1964 - Jim Clark’s Lotus-Cortina just gets the drop on Jack Sears’ Willment Galaxie at the start of a truly memorable Goodwood saloon car race.

And the dam had been broken, and Jaguar had lost their domination of a decade and more. That first 7-litre Ford Galaxie 500, imported from NASCAR preparation specialists Holden & Moody of Charlotte, North Carolina, is the car to be offered at Goodwood by Bonhams in September.

Jack Sears had begun that season for the new Willment team with great success driving 2-litre class Ford Cortinas, as at Goodwood on Easter Monday. But come May and Gregor Grant’s report of the big Silverstone saloon car race in ‘Autosport’ began: “When the ‘tourers’ lined up, it was an unfamiliar sight to have an American V8 in pole position, with Jaguars ranged alongside. When Kenneth Evans dropped the Union Jack, Sears made a very calculated start, easing in the clutch gently, and getting the monster rolling before unleashing over 400 very hairy horses.

“The Jaguars had an initial advantage, but down Hangar Straight, Sears opened up the big Yank, to storm into the lead. There was simply nothing that (Graham) Hill, Salvadori, Salmon and Co could do about it, beyond hope that something would break, or the Ford run out of its drum brakes. Jack Sears was allowing for all this, immediately setting about building up as big a lead as possible before Jeff Uren in the Willment pit would give him the ease-up signal.

“With Sears streaking away from the Jaguars interest was focused on a stirring battle (behind him)… At half-distance Sears had built up a lead of over 20 seconds from Salvadori, with (Peter) Dodd in third place a long way back. Sears eased off considerably after putting the touring car record up to 92.42mph and rolled comfortably home to victory, first ever for a car other than a Jaguar…” at that level.

Battle royal - Jack Sears in the Willment Galaxie versus Jim Clark in the works Lotus-Cortinas - Woodcote Corner, Easter Monday Goodwood, 1964

Battle royal - Jack Sears in the Willment Galaxie versus Jim Clark in the works Lotus-Cortinas - Woodcote Corner, Easter Monday Goodwood, 1964

Later that month at Aintree, Liverpool, the Willment Galaxie reappeared in Jack Sears’ hands for a 34-lap, 102-mile race around the Grand National horse-race venue’s perimeter motor racing circuit. David Pritchard’s ‘Autosport’ report read: “The presence of Jack Sears with the enormous Ford Galaxie made the outcome almost a foregone conclusion except that, in this long-distance race, Jack had a very real problem in the shape of tyre wear. This being so, he had no thought of record breaking or showing the real pace of this monstrous vehicle, and was wisely content to nurse the brute through the corners and to turn the wick up on the straights only just far enough to keep the opposition at bay.

“The race was, therefore, dictated by Michael Salmon in the 3.8 Jaguar, which led the first half-lap, and thereafter sat in second place relentlessly keeping on the pressure every time Jack tried to ease up… an enthralling tactical exercise from which both drivers emerged with the greatest possible credit.”

The Crystal Palace Whit-Monday meeting could hardly have presented the Willment team with a greater Galaxie challenge, for the exceptionally tight little circuit around the London parkland venue surely favoured the small-class Mini-Coopers and medium Cortinas and Anglias and Sunbeam Rapiers. No matter: “Jack Sears… took an early lead from Roy Salvadori (3.8 Jaguar) and Graham Hill in a similar car. The Jaguar drivers tried all they knew, but Sears and his seven litres of V8 Galaxie were absolutely uncatchable…”

Back at Silverstone for the British Saloon Car Championship round supporting the British Grand Prix, “Down went the flag, and Sears thundered off in the huge Galaxie, followed by Salmon (Jaguar) and Baillie (Galaxie). For two laps Salmon gallantly held second place, but then the 7-litre barouche boomed past, and that was that! Nothing could live with the titans, Sears and Baillie pulling 

Jaguar in the lanky form of its general manager ‘Lofty’ England did his best to hamper the American invader’s irresistible progress by “having a word” with the Royal Automobile Club governing body and race scrutineers wherever the threat confronted his customer’s 3.8-litre Mark II saloon cars. Urged on by Coventry’s finest the British scrutineers made a great fuss over the Galaxie’s roll-cage, amongst other items, resulting in it having tube-sections cut out and being weakened so much (to prevent it illegally stiffening the chassis unit) that in the event of an accident it would have been quite useless. Protests even involved the design of the pressed-steel wheels on the monster car, with their counter-bored fixing holes. Holman & Moody waded into that one with evidence of FIA-conformity homologation. Regardless the Willment Galaxie was withdrawn from the Brands Hatch Six Hours, causing disappointment (to say the least) to the entrants, drivers, organizers and – last but not least – the paying public.

Race winner - Easter Monday Goodwood 1964 - ‘Gentleman Jack’ Sears in the immense Willment Ford Galaxie - storming through Woodcote Corner

Race winner - Easter Monday Goodwood 1964 - ‘Gentleman Jack’ Sears in the immense Willment Ford Galaxie - storming through Woodcote Corner

Back at Silverstone for the Saloon Car Championship round supporting the British Grand Prix, Sears in the enormous Galaxie slaughtered the Jaguars yet again…”

At August Bank Holiday Brands Hatch, after a tremendous duel with Jim Clark’s sister Alan Brown-entered Ford Galaxie, Jack trickled into the pits with a flat tyre, leaving that year’s World Champion elect to win, beating the Jaguars yet again.

Graham Hill drove the Willment car at the Oulton Park Gold Cup meeting, while Jack drove a Willment Lotus-Cortina. But Dan Gurney was there in another Galaxie, and he won outright. South African driver Bob Olthoff handled the great car at Snetterton, but Jack Sears won that 1963 British Saloon Car Championship title, with points scored in both Cortina and Galaxie. Willment then took the great car to South Africa for the November-January Springbok races, where it won driven by Sir John Whitmore, and even contested the Kyalami 9-Hours endurance classic, shared by Jack Sears and Australian hero, Paul Hawkins…and held third place for much of the time.

Willment then brought the car back to the UK in preparation for the 1964 season. At Goodwood on Easter Monday Jack fought a tremendous winning duel with Jim Clark’s latest works Lotus-Cortina, and his fastest lap was a new record of 1-minute 35.2 seconds, 90.76mph for the historic aerodrome circuit.

He won again at Aintree and May Silverstone, led at Crystal Palace until a tyre burst, and won at August Bank Holiday Brands Hatch. But his chances of a repeat Championship title spluttered away with an ignition problem at Oulton Park.  Willment then returned the car to South Africa for another Springbok series. Bob Olthoff took over its driving, eventually bought the car – dominated the South African Championship with it, and retained it until 1989, when he sold it to… Jack Sears in Norfolk.

‘Gentleman Jack’ then had it painstakingly restored to running order, much of the work being done by his former Willment race engineer Mike Brown, and he preserved it for the rest of his long life. Bonhams’ estimated price bracket is £180,000-£220,000 for this iconic Jaguar-killing landmark car from British motor sporting history. That’s right – only around $45 per pound...with that 7-litre V8 rumble thrown in for free.

Photography courteesy of The GP Library.

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