Doug Nye: RIP Bobby Bell - gentleman racer and long-time friend of Goodwood

16th November 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

The tragic news of prominent Historic racer Bobby Bell’s premature death this past Monday is still sinking in as I write. I never knew the co-founder of the Bell & Colvill sportscar dealership well, but his long-lasting racing career extended way back into the mid-1960s and in Historic racing since the 1980s our paths had quite often crossed.


Bobby Bell had begun his professional career in architecture before he followed his heart and love of motor racing to secure himself a job as a salesman with Coombs, the Jaguar dealers in Guildford. With their racing 3.8s and Lightweight E-Type, it was a way for him to get close to motorsport. Bobby began racing in 1962 in his Lotus 7 which he would also use on his daily commute to work during the week while racing it – like so many fellow 7 owners – at weekends. 

He then progressed to a front-engined Lola and a mid-engined Piper and found himself racing against the likes of Jim Clark in support races for the British Grand Prix during the 1960s. It was while racing the Piper that Bobby met fellow BRDC member Martin Colvill with whom, in 1970, he opened the successful Lotus dealership of Bell & Colvill Ltd based at West Horsley, near Guildford in Surrey. 

Bobby owned and ran a series of interesting Historic sportscars including I think more than one Alfa Romeo T33 and a very rapid Lister-Chevrolet which he drove himself for many years before preferring to enter it for mutual friend Stuart Graham to campaign.

Bobby had been a long-time Goodwood supporter and was amongst the core group of owners, entrants and drivers who could virtually be relied upon to provide something interesting and worthwhile for our pioneering Festivals of Speed and eventually the Revival Meeting – year after year.

In fact, I had first encountered him way back in 1964-65 when he was campaigning his dark blue Lola Mark 1 front-engined sports racing car, entered under the cooperative banner of the David Plumstead Racing Team. David himself was a larger than life motor trader from the Purley area, going club racing with like-minded friends to publicise and promote their then-infant but growing motor trading activities.

One of the ways in which DP Racing promoted itself was a regular column in a Ford publication, I think it was entitled ‘Competition Press’, and the particular section of it was written by yours truly. I was only around 19 or 20 at the time, and in truth Plumstead and Bell and their contemporary team-mate Graham Capel were not much older. The big difference was that they owned racing cars and went racing with them whereas all I did was stand on the touchlines – boracic lint as they say (skint) – looked on, and wrote about it. Some things – I promise you – never change.


A couple of years ago Mike Whitaker – the then current owner of Plumstead’s contemporary racing TVR ‘Mongoose’ – sent me a copy of what I had written 50 years before. For me, it recalls a happy age of enthusiastic, small-business-promoting club racing free of tiresome Championship series – before one-make racing had really become dominant – and in which variety was absolutely the typifying keynote. 

This was exactly the kind of club-racing climate, in fact, which characterized the contemporary BARC Members’ Meeting scene at Goodwood, which was yet another of the venues at which Plumstead Racing and Bobby Bell had cut their teeth as budding competitors. 

In mid-season 1965 DP and his friends, Capel and Bell had made some changes. As I reported then: “Capel has sold his rapid Lotus 11 GT in favour of the even more rapid ex-Dizzy Addicott Lotus-Buick sports-racer; and DP’s own car, the V8 TVR, has been modified beyond all recognition.

“This car is now far more Plumstead than TVR and, as such, has been renamed the ‘DP Mongoose Special’. Just in case you’re wondering, the ‘Mongoose’ tag was added because (says Plum) the car can – and will – eat Cobras.”

The story continued: “The team’s workshop was thrown into a right old panic because David had had his entry in the V8 accepted for the sportscar race at the British GP meeting. Work began immediately to modify the car, and the poor defenceless thing was given a real going-over.

“Borrani wire wheels were fitted all round, with 81⁄4-inch rims at the rear and 61⁄2-inch at the front. A set of Dunlop R7 yellow-spot tyres were added, but then the wheels wouldn’t go round so the body had to be cut about.

“This was done, and handsome flared ‘wings’ fitted to cover the wheels and tyres. The steering had to be altered slightly to accommodate the larger running gear, and a different radiator was added. Unfortunately, all this hard work took just a little too long and, turning up at Silverstone just minutes late for practice, the Mongoose was refused a start.

“The boys admitted that nobody was to blame but themselves, and so Plum cast about for another venue for the car’s debut. He finally managed to get a late entry for the Jaguar DC’s Brands sprint, the day after the GP, and so on a wet Sunday morning, the crew headed east. There the Mongoose went well first time out, and David notched up second FTD on a streaming wet track. Bobby Bell also had a go in the team’s Lola and added a class second to his personal list of successes (which) includes two good race wins earlier this year.


“The next race meeting was at Brands Hatch on July 18th, and there bad luck struck all three drivers... First to suffer was Bobby Bell. He had his brakes lock going into Druids, and the moment ended with a crumpled Lola and a disgruntled Mr Bell.

“Graham Capel was third fastest in practice for the sportscar race, and DP fourth fastest for the GT event – although the Mongoose was in a bad state, with only six good cylinders.

“Plum started from the third row of the grid and, coughing and smoking his way through the field, finished second to Peter Lumsden’s Le Mans E-Type. The patron was also hoping to run in the sportscar race, and so some frantic work went on in the paddock as the mechanics tried to trace the trouble. Sadly, this was finally found to be broken piston rings, which can’t be cured in half an hour, and the Mongoose staggered out to the grid with only a V6 under the bonnet, so the chequered flag fell with DP in second place again. One bright spot should be recorded for posterity. The Mongoose can lap Brands faster on its more or less standard and sick V8 than a professionally prepared TVR with full-blooded Cobra engine. Food for (chassis tuning) thought?”

For a race at Snetterton much midnight oil was then burned modifying the TVR until it would go round corners as well as along the straights: “Work was completed at 2am on the morning of the race, and the works snatched four hours of sleep before leaving for Snetterton. The V8 was unloaded from ‘Gladys’ (as the bus transporter had been named), and off burbled DP on his first practice lap.

“The car slid through Riches, roared up the Straight, twitched round the Hairpin and overturned at Coram Curve. Next day the wreck was completely stripped, a standard TVR taken out of stock and work began on building another racer...”

Which, I guess, in retrospect tells us all we need to know about minor-league British racing in the 1960s. Where the obsessional hard work and often the disappointment and Fred Karno chaos of the process is concerned, to this day precious little about club racing has really changed. Regardless of the level addressed, racers are never humdrum – never boring, and those boys from Purley were certainly formed in that mould.

I am very sorry to hear of Bobby Bell’s passing and everyone at Goodwood Motorsport would join me here in passing our most sincere condolences to Bobby’s wife Aline and children Natasha and Sophie. 

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

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