NOV 10th 2015
Doug Nye: George Abecassis – The Man Behind HWM
Through the eighteen years of its frontline career (1948-1966) the Goodwood Motor Circuit provided the stage upon which numerous motor racing heroes enthralled the crowds. One of those who was far more than just another driver – indeed he was more driver, team chief and constructor – George Abecassis. The postwar proprietor of HW Motors Ltd, of New Zealand Avenue, Walton-on-Thames, was charismatic, utterly fearless… and often something of a dandy. He was variously known to his friends and contemporary racing rivals as ‘Fearless George’ or even ‘Gorgeous George’ – and he was not least incredibly important to the development of postwar British motor racing for his talent-spotting skills, and as mentor to several of our greatest postwar British racing drivers – Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Lance Macklin…
With his business partner John Heath – absolutely a fellow motor racing enthusiast – George did more than any other duo to pioneer the British works teams’ way into European racing after World War 2. While the well-intentioned BRM cooperative had become bogged-down in its own ambition, bureaucracy, pomposity and ineptitude, Abecassis and Heath took their HWM team racing on a shoestring. They put the accent squarely on practicality, common sense and an attitude of ‘we’ll race anywhere we can show a profit’.
Their HW Motors business drew its initials from ‘Hersham & Walton’ where it was based. The partners were Citroen distributors and dealt in ‘serious motor cars’. Both had been public school pupils. Abecassis (British born to American citizens although his father was of Portuguese extraction) had carved himself a considerable reputation as a racing driver pre-war – notably in his single-seat Alta car – while Heath was an engineer, fascinated by the racing car as a technical exercise.
During the War, George had become an RAF heavy-bomber pilot, rising to Squadron-Leader and flying cloak-and-dagger agent-dropping missions ‘never above 300 feet’ as he once told me, over occupied Europe. In 1944 his unarmed four-engined Stirling was shot down and he and his crew became PoWs. He was eventually liberated by the Russians – ‘which was a bloody sight worse than being a prisoner of the Germans’, George would languidly recall – and he finally got home just after VE day.
Through the late 1940s George and John Heath campaigned the former’s rebuilt Alta single-seater, an ERA and a Bugatti Type 59, plus a sports Alta for the latter. In 1948 Heath built a very special Alta streamliner, which was the first car built specifically by HW Motors. For 1949 the partners realised the money-earning potential of racing in Europe and built an offset single-seat HW-Alta, which could be used with mudguards and lights as a sports car, or with them removed as a Formula 2 entry, thus at a stroke doubling its money-earning opportunities. Some of the car’s structure was scrap metal from wartime Anderson air-raid shelters. Coley’s scrapyard in Hounslow became a major HW Motors supplier – but the end product worked well.
Having proved the idea on the Isle of Man and at Reims and Comminges in France, the partners built a team of Alta-engined, dual-purpose, offset-seat HWM cars for 1950. The cars lacked power, but handled superbly. At a time when the British racing establishment regarded 20-year-old Stirling Moss’s precocious talent with concern, George just signed him up. For 1950 the idea was that their ‘convertible’ offset-seat HWM team cars would contest Formula B (F2) and open Formula A (F1) races every available weekend, with sports car competition whenever available, although their planned Le Mans entries were foregone when they realised it was a prize-money-only race!
In fact, in a typical European race weekend HWM could earn £600-£700 start money and by selling petrol coupons and old racing tyres ‘when practically bald at 25 quid a time… this was good business’. The partners had taken a gamble on young Moss, and he absolutely shone. As the sage-green cars followed their gypsy existence around Europe – tended by Polish ex-serviceman chief mechanic ‘Alf Francis’ and his ferociously hard-worked mates – the initials HWM – pronounced Aarsh-Dooblervay-Emm as the French commentators rendered them – became truly honoured.
At a time when BRM’s much-publicised V16 Grand Prix car was becoming a laughing stock, HWM in contrast became a respected racing name, welcome throughout Europe, a guaranteed giant-killing act, achieving real success and always punching way above its true weight.
For 1951 John Heath built the first Formula 2 HWM single-seaters. The prototype had an in-built suspension geometry fault, which manifested itself when George spun backwards beneath the Woodcote Corner concrete barrier prior to the 1951 Easter Monday meeting. The car jammed itself tail-first beneath the barrier with the concrete beam against the back of his head. He was very fortunate to escape with his life. Moss stayed in the team, together with Lance Macklin, the older sophisticate, son of Sir Noel Macklin of Invicta Cars and wartime Fairmile MTB and MGB fame, who would become a regular – and George later added another fast-rising young star, Peter Collins to the HWM mix.
Again the HWM team had a good season, racing throughout Europe as well as Goodwood and the other British circuits. At the wet Boreham meeting George suddenly thought that his chassis could make a darned fine sports car. Private owner Oscar Moore had bought one of the 1950 HWMs and had fitted it with a Jaguar XK engine. George was impressed, and so the works HWM-Jaguar sports cars were born. As the seasons rolled by HWM’s Formula 2 prospects diminished in concert with the Alta 4-cylinder engine’s competitiveness. Formula 2 ended with 1953, and 1954’s Formula looked alarmingly expensive, so George and John Heath abandoned single-seater competition for the Jaguar-powered sports cars. They ran them into 1956, but at the year’s Mille Miglia John Heath crashed his works car, and was killed. On his own for 1957, George eventually decided to call it a day, to sell the team cars and to concentrate instead upon the general motor trade.
He had been an Aston Martin works team driver 1951-53, building upon his reputation as a fast and fearless driver in their Aston Martin DB2, DB3 and DB3S cars while courting company owner David Brown’s daughter Angela. When he crashed one of the works cars in testing at Goodwood he trudged back to the pits to receive an intense rollicking from Aston’s legendary team manager, John Wyer. George evidently stood and took it, blinked, removed the ever-present cigarette in its holder from the corner of his mouth and remarked regretfully: ‘Bloody hell John, when I crashed my Stirling they gave me the ****ing DFC.’
George Abecassis was, indeed, far more significant within the soaring flight plan of postwar British motor racing than his too-often forgotten status today now credits. His son David has produced a wonderful affectionate biography of his late father – George died in December 1991 – entitled ‘A Passion for Speed’ which is beautifully produced, packed with wonderful photography and which I whole-heartedly recommend. And when it comes to remembering Goodwood’s early heroes, George Abecassis of HWM is right up there, not just alphabetically heading the list…
Photography courtesy of The GP Library