OldRacingCars.com

Peter Connew Interview

by Richard Jenkins

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It was with great delight that I was able to spend time in Peter’s company throughout the weekend. It’s hard to believe this unassuming, jovial man had the temerity and the guts to build, design and race his very own Formula 1 car. I thank both Peter and his cousin, and fellow Connew stalwart, Barry Boor, for arranging the interview and for their time and warmth all weekend, it was a pleasure to be with them. Their car was the undisputed highlight of a brilliant weekend at Goodwood. Interview was conducted on the 1st July 2017.

RJ: Why do you believe that the only colour racing cars should be is red?

PC: Red’s my favourite colour! But it also all goes back to the time that we were loading the Surtees car in the truck to go to South Africa in what was probably February, maybe March 1970. The wheels were polished; (John) Surtees made his own wheels actually, there were three sections bolted together, but you could polish the wheels nicely, and as the car came round the corner, the sun caught the wheels and the bodywork and it looked wonderful and I thought to myself, I want to have one of those! At that time, I didn’t realise how much work and money had to go into it, but that was my inspiration really.

RJ: Although a disagreement with John Surtees eventually led to you building your own Formula 1 car, you got that crucial step-up into the sport through him initially as a draughtsman didn’t you?

PC: No, it wasn’t actually a disagreement that meant the Connew came about, it came about with the thing I just described, how that Surtees looked. I think he was upset as I left him, as nobody likes people to leave you; you don’t like people to leave you when you’re working on something together and I later heard, probably a year later, that he said that possibly some of the Connew had emanated from his workshop. Well that got me going, and I rang him up and said “You can come down the workshop and have a look; not one nut or bolt was taken from your workshop”. That’s the natural reaction that he had and I don’t blame him for that because he probably thought “Well, how can he build a car without pinching all the bits?” you know, but I wouldn’t sink that low!

 

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RJ: What, generally, was it like to work with him and what things, both positive and negative, did you learn from him to help your own F1 effort?

PC: Oh, yes. I think a lot of my life has been… the philosophy of my life has been generated by things I learnt from him. He had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, and boy, when you’re John Surtees, you’re surrounded by a lot of fools! But he just... he could be a difficult guy. He once really told me off. Every winter, he would go; he had a property in the Bahamas and he would go there because he suffered with pneumonia in his lungs, and he phoned up once to ask me about a job that I was doing and back then it was a £1 a minute to call the UK from the Bahamas and he said to me “I want to talk to you about things” and I went “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you” and he said “What do you mean, talk to me? I want some action! I’m not ringing at £1 a minute for you to talk, I want it done!”

After I put the phone down, I thought that he was dead right; I should’ve been more prepared and more ready to act. Little things like that taught me that you might disagree with people every day of your life but... they might be right and you might be wrong, so that made me think and that’s a philosophy that I’ve carried around with me a lot.

RJ: You had a number of drivers view the car in the early days, including Tony Trimmer, Howden Ganley and Gerry Birrell. Were they your original preferred choices to drive the car?

PC: Ganley, yes. Tony Trimmer, no. He never actually looked at the car; his only involvement was the Formula 5000 race. Howden Ganley came down, Gerry Birrell too; of course, the next year he got killed and Stuart Turner came down. He was the Ford competitions manager, and he was the one who said “I’m going to send Gerry Birrell down to look at the car” as Gerry was the man of the moment with Ford. Stuart said “I can’t give you any money, but any bits you need, let me know”. I said to him “Well, there is actually, I need some Escort high-ratio steering racks” and they’re still sitting on the car today.

As to whom did we have in mind? Anyone. Anyone that could help us and keep it running. Another guy that we wrote to, funnily enough, was the man who would drive the car that we’re sat next to in the paddock here; the Eifelland; Rolf Stommelen. I’ve got a letter indoors somewhere in the loft probably buried under a whole load of kid’s toys from him thanking us. So it’s strange how 45 years on, the car next to us is the one Rolf raced, but you know, it’s even more significant than that. Barry (Boor, Peter’s cousin and motorsport super fan), our motor racing historian, two or three weeks ago, he found a You Tube black and white film of the Austrian Grand Prix of our car in action. I’ve only seen it once before in action, which is at the start of the Austrian Grand Prix and we were right at the back of course. But in that black and white footage, there’s only one other car and that other car is… the Eifelland with Rolf Stommelen, can you believe, can you believe it? Talk about coincidence.

RJ: One of the things that impressed me the most about all of this was your responses to all the drawbacks you had. Things didn’t work; things broke down and so on. Did that make the sense of achievement of making it all that more special?

PC: That’s right. Yeah, yeah, there’s no satisfaction in having no pain. You’ve got to have some pain somewhere to make the whole thing worthwhile. When you go through the whole exercise, and nothing’s gone wrong you think “This is too easy. Where am I? What’s going on, why is this so easy”. So, yes, you’ve got to have some pain to appreciate it more.

RJ: You overcame numerous issues including bad luck at France, German and Britain before finally making it to Austria. What is the one memory that stands out the most about that weekend above all others?

PC: (RJ Note: The Red Arrows were flying over Goodwood when we did the interview and inspired Peter with a memory). The Red Arrows are just fabulous, oh, fabulous. I remember that back in Austria in 1972, they were flying over the circuit then, so it’s particularly poignant for me that they are here as well. At my age, it all’s gone in a blur! But I’ve seen some pictures, seen some film. It was a lovely sunny day, for the few days we were there; the weather was fantastic which is always nice. There were a lot of people around and I remember a set of lady triplets which reminded me of the Beverley Sisters (a singing trio of sisters, two twins and one older sister, all born, incidentially, on the same day, who had some success in the UK music charts in the 1950’s; one of them, Joy, married the then England football captain, Billy Wright, which gave them even more fame at that time), now I’m showing my age! I think I drove round the circuit with Francois. He drove once and I drove once, which was a day or two before the official practice, maybe. I then drove the car back into the paddock area and I dinged it on a post and Francois was pretty upset that I’d dinged the corner of his BMW 2002 and I remember I gave him some money towards the repair; I think it was twenty-five quid – it was cheaper back then! (Peter laughs again) That would’ve been a week’s wages back then! The fact that we were at the very back of the grid didn’t worry me, it was the fact we WERE on the grid, and it was fantastic. I often get people say “Oh yeah, you did that, but you weren’t very successful really” and my reply is always “Oh yeah, how well did YOUR car go then in Formula 1?” I’m very pleased we did so much with so little. What we did achieve is WAY down the list of others, like Williams and Ferrari, but to start it off with virtually nothing and then to get where we got to is very satisfying.

RJ: Obviously your car will be forever linked with Francois Migault. What are your favourite memories of him?

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PC: Francois stayed with us overnight on several occasions in ordinary working-class houses. He was a guy who came from a family who owned a big chateau in France and he never ever complained. From a down-to-earth point of view, he was a non-arrogant guy that could mix with every type of person and to work with people to achieve the objective, that’s the sort of person I like; not at all arrogant. I’ve met a lot of arrogant people in my time and I haven’t got a lot of time for them, a bit like John Surtees in that respect. Surtees had a favourite phrase, particularly with drivers, that if they started complaining or getting cocky, that they were “prima donnas”. That’s what I liked about Francois, he wasn’t a prima donna. I also think he was quite a reasonable driver. I think that if you had someone like Francois today and stick him in a Mercedes, he’d be right up there with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton. He had the talent and he had the drive, you know? That’s what you need in life, you need some drive.

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RJ: Your association with David Purley was quite short, but what are your memories of him?

PC: I don’t have a lot of memories of him, but I remember going down to his workshop where he was preparing his Formula 2 car with Lec Refrigeration and he was just about to go to South America, for the Il Torneio do Brasil Formula 2 races. The situation was that our engine needed a rebuild; something had gone wrong; I forget what it was now. It was probably our fault, we might’ve had it set up wrong because we were inexperienced and David offered to pay for the rebuild which I think was about £600 in return for driving the car at the 1972 World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch. But the night before the race, he asked us to put a kill button on the steering wheel – which we’ve left of for today; our logic is that we want to present the car as it was at the Austrian Grand Prix, not at Brands – but anyway, we fixed it up, he went out on the warm-up lap, it broke down on the circuit and when we got the car back that night, we traced the wiring back and the wire that connected the kill button to the engine had broken. So it did its job in a way, but at the wrong time, so that was a bit disappointing. So the whole experience with David was a little bit on the negative side; I felt warmer to Francois, but you know, that’s life, it’s the way it goes. But we had a good time and its all part of the equation. The fact is that we did associate with David for a short period and it was nice to do that.

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RJ:  You moved into Formula 5000 in 1973. Was it solely led by Pierre Soukry to move into this category or did it appeal to you anyway?

PC: Well, it kind of came from Surtees, where we built the TS5 Formula 5000 car. The very first job I had at Surtees was to modify a rear suspension part out and when the TS7 car came out, Surtees saw that it was compatible with the Formula 5000 engine regulations, so we made the TS8, which we sold a lot of and that’s what made the money. People back then who were wealthy would just buy the car and when you think about it, just think about the wages he had to pay, every week, every month, just think about it for what it would cost to keep the place running. So he got a lot of money in from people who would pay for a private testing session with the car at Goodwood. So anyway, we saw that it was relatively easy, as it were, to adapt the suspension and the engine to run in Formula 5000 and maybe Soukry could help with some money and it could go from there.

RJ: Barry has said that racing cars were never your passion initially; you really liked US Saloon cars. What was it about them that made them appeal to you?

PC: When I was at school, when I was sixteen – I left school at sixteen – I used to buy a magazine called Motor Trend. Each year, back then, all the manufacturers; General Motors, Chrysler and so on, they would bring out new models. I learned to appreciate that a ’58 Buick was different from a ’59 Buick and a ’60 Buick was different again. Motor Trend published all the pictures of the cars and I liked them and even now if I see a ’59 Buick, say, I’d relish the opportunity to drive round in it. Back then, it wasn’t the racing I was interested in, it was purely the cars. But in 1969, a friend of mine said “Do you fancy going to the Italian Grand Prix with me and my girlfriend?” It all sounded quite good fun, so I said yeah and I didn’t really know anything about motor racing until I got there. So when I got back, I had to leave my job at the record player manufacturer. I was probably in my seventh or eighth year there at that point. When I came back, I was asked “What are you going to do for a job?” I replied “Frankly, I don’t quite know”. Well, I was told that they were looking for draughtsmen down at Surtees, as they were currently moving from Slough to Edenbridge. So, I went down, had the interview, got the job and a few months later Shahab (Ahmed, designer and engineer of numerous racing cars) arrived February/March time. I remember that later on, we could fold the aluminium sheets in our own workshop, rather than outside as we had no rolling technology before then. To make a curvy shape, you had to have your own particular type of machine and so I went to Morris Gomm in Woking and he rolled them for us. I prefer my car over the Surtees, ours is a little curvier. I like curvy things; they’re a lot more attractive! (Peter then patted his stomach and laughed)

RJ: You mentioned Shahab, are you still in touch with him?

PC: Yes, I saw him at Surtees’ funeral, which was about 3 months ago. I mentioned to him about coming here, we were fairly rigid about coming here; we knew about it at an early stage but it’s difficult to find the time to see him properly. I still work full-time, 37-and-a-half-hours a week as a structures engineer for Ford in Chelmsford; coming home – at my age – completely knackered, and then spending about 12 hours of the weekend doing this; it’s been heavy going and some things had to give way and seeing people more is one of them. But he’s seen things like this; he’s been to a million races. He used to work at Fittipaldi and Wilson (Fittipaldi) is here this weekend. I went up to Wilson and said “Do you remember Shahab Ahmed” and Wilson went “Yes, send him my best regards”, so that was nice.

RJ: What you did was utterly remarkable and will never happen again but also, it seems that there is heavy limitation on design these days for the current F1 designers for even parts of cars, let alone a whole one. Do you feel anyone wanting to be a designer today will enjoy anywhere near the experience you had?

PC: Yes, I believe so. I like creating things, which is why I like cooking. If no-one created anything, where would we be? Still in horse-and-cart days. It’s the creation, I think, that gives people satisfaction. Writers, they create a story, words, a film which gives other people pleasure and what I particularly feel is you can get satisfaction from creating something. We are where we are today because of people who create things. Even people, ordinary people in the street are able to create things; they don’t have to be a top scientist or anything like that, and they make the World go round. So, as long as people can create in Formula 1, they’ll have satisfaction.

RJ: Did you ever consider calling the car another name other than the Connew?

PC: No, it seemed to be the thing to do back then. Your use your name and then you use your initials for the car, PC01 and so on. When Darnval came along, with what seemed to be to us, a lot of money, it seemed the right thing to do to make a Darnval badge and stick it on the car (RJ note; you can see that at the front of the car below the Ford logo). Back then, of course, it was John Player Lotus, Yardley McLaren and so on, it was the done thing. Although I’m very proud, I do wish my Dad was here today to see this as he would see his name at the front of the car but I was quite happy to call whatever we liked really. So we called it the Darnval Connew and it’s worth mentioning that without it, without them, it may never have happened.

RJ: This is your first visit to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. What have you enjoyed the most about it?

PC: Yes, I’ve never been to Goodwood House before either. This event has been fantastic; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m now considering going to the Goodwood Revival. I know it’s a different affair but it’s just so nice and this is such a lovely part of the country. I hope one day to come back to this. I suppose the next aim has to be to get the car running – in some form – to get the car up that hill, albeit quite slowly. Realistically, could it happen next year? There’s a chance. I haven’t lost any drive, but it’s going to be difficult within the next year. But of course, if you’re a little bit more flexible, we’ve got five years to reach our 50th anniversary! First of all, I’ve got to make it. But if I make it, then I think there’s a 90% chance that we’ll come here in five years’ time and do a run; if they’ll let us in!

RJ: You’ve got the right people supporting you though; Doug (Nye) for instance.

PC: Oh, Doug yes. I cannot believe how lucky we are, to be where we are, in the spot we are, with the help of people like Doug, and Hall & Hall of course and I understand Mr Kinsman (RJ Note; William Kinsman, head of Motorsport Content at Goodwood) had a lot to do with that and we’re very, very grateful for that.

RJ: Away from the sport, you’ve also become much admired for your and your wife’s Iris’ dedication to providing a home to foster children. What encouraged you to foster and what you would say has been the biggest enjoyment about being a foster carer?

PC: We’ve been foster parents for thirty-six years, from about 1977, until about five years ago when my wife developed bad back problems because I was – and still am – working full-time you see. But she did ninety-five percent of the work and I got five percent of the enjoyment; but I got all the enjoyment bit and she got the hard work! We had quite a few babies; babies that were born at three o’clock and delivered to our house at six o’clock and that’s more or less how we ended up. We did have a girl who first came to us when she was nine or ten; she’s due her first baby now and that’s quite exciting as our own children haven’t had children yet, we’ve not got grandchildren, so I look forward to that. I‘ve enjoyed her progression through life, through society, and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? We’re all here having fun.

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Photo Credits:

  1. Peter Connew at the Nostalgia Forum Film Show, Albury, Hertfordshire, 28th January 2017. Copyright, Ralph J Colmar, used with permission
  2. Copyright Richard Jenkins, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 1st July 2017.
  3. Francois Migault, 1972. Copyright, Barry Boor. Used with Permission
  4. Copyright Richard Jenkins, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 1st July 2017.
  5. David Purley, 1977. Copyright, Paul Kooyman. Used with Permission.
  6. Copyright Richard Jenkins, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 1st July 2017.
  7. Copyright Richard Jenkins, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 1st July 2017.

Last updated by Richard Jenkins on 10 Aug 2017.

All text is copyright Richard Jenkins 2017.