A Tribute to Ron Searles and the Flying Coopers
This is a small tribute to Ron Searles, a man that most of you would be unfamiliar with, and indeed a man that I did not have the chance to meet, but who had such a profound influence on my life.
I start with this clipping from The Palm Beach Post, October 1957.
My father, Arthur Owen, along with Jim Russell, Bill Knight, and Roy Salvadori, were involved in a successful slew of record attempts at Montlhery and Monza from 1955 to 1959. On one of the attempts, at Monza, 7th to 14th October 1957, the prime objective was to regain the hour record for the class. Additionally they planned on going for the 200 mile record, aswell as the 1000 mile and 2000 km , and finally the 12 hour record, and for this, they would need a third driver.
Ron Searles, Cooper's works manager, had apparently been nagging my father and Bill Knight to drive in place of John Cooper who was expecting to have a baby during the time of the attempts. It was a long shot, but if successful, this would be the first time ever that records set up at Utah would have been beaten in Europe. They contacted Ron with the good news to include him, and elated, he promised to arrange everything for them on the England end, such as borrowing a transporter to take the Cooper Climax down to Monza, getting the '1,100' cc prepared and finding a spare mechanic. From the book "The Racing Coopers" by Arthur Owen, "Our travelling arrangements worked out very well. Ron Searles, Mrs. Searles, and Frank Butler, a seventeen year old Cooper mechanic, drove Jack Brabham's transporter, which we had borrowed, to Monza. In it, they had the Cooper Climax, all the tyres (forty in all), the 250cc Norton, the 350cc J.A.P., the spare 1,100cc engine and other spare parts. Bill and I drove my old Mark VII with trailer and Streamliner on the back, and the two spare 250cc J.A.P. engines in the boot. We met, as arranged, at Monza Autodrome, on Saturday, 5th October."
The next few days, they took Ron round the track in the Jaguar to accustom him to the banking as it was the first time he had driven on this type of circuit, then gave Ron a chance in the 1100cc Climax. Ron passed the time trials for the compulsory test laps with flying colours.
After some successful runs at the 50km, 50mile,100km,1hour, 100mile records by Bill Knight in the "K" class (up to 250cc), the big day came for the "G" Class attempts soon after learning that Colin Chapman was going to attack the one hour "G" Class record later that year with a supercharged Climax engined Lotus. They also knew that Sterling Moss was preparing to go to Utah to drive the M.G. team's EX179 1100cc and EX 181 1500cc cars although the M.G. team assured them that no attempts would be made at the 1,100cc records (my father was skeptical of this news to say the least).
Unfortunately the "blower" that John Cooper delivered to test on their 1100cc engines did not work properly as it kept catching fire. Then they heard news that the M.G. team had gone off to the States and with their "blown" 1,100cc car, pushed up the "G" records from 500kms. to 6 hours to around the 132mph mark, and they also claimed the 200 mile record at 131.89mph, which was silly as Roy Salvadori had set this record up in October 1956 at exactly the same speed - 131.89mph. In addition the M.G. team had taken the 100mile, 200km, and 12 hour Class G records at speeds of around 118mph. Without the "blower" they decided chances were slim of going for the 200mile records, but they still had a chance of going for the 1000mile, 2000km and 12 hour records.
The day was set for Wednesday, and the night before, whilst Ron worked on repairing the car, Bill and Arthur would go to bed early and hit the track first thing to start the records. Bill and Arthur planned on hour-and-three-quarter shifts for at least seven hours then Ron could take over some shifts as the third driver, giving him some rest after discovering a hefty crack in the chassis which he spent until 5:30am welding to fix.
At 6:15am they were on track. This was the longest drive they had ever contemplated and to bring home the bacon, they would need to average 125mph all the way to make up for pit stops. My father started on on the first leg and had little problem keeping to the 125mph average mark despite the engine not sounding crisp. Passing the car to Bill Knight after one hour and forty-five minutes after a rather shoddy pit stop in which they lost one minute and a half, Bill continued, lapping steadily at around 1 minute 16 secs per lap. More time lost on the second pit stop (4 minutes, due to a miscalculation of fuel spent), and they were off again. After a couple more shifts, they finally handed the car to Ron Searles whilst warning him to "spare the engine". Bill and Arthur went in for lunch but could clearly hear the car each time it came around the bend. Mrs. Searles said, "It looks as though you are going to do the records!" , which, to my father's superstitious mind was fatal. Unfortunately he was right. The words were hardly out of her mouth when the car came round, the roar changing to a splutter, then silence. The seconds went by, still no sounds. My father said to Vic, "We have had it", and forlornly they returned to the track. Bill had gone out in the Jaguar to see what had happened, and we were relieved to see him return with Ron looking crestfallen, but unharmed. A rod had gone through the side of the Cooper, so the 6 hours driving had gone for naught. They would try again the next week.
Saturday and Sunday were spent getting their other 1100cc engine prepared for the 12 hours. At the same time Lotus were preparing for their G class attempts. Come Monday, their big day, with an early start essential, they left a message for a wake-up call at 4:30am, but the porter overslept, waking them up an hour later.
Second attempt started with shifts of 2 hours 5 minutes going from Owen, to Knight, to Searles, and back to Owen again. Ron's first 2 hour shift went well, and they were on track, aside from some minor oil leaks. Owen and Knight gave Ron all the encouragement possible with their usual rude signs, some of which he replied to in the true Churchillian manner.
Including pit stops, they were averaging 122mph which gave them a little margin as the 1000 mile record stood at 117.48 mph and they had to beat this by one percent. They gave Ron the "two hour" sign followed by the "3 more laps", and he gave them the thumbs up, cleaning up before pulling in. There was a rush to pat him on the shoulder for keeping them well in the hunt. Two shifts later and the 1000 mile record in the bag, my father hugged Ron whilst Bill Knight plowed on for the 2000km. The car was doing well, lapping at close to 1 minute 12 sec runs.
Bill came in looking remarkably fresh, and Ron took over to do the last hour and thirty five minutes for the 12 hour record. Once again he drove consistently and the laps soon began to mount. The track officials asked them if they would require extra lighting on the corners when it got dark. When they agreed, the officials raked out some very heavy blinking lamps and placed them in position on the track. As it got gradually darker, the strain began to take its toll on my father, who decided to pop off to the bar for some liquid refreshments. He could hear the car roaring round as sound as a bell. The Vic came in with his lap scoring chart and told me Ron was slowing and needed to speed up to pull off the 12 hour record. They returned to the pit and started doing the sums. It was going to be close. The arc lights were switched on above the pits so that Ron could see their signals better. Meanwhile he was lapping slower and slower in the darkening sky. My father thought to call him in, but decided that with 20 minutes to go, a pit stop could lose them the record. Sid put out the "Faster" sign, but it did not help.
With such a short time to go, every second counted, and when they pushed the 'Faster' sign out again and Ron did not speed up, my father wondered if he was able to see the board coming from the darkness into the glare of the pits. So the next time Ron came around, my father stood right out in the full glare of the arc lights and made vigorous motions with both hands sweeping him along. As he passed, my father walked back to the pit, and to his horror, he heard the most terrific crash, then a flash of light, and then, in the distance a red glare and smoke. The track officials got the track tender going and chased down to the wreck, and my father and Frank followed in the Jaguar, but there was nothing any of them could do: the car was a blazing funeral pyre for poor Ron Searles; he had crashed into one of the winking lights, hitting it square on with his off-side tyre. The car had shot into the air and landed thirty yards down the track on its back. Ron did not have a chance, he must have been mercifully killed outright, with only sixteen minutes to go to achieve his greatest ambition.
From that fateful day, my father decided never to wear a seatbelt. Had Ron Searles not been strapped in so tight he argued, Ron might have been able to escape the burning car. The police would often stop my father for not wearing a seatbelt. He would recount this story to them in his charming British manner and most times they would let him on his way.
I thank you all for having read this far. I know this is a long post, but a compelling tribute to the bravery of drivers past and present. My father never talked about this incident, but it is highlighted in the chapter, "The Record Breaking Coopers" in his book, "The Racing Coopers", and also in Doug Nye's "Cooper Cars". Picture credits from both books and from my personal collection.
Here is a video on one of their record braking runs at Montlhery.
The 1950's and early 60's was an amazing period for the Cooper Car Company. Founded in 1947 by Charles Cooper and his son John out of their small garage in Surbiton, Surrey, this small outfit went on to dominate the racing world, culminating in the highest accolade in motorsports, back to back wins of the F1 Constructors' and Drivers' Championships in 1959 and 1960. Today the Cooper name lives on in Cooper versions of the Mini.
I also leave you with a couple more pictures from my collection of those magnificent men in their "flying" machines.
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