Brian Sparrow’s story and history

As told exclusively to

After seeing George Brown’s ‘Nero’ sprint bike at the 1960 Motorcycle Show Brian joined the National Sprint Association, soon becoming Competitions Secretary running the Sprint Meetings. He met Allan Bootsie Herridge and Brian Witty early in 1962 and joined them on a trip to Long Marston with their home-built Chrysler hemi Dragster with plans to take on Sydney Allard in his Chrysler Dragster. Brian then teamed up with Bootsie, John Harrison and Robin Evemy to form Dragster Developments building and running a straight 8 Buick Dragster followed by a state-of-the-art Cadillac slingshot and a smaller Austin powered slingshot.

Brian also joined the British Hot Rod Association and the British Drag Racing Association soon working on the committees of all three associations and was told he wouldn’t get away with it, but Brian was able to get along with anybody by simply playing along. As Brian said... “By playing along you'd get things done, that was the main thing. Whether you had to prostitute yourself to do it, it got done.”

When Santa Pod opened Brian became a roving reporter in the pits, taking pictures and making notes of every detail and modification to each machine for his regular ‘Scene in the Pits’ writeup in Drag Racing & Hot Rod magazine and as Brian said... “I am in fact obsessive with detail, to the point of being a pain in the ass.”

Brian was always fascinated by Jet and Rocket powered cars and in the 1970s he got involved with Barry Bowles and the two Blonde Bombshell Rocket cars. Brian continued to attend drag races up to his passing in 2023 and was inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2011.

This story, told by Brian, was produced by John Hunt and Nick Pettitt and published by editor Simon Groves.

I was born in Uxbridge 3rd September 1936, meaning I was three when the war broke out and eight when it finished. I had ear trouble when I was three so didn’t really go to school until I was seven and that was only a local school, not a prep school or anything like that because it wasn’t worth spending money on my education. When I was eleven, I went to John Lyon school which was attached to the Harrow school in South Harrow. In those days I could get on the bus by myself and then go on the underground by myself and walk by myself being perfectly safe as it was for several years afterwards.

Having finished school I did a five-year tool-making apprenticeship at Heathway Engineering which is interesting as one of the directors was Fred Bartlett, Peter Bartlett’s father. Peter was at the time doing an EMI apprenticeship and so we didn’t meet until later. Allan ‘Bootsie’ Herridge hadn’t joined Heathway Engineering at that time. It wasn't until I was in the National Service that Bootsie turned up. He was called Bootsie because Peter Bartlett saw him clomping along with his big boots on, which were more suited to the building site he had just left. He was a wonderful welder.

Brian and his Evinrude Speedy Four.

My Father was an engineer, Chief Designer at the Bellpunch Company always admired Bootsie’s welding. You could tell it was brilliant without breaks as everybody would acknowledge. And so I did a five-year apprenticeship finishing when I was 21. I then did National Service on guided weapons in the RAF and was one of the last to do it, I was in a group who were technical school, grammar school and private school boys. It was cut short by two years and came out when I was 24.

When I came out, I joined the Bellpunch Company and I was what’s known as a technical writer, writing manuals. It was the largest ticket printing company in the world. Now of course tickets are self-printed. I was there for several years as a technical writer then standards engineer, and various other things.

It was at that time I got involved with drag racing. Now how I did this was, while I was doing my apprenticeship, I got involved with hydroplane racing and we bought what is known as an Evinrude Speedy Four which is a four-cylinder two stroke 820cc and I did that for a bit. That was individual handicapped racing so I actually won a race once because they let the poor kid win, I was only 17 which was unusual at the time as mostly it was chaps who had finished with the war and they used to go to Germany with boats on the roof and all that sort of thing.

Nero at the National Motorcycle Museum.

I then bought a Konig engined hydroplane from a chap who had a tool making firm in Uxbridge and I built it up while I was on leave during National Service but at the end of National Service in 1960 I went to the Motorcycle show at Earls Court and saw George Brown’s ‘Nero’ sprint bike on a stand. I met Len Cole who was secretary of the National Sprint Association and talked to him about it and got involved with the NSA as Competitions Secretary running the Sprints.

So my father said are you going to race this hydroplane? I said no so he sold it. We then kept an eye on hydroplane racing at Bristol, 140mph catamarans, tunnel craft, but that’s since died now in this country but that was quite a thing.

So, I got involved with sprinting, which had no spectators, it was really just friends who came along at various aerodromes. I met all sorts of fantastic people doing that. One of the chaps was Charlie Rouse; he was the editor of the Motorcycle News at the time. Alfie Hagon was a friend of Len Coles. I didn’t meet him until later on during the 1964 Drag Festivals when he built his V-Twin JAP. I didn’t know Alf well until I started going on about front wheel brakes on drag bikes. Alf was building frames at the time both for sprinting and grass-track. Another good friend of Len Coles was Barry Briggs who used to ride Alf’s sprint bike.

I also went to White City Stadium to watch speedway and the machine examiner there was a chap called Ernie Woods who had his own electrical business and he ran a featherbed frame V-Twin JAP sprint bike. He bought a V-Twin JAP Cooper racing car just for the engine, and he was a good mate, so I got free entry there. Peter Arnold used to do the commentary at the sprints and he was also the commentator at Stock Car Racing so I went to Harringay Stadium and he’d say ‘Hello come in’ so I went in the commentary box and met a chap who did sidecar racing, an Aussie guy, very nice chap and so it went on.

I used to go to the NSA meetings at the Barley Mow, Horseferry Road, Westminster with Len Cole who introduced me to Bootsie who’d turned up with a chap called Brian Witty. They were building a Chrysler hemi powered dragster, it could well have been the first dragster but it was a bit basic. This was early 1962 and Brian told me of his plans to take it to Long Marston in June to take on Sydney Allard and would I like to come along? So, Brian Witty built this thing and we went up to Long Marston and Sydney Allard was very kind because he’d already built his dragster, so he must have been the first. We couldn’t really get it going but Sydney, a decent sort of guy, lovely bloke tried helping us get it going but it wouldn’t start.

Brian Witty’s Chrysler hemi dragster Long Marston June 1962.

It wouldn’t go despite help from the Allard team.

Sydney Allard’s Chrysler dragster.

By that time Bootsie was building his car and we finished the car at the beginning of 1963 with a Buick straight 8 engine, Buick gearbox and Buick rear axle which we eventually narrowed just before the Drag Festivals. Later it was supercharged with a large Rootes type ex-Government cabin blower on the front and a big pipe running back to the manifold. One of my father’s design engineers somewhere up in Shepherds Bush had the pipe bent for us, filled it with sand, it was a two-inch pipe. It then had decent short straight-out exhaust pipes which were originally long crinkly copper ones. This was when we started Dragster Developments, Allan, John Harrison, Robin Evemy and me.

The front wheels were Fiat but we eventually ended up with Cambridge Engineering, Austin 7 racing car wheels. We had the front brakes in situ, they weren't working but we had to have them on. That was a contentious thing and you had to argue that one out but eventually the brakes disappeared, they were no longer required by the RAC.

Bootsie’s Buick dragster first time out at Debden March 1963.

Outside Robin Evemy’s parent’s bungalow.

Brian takes a seat in the now blown DD Buick.

Robin Evemy, Allan Herridge, John Harrison and Owen Evemy at RAF Ruislip where they tested the car.

Brian Sparrow's brand-new Mini Van with side windows.

I got my 850 Minivan from Loco Motors in Uxbridge for £400. I was done for speeding in a 30-mph zone coming back from a sprint meet in Rugby. I was doing a bit more than that and I got caught and paid a fine. I had the back seat conversion put in and the side panels replaced with windows. I fell asleep one time coming back from the theatre in Windsor and wrote off the Minivan doing 45 mph to nothing in six feet, I said it was 30 mph. Then I got a second-hand Mini Traveller in replacement from the insurance. There are photos of it at Robin Evemy’s parent’s bungalow in Willowbank where we kept the DD Buick dragster, this side of the Grand Union canal, the Bucks side.

Bootsie at that time was living in a condemned house in Hayes and young Alan was a baby living in a wall cupboard. His wife Rose has since died. He had to get thrown out three times to get a house, he then got a flat at Hayes with a garage and that’s when he built up the Cadillac engined dragster Pulsation and John Harrison had a semi-detached house around the corner. John Harrison was the most marvellous turner and they met up at Heathway Engineering where Peter Bartlett was already working. John made the most wonderful things and twin engined cars but they were never reliable but beautifully made. He made hubs and all those sorts of things for other people.

Bootsie and John Harrison admire their handiwork.

Engine was a '53 Cadillac 331.

Pulsation ready for action.

John Harrison’s Twin Jynx.

Two blown 'n' injected Austin Healey motors spelt double trouble for the beautifully turned-out machine.

I did the public-school business. Now the old school tie, thank God, has gone. It hasn’t gone that long ago. I used to have to talk to people on the phone to get something done. ‘Hello old boy how are you’ and I would play along with it and my wife Sheila would cringe. By playing along you'd get things done that was the main thing. Whether you had to prostitute yourself to do it, it got done.

I found the snobbery between cars and bikes has disappeared now and everybody's keen on motorbikes. I think the F1 boys realize that the Moto Grand Prix is much more dangerous than F1 but they don’t actually like to say so but they know it. But this was the thing I found I had to break the barriers down and it was different. We didn’t have that problem in later years but back then you had to play along with it, you could either smack their wrist if you got away with it or play along with it, this was how we did it.

This was the thing that got me angry because come the Drag Festival time I was on the NSA committee and the British Hot Rod Association committee and the British Drag Racing Association and I remember being told, oh God you won’t get away with it being on three committees but I managed it by playing along and it was worthwhile. Of course, in those days I didn’t get paid for doing anything, I paid the expenses. I had to go from Woodvale to Hull and back in a day to get the tickets in my Minivan. I didn’t get paid, but I didn’t mind.

This business of getting on with people, I had the affinity to be able to do that. I’ve been on all sorts of things, American Car Club, the Federation of British Vehicle Clubs, but that’s later on after all of this had finished, more recent times. But that is how I really got into Drag Racing, both Drag Festivals, of course the second one was horrendous because of the weather and they didn’t take the right insurance I believe, I think they only got insurance for a certain area and it wasn’t enough and it caught a cold.

I remember John Bennett at Spa engineering was into karting before drag racing. They did a lot of work on bubble cars and had lots of bubble car engines and built karts with the engines, totally different to the karts now, and they did kart racing, the Phelps did as well, this was well before Santa Pod was thought of.

My wife Sheila’s brother was a millionaire, he’d sold his insurance business and got several million for it which he shared with his partner and John Bennett knew that and phoned me up saying we want to start Santa Pod and can you tap your brother-in-law up, I didn’t and he wasn’t interested anyway.

John Bennett, being a karting guy, knew Alan Burgess who was editor of Karting magazine. Alan started Drag Racing magazine then sold it to John who renamed it as Drag Racing & Hot Rod magazine. I got on very well with Alan but I remember Gerry Belton, Allard’s PR man, who was also into karting for a while, said don’t touch him, he’d had a coming together with Alan. I worked on the magazine for Alan and he paid me but when John took it over he said will you do this in return for shares. Now I wasn’t worried about the money so I said yes and then it folded, and that's when Dick Lawrence was running the magazine with John. Dick went to America to work with Bob George, and came back to run Dick’s Place, he was fine but a bit of a Jack the Lad.

I used to do the pit notes in the magazine. We called it ‘Scene in the Pits’ and I’d report on all the modifications and take notes of all the details on the cars and bikes and take photos of everything. I am in fact obsessive with detail, to the point of being a pain in the ass. I have never been drunk in my life, I've come out of a party in a hot room and walked into a lamp post but that was the heat, but I may have had enough to know I shouldn’t be driving.

I ordered Wally Parks’ Drag Racing book and he happened to be in the publishers in America when he saw who it was, and he inscribed it to ‘Brian Sparrow who I had the pleasure of meeting at the 1964 Drag Festivals’. I stood next to him at one of the rounds and he said ‘Brian if this was happening in the States, they’d be throwing beer cans by now’ because there was a hold up, as there was, and he was a lovely man.

Then Sydney Allard died not long after the Drag Festivals, only in his 50s. I didn’t know his son Alan but I met him only a few years ago at a reunion at Santa Pod along with Peter Billinton and several other people. He said I think I remember you, Alan of course drove both Allard dragsters at the Drag Festivals.

I met Clive Skilton at his garage at Enfield and we went out for a bite at a pub. He got involved with the NDRC and I knew Alan Wigmore quite well. I remember the time we were at the Randolph Hotel having an AGM with John Bennett trying to sort things out, who was going to organize what. It all got a bit heated and Bootsie with several other members resigned from the association. Alan Wigmore lent over to me saying I could stand up and say something, but I didn’t. I knew Alan very well. He was a very pleasant guy and he died too young. I always regret not going on one of his trips to the States.

I had a lot of correspondence with Bob George who brought over the American Commandos Teams to Santa Pod in 1966 and 1967. He asked me what I want in the team? So I asked for EJ Potter who came, I wanted Art Arfons in the Cyclops jet car, a multi engined or aero engined Dragster, a Modified Roadster, a Funny Car and an Anglia Gasser as we’d seen Willys Gassers in ‘64. John Bennett said we’d better not have a Jet Car as the Roundtree family have a house nearby and they’ll get annoyed with the noise, so we didn’t get the Jet Car.

Al Eckstrand came over with the American Commandos and I had a ride in his Corvette soft top in a race with Clive Skilton’s E-Type. It was getting dark and starting to rain. The Corvette was left-hand drive and Al was in the right-hand lane. I sat on the other side in his car so Clive couldn’t see me. Clive won the race because of the superior Jag rear suspension in the wet.

Al Eckstrand's Lawman 427 Stingray.

Clive Skilton’s E-Type.

Al Eckstrand's Lawman '66 Dodge Charger.

I also had a drive of Al’s Lawman Dodge Charger; they took it up the far end and I drove it back from the finish line to the start line. I took it up to 80 then thought I’d better stop as the start line was coming up.

Pulsation with injected Chevy fitted.

I got married at 30 and they were a bit miffed because I’d dropped off the committee. Ann Bennett did say ‘you can't do that’ but I did and they were not very happy. I stepped out of organizing drag racing but I would still go up there with a chap called Mel Bettison who was on the start line, and I knew Stu Bradbury from the beginning. I knew Rod George from very early on and got him involved in drag racing and his mother has never forgiven me since.

I knew Tony Beadle but not Don, he went to America and worked for Maclaren's on their Indy car engines. Last time I saw Tony was at a Classic car show in the Midlands. He’d written a book on cars of Uxbridge, which I’ve got a copy of, a super guy, he went to the Grammar school in Uxbridge. Both Tony and Don took over the running of Pulsation with Bootsie after it got the Hilborn injected Chevy fitted in 1967 by which time I’d moved on to other things.

Harold Bull's Stripduster and his Mk10 Jag push/tow car. Ron Fisher pic.

I knew Harold Bull very well, I went round to his place at Ascot and saw his bits and pieces and his workshop, all his kids and his big Mk 7 Jag to get them all in. I saw him three or four years ago at the Pod in his wheelchair, now I’m in a wheelchair.

In the 70s I got involved with Barry Bowles and the Rocket cars because he used to go to Farnham Royal and help with the publicity of the drag racing club. He in fact was the youngest Hospital Secretary in the country at the Royal Masonic hospital at Northwood. Brilliant chap but he then got carried away with his rocket cars, the Blonde Bombshells. We used to spend hours on the phone, I was working at Bellpunch in my office on my own, we used to chat for hours sorting things out. I can’t remember where the first car was built, but I know the second Bombshell, the bigger car was built at Laporte in Luton. We used to go over to Luton every other night with Mel Bettison getting back at 1am and up again at 6am for work.

The first one I think Bootsie did was a simple chassis, I believe that was on gas bottles and we had all kinds of people come to Santa Pod to see it running. That car crashed at Pendine Sands. I didn’t go because I was ill so Barry went down there with Mel Bettison and others to run the car and it worked quite well.

We had a big Press Day at Santa Pod, all sorts of Press people came along, I can’t remember the names. Barry was good at that sort of thing. I think Dennis Priddle gave them a box trailer and didn’t get paid for it. Then we went up to a track in the Midlands, Bruntingthorpe, with the second Bombshell Mel and I. Barry sat in the car, we tapped him on his head and off he went and the car crashed. Barry had split up with his wife and was really fed up. His girlfriend took him down to Brighton where there was a lady's night at her dad’s Masonic Lodge and I never saw him again. He went to Spain and didn't want to do anything.

Barry Bowles in Blonde Bombshell 1.

At the Firework Meet Santa Pod, November 1976. Gary Morgan pic.

Blonde Bombshell 2.

At Laport, Luton.

The guy who did the design for it worked at Ferrari, he saw all my photographs on the internet and was over the moon because he’d never had any photographs of his work so that was quite nice. I suspect he’s now retired. It was a super car but a bit of weld broke at the back and a wheel came off. But we went up to the BBC studios at Ealing Way and we looked at their film of the run because they went along to do a dummy run, the timekeepers were going to come along the next weekend. They were there setting up the brackets for the cameras for the following weekend's record run.

They had filmed his test run and I’m pretty sure they’d worked out he crashed at 394 mph. I can't prove it. At this time the record was with Richard Noble. He mentions Barry Bowles in his book which was very fair of him. The car was taken away and stuck in the foyer of somebody's showroom or factory in the entrance hall. I never saw it again.

The reason why we got that speed was we had a guy with us and he worked in America along with the Nazis and all that with NASA. Most of the NASA staff were British or German. He looked at Barry at first and said what a load of rubbish and then he got quite keen on it. They had markers at Bruntingthorpe and they could work out the speeds because this was a car testing place for Talbots at the time. That was one of the sad things it could have really gone and been a British land speed record had he gone back the other way, but of course he never went back the next weekend and the RAC didn’t have to turn up.

Slammin’ Sammy Miller was a lovely bloke and I remember him quite fondly, his stuff was incredible and I remember I was up in the start line control tower with Bob Phelps and when Sammy took off, all the plastic windows shattered. Bob wasn’t pleased because he had to spend a few bob before the next meeting to put new windows in.

Links to Brian Sparrow’s photos and memorabilia...

Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1961-’63
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1964
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1965
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1966
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1967
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1968
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1969
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1970
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1971
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1972
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1973
Brian Sparrow’s pics... 1974
1964 Drag Festival results... 1st weekend Blackbushe/Chelveston
1964 Drag Festival results... 2nd weekend Woodvale/Church Fenton
1964 Drag Festival results... 3rd weekend Kemble/Blackbushe
Letters, race results, etc... 1963
Letters, race results, etc... 1964
Letters, race results, etc... 1965
Letters, race results, etc... 1966
Letters, race results, etc... 1967-69
BHRA AGMs... 1963, 1964, 1965
BDR & HRA AGM... 1969
Brian’s Cine Film...1962 - 65
Brian’s Cine Film...1963 - 1968

Visit to Brian click here
In January 2022 John Hunt visited Brian Sparrow at his house to interview him for the series of Pioneer Stories on Eurodragster. After the interview he did this video looking at his collection of model kits, diecasts, books etc. By then Brian who was ill at the time was very tired so doesn't say very much in the video...

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