As told exclusively to
Chris first went to the USA in 1968 on holiday and his hosts took him to drag racing at Fremont Dragstrip. On his return to the UK, after completing his mechanical engineering studies, he worked at local motor dealers' workshops in his hometown of Wycombe, then joined British Airways as senior cabin staff. He was involved with classic motorboats and powerboats, eventually returning to drag racing, building the Grim Reaper altered which runs in the Supercharged Outlaws with Aaron and Mark Windridge.
In 1968 I'd made friends with a US Air Force guy and his lovely Japanese wife, Larry and Michon. Larry was about six foot six and built like a bean pole, Michon only about five feet. They were stationed locally, and I saw his Plymouth running round town with a name on the side. I asked if he was into Drag Racing, he said yes, and we became great friends. He was retiring out of the Air Force; he was only in his thirties then. He said when I retire, come out and have a holiday with us. So, in 1968 I got on a 707 landing at what became JFK airport then going onto San Francisco and Larry’s brother picked me up in his 1953 Ford flathead Sedan.
On our way and just going down the freeway to San Jose where they still lived with his parents, I sighted a sprint car on a trailer and then a T bucket doing a quick overtake... Heaven! I spent several weeks with them, and this was when you were only allowed to take £50 spending money out of the UK. Americans are generous to a fault so I couldn’t be better looked after. I could hardly spend any money only managing to take them out for a meal one night. Larry's Dad was a pipefitter, union man and blue-collar worker, highly paid as it was a highly skilled job.
We went Drag Racing every weekend at Fremont. It was still the Slingshot era, flip top Funny cars were just coming in and the Slingshots running 200 mph regularly. Larry introduced me to the strip manager as British Drag Racing Champion, well first loser. How about some free entry cards? said Larry and we got free entry for as long as we were there. I remember when he opened the cash register to get the tickets to fill out there was a pair of brass knuckle dusters and I’m sure he had a revolver about his person as well. There was a good entry every weekend and this guy who had an Austin A40 Gasser offered me a ride as it had a passenger seat, but the track manager wouldn’t allow it because of insurance. A Fordson panel van called Lil' Hearse was well known at the time, and a wheelstanding Beetle with a Corvair flat six engine in the back. There was always a '27 Touring with a huge wide hood cruising round the back of the pits, it appeared in several movies. It was just full of Californian girls; it was just fantastic.
I took one weekend out from the Drag Racing at Fremont to visit a resort complex at Lake Konocti with two lakes, a bar and restaurant and lots of facilities owned by the Pipefitters Union. I met up with this girl, Andrea. She was 16 and I was 20 and we dated for the few days I was there. She drove me round fully licensed in an Oldsmobile 442. Her father was a Judge, makes you wonder what a Judge's family was doing as a guest of the Pipefitters Union! Another friend I made was a 22-year-old guy who worked at the local gas station pumping gas and tire fitting. He had a brand-new 327 Camaro with a brand-new set of 5 spokes and tires which cost $150 total. My point being these two young Americans could afford these cars, it was no big deal.
The American economy was booming, the biggest employer in San Jose was General Motors. We went in search of the cheapest burger and got it down to 49 cents, gas was 25 cents a gallon. The only blot on the landscape was Vietnam which was beamed in colour onto the TV every night. Larry's younger brother, a Military Policeman, came home having done his stint for the country. His job was rounding up draft dodgers, or as he said, beating up on Hippies. He'd been turned into a mean son-of-a-bitch.
Back in the UK I was studying engineering at college, not incredibly successfully. I got married at 22 and was working the dirty end of the motor trade for the early part of our marriage in a body shop primarily as a fitter and painter. I also worked for the Rootes, Ford and BMC main dealers in Wycombe. The first and last cars I laid colour on were both Ferraris. Except for a Scaglietti bodied 365 GTS, most of the cars we dealt with in the 60s were pretty rubbish, but in my first week we had a Shelby GT 350 Mustang in Forest Green, with frontal damage. The then biggest American car importer, Lendrum and Hartman demanded an astronomical £2500 deposit against the repair panels!
In 1976 I joined British Airways, starting on B747 long haul flights then transferred to short haul as my wife got fed up with me being away. The benefit of that was I served on Concorde for seven years as it was part of short haul operations. I carried (in the Airline sense) many famous and some interesting passengers, believe me they are not necessarily the same thing! However, I literally carried Frank Williams from his seat on Concorde to his wheelchair as, despite the presence of nurses and ground staff, nobody seemed to be prepared to lift him out of his seat, but I am quite strong, and the poor chap didn't weigh very much anyway. RIP Sir Frank.
I was a purser on Concorde then got promoted to cabin service director on 747s and 777s for my last 13 years with BA. Coming out of South America once, this very statuesque and elegant blond lady accompanied by two very young teenage daughters boarded. Madame went upstairs to the Club cabin in the 747 ‘bubble’ and the two girls were sat in the downstairs Club cabin according to their boarding tickets. I said to one of the girls, If I can fix it would you like to go upstairs to be near your mother? She said yes please, that would be nice, which I managed to do. The girls, Tamara and Petra, were both very polite and well mannered. Their mother was, of course, Slavica Ecclestone! Part of my job was to promote our First-Class service and I asked Mrs E as they could clearly buy the whole Airline, never mind the aircraft, why they weren't sat up front? She replied that she and Bernie didn't think it was worth it! I had no answer to that...
In the interim I got interested in classic motorboats. My Father had retired to Selsey with his second wife. On a visit to him I saw on the foreshore a derelict speedboat. We found the owner and I bought the boat and restored it. Then the Classic Motorboat Association of Great Britain was founded, and I ended up becoming vice chairman. Brian Sparrow was also well involved in the association. In conjunction with the late Rod Champkin I organized many successful rallies and did the commentaries as well. It was a very interesting time.
Through that I got involved with powerboat racing. Lucy, my youngest daughter's first serious boyfriend was Chris Loney who’s now an incredibly well-known powerboat racer and holder of many National and International Speed Records, also a member of the exclusive K7 Club. She used to be his co-driver which basically means ballast and I went out with him at times. Powerboats are fantastic and I’ve driven a lot of Hydroplanes as well as Formula 4 Catamarans. The racing touring boats are two seaters, side by side or tandem seaters. It’s a very three-dimensional experience and exciting to watch, unlike a lot of motorsports, not mentioning F1. On the back of that I got involved with Records Week which has been held at both Windermere and Coniston. This was at its height when people would come from all over the World to set water speed records.
I was involved with crewing on three World Speed Record boats, two electric, and one gas turbine boat, Miss Albatross which drove a propeller using a Rolls Royce helicopter engine. I did the hull preparation, refinishing and repainting of An Stradag which means Vital Spark in the Scottish gallic. This was an electric boat formerly owned by the redoubtable Lady Fiona Arran with which she set many records.
Then in retirement I suddenly decided, and I don’t know why, to scratch an old itch and go drag racing again. It was 15 to 16 years ago I started building the Grim Reaper. It had to be an Altered because I’ve always liked them, Fuel Altereds in particular, they are the ultimate Hot Rods with recognizable bodies. The best thing is they don’t take up as much room as a dragster or funny car, which was a consideration and they’re interesting to drive as well. So, I started gathering bits for the build-up of a small block Chevy. I just wanted to build an engine then find a frame and go from there.
Then I remembered a perfectly good blown big block Chevy engine kicking around, again a boat connection, belonging to a friend of mine, John Lee, who ran it in Miss Windermere Six, the sister boat of Miss Albatross, the one that had the gas turbine engine. Miss Windermere Six with Jim Noone driving set the UK Unlimited Hydroplane record at 159 mph which is an average over the kilometre both ways. This big block Chevy was 813 HP and built by Huddart Racing Engines who also built a lot of engines for Senior Stock Car racing. It wasn’t until I stripped the engine down, I found a lot of corrosion which of course came from being in a boat around the water. I bought the engine from John Lee complete with fuel and ignition system, two four-barrel Holleys and an 8-71 supercharger running on petrol, so it was a raceable engine at a reasonable price.
I then found a couple of cheap Powerglide transmissions and had one decent gearbox made out of the two by a well-known Powerglide re-builder. Then the search went on for a chassis, looking at some tagged and not tagged chassis. I found what turned out to be a really good deal for an ex-Doug Ripley Funny car frame, a rolling chassis with a Dana 60 floater rear end and again at a very reasonable price. It needed a new roll cage which I had measured up and built for me, but they failed to allow for the crash helmet. This resulted in me getting concussion on my first fast run when going over the bump at Shaky, taking me a year to get over. First build mistake by a ‘Professional’...
I accumulated most of the parts I needed, while knowing I would build the body myself as for some while I owned some of Geoff Jago’s old Hot Rod moulds. I’d collected them from a chicken farm down in Selsey over several trips using a huge trailer and a car transporter and housed them in a friend's factory. This friend, Andy Hicks, had taught me the black (and smelly) art of hand-laying GRP. In the past he has done prototype work for Aston Martin, Airbus and drones for an unnamed Air Force amongst many other interesting projects. Strange to find small companies in a provincial town doing this sort of work.
The biggest he did was a two thirds scale gas turbine engine for Airbus. It was a composite based on General Electric and Rolls Royce engines, never a real engine but it was a huge exhibition piece. It had an electric motor inside to drive the fan and an internal steel structure with its own crane inside to allow for self erection at shows.
I’ve always worked more than one job pretty much from being married at 22 onwards. Sometimes just van driving but I’ve always worked on buildings on and off all my life and only stopped at 70 when I was working with a friend who was a couple of years older than me. We were doing architectural fibreglassing, tanking out wet rooms and shower rooms in these multi-million-pound places in Kensington and Chelsea.
I produced a handful of Jago bodies of various sorts and the T body I built for the Grim Reaper is possibly the last Jago T ever built. I laid it up using 2oz. mat and fire-retardant resin, to make it as safe as possible. I then sold the moulds to a guy who lived in Portsmouth who was already making 1934 Fords reasonably successfully. He’d asked me for time to pay for the moulds, but I’d already been ripped off once with a vehicle. I did agree and he did pay the last payment right on the date as agreed one year earlier. Sadly, he later had a fire in his workshop and all the moulds were lost.
The front and rear wheels are genuine 1960s magnesium American racing on the front and Halibrands on the back which are probably worth quite a bit on their own.
In the boat the Chevy had an enormous wing sump with an electric heater in it because lake water is very cold and you need to prewarm the oil before starting the engine. I wanted a proper Milodon drag racing sump, fitted that and dropped the engine in the chassis. Then I got some skinny tyres for the front wheels but when I dropped the whole lot down, I realized there was going to be minus one and a half inches ground clearance under the sump. The idiot, whoever it was, had extended the funny car frame with an A arm front axle which was cranked up; there was no ground clearance. Had those A arms been flat to the chassis there would have been no problem. They were beautifully fabricated but that was the second mistake by a ‘Professional’...
The quick and dirty fix was to fit high profile Pro Stock tyres which ruined the aesthetics but did allow for a lot of roll out in the lights! There are however precedents for big front tyres in the '60s and '70s as can be seen in Don Montgomery's book on Fuel Altereds. Problem solved.
I got it together working entirely on my own, apart from the wiring which a friend, Graham Clinch did. He has helped me greatly over the years and is an original member of the Hellfire Hotrodders, an association I founded many years ago. Doing everything else myself was both good and bad as when I needed input, I didn’t have anyone else to guide me.
I thought about what class I can race in, then I discovered the Supercharged Outlaws who are a wonderful bunch of people, so welcoming, friendly and helpful, this was ideal. They run safe but not MSA. I needed to get a new crash helmet, SFI fire suit etc after the scrutineer said my old helmet was okay for a scooter at 30mph. On my first licensing run when I launched, I very nearly wiped out the Christmas tree, Altereds always being entertaining to drive! Johnny Hall was mentoring me and strapping me in, telling me what I needed to do. He had a confrontation with the start line marshal due to what happened, arguing that I had recovered the car safely, but I still had to repeat the launch. Subsequently I completed all my licensing runs successfully.
In my second season with the Supercharged Outlaws, I came runner-up in the Championship, or first loser again, just as I had in the Dragon over four decades earlier! The Reaper was very reliable being in a low state of tune. My best time was 8.1 then I started to go slower, at first not knowing the reason why, I belatedly realised the transmission was slipping. At one of the Supercharged Outlaws AGMs, when I asked for help to rebuild it, all fingers pointed to Mark Windridge. I took it up to Grimsby and under Mark’s guidance I replaced the burnt-out clutch packs which turned out to be only standard plates, not what I’d been led to believe when I bought the transmission, third time I was let down by a ‘Professional’...
I cracked the block at Dragstalgia, I was running water in the block with an expansion tank. What I should have done is fitted a radiator and it would have been an on the button drive around car. I got a brand-new Bowtie Chevrolet Generation Five block and using as many parts as possible from the original engine it was built up by I.C. Engineering at Silverstone. I also decided to run methanol and injection. The engine was dyno'd but never to a full pull as there seemed to be problems with the jetting and mixture distribution. I couldn't afford more dyno time so installed the mill in the car to check it out on the asphalt dyno. It was then that the Outlaws came to my rescue again when I was introduced to Alan Grimes, generally to be found ensconced in the pits of our dear leader, Andy Hadfield, who has also provided help and encouragement over the years.
Alan is an absolute fount of knowledge and appears happy to help anybody with their injection systems. I told him the spec of the engine and he suggested a spread of the jets, he was absolutely right. I’m very indebted to him and cannot thank him enough.
I loved driving it with the new setup, but I was getting fed up with the infrastructure again. Without a Team to support me I was entirely on my own, always reliant on a tandem tow at the meetings, being strapped in and getting me to the line. Through the generosity of others I never lacked help at the track. I’m now in my 70’s, I live on the side of a hill, so loading the car on the trailer and all that you need to take for a weekend’s racing by myself was a full day's job. I just got absolutely fed up with it. It was fine when you got to the strip and there’s everyone there to help you. You really need a team.
At which point I thought about Mark and Aaron Windridge, they were the ones who were always helpful to me throughout, even when running their own car they’d always take time out to help me. I’d always thought Aaron was a better driver than me, he’s fearless, a hard charger, his burnouts are great and will only lift if he really has to. Mark and Aaron had sold their car but kept the engine and at this meeting one night after I explained I was fed up with it all except the driving we came to a drunken agreement after Mark said let's run as a Team.
So the next day we strapped Aaron in the Grim Reaper. He burnt out, shot off the line then at half-track there was this huge blue cloud. We towed back and I'd hoped it was only a rocker cover gasket but no, I peered down into the diaper and there was a daylight-seeking rod poking through the pan, it had broken in half. So I said okay Mark it’s all yours to play with then. Mark had already conveyed they wanted to do something with their own small block engine. So, they hitched up my trailer to their wagon and took the Grim Reaper home with them. They already had a big truck which the car fitted inside.
As I still own the car they always ask first before making any alterations. I said the one thing I would like to see which I didn’t have the skills to do and that’s shorten the chassis back to what it was and fit a beam axle, let's make it look properly 1960s, 70s. They’ve done that and are going to replace my old ARE 5 Spokes with some suitable skinny wheels and tyres. At the Hot Rod Drags Aaron ran a 7.54 at 177 mph with a modest tune. Between Mark's engineering abilities and Aaron's driving skills I'm sure there will be a Six sometime soon.
Chris Pattison talks about his V8 Morgan
Gallery: click on any thumbnail for a large image.
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