As told exclusively to
This year is the 60th anniversary of the First British International Drag Festival. The man responsible for organising the Drag Festivals was Gerry Belton. Current Eurodragster.com editor Simon Groves had the opportunity to interview Gerry in April 2015 kindly arranged by Dave Riswick at John Woolfe Racing.
Gerry answers questions about his early background, working at Allards, his involvement with drag racing, organising the Mooneyes/Thompson demos in 1963 and the Drag Festivals in 1964 and 1965, the SEMA Trophy, British Drag Racing Magazine, the Drag Festival LP, the Dos Palmos dragster and life after Allards.
Gerry’s son Simon also adds to the story with some of his own words about his dad.
Simon Groves: What is your background?
Gerry Belton: As a member of a family that had Jesuit education, I went to Stoneyhurst College in Lancashire which was men only (but now accepts girls). We had long family connections with the College - my father and his brother worked there. Because my parents weren't wealthy it was decided when I did well at the School Certificate it was time for me to move on to something else. This was 1946. It started very bad habits.
My engineering background originally came from motor racing. I lived in Epsom and John Cooper’s workshop was just up the road in Surbiton, Surrey and so I became a gopher. 'Go for a litre of bubbles for spirit levels' he would say. I went everywhere with John Cooper for a year. It was just to keep me busy, but I did work with the cars and did do some work on Stirling Moss's first car bought for him by his father which had a 500cc JAP engine. To this day I don't understand why those BMWs [500cc racing cars] had the right to carry the Cooper name, there must have been some deal.
Because I showed some artistic leanings, in the gap before National Service in 1947 I went to Kingston Technical College and polished up my drawing and painting.
Some of Gerry’s artwork...
I then did four years in the army in the Royal Tank Regiment. That spun off to interest in mechanical things and there was nothing more mechanical than a 49-ton Centurian Tank.
Simon Groves: After working in advertising for a few years you started at Allard in 1960 as Public Relations Officer. How did you meet Sydney Allard?
Gerry Belton: I knew Kenneth Best, who was one of the best motor racing commentators. We were talking about a greyhound track in London which was stopping greyhound racing and looking for something else to do, Ken said let's do go-karts, that's the next thing. So we got go-karts and charged around Ken's garden testing them. Nothing came of it, but he later got in touch with me and said ‘Would you be interested in working for Sydney Allard, he's looking for somebody to do publicity’. So we set up an interview. We never hit it off, Sydney and me, I felt he didn't have time for people who spoke 'posh' but he came to trust me eventually and that's why I ran the Dragfests for him.
Simon Groves: What did the role at Allards involve?
Gerry Belton: I was all things to all people because nobody else wanted to do it, and sometimes my role was nominated by outside agencies. I was known as Public Relations Officer but also as General Manager and General Secretary of the BDRA. At the start I was involved with advertising Shorrock Superchargers and as new models came out I helped promote them.
I didn't get on very well with the sales staff because they were based in Allard’s main Ford dealership known as Adlards and the relationship didn't work. But I was fine with Tom Lush, Sydney's right-hand man, and to a certain extent with Alan Allard, his son. At the time Alan was quite remote, I didn't know his role, but he did much of relevance to the Dragfests. In recent years Alan's son Gavin has picked up the legacy and has been very keen to pick up the ball.
Simon Groves: Who were the other main players at Allards?
Gerry Belton: There was David Hooper, who designed Sydney's cars and John Hume, who I had forgotten had been the main racing engineer at Coopers when I was there. We didn't get on as we didn't speak the same language and they gave the impression I thought I was superior which was very uncomfortable for me.
To promote Fords I would get hold of an old car, Sydney had a very good workshop and they would restore it completely. We had a competition which I persuaded him to run and we sold tickets for it and people would come in to see Fords. There was an Allard Motor Co branch in Putney but the main headquarters was Adlards in Clapham High Street. The workshop and paint shop was on the south side of Clapham Common.
Simon Groves: How did you come to get involved with drag racing?
Gerry Belton: Drag racing was Sydney's thing and I wasn't there at the moment that he slapped down on the table in front of David Hooper, who was the designer, and John Hume, who was the engineer, a picture of a US Top Fuel Dragster and said 'We're going to build one of these' which he did of course. But because of the RAC regulations, front wheel brakes and engine cover had to be on the car. Sydney said 'just do it', but he had asked the RAC if he could build an American style dragster and they said it wasn't cricket. He got the engine working properly and John Hume was a good engineer if bad tempered. It was exciting to see it being built and run.
Simon Groves: Prior to the Dragfest did you organise the demo of Dante Duce at Silverstone in '63?
Gerry Belton: Yes I did because I knew Silverstone and had done a bit with my AC Cobra putting on a show for people to try them out. Dean Moon and I got on so well together and I still have all his correspondence. He and Dante Duce stayed with us in Surrey.
Few people know that in the 1964 Italian Grand Prix before the race we had Moonbeam and Tony Nancy’s 22 jnr driven by Dante Duce and the two Allard Dragons, Alan in one and me in the other being watched by 125,000 in the bleachers. They thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened, never mind the racing cars. They couldn't understand a word of English. Each of us got £250 in lira in cash, at a time when by law the English could only go abroad with £25 due to Exchange controls. I bought a very expensive case. I thought it would be nice for Jo my first wife (who later died). I went into an Italian shop that sold underwear and got a beautiful negligee and the rest of the money went in the case under the negligee and some tissue paper. As I went through customs they said 'What a beautiful negligee, she'll enjoy that, off you go'.
Simon Groves: What do you remember of Dean Moon staying with you in Surrey?
Gerry Belton: During his stay we saw a pair of ploughing engines near Dorking. They were riveted with them. I used to drive it up the road into a farmer's field for a kids' party one year. When you think about safety, it was only 11 tons, but it was enough, and had steel wheels without tyres. They linked to the back a trailer which was made of an old lorry's axle, no springs which was bolted to an enormous wooden platform and the kids paid a penny to have a ride and I drove them round a field.
My friend who owned them, who was a well to do farmer, specialised in Merlin engines and after they had gone, I went into their yard and was shocked to find a Messerschmidt 109, complete. He had bought it from some Spaniards who had bought a bunch of them for the Battle of Britain film. They were genuine and I got to sit in the cockpit, the cockpit cover was open and although I'm not big and had no equipment or helmet on, both of my shoulders touched the sides of the cockpit. It was tiny. He said 'I'll leave it to you to shut it' and I was pushing as hard as I could but it would not move as the glass was so heavy. He said 'The only way you could get out if you were flying and got into trouble was to invert the plane until it came open and then you fell out. You had to be in a serious position to do that'. I've always been fascinated by World War II.
Simon Groves: Did you realise Mickey Thompson would be coming to run at the Brighton Speed Trials?
Gerry Belton: No, when we went to Brighton and took the Allard down there, I was managing our team and was in the steward's box with General Parker who was clerk of the course. The door burst open and this big fellow came in and said 'You guys don't know how to do things here!'. That was Mickey, and I crept out because the General had been doing it since about 1914.
Simon Groves: What is the connection between the 1963 demonstrations and the SEMA trophy?
Gerry Belton: The SEMA trophy was brought over by the 1963 visitors on behalf of the SEMA organisation with a view to making it for a perpetual trophy to encourage more fuel cars to be built in this country. When it was won by Mickey Thompson because he had the quickest car, it didn't go to a Brit so Mickey said 'We'll put Sydney Allard's name on it and he can keep it.' After Sydney passed away, Alan Allard with the new club, the BDR&HRA organised by John Bennett presented the trophy to the Top Fuel winner at the 1970 Internationals. It was intended to go the Top Fuel winner of the Internationals each year and it had 20 tags on it to enable this.
Dennis Priddle won it three times and ended up being given it permanently by the president of the club. It then disappeared and for some reason ended up at the Brighton & Hove Motor Club and was kept there for 30 years. Brian Taylor then found it while he was writing the book Crazy Horses and suggested it went to Alan Allard, but Alan didn't want it back as he felt it should be with the Allard Chrysler or Dennis Priddle.
Simon Groves: How did the British Drag Racing Association get formed in June 1964?
Gerry Belton: I suppose I was leaning on Sydney's experience as The Allard Owners' Club was a named organisation and I said we needed to hop it up a bit and get an American element. Dean Moon and Dante Duce were fantastic because they were helping us all the way along and they were brilliant, and it just seemed the natural thing to do and my background in advertising meant we wanted to get away from the Allard Motor Car element of it. I did all the design and kept all the samples of it.
Simon Groves: How did you organise the 1964 Dragfest?
Gerry Belton: I corresponded with people that Dean Moon suggested to me. I have some of the correspondence for the first Dragfest. Every single letter has my signature on it because I was given total authority. Sydney was in the same building but there was no interference from him not least because he was heavily involved in developing the Allard Chrysler dragster instead. He was a racing man, British Hill climb champion driving the Steyr-Allard which had an engine from a German amoured car [the car was entered in the ’64 Dragfest].
The ’64 and '65 Dragfest were organised through a company Drag Festivals Limited. The first year was very successful indeed with over 20,000 paying customers at each event. However the second year was financially disastrous with poor weather and the company was wound up.
Here's a letter from me as Public Relations Officer to Wally Parks dated 19 November '63...
'Dear Mr Parks, in September 1964 we plan to hold the first big drag event to take place outside America. Mr Sydney Allard the originator of the Festival has asked me to write to you outlining our plans and to enlist your interest and assistance as President of the NHRA'.
Pinned to the reply was a note dated 22 November saying:
'This letter was written prior to our country's tragedy today in which our president was killed. I am sure you must know how we all feel, but I am sending this along in the interest of making plans for the future anyway. Will look forward to further word from you. Regards, W Parks.'
Simon Groves: What types of obstacles did you face in organising the Dragfests?
Gerry Belton: I had to work out a deal with the printers Odhams and finding money for the events and my contact there, a Mr Morris, was rude all the time. In fact at the end of the day we had set up a deal for them for advertising and promoting tickets including the bleachers, and we made a lot of money. Odhams took all the bookings and the Dragfests were sponsored by The People newspaper.
Simon Groves: Did you commentate at the 1964 Dragfest?
Gerry Belton: I used Kenneth Best in the 1964 Dragfest. I spoke on the Sound Stories record of the finals of the first weekend when Don Garlits and Ivo ran the final. The '65 event was a bit of a disaster and by then Sydney Allard was dying. In fact the '65 event didn't have the same balls as the '64 one. The first Dragfest was very hard work and an incredible risk but it couldn't have worked without help, and Moon and Duce were the key.
Simon Groves: You had made contact with a lot of other Americans at the Dragfests, which ones held an abiding memory for you?
Gerry Belton: Not very many because so many of the drivers changed between the '64 and '65 events.
Simon Groves: Were you involved in the British Drag Racing Magazine?
Gerry Belton: There were only seven issues, published from May to November 1965. It was a publication of BDRA, the Managing Editor, who had put money into it, was Roland Green and Features Editor Jill Harwood and I was on the Editorial Advisory Board with Graham Forsdyke and David Roscoe. The photographic editor was Colin Underhill and the contributing editors from the clubs were John Bennett and Vic Outen (both BHRA) and Len Cole. The BDRA and BHRA came together at the end of '67.
Simon Groves: Do you have any special souvenirs from the Dragfests?
Gerry Belton: A photo by Allan Robinson from the second festival in 1965 shows me standing in front of a mobile control tower as commentator. My secretary Rosemary was also in the photo. Sydney gave me a secretary I couldn't have done it without. I don't know where it is, possibly Woodvale as there were only two venues in 1965 and the control tower did not appear at Blackbushe.
It was given to me by my son Simon and on the back is the writing 'this is the man who organised the Dragfest and paid for it'.
Simon Groves: Who was the flagman at the Dragfests?
Gerry Belton: It was George Wells, he was a member of the USAF and they let him have time off and he would come and be flagman at the Dragfests. He was brilliant.
Simon Groves: Did Allard become a Moon dealer?
Gerry Belton: There was no reason why he shouldn't, but Sydney wasn't that interested. Duce did a tremendous amount and there is a lot of correspondence. [In '68 Dean Moon asked John Woolfe Racing to be his UK dealer as Allard had stopped trading by then]
Simon Groves: When did you first find out of Sydney Allard's mortal illness?
Gerry Belton: Tom Lush told me because he was Sydney's right-hand man and was still there but not taking any interest in drag racing as he was a rallying man. In his book called ‘Allard, the Inside Story’ about Sydney Tom made it clear he hated dragsters and it wasn't proper motor sport. In his book Tom said it was clear during the ’65 Dragfest that Sydney was very ill.
Simon Groves: What was your final memory of the ’65 Dragfest?
Gerry Belton: The very last event in '65 at Woodvale was almost dark. I don't know if there was anyone from the RAC there but the only way the finals could possibly be safe was having the cars at right angles to the track at the end with their headlights on. That was when Buddy Cortines broke the 200mph mark in pitch dark.
Simon Groves: How did your time at Allards come to an end?
Gerry Belton: After all the cleaning up and paying the bills after the '65 Dragfest Sydney wrote to me saying 'We can't make any more use of you' and gave me a date of when my time was up. I don't think Sydney liked me very much. It was Reg Kenham, who was Sydney's partner and he ran the big Ford Dealership Adlards. I have no doubt that Reg had known Sydney in the 1930s, as Tom Lush's book illustrates them both in a car going up a mountain side. Reg said 'I'm working my arse off to try to make Sydney's and my family well to do by selling cars and there's this fellow coming in who's going to play with this toy which is going to cost us the earth'. He never had anything to say to me and it wasn't an easy environment to work in. Sydney himself was not easy. He was a taskmaster and said things straight and expected people to do what he wanted to do.
Simon Groves: On the BDRA front did you keep contact with other members of the committee Len Cole and Tony Bayley?
Gerry Belton: Very much so. Len Cole was very strong on motorcycles back to the dirt racing days and knew George Brown. In '67 we formed the International Sprint Organisation (ISO) and in 21-22 Oct 17 British car drivers and bike racers broke a total of 89 world and British sprint records.
Simon Groves: An LP record was made after the '64 Dragfest how did that come about?
Gerry Belton: We had done Sound Stories before with Stanley Schofield and we knew what we were trying to do and because of that we had a good relationship. Later we did one with the Elvington Records weekend LP record.
Simon Groves: You drove an Allard Dragon at some events?
Gerry Belton: It was originally built in 1964. I wrote to the original owner Ian Smith saying I'm sorry you're letting your car go, and I'll buy it from you if you don't want it' so I bought it from him. The car was used in a Beach Boys photo shoot and shown on the sleeve for the single ‘Barbara Ann’. During the Festival Dennis Jenkinson drove my Dragon. Dennis was a well-respected journalist who helped Stirling Moss win the Mille Miglia for Mercedes Benz as co-driver and broke new ground when he used a roll of paper to read the navigation from. He borrowed a JWR Cobra to establish the quickest 0-100mph-0 time in 1967.
Simon Groves: What was your involvement with Dos Palmos?
Gerry Belton: Bob Keith ran Dos Palmos in the ’64 Dragfest with Gary Goodnight and Maurice Williamson. After that I kept in contact with the Dos Palmos team. I was asked to go and am told I went across to do a deal and four of us bought the car.
The Dos Palmos partnership included Bruce Ropner [director of Croft motor circuit], John Ropner, Peter Godlee, Norman Barclay, Keith Schellenberg and me. The car was originally built by Tommy Ivo. There is a lot of information about it from other sources. We all tried it out at RAF Dishforth Airfield [in North Yorkshire] because it was near Peter Godlee's farm.
We occasionally went out and were taking it in turns to demonstrate it and I was scheduled during the lunch break to show them how these things worked. I think it was Graveley. There was not much room although there was a good run up to the start. I let it go, it was a very nice car and it went extremely well and I was getting it going, and suddenly I remembered it was only an eighth mile track. There was an earth bank at the end, I didn't have a parachute because it was not packed properly and didn't deploy, and I stuffed it into the bank, not badly. So I copped out after a while.
Eventually I let my share go because I didn't want to stay in drag racing because, really, I'd had enough. They found the car in Virginia, it's in reasonably good condition having been stuck in garage as a rolling chassis. Unfortunately Bob Keith who built it is very ill. The gentleman who bought it flew it to his house and brought a TV camera team to do a documentary on restoration but I don't know if that will be finished. Bob Keith's intention was to surprise everyone and bring it back to England to run again next year at Dragstalgia.
Simon Groves: What became of your Cobra?
Gerry Belton: At Blackbushe I set a record with the Cobra. I entered races at Santa Pod once or twice after I got another job. I last ran in CC/SP on 15 April 1968 and ran 13.582/104.60. But when we went to Spain in 1970 everything had to go and that did. I don't know how I advertised it but I took it up to someone who already had one and she did hill climbing and wanted another one for Sundays. I spent £1200 for it, didn't spend any money on it and she gave me £2000 for it. I had an HRG Black Lightening motorbike as well and that had to go.
Simon Groves: What did you do after you left Allard?
Gerry Belton: After Allard I went up to London and worked for an agency. I was a designer for a wide variety of projects, some with domestic aspects. Then finally I ended up with AMF (American Machine & Foundry) best known for ten pin bowling. Because of my interest and as AMF owned Harley Davidson, I got invited over to Milwaukee by the two brothers who ran the firm. It was a long weekend during a Daytona motorcycle race and they looked after me well. I have always had a devotion to the purest forms of motor sport.
I couldn't believe the racing at Milwaukee. The two brothers owned the place and we got on wonderfully well. When we got back, I was interested in old motorcycles and sent to them as a thank you a book about old British motor cycles and they were absolutely thrilled with it.
Finally in 1970 I was let go by the Americans in London. I was a divisional director for AMF based in London and the headquarters in New York said that any divisional director that was not an American citizen had to go. I had three months' notice and went on holiday because I couldn't face it. Felicity (my wife) was a nurse and she and some nursing friends flew out to Spain for a couple of weeks. One of their team couldn't do the second week and so I went in their place.
There was a very nice pub in Mojácar which is a village in the southernmost point of Spain. Spaghetti Western films were made there. We bought the pub, enjoyed it, didn't make any money but didn't lose any, and I learned Spanish. We saw some of the crews from the Spaghetti Westerns, they used to come into our bars and it was the only English-speaking bar in the village.
After a while living there wasn't doing us any good at all and it was hard work. It was a charming place but the village was very barren with mountains, riverbeds, tumbleweed and a couple of huts if you were lucky. Fortunately, I was able to take on a member of the village who had been a barkeeper and worked in a hotel and he was very good. To the day he left he never learned any English except 'Eggs and bacon'. Felicity is a Dorset native and after four years we longed for a blade of grass. Even when we cooked an omelette the eggs needed to be brought up the side of the mountain on a donkey.
We came back home and because of my background in advertising, we saw from a remote point of view, in southern Spain, an advert for a job running Exmoor National Park which was setting up in 1974. They were looking for an information officer, so I applied for it and they said come over and we'll have a look at you. The Chief Officer was a retired general and we got on well and I got the job and did that for twenty years until I retired in 1994.
A few words from Simon Belton about his dad...
My Dad Gerry Belton was quite a focused individual so when he set his mind to something, nothing would deter him from achieving his objective. He also needed everything to be right and this photo here of a 1928 Grindley Peerless Brooklands racer exemplifies this focus. He happened on it when having tea with his friend Bill Lacey, at his house in Silverstone village, who mentioned that he had a pile of rusting bike bits in his garage that had some history at Brooklands.
He showed Gerry a chassis, wheels, saddle and handlebars but there was enough there for him to envisage what it might look like after throwing a whole heap of time and money at it. Most components had to be created from drawings or photographs to the exact original specification including being nickel plated to show any cracks in the frame.
This motorcycle was particularly unique because it was the first motorcycle to put 100 miles into the hour around the famous bowl at Brooklands in Surrey. Replicas of this motorcycle were built so that any individuals who fancied a run out could be awarded a certificate for the achievement, putting 100 miles into the hour. The bike is now part of the collection at the National Motorcycle Museum near to the NEC, Birmingham. The restoration of this special motorcycle was the first in his retirement.
Always on the lookout for a project, Gerry and his like-minded friends in Somerset took great joy in travelling to many Auto jumbles, and on one trip to Beaulieu, he found himself buying a 1914 Le Zebre which was a French Edwardian light car in pretty poor condition. He set about getting under the car’s skin and tracked down an expert in France, paying them several visits to really understand the car and its history. He even went to Belgium to buy another car to be a donor for parts.
Once he had a plan, and a technical partner in the form of another friend, he started the painstaking task of getting it back into mint condition. It was going to take some years to complete so in the meantime, he had dalliances with other cars, a Wolseley Hornet, Chummy, Austin 7 to name a few. Then he swapped the Wolseley Hornet for an MGB GT. He thought he and his wife Felicity, my stepmother, could then have their Sunday afternoons roaring round Exmoor National Park which is where he lived and worked as the PR officer for the seven or so National Park visitors’ centres. But the MG languished under a carport for at least five years.
The Le Zebra took up all his time and focus. It took him about 10 years to complete. His attention to detail was 100%. As an example, the car should have had a canvas roof but had no roof frame. So he made a model of the cantilevers and how they should work on the car, getting all the pivot points in the right place so it worked perfectly as you bought the roof up and over. He had a lot of local support with this car, mostly people that went to his pub!
Dad was taken into care due to Dementia in early 2019, so I needed to collect the two cars to keep them safe and decide what to do with them. In the end the Le Zebra went to auction and I kept the MGB which needed recommissioning. I’ve never been into cars at all, always motorcycles, but now I just can’t get rid of it and it’s now a reliable and original car. Guess the Belton DNA is alive and kicking in me!
My Dad was someone who liked projects. In 2000, the Government/EU were making available funds for specific projects, known as the Millennium Fund from the National Lottery, where people were invited to apply for funds to build things which are typically British and looked to a bygone year but also looked forward into the next century. So, he and his buddies put a plan together to build Minehead Peer. The old pier had been taken down during WW2 because it might have been used by the Germans to invade England. In addition, if the defence gun placements were used, the trajectory of shells would have hit the pier too.
This project was monumental in the time that it took to prepare and unfortunately it failed. His last project (while still tinkering and improving the Le Zebre) was to write and self-publish a sequel to Doctor Joseph Bailey’s Book ‘The Vintage Years of Brooklands’. This sequel was planned by Joseph, but he died in 2000. My understanding of it was that dad spoke to Joseph’s son who agreed to the new book, ‘All the Years at Brooklands’, so Dad drove the idea forward, bringing all of the images, text and printing together in 2007, and then selling the end product to specialist retailers. The Grindley Peerless he restored is the inspiration behind that sequel, and of course, the bike is featured in the book.
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