Morgan 4-4
Le Mans 1939
Le Mans Results
Dick Anthony
Geoffrey White
Prudence Fawcett

Morgan 4-4 LM
Le Mans Classic
John Clarke
Chris Acklam
Brian Gateson
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Race report
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Le Mans Classic - It gets no better than this

No longer a dream – this was an obsession – driving at Le Mans had become an all enveloping pursuit of the most famous race of them all. Now we were here, how could it live up to expectations? how could it justify all the time off work? all the money spent? all the effort put in by the team? Well the Le Mans Classic did just that – it was simply the most awesome motoring event ever to be held.

Preparations started in earnest on a wet, cold, May evening with the Morgan 4-4’s first shakedown at Bedford Autodrome after a meticulous ground up rebuild by Techniques. A race at the British Empire Trophy Races at Donington Park in June confirmed the cars potential and three races at the Bentley Drivers Club meeting at Silverstone in August proved its reliability.

Now at Le Sarthe on a warm Thursday evening the Morgan 4-4 team assembled. Martin Phillips, Team Manager had arrived from Pembrokeshire is his newly restored AC Aceca together with Team Photographer – Mike Noott. John Bunch and Clive Pollard drove down from the Lake District in John’s MGB’s - its first major run after a 3 year rebuild. The pit wall crew of Doug and Matt Taylerson had driven via Chartres in their historic Morgan +4 ‘VON 777’ to pick up the motor home. Brian Gateson, the proprietor of Techniques and Rob Muller breezed up in the Techniques van filled to the brim with spares and tools and finally, Chris Acklam and I delivered my diminutive Morgan 4-4.

Pre-race preparations

Thursday evening gave ample demonstration of the fantastic Le Mans Classic organisation. Signing on was a breeze bearing in mind that there were 305 cars entered and in excess of 600 drivers. By 8.00pm, the car was tucked away in its reserved enclosure in the paddock, tools were stored in the pit, the motor home was fully operational and the team had gelled – we all needed beer and lots of it!!!

Friday was bright and dry and after a good nights rest at the Hotel Chantecler, the team assembled, resplendent in white overalls. The main task of the day was scrutineering to be held at the Place du Jacobins underneath the shadow of Le Mans Cathedral. Getting away from the circuit was not easy as interest in the Morgan was intense and it was late morning before Chris and I took to the streets of Le Mans. The sun was hot, the traffic busy and every light turned to red just as we approached. The temperature gauge soared and within yards of our destination we had to pull over to let the car cool down.

Le Place du Jacobins in contrast, was an oasis of calm. The crowds were contained behind metal railings, a jazz band oozed dreamy rhythms and a large free buffet kept the drivers happy with copious amounts of beer and wine. After waiting patiently for an Alfa TZ1, Porsche 550RS and Maserati 300S to be passed, we pushed the Morgan into the scrutineering tent only for the scruntineer to call a halt for lunch – only in France!!

At 8.00pm, the team reassembled at the beautiful Abbaye De L’Epau for the black tie Gala dinner – a stunning event in gorgeous surroundings, but only one thing was on my mind – gunning the Mog down Mulsanne. I couldn’t wait!!


At 8.30am on Saturday 21st September the wait was over, I took to the track for practice – THE track – all 8.48 miles – ghosts of the Bentleys, Jaguar D types, Ford GT40s and Porsche 917s, Lord Howe, Mike Hawthorn, Bruce McLaren, Richard Attwood – dreams are made of this.

With my visor misting up and foot flat to the floor, the Morgan accelerated through the traffic of 60 pre war race cars up to the Dunlop Bridge. Taking note of the flattish curbs at the top of the hill, the Mog swooped down the esses of Tertre Rouge and through the ever widening corner onto Les Hunaudieres – or as I know it, the Mulsanne straight. The mashalls and crowds were waving madly as an eerie peace descended. Cacooned in my own dreams, the 1098cc Coventry Climax engine was buzzed up to 6,000rpm, an indicated 70mph before changing down into 4th. Then at 5,200rpm and the speedo looking confused, it was time to wake up as the first chicane rapidly approached. Braking far too early, we skipped through the right and left corners and then back to the serenity of Mulsanne. Time to concentrate and check the instruments. All too soon the second chicane loomed with a Riley Brooklands adding a distraction. Leaving the braking later, but still far too early, we dismissed the Riley, accelerated through the chicane and crept up to the tail of a large Bentley. I wonder if they can see us? Sure enough the Bentley waved us through (!!) and we hurried onwards.

We later found that the first part of the Mulsanne Corner can be taken flat with hard braking required for the tight right hander. It is important to carry speed through this corner and a piece of tarmac off to the left of the track allows a broad sweep to be taken.

Through the woods up the long straight to Indianapolis, the Mog was in its element. Taking note that there was no need to brake for the blind crest half way through the woods we swooped through the banked curves of Indianapolis and accelerated down to Arnage. Arnage is an evil corner, sharp right, quite slow with no run off. It is a good spot for spectators as they can get really close to the cars and see the drivers fight with the resultant oversteer from an over enthusiastic right foot. The corner was too slow for 3rd gear of the Meadows box and too quick for 2nd hence it was the most frustrating part of the track. Bogged down out of Arnage, it seemed an age for the engine to come back on the cam.

The first of the Porsche curves is a banked right hander and braking could be left deep into the corner. The track seems to narrow after the following left hander perhaps an optical illusion created by the tall wire fences. A brief blast down to the Ford chicane where the curbs could be straight lined and back onto the pit straight. We had completed a lap of Le Mans – the world could stop turning now for all I cared.

My 2nd and 3rd laps concentrated on getting the braking right and carrying more speed through the corners before coming into the pits to hand over to Chris. Some 40 seconds had been wiped off that initial lap and there was more still to come. Chris completed two further laps and the Mog was classified in 49th place at an average speed of 63mph. We lay 4th out of 9 cars competing with engines under 1100cc.

24 hours racing

Pinch yourself, the grandstands are full, the clock is ticking towards 4.00pm and I am standing on the pit straight ready for the Le Mans dash. The crowd is cheering, the starter raises his flag and we’re off. This is for real. I could have beaten Colin Jackson to-day.

Depress the clutch and pull the starter the engine fires and the Mog moves off in one fluid motion. We’re really in amongst it. A Stutz Blackhawk towers above us, Astons nibble at our heels, the scream of a Bentley blower, Invictas, Alfas and Talbots surge forward. Rileys, Bugattis, Delehayes and Altas, MGs and Lagondas all fight for the same inch of tarmac. This is Le Mans.

Out on to the Les Hunaudieres, the marshalls try to slow the cars down and regroup them for a rolling start. Pandemonium sets in, the old cars begin to boil, the Mogs temperature is up to 120 C, I am going to have to withdraw. At last the Mashalls see sense and the cars are allowed to continue in any order albeit behind a pace car. Thankfully, the temperature starts to fall.

Back onto the pit straight, the pace car pulls in and we’re racing. The Mog runs magnificently and overhauls Rileys, Bugattis and even four Bentleys. By the end of 30 minutes racing, we take the chequered flag moving up to 39th overall and 2nd in class. Only a very rapid Riley Brooklands is ahead of us. My best lap is just shy of 65mph.

Brian has the car domiciled in the pits for post race checks and for fitting our powerful spot light. The beam given off is tremendous and negates use of the standard headlights.

At dusk, racing is suspended to allow cars to practice in the dark. Chris does a single lap before handing over to me. The central spotlight works a treat and racing at night becomes less daunting. I was struck by how the marker boards reflect in blue and how all the corners are well lit. The biggest issue seemed to be differentiating between the powerful track lights and the faster cars spotlights in the rear view mirror and plunging from well lit corners into unlit straights. Amazingly, some of the pre war cars are carrying no rear lights at all!!!

Just after midnight, Chris took to the track for the 2nd race, retaining the position of the car from the previous race. Starting behind the pace car, Chris took off into the gloom. We now had an agonising 8 minute wait for the car to reappear. Spotting the car from the pit wall was no problem – the central spotlight saw to that. It was by far the brightest light on the track!! After 30 minutes racing, Chris had improved our position to 38th overall but now 3rd in class. Lap times had understandably dropped to 62mph.

Following a debrief and post race check, the team grabbed an hours sleep only to wake to find our 3rd race delayed due to problems on the track.

At 6.30am, with the moon still bright I took off behind the pace car for the 3rd race in 38th place. Coming around the Ford chicane, I noticed what looked like cement dust being kicked up by the Mog into the Bentleys headlights behind. Mmmm, time to concentrate on the start.

When the pace car peeled off, I floored the Mog and had the radiator dump its water all over me. Struggling to comprehend what was happening, I drew into the far end of the pit lane and switched off. The Marshalls pushed me back to the paddock entrance and I collared an unsuspecting spectator to help push the car back round to the rear of the pit garage. Imagine the team’s surprise when I tapped on Brian’s shoulder!! In a crisis like this, our teamwork was exemplary. A missing core plug was quickly diagnosed and a 2 EURO piece hastily hammered in place. In the mean time, the radiator had been refilled, the bonnet straps refitted and I was back out on track. Time in the pits – 3 minutes!!! The teamwork was awesome.

The next two laps were very special. The sun rose gently bathing the circuit in a warm light. The Morgan sped on trying desperately to make up lost time. We flew through the corners and down the straights but were placed 49th and 6th in class. Our lap times were back up to 64mph.

Our final race was just after mid-day but the race time was curtailed by 5 minutes as the organisers tried to make up for time lost during the nights incidents. Now in 49th place, Chris had a lot of work to do to put the Morgan back up the field. With perfect weather conditions and the team cheering him on, Chris cranked up the pace setting the cars fastest laps of the day. With a final lap just shy of 67mph, Chris hauled the car up to 35th place and 3rd in class. On aggregate, we were eventually placed 42nd overall, 38th on index of performance and 3rd in class out of a total of 61 cars.

It felt so close to a real 24 hour race, what with minimal sleep, day and night racing and a fantastic team performance all the cost, effort and worry had been vindicated. This was the best day of my life – well very close!!!!

My heartfelt thanks goes to the Morgan 4-4 team, Techniques, the MSCC and my family for this huge indulgence. Live a dream - what more can I say.

John Clarke

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© 2002 John Clarke