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It's all about the MG's - The British Sports Car America Loved First

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Derek Scovell (1931-2020) Safety Fast!

June 17, 2020 3:02 PM | Bob Chalker (Administrator)

Derek and Hilary Scovell joined the HMGCC in November 1977 and remained active members from then on. Derek made many contributions to the club, serving as President in 1991. After bravely fighting difficult health circumstances for several years, Derek passed away on June 16, 2020 at the age of 89. He died peacefully at home after a short time in hospice care.

In memory of longtime Houston MG Car Club member Derek Scovell, we are re-publishing an article from 2013 recalling Derek’s love of racing and cars of all sorts. His was the fourth article in the series, Racing Stories – Memories of Houston MG Car Club members. Derek died this week but his legacy and larger than life personality will live on.

From MGs to a Power Scooter

by Derek C. Scovell

I have been a motor car racing Enthusiast for about sixty years, which includes our years ‘learning’ to drive a race car. When we returned to the States in 1976 after working in Singapore, I was hoping to get back into racing but SSCA required going to their school and buying a suitable car. Work and frequent overseas travel made it not possible so I purchased a MGC and joined the Houston MG Car Club and, as they say, the rest is history.

Racing in the UK

In the mid-fifties I was living about 30 miles from London and at this time there were about six racing teams within ten miles where one could poke your head in the door and see what was going on. This was a time when UK racing was top news with drivers like Moss, Hawthorne, Steward, Brooks and teams like Jaguar, Aston-Martin, Lister, Vanwall and Cooper. So the racing car bug bit me.

After attending many race meetings in the UK and owning three MGs, a 1932 J2, a 1948 TC and a TD Mark II at one time or another, I decided to purchase a new 1957 A-H Sprite Bug-eye when this car was first announced with the intent to go club racing. I obtained a RAC Restricted License and joined the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC), which organized most of the racing in the UK. 

This car was fitted with an 849cc engine, and for its size it was fairly quick in those days. My car was stripped of upholstery and other items and the engine was modified. Changes included machining the head, re-bored to 998cc, putting in a racing cam and exhaust system. Even with the suspension changed to Koni shocks, heavy roll bars and intermediate racing tires it was not really competitive.

Biggest mistake

However, my biggest mistake was trying to use the car for everyday use and then try to race it at weekends. In those days for club racing, drivers’ roll bars and Nomex suits were not required; you just had to wear an approved helmet. I raced the Sprite for only one season and entered five events with no success, three times at Goodwood, once at each of the club circuits at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. My best finish was 10th out of about 30 cars. I put the car on its side once by going too fast in a corner at Goodwood with no major damage and managed to drive the car home, slowly. I prefer longer races more than 10 lap sprints.

At the end of the season I ran out of money to continue racing. However, I had three interesting contacts during the year.

A girl and John Cooper

The first occurred because of a girl I was dating at that time. Her parents were very friendly with Charlie and John Cooper and during one of their test period at Brands I was ‘invited’ to drive one of their Formula II cars. It was good experience but I somehow did not feel comfortable driving a single seat car, and with a double declutch gearbox, this may be the reason for my uncompetitive lap times. At least this is my excuse

The second was meeting Bob Brown, who sponsored Mike Hawthorn at the start of his career. Bob wanted me to buy a Formula Ford race car, which they would maintain, service and prepare for racing. I didn’t have the money to do the deal.

The third opportunity occurred during a speed trials event when I was given the chance to drive an Allard coupe with a Cadillac engine, magnesium body and a Wilson-Cortex electric gearbox. To change gears in this transmission, you selected the next gear by moving a small lever up or down, then when you wanted to change gear you pressed the clutch.

In the winter months of 1958 I became involved in rallying as a navigator using an early Mini (849 cc). We did three all-night rallies, starting at 6pm on Saturday night and finishing at noon the following day with two breaks for food, etc. We finished each rally, though without any success. We did see a lot of country roads in England and Wales.

Racing in Singapore & Malaysia

In 1967 I was offered employment in the USA. Then in 1971 I was one of five staff assigned to build and open a new shipyard in Singapore. Although I had use of a company car, Hilary and I decided to purchase a used 1970 Australian built Mini-Cooper S and joined the Singapore Motor Club. It was supposed to be a run-around car, but soon I started to compete in local hill climbs, though without much success. 

I found there was some interesting club racing in Singapore on closed streets and the same in Malaysia. At Kuala Lumpur there was a very interesting race track. This circuit was about 1¾ miles in length with a series of non-straight line corners, a ½-mile straight, a 180-degree tightening corner and a one-car chicane. The pits were very good. Unfortunately this circuit has now been closed to make way for a larger, new GP circuit. 

Having been bitten by the racing bug again we decided to make the Mini more competitive. We started by modifying the cylinder head, adding stronger valve springs that allowed going up to about 8,000 rpm, adding a racing cam, an oil cooler, and a new, much larger exhaust manifold and system. We ran 6¾” width tires (Dunlop SP-4) and added a roll cage, which was a work of art made and installed by the shipyard pipe fitters. When racing, the fuel consumption dropped to about 14 to 16 miles per gallon, so a larger gas tank was required.

We ran six races in Malaysia including a supporting race for the GP, and similarly for the Singapore GP. The drive to KL was about a four hour run and we would leave Singapore with three or four other competitive cars between 5 and 6 Friday evening. Our car included Hilary, two kids, luggage and racing items. It was a ‘hairy’ run with open exhaust through tropical forest. We raced Saturday and Sunday and then returned Sunday evening for work and school on Monday.

I had limited success and finished on the plus side with racing expenses because of some class wins or good positions, and my two sponsors, Castrol and Dunlop, matched any money paid by the race organizers.

Singapore Grand Prix

The Singapore Grand Prix is held on public roads, which make for some exciting racing. The salon car race is a supporting race to the main event. There were about 40 cars entered, which included a number of factory entries such as Toyota, BMW, Alfa, Ford, Mazda and BMC. To reduce the field there were two heats with the fastest thirty cars for the main event, a one hour timed race.

I was placed in the first heat in about 12th position. Unfortunately when the flag dropped, the car in front stalled and I hit the back of this car and damaged my front fender so that I could not start. I got back to the pits and made temporary repairs. I met with the race director and he let me enter the final, starting last in 30th place. After an interesting race I finished in 10th place, but first in my class for cars up to 1300cc.

Malaysia Grand Prix

For the Malaysia Grand Prix, the supporting salon car race was a similar one hour race but only the 30 fastest cars qualified for this race. I made the cut and finished 3rd in my class after driving through a tropical rain downpour. My thrill was to pass a 911 Porsche and several other faster cars in the rain. The Mini with intermediate tires is very good in the rain compared to those factory cars on slicks.

During our three years in Singapore I was invited to be a team member for the local Mini distributer in a six hour endurance race. Unfortunately because of the lack of support it was cancelled. In the two years of racing in Singapore and Malaysia, I did not have a DNF with the Mini. Hilary drove the car around Singapore during the week days, with waves and thumbs up from the taxi drivers to go faster.

On one occasion my friend and I were approached by Subaru to purchase two team racing cars and the company would prepare and maintain these cars for racing. Since we did not intend to stay in Singapore, we declined.

Return to the USA

I thought about getting involved in racing when we came back to the States, but it was impractical. The requirements for the race car were too involved. And going to a driving school and testing for a SCCA license was too difficult with a new job that included frequent overseas business trips. All of this left too little time to have fun.

These days my main means of transportation is by a power scooter or wheelchair and I accept with thanks being helped around by Hilary and friends.    

Contact Us:  HoustonMGCarClub@gmail.com

Houston MG Car Club

PO Box 40711

Houston, TX   77240. 

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