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6 February 2024

Portrait Of A Classic Car Racing Driver-John Markey

It is surprising that John Markey became a race driver, given that he was 13 before his family owned a car, his father hated driving and his mother never drove. Maybe that is what created such a desire to drive and to drive fast?
Luckily for the lad his family was friendly with a neighbour, ‘Uncle Ernie’, over the road in west London where John grew up from the age of eight. Ernie, a long distance truck driver, would take John with him on his journeys when the boy was home from school during holidays. Together they drove all over England hauling steel for the construction industry.
But his passion for motors started before that, at around the age of four, shortly after the family was bombed out of their home in Liverpool. He can remember emerging from the brick built street shelter opposite his grandmother’s house in Mill Road where the family lived, to find the neighbourhood flattened and their own house so weakened by the blast that it was untenable.
He does not remember being scared while tucked into his zip-up Siren suit used to wrap children up warm when hauled from their beds in the night. “It was very exciting. I can remember the sound of the ack-ack guns and the bombs falling. I was not scared at all, just thrilled and excited.”
It was around this time that his passion for cars and collecting started and today his office in the H&H Classics premises in Hindhead, Surrey, includes many of those early trophies, standing in serried rows, some of them much scuffed, reminders of his earliest passion for cars, one that he freely admits became an obsession.
John runs the Private Sales Division of H&H, which today is one of only five classic car auction houses to have sold a car for more than $10m – a Ferrari 250GT SWB from the late Richard Colton Collection.  It was sold in October 2015 to benefit the RNLI – and became their single biggest legacy gift ever.  
At H&H in Hindhead John caters for those collectors who want to buy privately, not at auction, and they are assured of the most discreet service from one of the most knowledgeable classic car and motor racing minds in he country.
By the age of 11, John Markey had mapped out his future on a folding table at home. He had drawn a race circuit on its surface and would race his dinky toys on it obsessively.
“My parents were totally confused by this enthusiasm for cars,” he says. They had no idea just how deep his love of cars was and how they would shape his life from the age of four. As an only child, he did not have to accommodate the enthusiasms and ideas of siblings. So cars it was and cars it stayed.
After passing the 11-Plus, he went to Gunnersbury Grammar School in Chiswick, West London but he wanted to be a motor mechanic, and spent his spare time at Piccadilly Circus, collecting bus numbers and getting under the mechanics feet in a mews garage in Holland Park where the owner, Bill Grimes was a well known dirt track rider. Anything that had an engine and moved fed his passion for things automotive.
By the age of 12 he managed to get behind the wheel of an Austin. ”I just could not wait to drive,” he says, and he managed this by the age of 16, when he and an older friend bought a Morris Minor and ‘shared’ the license.
John is in many ways the quintessential Englishman, tall and whipcord-thin, shy, understated with an unflappable temperament; he looks perfectly able to slip into the tightest cockpit.  He speaks of his achievements with great self-deprecation and about his own qualities as a human being with an amused but critical eye. “Enthusiasm for me is too mild a word. I had to race. It was an obsession. I would have sold my soul to race. As a result, everybody came second. There was me and then the rest. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I had total tunnel vision. I lived to race.”
He adds: “I suppose I am a very calm person, it takes a lot to tip me over the edge, but if that does happen then I’m gone, totally over the top; I lose the plot. Mind you it doesn’t happen often, but when it does…”That mixture of cool composure and ‘red mist’ mania sounds like the perfect cocktail for a race driver’s temperament, where control and competiveness need to be in balance.
Leaving school at 16 with a ‘School Certificate’ in physics and chemistry he joined Fairey Aviation as a trainee metallurgist, his parents insisting that he got a ‘proper job.’ But the urge to race was contstant and one day in frustration his mother said: “For heavens sake child you’ve got Rolls-Royce ideas on a bicycle income.”
But this, after all, was the son of a paratroop soldier captured at Arnhem, (which was later immortalised in film as A Bridge Too Far) who managed to escape the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft 17. There is a book by a Dutch MP who says that but for John’s father he would not have made it back home in one piece. There is something of that “never say die” quality in John too.
Bored to death with the prospect of a professional career, three years later John walked out of Fairey Aviation and into Army National Service, spending 12 months at Catterick Training Camp and then 12 months 120 feet underground in Whitehall at the War Office Signals Centre.
Out of the army and now working for Stewart and Ardern, London distributor for Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley, various cars were bought and sold – a Wolseley Hornet Special, a Morris 12 (!!!) and an AC Drophead and then finally a Lotus Six, paying £300 with £30 down, the balance over three years. “United Dominions Trust were very patient,” he says with a grin. “They did get paid occasionally.”
With a crash helmet but no seatbelts or any other safety gear, John went racing, doing Le Mans style starts at Silverstone – where the drivers line up across the track and at the start signal, run to the cars and throw themselves into the cars. The first time was a disaster as he managed to put his foot through the steering wheel and after extracting himself pulled away last. Not an auspicious start to racing. But that obsessive compulsion to race was in no way dampened and he kept plugging away.
His record speaks for itself:
• 1960: First competed in motorsports, driving a Lotus Six.
1964: Competed in 850 and 1000 Mini’s
• 1966: Became Technical Manager of Fiat at Wembley and raced in England, and on the continent, including at Nurburgring, competing in an Emery GT.
• 1967: Raced in a Diva Valkyr, Ginetta and Lotus 23.
• 1968: Raced a Gp6 Chevron at Oulton Park, Spa, Nurburgring,VILA REAL and Brands Hatch.
• 1969: Raced a Formula 1 Cooper Maserati in Formula Libre Chevron B8 at Monza, Costin–Nathan in the Targa Florio and Falken-Maserati at Montjuich.
• 1970-73: Raced Lotus 30/40 as Pink Stamps, ending up as Great Britain Competition Head of BMW, managing the Dealer BMW team which competed successfully against the factory teams.
• 1974: Raced a factory Toyota Celica in the National Saloon Car Championship.
• Mid 1970s: John’s company Arian Racing ran Mazda RX3s in the Production Saloon Car Championship and raced in the European Touring Car Championship. At the same time, John and co-driver David Palmer (who was head of PR at Mazda) campaigned an RX3 AND RX5 in the European Touring Car Championship.
• Early 1980s: John raced a Capri in the Modified Saloon Championship. He again teamed up with David Palmer to do the Thundersport series in a Mazda powered Ginetta.
• In the late 1980s, John joined up with Peter Colborne-Baber and they set up a restoration business covering all makes, but with a particular leaning towards Jaguar, building a number of C and D Type replicas to a very high standard. This culminated in them building the first affordable replica of the XJ13, which featured on the front cover of Classic and Sports Car and in The Sunday Times.
• 2000: John and Peter set up the classic car business Beacon Hill Garage in 2000 and built an enviable reputation for the quality of their work, high levels of customer service and the depth of knowledge they were able to impart while, among other things, preparing historic racing cars.
• Recent years: Raced with his son, Stephen, in Historics driving an E-Type Jaguar, the Le Mans Classic and Spa Six Hours in a Healey and Silverstone Classic in a Bentley and a Lagonda V12.
• 2015: After almost 25 years together, John and Peter decided to pursue different interests and John has joined H&H in the Private Sales department. He is able to offer clients not just a rich racing pedigree (as a member of the BRDC), but a lifetime of experience in restoring classic cars and buying and selling cars on behalf of a number of significant collectors.
Looking back on this wealth of experience, is it difficult to remember some of the highlights? Without a moment’s thought, he says: “Winning my first race. It was at Brands Hatch – a club race in 1965 or 66. I still have the trophy.”
Although he says that he was not a good father, too obsessed with racing to care much about anything else, he did take his son Stephen racing with him in a carry-cot wedged into the back of an old bus. It is hardly surprising that Stephen now carries the family racing torch, the early smell of petrol and burning rubber imbibed with his milk. John has four sons and a daughter from two marriages, the first to Wendy who was no mean driver herself and did some racing too.
He smiles, remembering his second wife Karen asking about the dress code to go racing the first time he took her along. Unthinkingly, he told the innocent 18-year-old: “Jeans, trainers and an anorak.” He does not repeat what Karen said after coming face to face with the female glamour that is such a part of top level racing, the stilettoes, the designer clothes the jewellery. Sadly he lost Karen two years ago to cancer after a brutally short illness that lasted just six weeks.
Another tough memory, he recalls, was leading the class in the Targa Florio in Sicily, where team drivers did four 37-mile laps and then swapped. John had put his car in the lead but his co-driver, the nephew of a Bolivian tin billionaire, crashed the car and never came back, simply walked away never to be seen again! “I was very angry. Not that he crashed the car, that happens, but that he just took off,” says John.
The drivers he recalls most fondly include Derek Bell, Peter Gethin, John Fitzpatrick, John Surtees and Tony Lanfranchi, all of whom are or were:  “Great guys and never too busy to say hello.” He is less complimentary about James Hunt, but accepts that he did mellow.
Thinking back about his fastest and most powerful cars with a glint in his eye, he lists: a F1 Cooper Maserati which would do 180 mph; the Maclaren M6/12 that would do 200mph and the Lotus 30. And it’s the Maclaren he hankers after the most. “That car really stretched you as a driver. I’d love to have it back.”
One of his proudest claims is that he still holds a Class lap record for the old Goodwood track closed in the 1960s, in an Emery GT.
John’s friends like to tease him about his sugar consumption. He loves chocolate, cake, anything sweet, and says it’s because of the war years, when he never tasted any sugar. Luckily for him, his metabolism is such that he is rake thin and still looks the part. He drives a 1980s Ferrari Testarossa that he says is not everyone’s taste, but that he loves it.
John has some interesting views about restoration, the classic car market and driving generally. At the H&H sale at Duxford on April 20th there is a magnificent example of his company’s restoration skills and in particular those of Chief Technician, Rob Stacey, an E-Type race car, a very special 1961 Jaguar E-Type 3.8 Competition Roadster, ‘9 VPD’, which was among the very first E-Types to go racing. Shaped by Malcolm Sayer (1916 –1970), an aircraft and car designer, his most notable work being the C-Type and D-Type Jaguar sports racers that claimed five Le Mans 24-hours victories between them as well of course as the immortal E-Type production car.
Speaking about the market for classic cars, John says: “I don’t like what’s happened to classic car prices. It’s cut out the real enthusiasts, put the cars out of their reach. Most buyers today at the top end are just investors.”
Unusually, he is not precious about the whole issue of replicas, many of which he has built himself. “If you can’t afford the real thing why not have a replica? A D-Type Jaguar, for instance?”
He recalls one dawn run in such a replica down the Great North Road just as the sun was coming up. He smiles and there is a faraway look in his eyes. The passion is still there.
Anyone visiting John Markey at H&H Classics Hindhead are in for a treat. Besides the collection of beautiful cars on display the place is an Aladdin’s Cave of memories and mementoes, images and Trophies. But it’s the time with Aladdin himself that makes it so special. Sitting with this gentle man listening to his experiences one is gifted with insights into 50 years of motor racing in ways that allows you to be there yourself. It is a privilege.