Motor racing driver and engineer;
Born: February 1, 1922; Died: August 3, 2013.
John Coombs, who has died aged 91, was a fine motor racing driver and car engineer in his own right but he was perhaps best-known among Scottish motorsport buffs for helping launch the racing career of a young man from Clydeside called Jackie Stewart. If "discovering" a future three-times F1 world champion were not enough, he was also the man behind the lightweight competition E-Type Jaguar which took on the might of Porsche and Ferrari in sports car races from the 1960s. It was in a Coombs lightweight E-Type in the early 1960s that Stewart first caught the eyes of the big boys down south, breaking lap records and the lap times of some of the top drivers. He had been racing in Scotland under the pseudonym A.N. Other in the hope that his mother Jeannie would not find out he was following in his big brother Jimmy's racing footsteps.
Jackie, of course, went on to greatness, via F3 and F2, winning the F1 drivers' title three times and changing the face of racecourse safety in a campaign that must have saved countless lives and injuries. (His mother, even after his three world titles, never openly acknowledged to him or anyone else that he was a racing driver). Stewart, now Sir Jackie, never forgot Mr Coombs's influence on his career and the two men remained close friends. "It was Frank 'Lofty' England of Jaguar who sort of foisted me upon John," Sir Jackie said, "because I wasn't really a big enough name for him at the time. But it formed the beginning of a very close relationship that we maintained ever since." Like Coombs, Jackie's family were Jaguar dealers - the latter at Dumbuck Garage outside Dumbarton - and both had started out as apprentice motor mechanics for their dads. The double F1 champion Graham Hill also put much of his early success down to Mr Coombs and the lightweight E-Type.
Harold John Coombs was born in Chertsey, on the river Thames west of London, in 1922, son of William Coombs, a local coachbuilder whose own father had moved from building horse-drawn coaches and their wooden wheels to repairing the early motor cars. He got his first taste of motor racing as a young boy when his father took him to the famous Brooklands racetrack, the birthplace of British motorsport, not far from their Surrey home. Leaving Guildford Grammar School at 16, he went into his father's garage as a mechanic, eventually taking it over as an upmarket Jaguar and Daimler dealership, Coombs of Guildford, in 1947. He was 27, after the war, when he entered his first race, in a 1930s Aston Martin, switching to a smaller JBS 500cc car, the standard which would become Formula Three, and beating rival Cooper drivers to several podium places.
Later driving an F3 Cooper himself, he came third behind Stirling Moss at Goodwood and came fourth at West Germany's famous Nürburgring. After a spell in F2, he raced Colin Chapman's new Lotus Connaught sports cars with considerable success, including as part of Team Lotus along with Londoner Ian Burgess (who died last year) in the Tourist Trophy at the old Dundrod circuit above Belfast. As the 1950s wore on, he found the pressures of racing and running a successful Jaguar and Daimler dealership too much and hung up his helmet. But he continued to modify and enter cars, including Coopers and Jaguar Mk 1 and M2 saloons which would later take on the new upstart Mini Coopers. His drivers included Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Tony Brooks, Ron Flockhart, Mike Salmon, Roy Salvadori and Colin Chapman himself. One of his most famous modified Mk1 Jags raced with the number plate BUY 1. Most people could not buy a Coombs Jag but his success prodded many to buy the standard road model.
As the owner of Britain's biggest Jaguar dealer, he was an influential figure in the hallways of Jaguar management in Coventry. It was he who persuaded Jaguar chairman Sir William Lyons and the then chief engineer "Lofty" England to let him modify the new but quite heavy E-Type. Thus was the lightweight 170mph E-Type born and he watched his car, driven by Salvadori and carrying that number plate BUY 1 on the bonnet, finish third in its competitive debut at Oulton Park on April 15, 1961. Another E-Type, prepared by Tommy Sopwith and driven by Graham Hill, took the chequered flag. The lightweight E-Type had arrived, leaving the might of Ferraris in their wake. By reducing the road model's weight, he had produced a beast and the E-Type, albeit the heavier factory model, became a must-have for the film or sports stars of the Swinging Sixties, from DJ Simon Dee to international spy and man of mystery Austin Powers.
When Jackie Stewart's mentor Ken Tyrrell moved into F1 in 1968, he had Mr Coombs take over the running of his F2 team, where he continued to nurture Stewart, although Jackie was already into F1, as well as such drivers as Piers Courage, François Cevert and Patrick Depailler.
Until recent years, Coombs was a regular visitor to and great supporter of the Goodwood Revival, a three-day meeting every September which features classic racing cars to recreate the golden era of motor sport. Many of his cars, including the Mk 1 Jag (BUY 1) and the E-Type which carried the same number, have featured in the event.
John Coombs died at his home in the south of France. He is survived by his wife Ellie and stepson Jonathan.
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