The History of
by John Sprinzel
December 22, 1996
Speedwell Performance Conversions began in early 1957 with the regular lunch meetings of three car enthusiasts in the Madeleine Coffee Shop in North London. George Hulbert, Len Adams and I used to chat about all things motorsport over the dish of the day, and though I was the only one who actually competed in races and rallies, George – who ran a Morgan – was a very talented engineer, and provided a lot of help with my Austin A35’s engine modifications. Len, who read all the enthusiast’s magazines, ran the local BMC dealership’s workshops, and this is where most of the normal work was done on my vehicle, generally by a huge West Indian mechanic named Reg Venner. Reg could lift an A type engine out all on his own, and after all these years I still consider him to have been my most thorough and reliable mechanic. We entered competitions under the name “Team Speedwell” which was not only the local telephone exchange – in the days before numbers took over – but also the trade name of the decal printing business where I worked. The logo – which Tom Colby uses today – was my design for the printing works long before I took it along for the tuning business.
At the famous Goodwood circuit, I managed to win a hotly contested production car race at the beginning of the season, and as the TV commentator had a few minutes of “dead time” between two events, he chose to sit me up on the pit counter in jeans and checkered shirt (no one really bothered with overalls in those early and amateurish days) and interviewed me on the amazing speed and roadholding of this small and unorthodox “racer”. He mentioned the word “Speedwell” quite a few times, and when business (printing) opened the next day, I had several telephone calls asking how people could get their Austins to go as quickly as mine. One shouldn’t miss out on life’s opportunities when they do appear, so over lunch we decided to go into the tuning business – renting a two car lock up garage under my little Mews apartment, taking Reg on as chief – and only – mechanic, and turning my little kitchen into the office. The three of us worked part-time for the first few weeks, but the rush of business was such that we soon all went full-time. Not long afterwards, Graham Hill – who at the time was Colin Chapman’s engine manager at Lotus – came to see if we had any vacancies. He was determined to become a full-time race car driver, and as long as Chapman held him in such regard as an engines man, there was no way he would employ Graham to drive, so he became our first workshop foreman, and his assistant, Keith Duckworth, took over as Lotus engines boss, later to join Mike Costin in the renowned Cosworth Engineering Company. Three years later Graham bought me out to become Speedwell’s chairman – but that is another story…By that time we had become Britain’s top performance tuners, winning both the British Rally Championship and the British Saloon Car Championship as well as producing the Speedwell GT – that very attractive coupe bodied version of the Austin-Healey Sprite – which is still raced all over the world and with as much success as in those early days. The last time I competed with one of my cars a couple of years ago, I thought they performed faster, and held the road better, with the improvements in tires and lighter weight of modern carbon fibre bodywork, but the brakes didn’t seem nearly as good. I guess that the forty years has made me use them more than I used to, and while they were probably always a bit on the weak side, I guess that didn’t bother us when we were in our twenties!
While sadly I am the only one of the original quartet still around to tell the tale, it is good to see that the Speedwell name lives on in the capable hands of that modern-day enthusiast Tom Colby, and I suspect that the atmosphere of his shop and ours of the fifties would have been pretty much interchangeable.