On the Heritage Trail

(or Journey to the Centre of Middle Earth England)

There’s a saying that goes something like “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve come from” and I have often thought that phrase could well be the mantra of the Stock Car Heritage movement. It also summed up my situation one cold, frosty Saturday morning in November – I knew where I had come from (Rugby) and I knew where I was going (Mike Shirley’s home near Meriden, a village renowned as the traditional centre of England) although I wasn’t quite expecting to be travelling down Cornish-style single track lanes to reach my destination.

I first approached Mike at the Stoke Semi-final meeting in August with a view to writing a feature on his latest creation, the Ron Rogers (152) car but Keith Barber beat me to it (see the 2017 Stock Car Annual) however the offer of a private viewing of Mike’s collection of heritage cars stood and was too good to turn down.

The 152 debut – Stoke Semi in August

Formerly a mechanic for Bryan Warner (ex-90), Mike was a regular racer between 1976 and 1988, starting out with a former Rogers car, then going on to race a number of very neat, self-built cars which took him to star grade more than once, shunning the trend for Chevrolet engines by using Chrysler motive power. He sometimes misses being an active F1 driver but certainly doesn’t miss the endless hours spent every night in the workshop fettling both stock car and transporter.

Opportunities to see the heritage cars in action were few and far between last season, especially with the demise of Coventry but there is no doubt that they are a popular addition to any meeting and always attract a crowd – witness the interest shown in them at Northampton in October and the Belle Vue Shoot Out finale last month. Mike has three F1 Heritage cars, all of them familiar to regular fans and the first one I was shown is probably the most well-known – the Ellis Ford (ex-3) car.

The Ellis Ford Replica – a match for F1s on shale today?

American Ellis Ford had business interests in Birmingham and Stratford-on-Avon and was the first man to win the triple of British, World and national points titles, a feat he achieved in 1965. Mike’s replica is a faithful reproduction of the car that brought Ellis so much success and is, I reckon, as fast as a modern day F1 around a shale track, even with its skinny tyres. In fact Mike told me he once challenged Paul Harrison to a match race around Coventry but Frankie Wainman Senior advised Paul not to even try – he would never win! Based on an LD chassis, the engine in the gold topped car used to reside between the main rails of the Colin/Dave Taylor (135/136) “Shark” car, while incredibly the gearbox and bellhousing came from the last stock car that Ford owned.

In the adjoining barn was the replica Jack Crawley (113) Raymond Way sponsored  car , a 1947 Ford that Mike built up from a body and chassis found in the village. Way was a very successful used car dealer in Kilburn, London post war with a flair for advertising “Don’t delay – buy your car the Raymond Way” was one of his slogans, but he had been a fairground barker, Brooklands racer, RAF pilot, a boxing and wrestling promoter and a Lloyds underwriter amongst other occupations – I am surprised he didn’t have stock car driver or promoter in his CV too but his involvement appears to have been limited to sponsorship of Tony Rumfitt (13) and Crawley, both successful car dealers in their own right.

Don’t delay, race the Raymond Way. The 113 car at the Shootout Finale, BV

Mike told me the 113 car arrived on these shores in the same container as Duncan Bell’s yellow Picture Post car. The rather crumpled state of the car is due to the fact that while the body (which had no doors at that stage) and chassis were stored in a field three large bales of hay fell on it, flattening the side. Undeterred, Mike repaired the body, found a flathead Ford, gearbox and axles and put the whole thing together. In one of those “what a small world” moments Mike went down to a hot rod/drag race show at Sandown Park earlier in the year and got speaking to a chap who turned out to be Terry Harris, a familiar name to old Brisca/Scota stock car fans who told him he used to work for Raymond Way Motors and now rents the old Way premises for his own business – that is until it is flattened for the HS2 rail link sometime in the future. Keith Barber designed the sign job on the 113 replica – take a look at the superb Oldstox.com site for a picture of the original Crawley car – that was a 1939 Ford Deluxe but Mike’s lovingly restored motor is a fine homage to those old days when everything was black and white!

On now to the original reason for visiting Mike’s Heritage Emporium, the Ron Rogers (152) replica. Mike has connections with the Rogers family going back many years: he remembers the days when Ron would stay overnight at the Shirley farm after a Coventry meeting before travelling on to a Sunday afternoon session at Brafield, Cadwell Park or maybe Snetterton. Mike was just a youngster at the time but Keith Barber’s Time Traveller piece in the Stock Car Annual answered a question I had been pondering – how did the Rogers and the Shirley families first get acquainted? It turns out that Mike’s dad was brought up in Leek and went to the same school as Ron – another of those small world moments.

The fascinating history of the original car, from its construction in 1962 by Nev Hughes (69) to its last final win by Doug Cronshaw (396) no less in 1974 (yes, really) is expertly told by Mr. Barber who has been around stock car racing a little longer than me, but I do remember the 152 car scorching around Brandon in the late sixties.

Mike spent four or five years gathering the parts for the Rogers project, starting with a chassis from a farm trailer found by his brother-in-law Rex (or Wrecks) Hart (ex-167). If I remember correctly Rex was a silversmith way back when who crafted the Midlands Grand Classic trophy raced for annually at Long Eaton Stadium and featured a silver plated con-rod from a Mick Noden engine – surely a 394 Oldsmobile – somebody out there will know for sure. After the chassis came the axles – an LD one for the rear mounted on underslung springs, just like they used to do, while the front one (Ford Model A) came from Street Rod fan in the village. The more I hear about the residents of Meriden the more I like it. The front axle is held in place by a pair of radius arms from a tractor – maybe not the way Nev Hughes did it but they look the part.

Mike poses with his immaculate Ron Rogers replica

Power comes from a 364 c.i. Buick driving through a Buick gearbox of Thirties vintage while the Fiat Toppolino body was supplied flat-packed by F2 heritage builder Chris Horner and took two months to put together. Working only from photographs, Mike measured the diminutive bodyshell and worked out the rest of the dimensions of the car from that and I reckon he has got the proportions about right and as he says there’s not that many people around these days who remember the original. An ex-Army Humber steering box keeps the car pointed in the right direction while the home-made louvred bonnet kept Mike busy for many a long hour.

Stopping the bonnet from fraying is an Alvis grille supplied by Hoss Fernihough (ex-208 and sponsor of Ben Hurdman F1 207). I believe the original Hughes car featured a grille from a 1928 Delahaye fire engine, not the sort of thing you have lying about the workshop. Mike did track one down in Italy but couldn’t get in touch with the seller .Having seen the price that Delahaye cars go for I suspect just a grille would cost a small fortune, if you could find one, which I couldn’t! Mike jacked up the completed car under the bell-housing to check the weight distribution, as Nev Hughes and mechanic Brian Powles had done with the original back in the early sixties and found it to be pretty darn near perfect.

Mike has no plans to build any more heritage cars, saying he is quite happy to take the ones he has to shows and the occasional race meeting but he has bought himself a new toy to play with – a 1943 Fordson truck intended for use as his stock car transporter. Called the “Lively Lady” Mike reckons the truck was restored around 1984 and remained in Surrey until 2003 when it was bought by a chap in Arley. He apparently never ran it and just stored it in a shed for 12 years. Mike couldn’t see the old girl put out to grass so did a deal and became the new owner. I am no expert but the Lively Lady looks to be in superb condition and Mike tells me he has had the engine running – it’s a flathead Ford by the way – and I look forward to seeing (and hearing) it at a show or meeting in 2018.

Looking good for over 70 years old (not Mike, the Fordson!)

It just remains for me to thank Mike and wife Melanie for their hospitality. After viewing Mike’s vehicle collection we decamped to the warmth of the Shirley kitchen where I was plied with tea, biscuits and stories of stock car days gone by. I really could have stayed for hours, in fact, I probably did!

Words and photos: Mick Jenkins

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