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Sobering : Curly And Me

Sobering : Curly And Me

This week I got an order for a photo of Curly Dryden (seen here in the centre, arm raised) , a prominent driver of Formula 3 cars back in the early 1950s. These were the days when such cars ran  500cc J.A.P. speedway  or Norton ‘doiuble knocker’ Grand Prix bike engines (if you were wealthy) in spindly little mid-engined, chain-drive chassis. Stirling Moss (below) and Peter Collins  cut their racing teeth in these cars.

John Cooper used the class to more-or-less create not only the whole British racing car industry but fundamentaly  change the way racing cars were subsequently designed .

 He also won two F1 world titleds with his mate Jack Brabham the wheel, and  eventually leant his name to  perhaps the most emlamatic car of the Swinging 60s, the Mini Cooper.  

But thats all just a bit of backgroud. I found I had a very tenuous connection to Curly - or rather, to his ultimate fate.

Ronald Dryden was nick-named Curly, in the English ironic way, because he was bald. An Oxfrdshire hotelier, he came to motor sport already a mature family man, like many a driver of his day, having seen his youth interrupted by a lengthy war. During that war he'd risen in the ranks to become a Squadron Leader in the RAF and survived being shot down over the North Sea .

 He raced an MG single seater (above at Prescott Hillclimb)  and a Jaguar SS100 in the late 1940s, competed in the first post-war 24 hours of Le Mans with an MG TC and became one of John Cooper's first customers, ordering a brand new Mk2 Cooper in 1947  for what would become the wildly successful new Formula 3 class. 

Success quickly followed and numerous wins over the next year or two, backed up by finishing 2nd in a couple of major events to a young hot-shot called Stirling Moss.  Clearly he had talent. As everyone and his dog began to buy a Cooper he moved to the rival JBS marque for 1951 , as a works team driver. Other JBS runners at the time included future Ferrari F1 star Peter Collins (below)  and motor racing entrepepaneur Les Leston . 

Early season success followed but so did tragedy when Curly's team mate (and son of the JBS designer) Alf Bottoms was killed in a race in Luxemberg during the spring and the belaguered team struggled for results thereafter. In October Curly was racing at Castle Combe. In the second heat he lost control of the JBS at the final corner, Camp, almost beneath the windows of the old airfield control tower, and was crushed as it rolled over.  Roll hoops and seat belts were, some will be surprised to learn, already a feature in 500cc F3 back then, but not widely used and seldom proved very effective when they were. Rolling a 500c F3 car was always likely to end badly. A badly injured Curly was removed to the waiting ambulence and taken to hospital in Bristol.

 He didn't survive the journey.  He was 42. 

50 years after the tragedy I was myself competeing at Castle Combe, as I had been doing over the previous six seasons. It was practice and the car, a Rover 220 Turbo (below) , wasn't running well. An intermittent misfire was proving hard to sort out and I confess I was getting impatient. This was a problem we had suffered with for a while and in testing it seemed we had solved it. Now it was back again. Only once before while racing had I felt impatient, and that time I had crashed heavily. I should have remembered this and acted accordingly, but it's easy to be wise after the event. Instead of pitting and trying further adjustment, I gritted my teeth and chose to battle through it. Bloody car! I would show it who was in charge … of course I didn't. 

Turning into Camp corner at about 80mph the engine coughed. As the Rover was a front wheel drive car, the sudden unexpected lack of drive was like stabbing the brakes - just as it was ‘loading up’ for the fast right hander, and it pitched me into a spin. These things seem to  happen in slow motion and I found myself going backwards towards thinking “I wonder there I will hit the wall?” . Like an idiot I looked round to see… There were no HANS devices to restrain your head in those days. At that moment I came to a crunching halt and wrenched my neck in the process.  

Luckily I had all the safety features that poor Curly had lacked including a hefty roll cage, 6 point seat belts and a car that hadn't rolled over as it spun around . With the back of the car buried in the tyre wall, the floorpan creased, the rear wheels pointing in odd directions and marshalls asking if I was OK,  I got out and walked away not feeling any effects at all, thanks no doubt to a huge rush of adrenaline.  I didn't know it then but this would be my last circuit race (to date…I am an optimist!) The damage was only partly-repaired when life took a different turn and the racing had to take a back seat . I carried a sore neck for well over a year.

Eventually the car, repaired but not ‘finished’ and still partly painted in grey primer,  was sold to someone in the North of England for track day use and after a one-off drive in a forest rally, I took an unintended sabbatical from active motor sport. That lasted for sixteen years.

But the twist in the tale occured nearly twenty years after this accident. When visiting the doctor with serious neck pain I was told it was “arthritis settling into an old fracture, probabaly from about…oh… 20 years ago, I imagine. Did you have a car crash back then by any chance?” 

Yes. 50 years after Curly's accident at the very same corner, it appears I had broken my neck… and not known! Unlike poor Curly, I was lucky. 


If you see me out and about wearing my customery scarf, it's not for style (me? style? really? ) it's to keep the neck warm and the aches and pains at bay.