An invitation to drive in the Tulip Rally of 1959 led to my meeting Norman Garrad, manager of the Rootes Competitions Department. He was a rather gruff old chap, known to many as the “Fuehrer.” On reflection, with the aforementioned description, it was rather naïve of me to approach him with a dilemma. However, I did. I told him of my invitation and the fact that I was undecided whether to use a Sunbeam Rapier or a Volvo for the event. Naturally, it came as no surprise that Norman was very miffed that I chose to utter the word Volvo in his presence, an insult I suppose. Despite his sternness, he was very good and offered to help, where he could, with spares and bits. With this in mind, and the fact that I had already competed with a Rapier in the Monte Carlo Rally earlier that year, I chose to buy a Sunbeam. Many drivers of the day would enter just one rally a year, hoping they would do well and get noticed by a team manager. This, in turn, would hopefully lead to a works drive in the not-too-distant future. My idea was to enter two or three events, and see how successful I was. More to the point, did I enjoy it? I put an entry in for the Alpine and RAC Rally later in the year and thought that would be a good enough challenge. If, at the end, I didn’t get anywhere I would call it a day. My racing experience up to that point had started in 1954 with cars from a DB2-4 Aston Martin to a 500 Cooper Norton.

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The Tulip Rally was quite successful for my teammate, a friend from Rotherham, and I as we finished 3rd in class. We did well against the works Rapiers, and I think Norman must have taken notice of me. By coincidence, for the Alpine Rally we stayed in the same hotel as the Rootes works team. At that time, Ronnie Adams, Les Leston, Peter Jopp, Paddy Hopkirk and Jack Scott were the drivers. Peter Harper had been injured, breaking his arm, in the Safari Rally earlier that year. He had broken his arm and therefore was not with the team. Giving a good account of ourselves, in the Alpine, led to Norman Garrad approaching me and offering me a position as Peter’s co-driver. This was a rather unusual step as, up to that point, Peter had selected his own co-driver. Understandably, Peter was apprehensive as he didn’t know me at all. I had the utmost respect for Peter as, at that time, I considered him one of the best drivers we had. Anyway we did the “reckie” for the RAC Rally, spending sometime together in Scotland, and that became the start of our racing partnership. Of course, this was the “proper RAC Rally” going right up to Inverness, before the special stages and the likes of today. Over the next couple of years, we did a number of events together, both rallying and racing. After a somewhat “frosty” start, the relationship between Peter and myself grew. We had much the same driving styles, not over stressing the car mechanically. Apart from a wheel falling off in one year’s Tour de France, we never broke a car.

The Sunbeam Alpine of Peter Procter and Peter Harper is about to be passed by the Ferrari 250 SWB of Moss and Hill, at Le Mans in 1961. Ironically, Procter and Harper went on to win the Index of Thermal Efficiency and finish 16th overall, while the Ferrari retired in the ninth hour.
Photo: Procter Collection

In 1961, the Rootes Group was looking to make an entry for a team of Sunbeam Alpines for the Le Mans 24 Hours. The decision to go to Le Mans or not would be based, firstly, on the results of a test to take place at the MIRA test track in Warwickshire, England. Should the car stay together, the next step would be the Sebring 12-hour race. If all went well there, then the Le Mans entry was on. At MIRA, the job was to keep the car in one piece. Using the banked track, we went around at speeds of 95 to 100 mph, covering a lot of ground in a short space of time. The results of the MIRA test impressed Lord Rootes very much. He looked at the figures and said, “Oh, Christ, you managed to achieve all this!” I agree, in itself the MIRA test only gave a longevity test and did not put too much strain on the car. Our goal, as drivers, was to give the car the mildest test possible to persuade Lord Rootes that it was up to the job. Fortunately, for us, he didn’t realize that an Austin Seven would have almost achieved what we had, as the car was not really under any great stress!

We were entered for the Sebring race and did very well; I led the class for some of the opening laps. As with sports car races of that type there was quite an eclectic mix of machinery. The “big boys” were the Maserati Birdcages and Ferrari V-12s. Our main opposition was Porsche, not with the cars like they have today, but the smaller-engined cars. The Alpines were heavier cars than others in the class, so we did lose out a bit on that. Sebring, at that time, was a circuit around the airfield; while most of the track was fine, other parts were very abrasive and wore the tires considerably. We had had a tire test at Silverstone just prior to Sebring, not only to see how the tires would stand up but also to get the team prepared for tire changes at pit-stops. In the end we finished 17th.

Peter and I were entered for the Le Mans race in a Harrington-bodied Sunbeam Alpine, #34. Harrington was a specialist coach building company from the south of England. They really made the car look the part. The whole thing was streamlined—even the headlights were faired in. Ironically, on the Mulsanne straight, our car was slower than the “normal”-bodied car, #35, being driven by Paddy Hopkirk and Peter Jopp. Both cars were in the 1,600-cc GT category. Just before half distance, Paddy and Joppy’s car was disqualified. It was something to do with the overdrive breaking and oil being filled at an ineligible time. We went on to finish a creditable 16th, and won the Index of Thermal Efficiency. This award was a most complicated formula to work out. We always suspected it was invented by the French to allow their DB Panhards to win something. Briefly, it has to do with the weight of the car, the fuel used, and the distance traveled. Unfortunately, for us, the calculations took so long to work out we didn’t get the opportunity to take our place on the podium. Something I feel somewhat cheated out of. Rootes was very pleased with us and made the most of the publicity our success created. Not only that, the prize money was some £3,500—the same as the race winners. I believe our achievement led Rootes to compete in the next three Le Mans 24 Hour races. In 1962,­­­ we finished 15th, but failed to finish in the 1963 race. Peter and I had varying degrees of success and failure in races and rallies. My last event as an “official” Rootes driver came after the 1963 Alpine Rally.

Procter at the wheel of the Sunbeam Rapier during the 1959 Alpine Rally.
Photo: Procter Collection