Remembering a builder of extraordinary specials

| 26 Jun 2014

Unless you are a member of Bristol Pegasus Motor Club, or you have a keen interest in that area’s racing history or its jazz scene, you are unlikely to have heard of Gerry Bath. In which case, you will have to forgive me a personal diversion to pay tribute to the man who I came to know while he helped Dad run an Ensign and then a Reynard in hillclimbing.

A few years ago, while working for another magazine, I did an article about Gerry because he had restored a Lotus Elite. We did the photoshoot at his house near Bath, and during a lull in proceedings I asked him how long he’d lived there.

He smiled: “Since 1934.”

His father built Sunnydene that year, and Gerry creosoted the floor and roof timbers. He was four years old at the time…  

His interest in cars and motor racing started early, and he was one of many British enthusiasts who keenly embraced the post-war specials-building scene. Three-wheelers could be driven at the age of 16 and, a Morgan being beyond his means, he built his own based around the chassis of a Raleigh van.

Gerry constructed his own bodywork for it, and the whole project took 20 months – no power drill being available. Eventually, he replaced the standard V-twin with the engine from a Ford 8.

It was the beginning of a long line of specials. The ‘Pegasus’ was based upon Triumph Super 7 components, and Gerry designed his own independent front suspension for it. The intention was to create a hillclimb car – he had been a spectator at the first Naish Hill event to be run after the war, in 1945 – and he eventually decided upon a Ford 10 engine.

It was in this car that Gerry returned to Naish Hill as a competitor in 1951, and he also raced it at Castle Combe and Thruxton.

After that came a Ford special based on a Thames van but with all-enveloping bodywork, then a 750 Motor Club racer built around a 1931 Austin Seven that he’d acquired for £5. He won his class in the latter at a Castle Combe sprint in 1964, pointing out there was only one other entrant in the category.

My personal favourite was the Minim (below), which he built in the mid-1960s and lasted long enough for me to remember Dad testing it at Castle Combe 20-odd years later.  The closed mid-engined two-seater was built using Mini front subframes at both ends. It ran – on road and track – with various engine configurations.

Gerry retired early from his job at the British Aircraft Corporation, and when he stopped driving competitively he offered his services to others as a mechanic, helping Dad for 15 years or so.

He was a keen supporter of the idea of Dad switching from British hillclimbs to French ones, which they started doing in 1993. Two years earlier, they had completed a recce to Arques la Bataille near Dieppe, leaving the car in Newhaven and travelling to the hill by bus.

There were no buses the following day, however, so they had to walk the five miles back into Dieppe. Perhaps as a result of all that exercise, Gerry uncharacteristically agreed to have a glass of wine, but apparently never forgot that the bottle had cost £4…

Gerry was also responsible for the ‘Sunday evening, eat-in-the-car’ food, which nearly always consisted of pork pies that had been bought cheaply on the Friday evening because they were going out of date. They were then left in a hot car over the weekend.

In the days when I accompanied Dad to British events, it was standard to stop en route for fish and chips. On one occasion, Gerry did the honours and handed everyone their dinner. When I opened my can of Coke, it exploded all over the car’s interior.

“Ah,” said Gerry as the bubbles and bedlam subsided, “that will be the one that I dropped…”

In the early 1950s, he had made a number of trips to the continent to watch Grand Prix racing, and was at Reims in ’53 when Hawthorn pipped Fangio. He continued to travel into his old age, and particularly enjoyed touring European motor museums.

The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago. I was covering Retro Classics in Stuttgart for C&SC, and ran into a familiar face in the lobby. He was on a coach trip that passed close to the show and had decided to have a look.

He carried on playing the piano, too. In the 1950s, he had performed with Roger Bennett, and did his final gig earlier this year.

Gerry died last week after a short illness, at the age of 83. His post-war visits to see the Formula One circus were chronicled in a talk for Club Lotus, and were to be used for a similar purpose for the Pegasus Motor Club. After being given his diagnosis, Gerry told Dad to make sure that this was taken care of.

He was a quiet, shy man with a remarkably logical engineer’s mind. A man who Dad remembers as being completely unfazed by mechanical problems, who could always find a simple solution – and who could sleep anywhere.

I recall him being endlessly patient with the young know-it-all hanging around the paddock; quietly – expertly – playing piano at his friend John Marshall’s birthday party; and talking me through his Elite for that aforementioned article. He worked out that he’d made 45 alterations to Chapman’s original design.

A gentle man, who will be much missed.

Thanks to Pete Stowe for the archive images. You can read more about Gerry’s specials and Bristol’s motor-sport history by clicking here

Lotus Elite image: copyright Classics Monthly/Gerard Hughes