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DOWNTON ENGINEERING WORKS

Gordon Spice

Of the many Downton employees, none had a more note worthy career in an around motor sport than Gordon Spice. As both a Downton employee & driver of the bright yellow "Britax Downton Coopers" Gordon has more than a few stories to tell.

The following is an extract from Gordon Spices forthcoming Autobiography, he has very kindly allowed me to post a sneak preview here;

© Gordon Spice. DO NOT DUPLICATE OR OTHERWISE CIRCULATE

Downton Engineering, one of the leading BMC Mini tuning companies which had supplied the engine for the Deep Sanderson. The company was owned by Daniel and ‘Bunty’ Richmond, and I had had many conversations with Bunty, whose credit control was fiercer than anyone else’s, and we had rigidly stuck to our agreed repayment schedule with them. At the time of the receivership the debt had been substantially reduced and I think that was a major factor in their offering me a job as their Sales Manager. At the interview I explained my racing ambitions and asked if, in exchange for a reduction in salary, it would be possible to ‘borrow’ development engines for my racing mini, which at that stage I did not have! Daniel – ‘Sir’ to me – said he thought they would be able to help and my twenty pounds a week salary was reduced to fifteen plus commission on new cars sales.

Gordon Spice Drove the Ill fated Deep Sanderson 301 at Le Mans.

By now, Birdie and I had moved to Berkshire Cottage in Sunninghill. It was too long a commute to Salisbury so we rented a small flat close to Downton and went home at the weekends. My job as sales manager was fascinating, mainly due to daily contact with Bunty and Daniel who were the most oddball characters you could ever wish to meet. On my first day I parked my red Ford Cortina GT in the car park in front of the showroom and Daniel went berserk. No-one had told me of his passionate hate of Ford cars, or his contempt for Ford drivers and he made it clear he did not ever want to see it on his premises again. I arranged the temporary loan of an Austin 1100 from my mother and with the proceeds of the Cortina sale bought a stripped out racing Mini. This all had to be done very quickly as he refused to speak to me until the Ford was sold and a major part of my job was answering sales enquiries from customers which needed his input. Being a BMC car, the 1100 met with his approval so he started talking to me again as if nothing had ever happened!.

Bunty was one of the plainest badly dressed women I had ever met. She was also one of the most charismatic and had the gift of making you feel very special, to a degree that you really wanted to please her. She was a fearsome lady but a compliment from her more than compensated for her regular outbursts which had more bark than bite. I learnt more from her about how to run a business than I realised at the time, particularly in the area of credit control. This stood me in good stead in later years. Her cardinal rule was that credit should never be given to any customer for any reason. For example, when Tony Armstrong-Jones was married to Princess Margaret a chauffeur arrived to collect his new Downton tuned Mini late on a Friday afternoon. It was a substantial sale but he had no cheque with him and naturally assumed that the Royal family’s credit was good and the invoice would be sent to Kensington Palace. Not so, said Bunty, and I had to arrange overnight accommodation for the driver so he could collect the money which was to be wired on Saturday morning to the local Post Office. Instead of going back to Sunninghill that night I had to stay over to collect the cash before releasing the car to a very bemused driver next day!

The "Formidable "Bunty" Richmond.

One of my duties was to serve Bunty a large Martini at 11.30 pronto every morning – a large gin with the sniff of the cork of a Martini bottle. After several of these she’d accompany Daniel to the Bull for lunch which would be preceded by bottles of vintage Krug Champagne – Daniel drank nothing else. In common with many gifted men he was a complete eccentric. Anyone who didn’t like Krug champagne was a peasant, so when invited to lunch one had to pretend – not easy when you hate the stuff. Anyone who wore a flat cap was a Communist and anyone who drove a Ford was a yob. Daniel was the brains behind the development of the Mini Cooper engine and a friend of Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, and Alex Moulton, designer of it’s hydrolastic suspension. Both were regular visitors to Downton but on Wednesdays the three of them would meet to ‘play trains’ in the loft of Issigonis’s home in Abingdon. I just wish I could have been a fly on the wall tuned in to their ‘brainstorming’ sessions. Daniel always returned from these meetings in very happy form – driving with a few under the belt was not a criminal offence in the sixties, and certainly not regarded as anti-social.

Sitting in the showroom one morning, Daniel said “Gordon, you need a haircut. Come with me to Salisbury and we’ll get it done”. I had never driven with him before and it was a most disconcerting experience, not just because he drove very fast but because he would turn around to face you when talking and only occasionally glance at the road. On the outskirts of Salisbury we happened to pass a scantily dressed young lady on a bicycle. Completely out of the blue, I couldn’t believe my ears when Daniel turned towards me grinning and said “That’s the vicar’s daughter you know. She’s sucked more c..ks that you’ve had hot dinners”. What do you say to that? Really…. Sir?

Downton had been recently appointed as a BMC dealer and one my tasks as sales manager was to sell new cars. This proved to be difficult due to two rules laid down by Bunty. Firstly, no discounts were to be given on new cars and secondly, no trade-ins were allowed! The only compromise to the second rule was that the local second hand car trader, Ron Fry, could be called in make an offer for the customer’s trade-in and, if acceptable, Ron’s cheque would offset the price of the new car. Naturally Ron’s offer was always ‘bottom book’ and any other dealership would offer a better price to secure a new car sale. We were so uncompetitive and I saw little prospect of boosting my salary with commission. On the rare occasions I sold a new car, it always turned out to be ‘a friend of the company’, which it probably was, and it was made clear that there was no commission payable on those sales. It didn’t really matter to me though – I was thoroughly enjoying the work, racing regularly using Downton development engines and making a name for myself as a quick Mini driver.

I’m spending time on my spell at Downton as it had a significant impact on my future career, as it had for others who fell under the Richmond’s influence. Shortly after I joined, Jan Odor, who had been in charge of the cylinder head shop, left to start Janspeed Engineering in Salisbury – in direct competition to Downton. Jan had been a Czechoslovakian refugee whom the Richmonds had taken under their wings, and treated as member of the family when he arrived in England. He was a gifted engineer but had undoubtedly learnt the tuning business from working at Downton for many years. When he left the Richmonds felt totally betrayed – to the extent that it was forbidden to mention his name. They did not see it as a natural progression of Jan’s career, for which they could take credit, which I thought was sad, but they had their own rules. Another protégé was Richard Longman who was in charge of the carburettor shop whilst I was there. A few years later he too left to start what was to become a highly successful tuning firm, also in Salisbury, and Richard became a respected entrant and driver in the RAC Touring Car Championship in the seventies and eighties. At the end of the sixties, after Daniel died and the Bunty closed the business, Richard Longman Ltd became the new Downton Engineering.

Gordon Spice at the wheel of one of the "Britax Downton Coopers".

Downton had customers from all over Europe and one of these was Philippe de Saint Andre who had a BMC dealership in Perpignan. The Richmonds were extremely protective of Downton’s reputation as the Rolls Royce of BMC tuners so when Philippe asked Bunty if he could have the Downton agency for France, I thought he stood no chance. It says something of his Gallic charm, in the form of outrageous flattery of Bunty and all things British, that she eventually agreed. I was sent to Perpignan to check out his premises and workshops and was given a memorable gastronomic tour of the region. A few weeks later I drove Daniel and Bunty to Perpignan for the Press party announcing the Downton Agency. Bunty was given the red carpet treatment and after cutting the ribbon gave a welcoming speech - the first time I had heard her fluent French. Philippe moved to Paris shortly after and we became good friends for the next ten years or so. Sadly we lost touch when he immigrated to the States in the late seventies.

Shortly after leaving Downton, out of the blue I was summonsed to a meeting with Daniel and Bunty. Over lunch at The Bull, Daniel explained that they were thinking of retiring and would like me to buy the business. I explained that I did not have the kind of money it was worth and even if I did there was no way I had the experience or technical know-how to make it a success. Daniel explained that money was not a problem – they’d lend me the money interest free and I could pay it back as and when. Looking back, I think I made the right decision – Downton was synonymous with the Richmonds and without their inspiration, eccentricity and the huge support they enjoyed from high places it would not be the same.

© Gordon Spice. DO NOT DUPLICATE OR OTHERWISE CIRCULATE

I would like to thank Gordon Spice for allowing me to reproduce his memories of Downton Engineering. I am sure you agree, his Autobiography will make an excellent read, watch out for it soon!