Simanaitis Says

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LECo—ENGLISH BACK-GARDEN SPECIALS

THE ENGLISH had a knack for producing racing cars in their proverbial back gardens. To wit, H.F.S. Morgan’s trike (www.wp.me/p2ETap-14b), Delingpole and Lowe’s Dellow (www.wp.me/p2ETap-6B), the Bolster Bros.’ “Bloody Mary” (www.wp.me/p2ETap-1nI)—and a pair of cars bearing the name LECo Mk 1 and LECo Mk 2.

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LECo: History of Two Special Racecars, commentary by Peter Tompkins, Nicky Sturges and Alex Quattlebaum, Jr., privately published by Alex Quattlebaum, Jr., 2012-2013.

LECo Mk 1 and LECo Mk 2 might seem arcane topics, but for my own firsthand experience with one of them, thanks to vintage race car driver Alex Quattlebaum, Jr. Today, I recount the origins of the two cars, including their interactions with English race car drivers Raymond Mays and Mike Hawthorn. Tomorrow Alex and I take LECo Mk 2 vintage racing.

LECo stood for Liss Engineering Company, Liss being a tiny village about 55 miles southwest of London. Its principals were Fred Sturges and Peter Tompkins, two car enthusiasts with a dream of taking their hobby a little further.

LECo Mk 1, built in 1952, was a typical English back-garden special. Its 1292-cc four-cylinder engine and four-speed gearbox came from Tompkins’ written-off 1937 MG TA. Suspension used transverse leaf springs, front and rear. The Mk 1’s rack-and-pinion steering gear came from a Morris Minor.

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The LECo Mk 1 at Goodwood race circuit, 1952. This and other images from LECo: History of Two Special Racecars.

Chassis tubes for the Mk 1 were sourced from Connaught Engineering, another English firm just a bit beyond back-garden status. Connaught built its own sports cars—and even Grand Prix entries!—between 1952 and 1959.

When originally tested at Goodwood circuit in 1952, the Mk 1 was still without bodywork. Young Mike Hawthorn was there with the Vanwall Grand Prix team (see www.wp.me/p2ETap-1HC). Tompkins asked Mike to give the Mk 1 some laps.

Mike reported, “Peter, put in a decent engine and I think you might have something worthwhile.” What’s more, the Vanwall team was discarding some aluminum nose cones, and Mike arranged for Tompkins and Sturges to salvage one. The rest of LECo Mk 1’s minimalist aluminum bodywork evolved from this nose shape.

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LECo Mk 1, in use as Tompkins family transportation, c. 1959.

Peter used LECo Mk 1 for his sales rounds with the family’s real business, a tobacco company. In time, it resided in garage storage.

LECo Mk 2 had an equally interesting history. Captain Richard Ashby and his wife Margaret returned to England from an overseas posting around 1953. They spectated at several motor races and were not overly impressed by some of the driving they witnessed.

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Margaret and Richard Ashby in later life.

Another spectator seated nearby said to the pair, “If you feel you could do better, why don’t you have a go?” This fellow spectator turned out to be famous English race driver Raymond Mays.

In 1954, the Ashbys commissioned Liss Engineering to build them a proper race car—and LECo Mk 2 was the result.

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Margaret Ashby races LECo Mk 2 at Goodwood in 1956.

The LECo Mk 2 shared a back-garden heritage with its earlier sibling. Connaught Engineering provided chassis tubes, differential and universal joints. Its Morris Tiller engine and gearbox were ex-Army. Its all-enveloping bodywork was at the Ashbys’ request.

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Captain Richard Ashby and LECo Mk 2 at the Bo Peep Hill Climb, 1956.

From 1954 to 1960, the Ashbys raced LECo Mk 2 at Goodwood, Crystal Palace, the Brighton Speed Trials and the charmingly named Bo Peep Hill Climb. Its engine gradually grew from 1250 to 1467 cc; its bodywork evolved largely through minor shunt repair.

When the BMC Mini was introduced in 1959, its indifferent gearshift mechanism gave Peter Tompkins and Fred Sturges a new challenge. They formed SPQR Engineering Limited, its SPQR Major Change shifter modification putting them firmly into the aftermarket business.

As Peter remembers, “If you had a problem no one could solve, ask Fred. If he said, ‘Let me think about it,’ you knew he could do it.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

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