When a Future F1 World Champion Took Birkett Victory
By 1958 Graham Hill was determined to become a professional race car driver, however as Colin Chapman’s engine manager at Lotus, Chapman held him in such regard as an engineer that there was no way he would employ Graham as a full-time driver. This led to Hill quitting and taking a role as workshop foreman for the fledgling Speedwell Performance Conversions firm, enabling him to graduate to Formula One with Team Lotus, where he made his debut in May at the Monaco Grand Prix. Speedwell had its origins in a London coffee shop, where racing enthusiasts John Sprinzel, Len Adams and George Hulbert regularly met. At one such meeting in 1957, Sprinzel was complaining about the cylinder head of his racing Austin A35; Hulbert offered to modify it for better performance, leading to Sprinzel winning his next race. This victory created sufficient interest to prompt the racers to set up their own tuning house, named after the local telephone exchange, Speedwell.
Adams acted as salesman, Hulbert was development engineer and Sprinzel looked after the administration and publicity. As workshop foreman, Hill found himself bolting the latest tuning products onto the firm’s cars and together with Sprinzel raced Speedwell modified A35s and Austin Healey Sprites to numerous victories, bringing much publicity to the firm.
As part of this racing programme Hill found himself part of a team of Speedwell tuned Austin A35s entered for the 750 Motor Club’s 1958 Birkett Relay. Joining him in the Speedwell Stable Team were Sprinzel, Hulbert and Len Adams. The cars all featured modified cylinder heads, an increased compression ratio, balanced crankshafts, lightened flywheels, uprated suspension and Dunlop ‘Gold Seal’ tyres.
Autosport reported that “Sprinzel drove with his usual zest, verve and forcefulness” whilst “Graham Hill was having the time of his life. The Austins stood on their noses under braking for the hairpin, then stood on their tails under the force of acceleration as they came out of the turns.” As the race evolved the Speedwell Austins found themselves locked in a duel for handicap honours with a team of Morgan Plus 4s. At the halfway point the Speedwell team took the lead, Motorsport Magazine wrote that the team’s “pit work was impeccable” with “Sprinzel, Hill and Adams driving sensibly and fast, very smart in pullovers to match the colour of their little saloons.” Victory for the A35s was eventually sealed in the final hour with an unscheduled stop to rectify a loose bonnet for the Morgan squad.
A week later Hill would be present at Boavista for the Portuguese GP and within in a month scored his first World Championship points at the Italian Grand Prix; Hill would become Britain’s second ever World Champion just four years later driving for the BRM Team.