Dragged off to Crystal Palace for a race meeting by his much older brother when only six, Robin was introduced to motor sport at an early age. “Norman is thirteen years older than me, and one weekend he simply said, we're off to the Palace to watch some racing, and sticking me by the fence near the North Tower for the day, said 'you'll enjoy this'. I did. If you remember, there was no run off in those days, and you could almost touch the cars as they went by. When you're six things impress, I've loved motor racing ever since, its been my hobby and my living". The enthusiasm put into these few opening words, as we settle for lunch, indicate the following hour or so is going to be immensely enjoyable and very interesting.
"Our parents weren't into racing, but Norman and I would get over to the Palace at every given opportunity, it being only a few miles from home. I become fascinated with cars, and by the age of eleven was working in a local paint-shop, learning about panel beating and spraying. We did a lot of work for two major BMC distributors, so from the very beginning I was working on MGB's and Midget's. I loved it, working every weekend and all of my school holidays. Also at about this time, the late sixties, my brother decided to enter the sport, and so we built a Ford Anglia then later a MkI Escort for the Triple-X Special Saloon Car Championship. We tackled all the saloon car series of the time, the Tricentral, Forward Trust, and Wendy Wools, and by the mid seventies had progressed to Super Saloons. Our car for this series was based on a Chevron single seater, from which we removed the front and rear suspension. We built our own space frame chassis and topped it all off with a plastic Fiat 850 body, using the Holday F3 engine and Hewland Mk9 box from the Anglia and Escort. In fact most of the mechanicals came from those cars, eventually the Holbay giving way to a 1300 BDA. It was quick - believe me!" Typical of Robin and Norman's approach, they actually made the body for this car themselves, enrolling on a glass-fibre course, they then took some molds from the appropriate Fiat model, and simply laminated their own body. "We were filmed once by the BBC with the Fiat for a television show called Driving Ambition, that was fun. In one of the scenes you can see my poor long suffering wife Pat. She was 8 months pregnant at the time, but took it all in her stride, in fact she was pretty used to the things we did by then, our third date being at a freezing cold Lydon Hill meeting where I was looking after someone's car - and she still puts up with me after all this time".
Having left school, Robin was now serving an apprenticeship with the panel beating company, sadly however, either due to mismanagement or poor direction, things went wrong seeing the business close down half way through his apprenticeship, but fortunately many of Robin's family worked for London Transport, and a place was quickly found for him there. "My apprenticeship sort off carried on, but with more emphasis on the mechanical side. It was really good training, you couldn't fault it, and I excelled. Of course by now I wanted to race and had taken up karting, plus was keeping my hand in by not only mechanicing for Norman, but also for a few other people. I would either go to their homes or work on their cars at the circuit. Back then Brands Hatch hosted regular test days every Wednesdays, so I would swap shifts with my work mates leaving the mid week day free for me to get over to the track. I got to work on so many different cars, it was a fabulous time, and looking back taught me so much. Payed well too, I was still quite young, yet in quick succession had a couple of Cortina GT's, Midget's, MGB's and GT's, an Elan, Stag, E-type, and of all things a two year old Rover P6 with lowered suspension and every mod imaginable. Guess a was a bit flash - but then I was just a teenager with some money"
Eventually the ever resourceful youngster realized there was a living to be had here, which while not ensuring quite the same level of pension LT offered, it would be a lot of fun, racing cars being far more interesting and varied than AEC RM busses. Robin's customer base was expanding too, and for a while he had been overseeing a few of the MGCC BCV8 and Phoenix Championship cars. "I knew these cars well and decided an MGB would be a good first step, so I built my own racing version, and I’ve still got it. When I first competed with it my three kids weren't even born, and now I’ve got three grandchildren"!
It was during the mid eighties that Robin Lackford Motor Engineering came into being, small to begin with, but more than twenty six years on, is now highly regarded within the trade and by their customers both here in the UK and far beyond, with a fine reputation for its high quality classic and vintage car restoration work. MGs, Austin Healey's, Jaguar's, Ford's, Alvis's and Aston Martin's are a common sight at the Cowfold, Sussex, establishment, where the company has been based for the past 18 years. Obviously Robin also prepares and restores historic racing cars, single seaters and sports racing cars, plus all manner of unusual machinery, for example an extremely rare Autosud which recently came in. “What makes us different from other classic car specialists is that we offer the full service. We have a superb mechanical workshop, body fabrication and body preparation shops, plus the paint booth and low bake oven, and it’s all on the one site. Many classic car specialist sub-contract out a lot of this work, only completing a small amount of it themselves, whereas we can do everything all in house. This enables us to keep control, and speak with our customers directly should unforeseen problems occur. I suppose that on average we have about fourty cars in the works at any one time, but never modern cars, we don't handle anything modern”.
As we've established Robin and his team work on a lot of MGs, they come highly recommended by the two main club's, but there are always other interesting projects being undertaken. Among current restoration projects are an ex-police Jaguar, a Ford Poplar 103E, Alfa Romeo Spider, MG TF 1250, and a 4 seater PA, for which they are constructing from scratch all the bodywork. More prestigious cars come along also, including recently a Ferrari 250 GTO SWB Berlinetta. “That was one of the worst jobs we ever had,” laughs Robin. “I had to drive it at least 500 miles before being satisfied. You see I’m the only one here qualified to do it, for sure it’s a tough at times, but someone has to do it! Seriously, although I'm not particularly into Ferrari's, this car was really fantastic, turn in, brakes, throttle response, it had it all, fabulous car.
Running such a busy company could get in the way of hobbies, Robin's obviously being racing, but the best way to ensure you are doing things right is clearly to test your work, and what better way than through racing. This is very much the way Robin thinks, both sponsoring and competing in the Midget Challenge along with son Nigel, who also works alongside him at the business having served his apprenticeship. The duo are very competitive. "These days, I race a MkI Sprite, the same car I used to take the class championship in the Austin Healey series a season ago". Robin lost out on the overall championship by just four points, due to a collision in the second round of the series, where no points were collected. “I competed in eight races that season, and took six class wins, six class poles, and two outright wins against the big Healey 3000s, which having about 300bhp, was very satisfying. The Sprite is one of my favourites racing cars, it still gives me a big smile every time I drive it, especially so when we beat the big Healey's”.
Along with the Sprite, Robin also races his 1959 Elva 100 in the Millers Historic Formula Junior Championship, but like many club drivers Robin never held any wish or ambition to become a professional driver. “I’ve always been a club driver, never fancied F1. At the end of the day, when you become a professional racing driver, it’s a job, and like any other job you get out of bed and go to work. But what we do is far better than that, since we build and drive own cars. If we can go out and beat everyone, thats fantastic, if our customers do the same, even better.”
So more than four decades on, a grandfather of three, and successful business man, Robin continues to live and breathe cars and motor racing. His opinions on the current historic and club racing scene's being typical of the man. Not impressed by those with huge budgets and no understanding of the spirit of racing, or the moves by some clubs away from grass roots racing, I was right, the hour or so we've been chatting has indeed been enjoyable and very interesting, but more than that, an insight to how a chance visit a race track no longer in regular use became a life changing moment. Thanks Robin, its been really fascinating.
Oh! and as for Norman, well described by Robin as an old, old age pensioner, he goes on; "yeh, encouraged at the tracks by Rachel his long suffering wife he's still racing, drives a Radical Pro-Sport; the performance is mind blowing"! Says it all - racers through and through.