The Lea-Francis Owners' Club 1953-2003
"P.G. Tompson, 29, Meadow Hill, New Malden, Surrey, seeks to form a club for Lea-Francis owners and asks those interested to get in touch with him."
The January 1953 issue of Motor Sport contained the above simple sentence inviting Lea-Francis owners to contact Peter Tompson about forming a club. The response was suitably gratifying and came mainly from owners of vintage LeaFs, with only a few ‘moderns’ showing interest. The use of the term ‘modern’ for post—1944 cars dates from Peter Tompson’s acknowledgement letters. Of course, they were modern then — it was still just possible to buy a new car from Much Park Street.
In 1953 petrol was no longer rationed, and the United Kingdom was slowly emerging from the deprivations of war and post-war austerity. New cars were hard to come by and the better ones, such as LeaFs, were excessively taxed, but there was great interest in motoring with rapid growth in motorsport. Motoring clubs started to proliferate. One-make clubs were not new, but most had been run as part of the manufacturers’ customer service; out of the 15 recognised clubs in 1951, six were still company run.
Racing driver Eric Winterbottom’s pub, The Albert on Kingston Hill in Surrey, was chosen as the venue for the inaugural meeting of the Lea-Francis Owners’ Club on 15 April 1953, partly because they were sympathetic to embryo motor clubs and, one suspects, partly because it was within walking distance of Tompson’s home. It did, however, happen to be reasonably convenient for the majority of would-be members, none of whom were aware that there had been two previous abortive attempts at such a club.
The 20 to 25 people who gathered in that smoke-filled semi-basement room were not all LeaF owners but included wives, friends and the curious. The meeting was chaired by Donald Hick, an older man owning an O-Type (12032) with 300,000 miles on the clock, who seemed a natural for the job given his personal acquaintance with George Andrews (L-F Service Manager/Director) and ‘Soapy’ Sutton (ex L-F works driver/tester). Mr Andrews was unanimously invited to become the Club’s first President, while many wanted Kaye Don, driver of the winning Lea-Francis in the 1928 TT who lived locally, to be offered some post of honour. Although approached on several occasions Kaye Don showed no interest, whereas George accepted and proceeded to take an active interest in the Club.
Peter Tompson (P-Type 13956) had clear ideas of the sort of Club he had in mind, and through Ken Gregory (manager to Stirling Moss and Peter Collins) and the Half-Litre Club, had contacts with the racing world. Somehow the meeting was persuaded to elect Gerry Brown (K-Type 6309) as joint secretary with Tompson.
This was satisfactory at first, but ultimately proved not to be a good idea. Just 16 of those present actually joined the new Club, of whom only Ted Collins (P-Type 13998) and Keith Poynter (P-Type 13750) are still members as this is being written (2003). Our first overseas member joined at this time, M O F Jayasuriya from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a speed hill-climb expert with a 21/2 Sports.
From the very beginning, the emphasis was on the competition. Even before our inaugural meeting, we had been invited to Alvis and Singer Owners’ Clubs’ events. Both Clubs were helpful in our formative days and, together with Southern Jowett and the Rover Sports Register, we enjoyed each others’ events as well as co-promoted ones. Night Navigation Trials were very popular, which attracted more new members with the later Rose-designed cars and their better lighting and charging systems. We still had only 23 members when our first rally took place on 15 November 1953, instead of the minimum of 50 fully paid up members, so it had to be called a Social Navigation Event; nevertheless, it received favourable reviews in the three motoring weeklies of the day. The 50 members and RAC recognition took a few years to achieve, and in the meantime, the Club events, which were very competitive, were filled from the ranks of the Half-Litre Club. Gerry Brown’s dream was a LeaF team in the popular annual Six Hour Relay Race at Silverstone, but the most we could rake up were two P-Types and a 9.8hp K-Type, which was never enough. The thought of a 9.8 sharing a crowded track with Jaguars, Allards and Mr Chapman’s creations stretches credulity a bit, but one team ran a Series 1 Land Rover, so perhaps it was not too outrageous. Our serious racers, mostly 14hp Sports, never seemed interested.
These early years were frenetic, with frequent committee meetings and whip-rounds to keep the show on the road. The monthly social meetings at The Albert were augmented by Dinners and Dances which were all financial disasters bringing the Club close to ruin. There were other problems of various kinds leading to the resignations of both secretaries, and more, but there was always a core ofLeaF enthusiasts dedicated to keeping the Club going.
During the 1960’s the focus of LFOC activities moved to the Midlands under the triumvirate of Peter Pringle, Dick Traves and Joe Woodhouse. Their brainchild, the Stanford Hall rally first staged in 1963, gradually evolved as the main feature of the Club year. We were in fact the first car club to hold a rally at this venue, which now hosts such events almost every weekend in the summer.
Our Stanford Hall meetings changed but little over the years. The grass and buttercups were longer then, indeed long enough to mislay the smallest children. It was more informal, with cars often parked at random under the trees, and the few awards presented under the big oak; it usually seemed to rain, but the concours and driving tests took place much as they do today at our Broughton Castle event. The driving tests in the early days were more ferocious, with a timed element being dominant, which led to close encounters with the River Avon, a number of mechanical derangements and, most serious of all, the displeasure of the late Lord Braye over the damage done to his beloved grass and buttercups by the spinning wheels. In their innocence, the competitors thought they were helping keep the grass down to a more acceptable level . . . These early Stanford events were held the day after the VSCC Oulton Park race meeting to allow for members with divided loyalties. As time passed, the LeaF gathering became an independent annual event with a regular following and moved to the first weekend in June; since the 1995 Centenary Rally it has been extended to two days.
From time to time LFOC teams were entered in some of the Combined One-Make Car Club speed events and rallies, on occasion rising to two teams of four cars each which ranged from 1928 Vintage models to the Lynx of 1960 with all sorts in between, mostly post-war and both saloons and sports models. This was difficult to sustain but was much enjoyed by those who participated and their supporters.
As the decades went by ageing cars, ageing membership, different attitudes, crowded roads, increased legislation and bureaucracy all combined to move the Club away from its origins in competition to a primary concern with mutual marque support and preservation. The competitive-minded few have found their sport elsewhere but remained loyal. This loyalty to Lea-Francis has always been a significant feature and was recognised by the old company and, of course, today by the current owner of the business,Barrie Price.
The movement away from frequent events added to the importance of the LeaFlet, which even in its early rudimentary form had always been recognised as a vital part of Club life worldwide. A Channel Islands member wrote in an early LeaFlet about the necessity of clearing landmines before running a speed event! Another wrote that an additional oil filter and firmer springs were all that a 14 saloon needed for trouble-free crossings of Southern Africa. LeaF ownership has always been worldwide and has been reflected in Club membership and the LeaFlet. There is no comparison between the current style of LeaFlet and those published in the first twenty or so years of the Club’s existence. Called ‘Bulletins’ at first, they consisted of duplicated pages of variable quality published at irregular intervals ranging from two months to a record eighteen! Sometimes the difficulty lay in finding someone willing to take on the task, especially when it might mean writing the whole thing, typing, duplicating stapling, licking stamps and then posting the finished product, occasionally at the editor’s expense. Some even wrote the correspondence pages, complete with letters critical of the editor! Small wonder that editors disappeared without warning. To be fair, editors in the past were hampered by insufficient funds, low membership and frequent changes of the committee, and it is well to remember that all posts are voluntary.
Then Chairman, Roger Harle made great efforts to raise the profile of the Club with some well-publicised events such as the parade of nearly 60 cars at Vintage Silverstone in July 1978 to celebrate the Club’s 25th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of the TT win), but, like many before and after, found it difficult to drum up enough support.
All the while, stalwart member, John Hayes was ensuring that the Stanford Hall event went from strength to strength. Here was something that members really enjoyed and came to from literally all over the world. This was just as well since by the end of the 1975 there was no particular centre of LFOC enthusiasm and AGMs were moved around the country in the hopes of finding one. Ironically, this period of apparent apathy enabled the Club’s coffers to recover somewhat, while George Adams started putting Club records on computer, and membership and ownership history was made more accessible.
From 1985 the LFOC has enjoyed a much needed period of stability under the secretaryship of Robin Sawers and editorship of Allan Lupton, which saw membership grow and the Club more respected and appreciated. The sizeable band of LeaF enthusiasts in Australia are now as well known as any in England thanks to Max Gregory’s reports, and the same is true of our members in the USA, Scandinavia, Italy, Austria, Argentina, Iceland or wherever. Never a club in isolation, we were in at the start of the Combined One-Make Car Club and joined in founding the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs in order to protect our rights to use elderly vehicles. We are concerned with all aspects of the marque Lea-Francis.
1995, the centenary year of Lea and Francis, probably witnessed the pinnacle of this Club’s achievements. The Club loyally supported the various company celebrations, and then held its own stupendous event based on Stoneleigh and climaxing in an absolutely massive and superb display at Stanford Hall, where almost every kind and age of Lea-Francis product was represented, attended by members from all over the globe making it a truly memorable and unique happening.
A club is only as good as its members and here we have been fortunate; our thanks go to all those devoted members, only a few of whom are mentioned by name here, who have kept it going through all its vicissitudes. What a fifty years it has been.
This history of the Club was written by Keith Poynter in 2003 for the Jubilee Book produced by the Club to celebrate its 50 years. Keith was Founder Member No. 16 of the Club and held many roles, including, when he wrote this, as Club Chairman. As a founder member Keith joined the Club at its start and remained a member until his death in 2017.