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We very much regret having to advise Members of the death of Life Member John Richard Aley who passed away peacefully on 12 January, 11 days before his 91st birthday.

John was something of a motor sport polymath. Racing driver, car club founder, race reporter, circuit manager, team manager, championship co-ordinator and car club chairman and president, he will be best remembered by a generation of racing and rally drivers for being the first person to manufacture roll bars for competition cars. Today it seems inconceivable that the use of roll over bars, let alone full roll cages, was not universal until 1971 when the FIA made them mandatory. Personal experience of being ejected from a rolling sports car during a test session at Snetterton had set John thinking along roll bar lines some seven years earlier in 1964 when he and Brian Wilkinson, who went on to found Safety Devices, produced the first Aley Bars.

John’s career in motor sport began like that of many others of his generation in the aftermath of the Second World War on disused airfields, using his road car in races round straw bales and oil drums, sprints, driving tests, slaloms and any other conceivable form of activity on two or four wheels. Living near Cambridge, Snetterton was just up the road and John took part in the first race meeting there in October 1951. In the 1960s he was to become Snetterton’s circuit manager and clerk of the course for the European Touring Car Championship races which were an annual feature of the Norfolk circuit’s calendar at the time.

Through the 1950s, whilst employed by Prudential Insurance as a claims assessor, John competed first on motor cycles and then in a variety of road cars ranging from a Renault 750, Citroen Light 15, assorted MGs to a HRG 1500. With the little Renault he entered the Production Touring Car race at the 1956 Daily Express BRDC International Trophy meeting and immediately concluded that, if he was to race seriously, he would need something rather more competitive. After a spell of racing hydroplanes, John fell in with the denizens of Cambridge Racing, a group of Cambridge University undergraduates who ran Austin A35s and A40s mainly modified by local tuning expert Don Moore who had been responsible for the engines of Brian Lister’s eponymous cars. One of the undergraduates was the late Tom Threlfall, the owner of a quick Lotus Eleven with which he enjoyed success on forays to French tracks such as Montlhery and Rouen. To begin with John acted as pit manager, adviser and general dogsbody both for Tom and for the Cambridge Racing Austins but by 1960 he was able to undertake the full season of the BRSCC SupaTura Championship for modified 1000 cc saloon cars which in recent times has misleadingly come to be regarded as a version of the BTCC. The winner of this championship was Cambridge GP ‘Doc’ George Shepherd in his Austin A40 while John finished the season fourth on points in a Don Moore-prepared A35.

Introduced in the summer of 1959, the Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Se7en, despite having 848 cc engines, were clearly the way to go. John took one to Montlhery in September 1960 much to the consternation of the local organisers who conspired with Renault to contrive the late entry of a ‘hot’ Dauphine. For most of the race the French car held the lead until on the last lap it lost out to the little white British car with the aerodynamics of a brick. John reckoned that this was probably the first international success for the Mini in motor sport. In 1961 he ran a Mini in the revived multi-class BRSCC Saloon Car Championship, finishing second in the 1000 cc class to the similar car of overall champion John Whitmore. The 848 cc Mini was replaced by the 997 cc Mini-Cooper for the 1962 season when John achieved one of his best results by finishing third among 35 starters in a Cooper Car Company-entered, Ken Tyrrell-managed Mini-Cooper in the Motor 6 Hours at Brands Hatch. Co-driver for the occasion was a young Formula Junior driver from New Zealand, a certain Denny Hulme. Ahead of them at the finish were two Jaguar 3.8 MK2s while behind was the very strong pairing of the Peters Harper and Procter in a works-entered Sunbeam Rapier Series IIIA and much other more potent machinery. With another Kiwi, Frank Hamlin, John won the 1-litre class and finished 20th overall in the non-championship but very strongly supported Nurburgring 12 Hours. Driving solo John finished second in the I litre touring car class of the Nurburgring 500 ks, the 1000 cc GT and Touring Car division of the World Sports Car Championship.

In the following year’s Brands Hatch 6 Hours, a round of the inaugural European Touring Car Challenge, John had rallying star Rauno Aaltonen as team mate in a 1000 cc Mini-Cooper with which they finished first in the 1-litre class and 15th overall. A solo second in class at Zandvoort and good results elsewhere enabled John to finish second in class in the championship to the untouchable DKW F12 of two-stroke tuning wizard Wolf-Dieter Mantzel. A move away from Minis to DKW for the British Saloon Car Championship was aborted after John injured himself when testing a friend’s Climax-powered Falcon at Snetterton, the ensuing impact with an earth bank sending John high out of the cockpit to land with a rib-breaking thud when he returned to earth. Although John did win a non-championship race for DKW subsequently, the contract was terminated amicably and John returned to racing Minis.

A second venture with a European team came in 1967 when John was signed up by Carlo Abarth to be one of many contracted drivers of the Division 1 dominant Fiat Abarth 1000TCs in the European Touring Car Championship. Although John’s car only finished once, he contributed to Abarth’s success in winning the title. By now John was in effect the organiser of the series and was beginning to lose his enthusiasm for racing Minis which technically had evolved a long way from the little fun car which they had been at the start of the decade. In 1966 he had come up with the concept of a bargain basement racing 850 Mini which he marketed at an inclusive cost of £400, say £7500 in today’s money. Quite a few were sold, all in white except for the customer’s choice of colour for the wheels and a flash across the front of the roof but they could never be regular race winners.

John’s last race came in the Nurburgring 6 Hours of 1971 sharing a Mini-Cooper S with David Buckett which they brought home third in their class. John did not lose interest in motor racing. He remained very much involved with the East Anglian Centre of the BRSCC and helped the club and Renault to launch the R5 one make series. As someone who began his competition career on motor cycles, John was a loyal member of the Motor Cycling Club for many years, becoming chairman and latterly President of what is the UK’s oldest club which caters both for cars and bikes. It was 1963 when John was elected to the BRDC, in due course becoming a Life Member. It was a proud boast that he was probably the only person ever to qualify for Full Membership on the basis solely of success in small saloon cars. He should be remembered as the man who introduced roll bars at an affordable price to the British and European racing fraternity of the 1960s.

To John’s companion Cecilia and to his family, friends and colleagues the BRDC extends its most sincere condolences.   

The Club regrets to report on the death of Neville Hay, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1993
The Club regrets to report on the death of Alan Minshaw, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1984
The Club regrets to report on the death of Ray Thackwell who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1957
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