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Sadly, we have to inform Members of the passing yesterday of John Horsman. He was 85 years old and had been suffering from heart and kidney complications.  John was elected as an Associate (General) Member of the BRDC in 1985.

Born in Oldham, Lancashire John attended Uppingham School before completing his national service as an officer in the Royal Air Force in radar fighter control. He gained a place at Christ’s College, Cambridge, to read Mechanical Sciences (Engineering), from where he graduated with honours in 1958. During this period, his interest in motor sport blossomed, often as a photographer, and he came to know well the extraordinarily talented local driver Archie Scott-Brown whose death at Spa Francorchamps left John shattered. On leaving Cambridge, John was offered a graduate apprenticeship with Aston Martin Lagonda by its managing director, John Wyer  which started a relationship of several decades with the legendary sports car team owner that was to shape much of John’s working life.

Initially, John worked at David Brown Industries in Huddersfield, which made tractors and gearboxes for Aston Martin (David Brown having bought the sports car company in 1947) before transferring to Newport Pagnell and then Feltham, and becoming involved in the development of the Aston Martin DB4 into the DB5 and the race development of the DB4GT Zagato, DP212 and DP214 after becoming assistant to John Wyer in 1961. By 1963, as John Wyer’s time at Aston Martin was coming to an end, John Horsman acted as team manager and engineer for one of Aston’s greatest races of the era – the Coppa Inter Europa 3 Hours on Grand Prix day at Monza – in which Aston Martin stalwart Roy Salvadori in a DP214 fought and won a torrid battle with Mike Parkes’s Ferrari 250GTO to the delight of the tifosi who thought an Italian was driving the green Aston.

Shortly after the Monza race, John left Aston Martin to take a course in Business Administration at the London School of Economics before joining John Wyer as his assistant at Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd with responsibility for the construction and preparation of the programme that produced Ford’s legendary GT40.  However, Ford politics saw to it that FAV was treated as a second class citizen compared with Carroll Shelby’s outfit, a state of affairs which led to John Wyer, with the considerable support of Grady Davis of Gulf Oil, setting up JW Automotive Engineering Ltd, with three Johns – Wyer, Willment and Horsman – as the directors and John Horsman as chief engineer.

After its two Le Mans wins in 1966 and 1967, the Ford factory GT40 race programme ended but JWAE took over the Blue Oval’s mantle and went on to win Le Mans in 1968 and 1969 with its Ford GT40s in the iconic blue and orange colours of the Gulf Oil Company and drivers Lucien Bianchi/Pedro Rodriguez in 1968 and Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver the following year.

For 1970, JWAE continued with Gulf Oil backing and responsibility for campaigning the works 917s for the Porsche factory. The original 917 was notorious for being incredibly fast but spectacularly ill-handling. John Horsman’s proudest accomplishment was his solution to the Porsche 917’s handling issues, changing its bodywork and, most notably, shortening its tail, all of which is chronicled in his excellent 2006 autobiography Racing in the Rain.  As a result of the 917’s transformation, Porsche won the World Championship of Makes in both 1970 and 1971, and the 917 became one of the greatest sports racing cars of all time.

Through the combined efforts of, John Wyer, team manager David Yorke, and John Horsman, in addition to its back to back Le Mans 24 Hours victories, the team also won the coveted World Sports Car Championship in 1968, 1970 and 1971.

In 1972 John became managing director of Gulf Research Racing Company Ltd which, in its factory at Slough, built the Gulf Research series of cars - essentially developments of the Mirage. The GR7 emerged in 1974 and was followed by the GR8 which took 1st and 3rd places at Le Mans in 1975, both cars using F1 Cosworth DFV engines that were detuned to meet the fuel efficiency regulations and which, remarkably, lasted the equivalent of more than a dozen Grands Prix in one run on their way to victory!

After Gulf Research Racing closed its doors, John moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1976, with his second wife, Janet, and her two daughters, Alison and Clare where they were later joined by John’s two daughters from his first marriage, Caroline and Samantha.

John joined Harley Cluxton III’s Grand Touring Cars company and its Mirage GR8 finished 2nd at Le Mans in 1976 and again in 1977, on the latter occasion with Renault power instead of the original Ford engines.   The GTC Mirage programme continued for two more years before John was reunited with his friend and former Gulf driver, Vern Schuppan, running Vern’s McLaren IndyCar team to pick up a highly creditworthy 3rd place in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. John also returned to Le Mans four more times as part of Vern’s team.   

In 1983, John and Janet moved to Tucson where John worked with Australian Bib Stillwell at Learjet and with Bib’s amateur racing team, in historic racing events.  During his career and retirement, John wrote copious notes of his engineering and development accomplishments, which were the basis of his book Racing in the Rain, My Years with Brilliant Drivers, Legendary Sports Cars, and a Dedicated Team.  He was justifiably proud to have been a pivotal part of one of the most successful motorsport outfits of all time.

One of the qualities for which John was renowned was his passion for keeping immaculate records. Multiple Le Mans Winner Derek Bell, for whom he provided the car with which Derek took his first Le Mans victory in 1975, recalls “John’s attention to detail - that carried him so well through his career - is something I have never forgotten and have used as comparison to every other team I subsequently drove with.”

Few can claim that their racing careers spanned the greatest decades in sports car competition – the 1960s and 1970s – and extending into the 1980s.  Fewer still were consistently successful. John Horsman was one of those fortunate few.  The blue and orange Gulf-sponsored Ford GT40s, Porsche 917s and Mirages prepared by “The Horse”, as he was known around the workshop, and his team, are among the most famous race cars ever produced.

The all-star driver line-up that competed in his cars included Richard Attwood, Derek Bell, Mike Hailwood, David Hobbs, James Hunt, Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver, Brian Redman, Pedro Rodriguez, Vern Schuppan, Jo Siffert and John Watson.  The team excelled everywhere, winning both Le Mans and the World Championship three times, and was particularly adept in wet-weather conditions, where competitors struggled to match their pace. Some records achieved by John Horsman’s team still stand, more than 40 years later. John was also immensely proud of the fact that, in a period when sports car racing was notoriously dangerous, no driver ever lost his life in one of his cars.

Aside from his love of motor sport, John was an accomplished hiker, skier, and photographer; he and Jan enjoying many trips back to England, hiking his favourite areas - the Lake District, Lancashire Moors and the Brecon Beacons - with family and friends.  Tucson, Arizona was most certainly home, though John never lost his English roots or accent. Father to four daughters, of whom John and his beloved wife Janet were immensely proud, and were, likewise, of their sons-in-law, and their seven grandchildren and to all of whom the BRDC extends its most sincere condolences.

In recent years John was often invited to events celebrating the anniversaries of one or other of the victories his teams had achieved – most recently in 2018 for Gulf Oil’s 50th anniversary celebration of its first victory at Le Mans, and he relished meeting old colleagues, whether drivers or team engineers. John was very specific about his role in motor sport. He didn’t design, he developed: “Designers designed the cars, I made them better,” he says. He remained modest about his role and his achievements, even though to many in motor sport he himself had acquired near legendary status.                                                                                             

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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