Motorsport broadcaster and journalist Larry Carter recalls the heady days of Formula Ford and one driver from the region who usually was in the mix

IF any single concept in motorsport has stood the test of time, then it has to be Formula Ford.

With its origins going back to the 1960s, Formula Ford started out not as a one-make championship, but instead a class designed as an entry-level opportunity for aspiring young racers to compete on a relatively level (and cheap) playing field.

And like with most things in life, the simpler the better. Take a relatively standard 1600cc Ford ‘Kent’ engine, bung it in a single-seater chassis of your choosing, bolt on some normal treaded road tyres, limit the streamlining aids and voila…

At a time when domestic racing was booming, the popularity proved tremendous and before long, the entry lists at local events spawned a who’s who of drivers wishing to pit their skills against one another. Quite often, such was the level of competition, heats used to have to be run to determine the finalists.

The battles, as you’d expect, were legendary, with a swarm of open-wheeled gladiators relying on their bravado and skill as there were no power advantages. Brake later, gas it earlier and in the case of Croft’s infamous chicane, probably close your eyes and hope you emerge without taking one of circuit manager Mr Dixon Cade’s terrifying railway sleepers which formed the construction with you.

For a young man growing up in 1960s Darlington, and with considerably fewer restrictions than nowadays, the glamour of a fast motorbike or a sports car was a very attractive proposition. And because the social side of life was very much as part of scene as the racing, such accessories weren’t seen so much as status symbols rather than necessities.

Dave Manners was one such individual who found himself indulging in social activities at the newly-opened Croft Autodrome, particularly the clubhouse – the only trouble was that being at a race meeting lent itself to you having a go. And so, it proved. It wasn’t long before Dave ended up on track racing his converted Lotus Elite road car at events during 1966 and for a couple of seasons afterwards.

Dave Manners on his way to victory in Formula Ford 1600 in March 1979 Picture: SPENCER OLIVER

Dave Manners on his way to victory in Formula Ford 1600 in March 1979 Picture: SPENCER OLIVER

At the time, the introduction of Formula Ford brought running a proper racing car within the reach of the amateur club racer with events all over the country. So, in 1969, Manners acquired a Lotus 51 to campaign in Northern events at Croft Autodrome, Rufforth and Cadwell Park. By the end of 1970, the class was getting full grids with other local drivers such as Middleton’s Ted Payne, another Darlington racer John Simpson and Leeds businessman Chris Meek also joining the fray along with standout Yorkshiremen Pete Clark and Mick Starkey. But Dave’s impressive results had secured him an offer to drive the Mike Fox Vista, a car he used in 1971. However, it didn’t work out and by the end of that season, after a fraught time, he changed chassis to an Alexis Mk15 but not long after, decided to step away from competition to concentrate on some business interests which included property development and a chain of tanning salons.

Another project was to establish a racing school at Croft with fellow competitor Phil Tingle from Stockton. The pair saw many new competitors take their first tentative steps via their tuition including Borders farmer Cameron Binnie, who became a top Northern driver.

By 1976 the bug had bitten again and the ex-John Simpson Nike Mk10 became the next car in the Manners stable. Always highly competitive, Dave soon realised that, during his absence, the popularity of Formula Ford had driven development at such a pace that the older chassis which he was using were no longer suitable. Not content with being a midfield runner, he needed the tools to challenge for championships which were now calling.

A Hawke chassis provided the best option and soon Dave was a regular visitor to the podium although the class was still so competitive that, at one event, a missed gear coming out of the chicane at Croft was enough to drop him three places.

Dave Manners on his way to victory in Formula Ford 1600 in March 1979 Picture: SPENCER OLIVER

Dave Manners on his way to victory in Formula Ford 1600 in March 1979 Picture: SPENCER OLIVER

But it was his purchase of new PRS (Pro Race Services) chassis that made the difference. Formula Ford was all about handling and being able to drive on the limit whilst still carrying speed through the corners, usually in Dave’s case, slightly sideways! 1979 saw him emerge with both the NSSCC and BARC Northern Championships as well as the Cadwell Park Championship to make it a hat-trick of titles.

That led to a new challenge for the 1980s whereby Ford had introduced a more powerful 2000cc class called FF2000. It allowed slick tyres and more aerodynamics and attracted, amongst others, a certain Brazilian called Ayrton Senna da Silva. The opportunity to obtain a FF2000 Delta through his long-time sponsors Cooper Tools was too good to miss so Dave made the transition and was rewarded with second place in the Northern Championship, which he helped instigate, and helped procure sponsorship from Darlington-based Harrison (Brothers) Steeplejacks.

And then, in 1981, Croft closed. At this point a lot of local racers hung up their helmets as places like Rufforth, near York had gone first and the Croft closure meant much more travelling and the heart had gone out of the local motorsport community. Manners too thought that after a distinguished career stemming three decades, and racing at such places as Nürburgring, Zolder and Zandvoort, as well as all the major UK circuits, it was time to do likewise.

However, that wasn’t the end of things motorsport-wise for him. He established a Supercar Driving Experience using old airfields such as Elvington and Melbourne and then during the late 1990s and early 2000s, he had a foray in to Porsche 924 racing.

Manners lived in Manfield and Ingleton for a while but nowadays spends his time in Thailand as well as still retaining his roots in Darlington. A stalwart of the single-seater scene, with half a dozen titles to his name, those who witnessed the prowess of one of the country’s best Formula Ford racers won’t forget.

  • Thanks to Terry Wright for his major contribution to this article.