Freelance writer from Cornwall
A while ago I combined two big interests, true crime and motorsport. Today I’ll mix motorsport with another passionate interest, disability. Archie Scott Brown was Scottish, born in Paisley, Renfrewshire on May 13, 1927. His mother contracted Rubella (German measles) during her pregnancy, leaving Archie with serious physical handicaps. He had only one hand and seriously deformed legs. Archie spent his childhood in and out of hospitals, undergoing dozens of operations to mitigate his problems. As he found mobility harder than most, Archie’s father built him a scaled-down car with a small engine. Archie learned to drive almost before learning to walk.
Archie walked well enough, eventually. He was stubborn and wouldn’t quit. He demanded to be treated equally rather than as a cripple. Archie wasn’t expected to be able to do much, by some people, but he thought differently. He became one of the most respected racing drivers in Britain, racing against legends like Sir Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Tony Brooks, Sir Jack Brabham and ‘El Maestro’ himself, five-time F1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio. It was Fangio who called him:
“A phenomenal pilot, with an uncanny degree of car control.”
Not bad, coming from Fangio, widely considered the greatest ever. Archie didn’t merely race against top drivers, he regularly beat them.
Ironically, Archie’s disabilities were almost as big a help as a hindrance. Simply to walk he developed fast reflexes, unusually sharp balance and finely-honed judgement that many able-bodied people never need. For a racing driver these are essentials without which they’re no good on the track. For Archie they meant being almost as mobile as anybody else and his problems gave him another edge. Being born into adversity, Archie simply didn’t know how to quit.
He first raced in 1951 in a customised MG roadster. After some early scrapes, he did well. He formed a close friendship with engineer and jazz musician Brian Lister. When Lister started his own team, Archie drove the Lister-Tojeiro and the fearsome Lister-Jaguar, known as the ‘Knobbly’ because of its shape. Between the Tojeiro and the Knobbly he tried a Lister-Maserati, which proved extremely disappointing. The Lister-Tojeiro was nicknamed ‘The Asteroid’ for its enormous power, ‘interesting’ handling and frankly alarming brakes. It scared some drivers so much that the ‘Asteroid’ became ‘The Haemorroid.’
But, if the Haemorroid was scarily fast, deafeningly loud and handled like a badly-thrown brick, the Knobbly was its evil twin.
The Knobbly was one of the all-time great racing sportscars. It wasn’t a car for anybody with shaky nerves, limited skill or unable to keep it firmly under control. If you didn’t drive it, it drove you, usually into something solid at great speed. It was light for a 1950’s sportscar and, powered by the legendary 3.8-litre Jaguar XK engine, extremely fast. Its brakes were known for either locking completely or not functioning at all. But, by 1950’s standards, it was safe, fast and reliable. It did as much to make Archie’s name as Archie made Lister’s. Archie and the Knobbly were like Jim Clark and the Lotus 49. They were made for each other.
Driving the Knobbly, Archie won regularly. When he didn’t win or retire he was often highly-placed. He was a fierce competitor, but never dirty or unsafe. Archie’s driving could seem wild to spectators who didn’t fully understand it, but other drivers didn’t mind. He was often sideways, always fast, but never reckless. He also went faster sideways than many did going forwards. With Archie’s entertaining style and regular wins Lister became a fixture at sportscar races. They enjoyed a particularly fierce rivalry with Aston Martin. Aston Martin had big names like Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Tony Brooks and Roy Salvadori. They also had vastly more money. It caused great frustration to be beaten regularly by the comparatively tiny Lister team. Especially by a driver with a difficult car, deformed legs and one hand.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Archie’s disabilities did have one major drawback. Some race organisers (Le Mans and Monza in particular) barred Archie because of them. Archie was also barred occasionally at British events like the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in Northern Ireland. Archie’s race licence was suspended at Dundrod when another team filed a protest. Great fuss and greater effort saw his licence reinstated. Archie’s revenge was winning yet more races. The Tourist Trophy was also moved to Goodwood, partly due to driver deaths in 1955, but partly due to their treatment of Archie.
Sadly, after winning many domestic races, being highly placed in many others and 15 international race wins, Archie’s career ended badly. In May, 1958 Lister were at the Sports Car Grand Prix run on the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Even in the 1950’s Spa was one of the three fastest tracks in Europe (Reims and Monza being the other two). The track was narrow, over 8 miles long and, being Belgium, the weather was usually bad. Spa’s length meant you could be on a totally dry road at one point and into a cloudburst round the next corner. Also, being a street circuit, Spa was littered with hazards. Road signs, ditches, houses, walls, barbed wire fences, telegraph poles and trees lined both sides of the track. Even then Spa produced average lap speeds of over 150mph. In short, it was a deathtrap that already killed dozens of drivers.
On race day the weather was damp with occasional rain. The track was wet and greasy. Belgian driver Paul Frere specifically asked that a road sign on the exit of Clubhouse Corner be removed for safety’s sake. The organisers agreed, but the sign wasn’t removed. That was Archie’s downfall. Early on, Archie was fighting American driver Masten Gregory for the lead. Gregory was also driving a Lister-Jaguar, for Scottish privateers Ecurie Ecosse. Being friendly (but fierce) rivals, they duelled hard and fast. On lap three Archie dented the Knobbly’s nose on Gregory’s tail. On lap six, still battling, they shot through Blanchimont into Clubhouse. Archie ran a little wide on the exit. It was disastrous.
As Archie exited Clubhouse, he hit the sign. The front right track rod snapped causing instant suspension failure. Archie was just a passenger. He left the road and rolled through a ditch, landing on inflammable straw bales used as improvised crash barriers. The fuel tank fractured. As the almost-full tank emptied over the red-hot engine, the Lister exploded. It took time to remove Archie from the wreckage. When he was finally pulled free he’d been dreadfully burned over most of his body. Archie was taken to the nearest major hospital in Liege, but it was only a matter of time. He was 31 years old.
With Archie’s death the heart left the Lister team. They finished the 1958 season, entering a few races with different drivers and an improved ‘Knobbly.’ But with Archie gone so was the enthusiasm. The team closed down at the end of 1959. Cars were still designed and built for customers, but the factory team were gone. Existing cars and equipment were sold and front-engined cars were already dinosaurs, rendered obsolete by the new rear-engined Coopers.
Archie’s one of racing’s forgotten heroes. It would be patronising to say he was Britain’s greatest disabled racing driver. Archie himself would have disliked being regarded as anything other than ‘a driver.’ When Archie died he’d won 71 races including 15 international wins. He also took 34 second places and 12 thirds. His memorial plaque at Snetterton (his home circuit) stands outside the VIP Centre named after him. His epitaph reads simply:
‘He represented everything that was best in the sport.’