JOHN ALEY

A Lifetime in Motorsport

 

 

CHAPTERS


Introduction

My Way

Abarth

Infrastructure

The French

Nurburgring

Racing Small Saloons

Re-start

The Serious Side

The Changing Years

The Chimp

Makes You Think

Memories That Stick

Rollover Bars

Mini Racing

 

Gallery

 

Updates

Downloads

Contact

 

 


ROLLOVER BARS
A tale of Ups and Downs

Even today when I am often accosted by people who come and greet me affably claiming that one of my products saved their life, I feel something of a fraud for I am not really a safety campaigner although I firmly believe that in these days when you are compelled to be belted into your seat it should also be mandatory to have some form of rollover protection so your head and body do not have to support several tons of car if, like a high percentage of cars involved in collisions it overturns.

No, the rollover bars, which carried my name for several decades, were occasioned by a much greater need than philanthropy – money. When I left the blanket day job with the “Pru” I lost the security of a regular income to pay the overheads and although we had a good income from our racing activities it just wasn’t the same. At that time several of my customers were students, which did not contribute to the regularity of our income, but many of them were impressed by the sturdy rollover bar in my Sebring Sprite which had been fitted to comply with US regulations when it had raced in Florida, often remarking jokily that their mothers who usually ended up paying for their motoring would be much more willing to do so if their cars sported something similar.

Saloon cars which at one time had been thought of as a completely safe form of racing had suffered a few fatalities and it was becoming known that it was worthless being strapped into a metal box that because of fragile roof pillars would collapse, something brought home when I rolled my DKW at Oulton and the roof caved in.

I mulled over the idea and one morning announced at breakfast that we would market rollbar kits complete ready to fit to six popular cars.  My wife and our two mechanics who were at the table laughed heartily! 

But I persisted with my design, built a prototype, had it stressed by friends at the University Engineering Labs, carried out a practical destruction test with the bar in an old body shell which we pushed over the edge of a nearby quarry and put the kits on the market at £9.15.0 each including all fittings ready to go. The response was immediate but as many potential buyers were from the trade who wanted their cut the retail price had to go up by a quid which they could keep for themselves. 

That it took off so well was a bit of a surprise.  Although I liked the idea I was surprised that competitors were ready to pay a relatively large amount of money (still a week’s wages for many in those days) for something that would add no speed to the car but it could be argued that it would harm performance by adding the dreaded weight. But perhaps I was thinking on the right lines and this was one of the green shoots of safety.

Production in the early days I sub contracted to my old friend Mike Wood who then had an agricultural engineering business in Dorset which had the advantage to leaving my workshop free to keep working on cars but gave me an excuse to have a night away collecting the supplies for the month and having a night out with my west country friends at the same time.  Eventually though I had to weaken and make the bars myself and for several years we existed with a plumber’s pipe bender and just when I was wondering about a welder an old New Zealand friend rang from the other side of the globe asking what were the prospects in England if he returned to a country where earlier he had settled but had to leave when his business failed.  As he had done all my panel work and I knew him to be an accomplished welder he was just what I needed so without looking back Brian and his wife were on the next plane. Bending comparatively heavy tube with a lightweight hand machine was at first quite difficult until we imported two large  friends from the local Rugby Club who needed an evening job to pay for their beer money and who with the aid of a lengthened handle made easy work of it.

Financially roll bars certainly saved my bacon but I had an up and down career with a few interesting and amusing aspects along the way.  Backed by professional opinion bars were made originally from 1.25” comparatively cheap welded tube (much cheaper than solid drawn tube that everyone talked of) which with hardware and backing plates, which were subcontracted, the whole cost of an assembly was only £2 for material.  This gave an enormous  gross profit and produced a very strong triangulated structure that saved many heads in nasty rollover crashes.

Rallyists stared fitting them for they soon found that not only did they stop the body collapsing on them but often it enabled the car to reach the finish. We found that despite being careful we amassed lots of short lengths of tube so we devised the “Aerodynamic” bar for open two seaters like the Midget and MGB.  The short lengths were butt welded and then bent into two hoops that were joined together across the top while the bottoms  were splayed out to make a very strong structure  that would bolt to the floor behind the seats giving real protection to the occupants and when covered with foam padded vinyl looked very smart.  I was, so to speak, actually hoist with my own petard once when the Triumph Motor Co bought one of my Aeros for a Spitfire and gave the impression they would be marketing it but a few months later we learnt their true intention was to produce a similar design (Mine!) for the Stag. I still find it difficult to look a Stag in the face. 

Surprisingly rollbars really took off and then towards the end of the Sixties the FIA made them compulsory in all major races and rallies.  Good for us?  Yes and No.  Although it meant a much bigger market, the FIA introduced a new specification much heavier than ours made from a grade of “drawn” tube that could not be obtained easily and would need much heavier equipment to work.  Should I re-equip or just stay at club racing level where my products were still legal?  I took a risk and bought new machine powered benders and ordered several miles of the appropriate tube. Fortunately that was the right decision and within years I was able to sell the main shareholding to the two chaps who worked the business and move from Cambridge to my newly acquired cottage at Salcombe but that’s a different story.

 My new life in the Land of the Lotus eaters did not really work out for within five years I was back trying  to rebuild the wreck of a company  I had bought back from the Official Receiver financed by the steel suppliers who like me were still owed rather a lot by my old firm which the new directors had allowed to fail.  Anyway I was successful and despite the problems of a new wife, within a few years I had paid back the debt and was again the sole director of a flourishing business. But it was never again the happy little enterprise of the middle sixties and so when approaching my 60th birthday someone who had businesses all round the Pacific Ring came along with seemingly bags of gold I accepted and became an ex-rollbar manufacturer again. 

Don’t I ever learn I ask, for once again things wet wrong and within a year the business was completely bankrupt owing me lots of cash and although I had earned enough to build rather a nice house at Hessett on my wife’s family farm where she kept her donkeys I hadn’t much in the bank. Sadly all of that and most of the value of the house went in the next few years when Ann, my wife, sadly contracted cancer, from which despite serious surgery, she finally died in 1997.

I guess that although I had proved over the years I could make and sell rollover bars better than most I could not make and keep much real money from them!