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Cracknell Profiles: Bob Curl, Racing Car Designer & Much More Besides

Having had to retire from editing DSC, Malcolm Cracknell eventually ended up living in rural East Sussex and just along the lane lives one Colin Curl. It quickly became apparent that Colin’s elder brother, Bob, has played a significant role in motor sport, for upwards of 50 years. And he’s still at it, from his home just a few miles away from where MC sits.

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Nomad Mk1

Our story begins on 7 April 1968, at Brands Hatch for the BOAC 500. I was just 11 years old, Bob was a little bit older. This was my first endurance sportscar race, and I was utterly captivated, more so when my hero, Jacky Ickx, won the race, with Brian Redman, in a Gulf GT40. Little did I know that 47 and a half years later, I would meet the man who had designed one of the entries in that race, the Nomad.

“Tony Lanfranchi started the race,” begins Bob, “but the crankshaft (of the quite experimental, Chris Steele-built 1800cc Lotus twin-cam) broke after 45 minutes, which was a bit of a bugger. But the car was going well while it lasted.

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“There were three, 2 litre, Alfa Tipo 33s in that race, works cars, whereas the Nomad had been built in a shed. Tony was ahead of two of them, and we were really excited. I can still see Tony pulling his gloves on before the race, he was really up for it, and he drove beautifully for those 45 minutes.

“Having designed the car, and with no development going on at that stage, my role at the track was mechanic / refueller / adviser.”

Four years earlier, Bob Curl had been working for one Colin Chapman, in the Lotus service department, initially at Cheshunt, then at Panshanger (on a London Flying Club aerodrome), near Welwyn Garden City. Bob’s role was fixing the fibreglass bodywork of Elites and Elans: either those of road car owners who had had a moment, or “the racing Elites and Elans. Most of them came our way. Mark Konig and his wife Gabriel had a yellow Elan, which she crashed, and that was when I first met Mark.”

Bob left Lotus once the service department moved back to Cheshunt, and busied himself building up an Elite from a crashed car, and “enlarging wheelarches, among other jobs, on customers’ race cars. Team Elite, Chris Barber, Les Leston, Peter Jopp, I modified their cars, among others. I basically had a bootful of fibreglass and some phone numbers. I worked on the Chequered Flag Elans at Chiswick, and there was Mark Konig again, having his car fettled there, so I enlarged his wheelarches too.

“A mate and I rented a railway arch at Ravenscourt Park, and besides bodywork, I started to dabble in setting up cars: roll bars, suspension and all that malarkey.”

But Bob Curl knew where he wanted to go with this career he’d started: “I’d designed a Lotus 23-like sports car, provisionally with a 1000cc engine. I approached various people who I thought might like me to build them a car!”

Meanwhile, in 1966, Mark Konig was racing with Peter Clarke in the latter’s 275LM Ferrari, and they persuaded Bob to mechanic for them at the Spa and Nurburgring 1000 kilometre races.

“Mark had rebuilt the engine himself, in his garage next to his house… but we had trouble starting it (at Spa). We had quite a crowd gathered round us in the paddock, but it wouldn’t fire up. Eventually, Mark told me to ‘just walk away, Bob, we’ll come back to it when the crowd has dispersed’.

“Mark had made a beautiful, aluminium cover for the intake trumpets, and he’d forgotten to remove it!

“Mark and I got on very well, such a nice man. A few weeks after those races, I moved into a workshop near Rye (near where I’d grown up), by the river. It was an old boat shed.

“Mark then rang me, out of the blue. ‘That car you were telling me about, I think we’d better build it’.”

A Lotus 23-like car had evolved, in Bob’s head, into an endurance racer. The Nomad was going to be un-Lotus-like in one significant respect though: it was going to be built to survive events such as the Targa Florio.

Bob had built a ¼ scale model, and he cut the chassis tubes himself (in a rented shed on a chicken farm), while Len Sayers did all the welding. Williams and Pritchard, in north London, made the aluminium body, and by early ’67, the body and chassis were in the old boat shed in Rye.

Completing the build over the next few months kept Bob furiously busy, and the car, minus windscreen, was ready for road testing by April.

“I drove it along a straight stretch across Romney Marsh, all totally illegal of course. It flew up up to 100 mph and I hadn’t even tried the brakes!”

The first proper test was at Goodwood, Mark towing the car with his Ford Anglia and they were stopped by the police of course, who took objection to something about their improvised rig.

“ ‘I have private means and I’m going to test my car with my friends!’ was Mark’s way of dismissing the police. I’ll never forget those words. We were thrilled with how it ran at Goodwood: it worked straight out of the box! But we didn’t know if it was going to be competitive. Next test was on the club circuit at Silverstone, where Mark did ten laps, then I did the same. We had some clutch slip, but the car felt fast and very secure.”

The car’s first race was at Crystal Palace, in May ’67. And here’s another Curl / Cracknell coincidence. I was only ten years old and this was my first race meeting. Ferraris, Lolas, Chevrons flashing past me at 100+, this was fantastic!

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I’ve still got the programme from that event, but didn’t record the result of the 15 lap Anerley Trophy – except that Brian Redman won Class B, in a Chevron B8. Paul Hawkins won the race for the bigger cars in a GT40 – while also racing that Spring day was a certain Warren Pearce in a Jaguar…. Father of Laurence. Jacky Ickx won the F2 race, which I suppose was the start of my hero-worship of the Belgian.

From a 15-lapper to the Rheims 12 Hours. Bob takes up the story.

“Mark drove with Rollo Fielding – and the Nomad was fast! It was doing 160 on the long straights, and we ran second in class, behind one of the factory Alfas, for hours. Still with the 1600 engine. But we were out after 11 ½ hours with terminal clutch slip….

“Next up was the Trophy d’Auvergne at Clermont Ferrand. I’d driven down in my Elite, and was driving through the paddock when the Renault Gordinis were joining the track for practice. On the spur of the moment, I followed them out! I wasn’t wearing a crash helmet even – but did six laps, and no one seemed to mind! It gave the team a laugh! What a beautiful circuit.”

Meanwhile, Mark Konig and his beautiful Nomad finished 7th overall, first in class, in the 180 mile race – behind Hawkins, Sutcliffe, Schlesser, Beltoise, Prophet and Martland.

Mark Konig had a very effective racer – while Bob Curl had shown that he could design and build a winner. Customer and designer were both “extremely happy”.

Built to survive events such as the Targa Florio? How about Mugello in late July: eight laps of a 41 mile course using part of the old Mille Miglia, through the mountains? Mark drove alone and came home 12th overall, third in class – a lap down after brake trouble, but even so, the Nomad was proving to be a superb endurance racer.

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“Mark won a huge trophy for driving single-handed.”

The Nomad also finished the ‘Ring 500 Kms and then again in the Paris 500 Kms, where it won its class. Details become a little blurred here, but at some point in its first season, the Nomad was taken to a workshop in Birmingham, where the front and rear panels, and the doors were re-made in fibreglass, “to save weight”.

Its second season began with nothing less than the Daytona 24 Hours.

“Mark and I were talking about Daytona in his flat in Knightsbridge – and just like that he rang up Cunard to ask how much it would cost to transport the car on its trailer, plus the bare minimum of equipment, to New York. They rang back with a figure of £900 – so the race was on! No budget for me to go though. Mark went on the ship, Tony flew to New York – and they towed the outfit down the eastern seaboard with a Savage V6 Cortina.

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“With no pit crew – not a soul to back them up – they finished! They broke five throttle springs, the gearbox had to be rebuilt – which they did themselves of course, including using a socket to replace a broken spacer – and although they ended up with only third, fourth and fifth, they were the only British entry to finish that year. Paddy McNally, in AUTOSPORT, referred to it as ‘the ubiquitous, peregrinating Nomad’.

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Back in Europe for the Targa Florio, an improvised modification saw the gear linkage break (although Konig and Lanfranchi did complete eight of the ten laps). The team returned to the UK via the ‘Ring 1000 Kms, but the 1600 Lotus engine broke: the decision was made to switch to an ex-BRP BRM F1 engine (and gearbox) – a 1500 cc unit left over from the pre-’66 period.

Bob remembers that “it was a hell of a job to start it, we must have pushed it for half a mile”, but a debut in BRM form at the ‘Ring 500 Kms saw it finish an excellent fifth overall, behind three works Abarths and an Alpine.

Outings at the Jyllandsring and Wuntsdorf didn’t involve Bob, but a return to Montlhery for the Paris 1000 Kms saw a good run spoiled by another improvised modification, this time to an engine mounting, which chafed through a water pipe.

“The BRM engine used to fill its oil catch tank,” explains Bob Curl, “so we used a greenfly sprayer (for roses) to suck out the oil at pit stops. That confused the French marshals!”

Nomad Mk2

In what seems to be a typically casual, Konig-Curl Nomad discussion, the designer and owner set out to build an open car for 1969 – with a 2 litre ex-Tasman BRM engine.

“We looked at using F2 components from Lotus,” recounts Bob, “but Mark ending up buying a complete Tasman BRM, from which we used the engine, uprights and driveshafts – but not the gearbox, we used a Hewland, a DG300. This time, the whole bodywork was fibreglass.

“We planned to do the 1000 kilometre races in ‘69, but we weren’t ready for the BOAC at Brands Hatch () – so it was a debut at the Targa Florio, but Gabriel hit a rock and broke the suspension.

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“Le Mans was next, and we had a proper mechanic, Julian Pratt, with us – so my role became signalling from down at Mulsanne Corner. I’d visited the race as a spectator many times – but this was marvellous, actually working at the great race, and seeing our car involved. But sadly, an oil seal went in the gearbox after a couple of hours.

“But I was very encouraged when Mark said that he could take his hands off the wheel on the Mulsanne, and the car would still run straight and true – and it was fast! We were doing 172 mph – which was the same as the Matra BRM (same engine) managed in ’68. The whole Le Mans trip cost £1,000 – which must have been very good value…

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“I stayed down at Mulsanne and witnessed that classic race unfold. Ickx passed Herrmann into Mulsanne Corner on what we all thought was the last lap, but perhaps Ickx was just rehearsing – because there was another lap to go, and he pulled the same move. What a race.”

A mix of races after Le Mans included 6 Hours at Jarama, where the Nomad Mk2 finished fifth, plus some short, STP Championship races at home – which included a win, in the rain, for Lanfranchi at Brands, where Willie Green finished second.

At the Paris 1000 Kms, Tony Lanfranchi had an accident in practice, ending up in a restricted area – and that was almost the end of Mark’s racing with the Mk2. But with the Mk3 not ready in the early part of 1970, the Mk2 raced on – nearly managing an epic class win in the ‘Pedro Rodriguez race’ at Brands Hatch.

“We led by 11 laps at one point (our Firestones were brilliant in the wet), but we had a chassis failure with half an hour to go – although I was delighted when the GROPA (see below) won the class. We finished 3rd in class in the ‘Ring 1000 Kms, 13th overall, and also raced at Villa Real.”

Nomad Mk3

Time for the Mk3. “It was more of a sprint car, with the aim of taking part in the European 2 Litre Championship, so it had marginally thinner chassis tubes, plus a lighter body.

“We used an F1` gearbox, because there was an idea to fit a BRM V12 F1 engine. I remember one weekend when the Mk3 raced at the Salzburgring (a nut came off the front of the camshaft), while I took the Mk2 to Crystal Palace, where Robs Lamplough drove it.

“But Mark was getting to the point where he’d spent enough, and had achieved what he’d set out to achieve. He finished up taking the Mk3 to South Africa for the winter series, and I know he finished 3rd in one race – despite no water in the engine for three quarters of an hour!”

GROPA

GROPA stands for Graphic Racing Organisation Prototype Automobiles – and the model name was CMC (Curl Mylius Chevron).

Bob explains: “Towards the end of ’69, Andy Mylius was racing a Chevron B8, and in conversation with Mark and myself, the idea evolved to remove the roof and for me to design open bodywork for it. I had to alter the chassis to retain stiffness – and also move the radiator and fuel tank. The weight saving was a very useful 80 lbs.

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“We ended up making about 20 of them. After the first two or three, we stopped using Chevron chassis: Andy made complete cars, with me styling it and Arthur Rothon making the bodywork. A good number of them went to America, and it was a very competitive car. Bill Tucketts had a BRM engine in his, but most of them were BDA- or BMW-powered.

Non-Sportscar Projects

Into the 1970s – and Bob Curl showed his adaptability with design work as varied as rebodying a Jensen CV8 and creating the bodywork for seven single-seaters.

The pre-Interceptor Jensen was an awkward looking beast, and one owner commissioned Bob to replace its glassfibre clothes with a much more stylish, modern look. Perhaps Jensen should have looked to Bob Curl for its Interceptor look.

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The single seaters included FF and F3 Eldens, with Bob always turning to Len Marchant and Ted Cox to turn his designs into the finished bodywork. One FF machine was the Konih-Heath, Mark Konig obviously involved with this one.

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From FF To F1

The start of James Hunt’s F1 career is well documented – and the Hesketh March of 1973 was a far more effective machine than the works car. Initially this machine was maintained in Bob Sparshott’s workshop in Luton – and as the Monza race approached, Bob was approached by Harvey Postlethwaite to see if our man could create a special, low-drag nose (“known by all concerned as ‘silly nose’ “) for the high speed Italian track.

“We made it (Bob, plus Marchant and Cox) – but in the end, they only tested it.

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“But when Harvey told me that they were going to build their own car for ’74, I rang him to ask if I could quote for designing and making the bodywork. Harvey thought we’d be too busy to do it!

“He gave me the outline shape and I provided the detail. Fundamentally, I was trying to make a slippery container that looked pretty.

“I was at Silverstone in January ’74 for the first test. By then the team was based in the stable block at Easton Neston: it was quite a contrast to open the huge, oak doors to reveal the latest F1 technology sitting there on trestles.

“There was more than a hint of nerves and trepidation at this stage: it was Harvey’s first F1 car – and the track was covered in ice. Harvey suggested that we did a lap in his Granada – and he promptly spun on the pit straight.

“At about 11.00, Beaky Sims ran it down the club straight and came back intact to report that it had five gears and that the brakes worked – but it was still an ice rink on the track.

“At lunchtime, I was on top of the pits, pushing slush out of the way with my shoes – when James set off. He was in 4th gear by the time he reached Copse! I could hear him all the way round the lap, and as he approached Woodcote, there was a rooster tail of slush and water visible behind the car. He took Woodcote with big oversteer and his foot planted: the mechanics were definitely impressed!”

Three months later and Hunt won the Daily Express Trophy at the same track – and the Hunt / Hesketh / Horsley / Postlethwaite story was really underway.

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Bob Curl was responsible for detailing the styling of all the Hesketh F1 cars – and still has the (rather battered) chassis model he made before styling the Frank Dernie / Penthouse machine (above).

IBEC

Harvey Postlethwaite designed the IBEC for Le Mans (it had Hesketh running gear), so it was natural that Bob was called upon for the bodywork – and unsurprisingly, it was very quick down Mulsanne (“about 215 mph”). Ian Bracey’s car ran three times in the 24 Hours, and during one of those races, Bob, watching from the outside of the track approaching the Dunlop Curve, spotted that one of the bodywork latches had come loose – on the left, out of sight of the team on the pit wall. He hurried back to report, fearful that the rear bodywork might fly off – at 215….. It didn’t, fortunately.

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More Projects

Beaky Sims was the connection with the next project – converting the original Dome Zero into a Group C machine for 1982, for none other than John McDonald.

Chris Craft drove both Domes – and when he initiated the Rocket, with design by Gordon Murray, guess who created the bodywork? None other than George Harrison wanted his Rocket to have a shark-nose, so Bob designed it and had it made. Bob still has the letter of thanks from the former Beatle.

Bob’s story rolled on through the ‘80s and ‘90s and into the new century – largely helping racers with set-up work. He’s still doing the same to this day (“but not too many now”). Probably his most successful customer ever was Paul Sleeman, who won AUTOSPORT’s Golden Helmet award for the most wins in British races – in a Rostron Formula Ford. Bob was entirely responsible for the preparation and set-up of that car.

Bob Curl’s Dolphin three-wheeler (seen behind Bob in the lead picture for this article) has captured significant media coverage in recent years – but not the backing he had hoped for from Piaggio. Originally fitted with the Italian engine, it is currently an electric, re-chargeable machine – and a model exists four a four-wheeler, with room for more batteries.

Will a full-size version see the light of day? An Elva already has, but that too awaits sensible backing. Bob still creates his machines under the banner of Nomad Design, recognising that Mark Konig gave him his first chance at racing car design back in late 1966. Hopefully this feature recognises most of Bob Curl’s achievements during a fascinatingly varied career lasting nearly 50 years.

MC