Cliff Davis was one of the most successful sports car racers in the 1950s. However he was equally at home in midgets, stock cars and rallying.
In the fifties Cliff Davis was one of the most successful sports car racers around. But he was equally at home in midgets, stock cars and rally cars. He was also, above all, very accomplished at having a good time.
Cliff was born in Shepherds Bush, London in 1917. His father was a master electrician, but Cliff had a passion for things mechanical and at 16 went to work in a local garage. There he learned an important lesson that the money was in buying and selling cars not in repairing them. He bought and sold his first car that year, a Hudson 16.9 and started a career that was to last a lifetime.
Then the war came along and Cliff was taken prisoner and it was his skill as a mechanic and his knowledge of the German language that helped him survive. After sabotaging a threshing machine, he faced imminent execution but fortunately the camp Commandant was due to have his Mercedes serviced by Cliff the next day and Davis survived!
After the war Cliff took his £89 severance pay and bought a written off Singer Le Mans for £12 10s 0d (£12.50 in decimal!) and a new chassis for £3. He rebuilt the car and eventually sold it for £200. Cliff Davis Motors was up and running.
In 1950 he acquired a pre-war MG Magnette for Lionel Leonard, one of the top sprint drivers at the time, and competed in sprints and club races for a couple of years. He then bought a Cooper-MG, JOY500, from Leonard. Leonard had only just built the car but was fed up with the problems it was giving him. Cliff sorted it out quite quickly and was soon attracting favourable attention and his name nearly always came up in race reports. In 1952 and 1953 he won nearly all the 1 1/2 litre races he entered.
Cliff ran two cars in 1953, JOY500 and a new Tojeiro-Bristol that he built and registered LOY500. Tojeiros were sold only as a chassis and it was up to the customer to source a body and running gear. Cliff fitted his with a Bristol engine and a copy of the Superleggera Barchetta body Touring had created for the Tipo 199 Ferrari Mille Miglia. Cliff acquired a Bristol engine, but not the 2 litre works racing motor that he wanted. However Cliff being the man he was eventually did obtain the works power plant.
Davis and John Tojeiro mutually agreed to go into production with the Tojeiro-Bristol. However John came to Cliff and told him that he had been invited to meet the directors at AC and that he had sold the design to them. John had sold the rights to AC for a royalty of £5 per chassis to a maximum of £500. Thus the Cobra was born, John later admitted to being rather naive and Davis was left feeling rather let down.
That year he recorded seven wins and eight seconds with the Cooper-MG (JOY500) and nine wins and six seconds in the Tojeiro-Bristol (LOY500). He ended up winning the prestigious Brooklands Memorial Trophy.
In 1953 he also drove with his friend David Blakely in the Daily Express Rally. Blakely was an enthusiastic driver who raced an HRG and spent quite some time hanging about the old Steering Wheel Club in Mayfair, London. About three hours in, he couldn't take any more and left Cliff to finish the event on his own. Blakely later achieved fame by being shot by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hung for murder in the UK.
He sold the Cooper at the end of the season and as the Tojeiro became less competitive, he sold it in 1955. He bought a Lotus Mk 10 but was never happy and regretted the purchase though possibly the Mk 10’s finest hour was in the 1955 Goodwood 9-Hours when Cliff and Reg Bicknell finished second in the 2000cc class. Anyway in 1957, with his business making increasing demands on his time, he retired from sports car racing.
That was not the end of his driving however as he went out and bought a Dastle midget from Les Leston and for five years enjoyed himself racing on short quarter mile oval tracks at places like Wimbledon, Harringay, Newton Abbott and Bristol. The midgets were even raced on tarmac circuits like Snetterton and Brands Hatch. The circus even made an excursion to Jamaca. Cliff loved the informal and hassle free atmosphere of this and stockcar racing.
RAC were very anti this new form of motor sport and apparently anyone with an RAC licence risked a lifetime ban if they got mixed up in such 'outlaw' events. As a result very few drivers raced openly in both disciplines and of those that did most took on assumed names. Cliff Davis didn't and happily raced under his own name. He somehow escaped with his RAC licence intact as did one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, who had a brief career racing on the ovals circa 1955. One can't help wondering if Bernie had been banned, whether motor racing have looked different today!
Cliff Davis was known through out Britain as an expert on American Cars and for many years ran the American Car Centre on the Goldhawk Road in London. He sold the business in the early 1980s.
Cliff used his motoring contacts and his inate capacity for fun to do a great deal of work for charity, holding the annual Cliff Davis "Filth Night" dinner to raise funds. Memorable occasions. In his later years he suffered deteriorating health and sadly he died in 1986 age 68.
With thanks to Cliff's wife Sylvia and his son Chris.