Word has it that, at the peak of his career, John Wyer wore dark glasses not to protect his eyes, but to protect his mechanics from the 'Deathray' - a title that would soon become his unofficial title. Wyer was no ordinary racing manager, but a specialist who became legendary in long-distance sports-car racing, where the disciplines and the difficulties demanded a more organised and rational approach than in any other kind of racing.
The Sunbeam Motor Company
Wyer enjoyed sccesses elsewhere, but it was always with Le Mans that race fans associated him; the association was even longer than his career as a racing manager, going back to 1949 and lasting through to his victory with the Gulf team in 1975. Wyer was born in 1909 in Worcestershire, and in 1927 he entered the motor industry as an apprentice with the Sunbeam Motor Company
Well-spoken, Wyer was nothing like the brash bosses who jumped up from the factory floor in other sectors of the auto industry, however; he was the product of an age when the industrial revolution had persuaded many familys to send their sons into practical rather than academic engineering, and his own industry then stood him in good stead.
Solex carburetors and Monaco Motors
In 1933 he joined the Solex carburetor firm, leaving in 1947 to become general manager of Monaco Motors & Engineering Company. This was a little firm in Watford, UK, with a big reputation for the first-class preparation of competition cars, and under Wyer it earned new acclaim. At this time he was known to pop out and serve a couple of gallons of petrol to a passing motorist, while the next minute he would be immersed in the preparation of cars for Shelsley Walsh, Goodwood or Le Mans.
Already his standards were strict and the work done by or under him had to be impeccable. One of the customers who came to Watford for his help was another firm of small size and great repute, HRG, who were keen to crown an already good competition record (and perhaps to boost flagging sales, as they had sold only 36 cars in 1948) with a class win at Le Mans, something they had last achieved in 1939. Three 1½
liter HRG chassis (one of them a customer's) were stripped, modified and rebodied by Monaco, gaining a good deal in speed and losing 225 lb in the course of the work that Wyer directed.
Wyer joins Aston Martin
One of them won its class at Le Mans, and the HRG team completely dominated the 1½
liter class in the 24 hours race at Spa, in 1949. In 1950, Wyer joined Aston Martin as racing director. The ensuing decade was one in which his fame spread rapidly. The Aston Martin team, campaigning from Monza to Buenos Aires, made rapid progress under his shrewd direction. The campaigning was not that of an army, but something shrewder and more economical: Wyer said that the ideal team should function more like a Commando. He insisted that it should be completely integrated, and not depend on the temperament or brilliance of any individual - despite which his choice of personnel was endorsed by Uhlenhaut of Mercedes-Benz, who commented, 'In England they have a quintet of the finest drivers in the world, and Aston Martin have three of them'.
The programme started with DB2 coupes in 1950, finishing fifth and sixth at Le Mans; but despite the good showing of these cars (they scored the first two places in their class in the Mille Miglia
as late as 1952) Wyer maintained that it was hopeless to succeed in top-flight competition with what were basically production cars. Therefore, 1952 saw the introduction of the DB3 sports-racer which had a chequered season, failing at Le Mans but winning the Goodwood 9 Hours after a spectacular fire in the pits eliminated the rest of the team and put Wyer into hospital.
Much better results were achieved in 1953, especially after the introduction of the elegant 2.9-liter DB3S. Curiously it seemed that the odd-numbered years were better than the even-numbered (though Wyer was to break that pattern in 1968) and 1955 and 1957 were good. Success at Le Mans continued to evade the team, whose cars simply lacked the sheer speed necessary for that event; but they were formidable elsewhere, especially with Moss and Brooks driving. At last they did it in 1959, netting first and second places there and continuing to do so well in the other long-distance races that they won the Sports Car Constructors' Championship.
With a sigh of relief, Aston Martin withdrew from racing; but this did not put Wyer out of work, as by then he had risen to be technical director and general manager of the company. His appointment coincided with the dropping of the series of cars that grew out of the original DB2, and the introduction of the new DB4. Years later the firm's managing director commented, at the introduction of the DBS model, that the DB4 was the real Aston Martin; and this surprising observation may have been based on the fact that under Wyer the DB4 and DB5 earned a fine reputation. Not only were they fast they were particularly elegant as well.
Ford's Advanced Vehicles Operation and the GT 40
A closer insight into the world of the American motor industry came in 1963, when Wyer was approached by Ford to take over their new Advanced Vehicles operation. This was created to build the GT 40 sports-racing car in England which Ford pinned their hopes of heating the world-and their salesmen's drums. It was a tremendous undertaking, but the organisation was not to his taste - in his 1956 book 'Motor Racing Management
' he had insisted that a racing manager must have complete command, and that divided responsibility could only end in disaster.
Wyer was proved right, as the clumsy giant stumbled over one detail after another, and not until 1966 did a Mk 2 derivative of the Ford win at Le Mans, allowing Wyer to look back on another two championships (for prototypes with the Mk 2, for sports cars with the GT 40) and to look forward to the probability that Ford would give up as soon as they had scored another win at the French event. Things turned out exactly thus and, by the time the 1967 victory was being celebrated, the Ford Advanced Vehicle Operation at Slough was already taken over by a company called JW Automotive Engineering, the initials being shared by John Wyer and John Willment.
JW Automotive Engineering Mirage
They continued the production of the GT 40, maintaining it for customers and racing it when appropriate; new designs would carry the name Mirage. Considerable success with both names (the Mirage was a 3-liter prototype) was earned in 1967 in a new alliance with the Gulf oil company, for whom Wyer ran the team to success at Spa, Karlskoga, Myalami, Stockholm and Paris. Changes in the rules made Group 4 a better proposition than Group 6, and for 1968 Wyer's Gulf team concentrated on their new and most handsome development of the GT 40 with a 5-liter engine. It was a great season, in which the World Championship of makes fell to them for successes at Daytona, Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, Watkins Glen and Le Mans-where the GT 40, with Wyer in proper command, was at last a winner.
It won there again in the following year, during which talks began between JW and Porsche. Their outcome was the Gulf-Porsche team of 917 projectiles launched and monitored by Wyer to strike home in most of the Championship 1000 km races and win the series. The same happened again in 1971 against strengthening opposition from Alfa Romeo and Ferrari, but it was the last year of the 5-liter cars: the rules were changing yet again, and 3-liter racers were to be the order of the day. The confidence inspired by Wyer prompted Gulf to appoint him their competitions director, with a seat in a new Gulf Research Racing Company and a brief to run a Cosworth-engined Mirage in the World Championship of Makes.
In 1972, 5 liter sportscars like the 917s were banned, and the 3000cc Porsche 908 prototypes were also dropped by the factory as the new weight limit was too high, removing the 908's advantage that balanced their lack of power. Wyer adopted the new 3.0 liter regulations and started building Gulf-Mirage prototypes once more, using a Formula One Cosworth DFV engine. The successful F1-engine was considered unsuited for endurance racing as vibrations took their toll after several hours, so modifications had to be made. After three years of trying, Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell finally achieved Wyer's last win at Le Mans, in 1975. The following year, John Wyer retired from automotive competition and sold his team to Harley Cluxton's Grand Touring Cars operation.
The Mirage M6
Managing director was John Horsman, who had been working with Wyer since he came down from Cambridge in 1958 and went for an interview at Aston Martin. The car was the Mirage M6, not terribly successful although very fast-as it showed by winning the Spa 1000 km race in 1973. After that the cars were called simply by the Gulf name, coming second in the 1974 championship and - after a revised brief which was limited to the one most important event of the season - taking first and third places at Le Mans in 1975. By this time Wyer, close to retiring age, had passed the responsibility for running the programme to Horsman.