Actman Eyewear is one of the largest independent manufacturers and suppliers of spectacle frames in the UK, and its logo is to be seen on all the cars currently competing in the Midget Challenge Series. The man behind the name, Andrew Actman, talked to me recently about his long competition career during which he has mostly driven Austin Healey Sprites, MG Midgets and other sports cars from the old BMC line up. The highly respected spectacle manufacturer from Beckenham in Kent has been competing for nearly forty years now, fiercely competitive, I ask what was it that first attracted him to motor sports?
"Well it was probably down to my father Sam Actman," comes the reply. "He was racing and rallying when I was growing up and was highly regarded for his prowess at autotests. I have a vivid early memory of crouching under the tonneau cover of his Mk1 Sprite on a cold day when he had been competing. We were travelling up the Great West Road and I was willing the speedo, about the only thing I could see, to go ever faster and pass the magic 100mph mark, which it never did. I stood no chance, Sprites and motor sport, it’s in the blood."
"My father had an original standard bodied Sebring Sprite and other Sprites and TRs too, competed as a works co-driver for BMC and Ford, although with Ford it was mostly recceaing. His best rally finish was in the Tulip, coming home sixth overall. This was in the year when Pat Moss won the event outright in a big Healey. I still have the silver tulips he was awarded along with many other trophies. He won the Martini rally three years running for example, so I have some lovely substantial silverware at home to remember him by.
"He was one of those British rally drivers who were very successful Internationally at the time, partnering John Sprinzel on two occasions, first in the 1961 Liege-Sofia-Leige Rally when they used the famous PMO 200 Sprite, and then again in 1963 on the Monte-Carlo Rally, only that time in a Triumph Vitesse. It was he who came up with the nickname of Shaky Jake for John Sprinzel. He had a very dry sense of humour and in the 1960 Harrow Car Club's Christmas magazine he wrote a spoof fairy tale featuring Girling Foss and Shaky Jake Sprinkle. Shaky Jake stuck and John still answers to it to this day. During these years it seemed to me there were always wonderful sports cars parked outside our house in Richmond, Surrey. They were always production or cooking cars, nothing exotic, but lovely none the less. Austin Healeys, MGs TRs, I have a real affection for these cars, it’s never left me. My mum too was involved, being the club’s secretary and running the London Rally for many years, a big event in its day."
Sadly Sam Actman was to die in a horrific hotel fire when spending Christmas at Saffron Walden in 1969. Andrew was about twenty at the time. It happened on Boxing Day and eleven people died. The hotel was called the Rose & Crown, and now a pathway of the same name leads to a small shopping precinct close to the site of the old hotel, and out onto the common. It was, until last year’s fire in St Austell, the worst hotel fire in UK history and led to the introduction of fire certificates for hotels and businesses. "It was in the days when fire exits were quite often locked and escape from burning buildings wasn't easy. It was a terrible fire thought to have been started by a smouldering cigarette, and devastating for us."
Moving on I ask Andrew when did he first start competing "I started in the very late sixties when I was about twenty-one in autotests, firstly with a Morris Minor Convertible, then a Skoda Octavia moving onto a 1340 Ford Anglia, and finally gaining some success at the wheel of a rather rusty Midget. However by the mid seventies I was gaining notice especially when I won my class in the BTRDA championship driving a Jimini which was a bit like a Mini Moke. I was sort of works supported I guess, as the Jiminy outfit had supplied the car due to my success, however 'works' is stretching a point. These things were made in a shed at Brooklands and when the two guys who made them needed a piece of panelling they would simply take a piece of hanger or fence and use that, big time it wasn't! It was, though, a very fast little car set up by John Lions from Northern Ireland who knew a thing or two about autotesting I can tell you."
Now married with a son and running his own business, motor sports took a back seat for while, although Andrew did find time to play in a band, "haven't a clue how" but his interest in cars was never dormant and eventually the time came to take another look at his first love, "Everything just fell into place. I'd been reading about historic endurance rallying which looked interesting, and I received a call from Peter Rix at Lenham Sports Cars to say he had a Sebring Sprite for sale. Well what do you do? I simply walked in with my hands up! I knew Peter and Julian Booty at Lenham as they had done some excellent work for me on a Porsche, and therefore was quite confident the car would be good. It came with a 948cc engine with a ridiculously hot cam making it nigh on impossible to drive down the road; it had nothing below about 5000rpm and nothing over six! Trying to get it away from the lights was interesting, noisy and quite entertaining too for any onlooker, the thing was hopeless. So I set about taming it a little in my garage at home. We believe it to be the first copy Sebring made although we can't be sure. It was built by Country Lane Classics, can’t remember more than that, but it does have a Brian Archer roof taken from WJB 707, however, the front was not a Brian Archer item although it is now. As you can imagine I've been through quite a few fronts and always have some spares to hand! I got to know Brian over the years very well, and a nicer bloke you couldn't wish to meet, a perfect gentleman. Sadly he died from cancer a few weeks ago; he'll be missed by many." I have to concur with Andrew; Brian was a lovely man and very talented too. Among other things it was his foresight that saw the resurgent interest in Sebring Sprites. His many friends and acquaintances will truly miss him.
"So it was with the Sebring I started to rally, Robert Ellis of the VSCC was my co-driver and we did quite well, culminating with us leading the Monte-Carlo Challenge when we wrong slotted and I blew the head gasket trying to make up for the lost time. Then we finished forth overall in the Classic Marathon to the Pyrenees. This little 948cc Sprite way up in the mountains of the Pyrenees ahead of all the muscle cars, it was really good. We felt, however, that we should have won it for again we were leading when we wrong slotted on the very last regularity section – so annoying. I decided to enter the next year’s event with a purpose built rally car, and purchased a new Heritage MG Midget shell for the purpose, which was delivered to Brown and Gammons who put in a cage, strengthened everything and painted it for me. We then finished it off down at Lenham. It was a fabulous car and indeed we did win the event the following year, when it ran from Ypres to San Remo. A year later we used the car to compete in the World Cup Rally which went from London to Marrakech and back, travelling through Morocco. We finished eighth overall which was an excellent result given we were up against all the latest modern cars AND the organisers! They did everything they could to make the car uncompetitive by insisting I use wire wheels for example, and a cast iron manifold. Later we found out the event was being backed by the SMMT and they didn't want some old classic car showing up all the modern stuff. Interestingly when you look up the results in eighth place it just says MG, but not what type of MG, although all the Volkswagens, Peugeots and Renaults etc are listed with their full names. Unfortunately Robert Ellis's mother was very ill when the event was about to start and he couldn't make it, so Tom Coulthard stepped in at the very last moment, he owned PMO 200 at the time, so we ran the Midget with that registration number for the event. It was a nice touch.
"I would love to do some more competitive historic endurance rallying but there simply aren't the events anymore. I've spoken to Philip Young asking if he could organise a few more, but until he does, or someone else step's into the frame, there are no events to compete in." In the meantime Andrew has been having a crack at Enduro Rallying for modern 1400cc cars, in which he drives a Citroen AX GT, "prior to that I was using a factory backed Daihatsu Sirion but at my age they've decided to stop backing me! I was leading one world cup rally in the Sirion, had a massive 40 minute lead when a rear stub axle broke. Full of adrenaline and pumped up for the win, I immediately spoke to Daihatsu in the UK, ‘Oh yea we wondered how long that would last, they replied, those rear beams are rather weak!’ There was nothing we could do, it would have taken far too tong to change it, as it’s the whole rear end, even if we'd had one. Needless to say they have redesigned the whole axle now, bit late for me though."
We return now to the Sebring Sprite which following on from its rallying career became a circuit racer, "Yes that's right, I am currently the only driver competing in the Midget Challenge with a Sebring, although I think someone is using a similar car in the FISC series. My car still has its quarter elliptics as does Dominic Mooney's car and Mark Turner's, so interestingly three of the quickest class B cars are all using the same original rear suspension layout. I could change the rear suspension as the rules do allow for this, but I'm used to cars that have a lively rear layout and I love it, driving that car is like putting on an old pair of gloves. I'd never sell it. It’s cost me so much over the years that it’s probably the most expensive Sprite in the world, but I don't care, I love it. Due to its shape it might have a slight aerodynamic advantage and in the class it’s the quickest in a straight line, but it isn't the quickest through the corners because the driver is getting on a bit and no longer has the same size balls as the youngsters. Its as simple as that!"
I started racing the car in class C spec for the Midget Challenge, and did the Austin Healey series at the same time, as theirs is based on road going cars which are very similar to our class C. Snag is I won their championship outright which caused a bit of twittering, so they banned the car. Something to do with it being the wrong shape I think – Sprites aren't supposed to win the Healey Championship! Wanting to go a bit faster and try out slicks, I decided to move the car up to class B specification and took it off to Peter May and asked him to sort it all out for me. Back came a very competitive and ultra reliable quick motor car, it was a good move. I'd like to add just how reliable Peter builds his engines; mine is on its third season now and we haven't even changed the shells yet, and I still have fabulous oil pressure. Ian Langford, who I met through Midget racing, is the guy who does all the preparation on my car at Lenham, a super bloke. He also races so knows what he's doing. We are going to change the front suspension to allow for a bit more adjustability, and I'll be trying it before the season ends, so we'll see if there is any improvement. First time out will probably be at Mallory which is not one of my favourite circuits as I've had two big accidents there, but we'll see how it goes. Talking of circuits, I do like Brands Hatch. Not because it’s local but because I've never got Paddock Hill right yet, it’s always a challenge. Also Donington, what a fabulous circuit, you can't dislike the place, those lovely flowing lines." Interestingly Andrew also likes Silverstone. "It’s an age thing again, for with its huge run off areas it’s very safe, and you know that if something were to go wrong the car would be travelling reasonably slowly before it hit anything, very reassuring. I'd like to add that I think Larry has got it just right for we don't have any bad drivers in the series, he simply won’t cater for them. It’s not dodgem racing and is expensive enough without having to make unnecessary repairs week after week, so we keep it clean. Scrutineering, however, I think does need tightening up, every so often the cars get weighed, and that's about it which I personally don't think is enough. Checks need to be more thorough, I'm sure everything is fine – if it wasn't I'd pull the plug – it would simply be better if we were to see more thorough checking. Of course it is still the friendliest championship out there with everybody lending a hand when required and much good humoured banter between the drivers." Asked if he has any memorable races he quickly responds with "They are all memorable for one reason or another, good if I win, bad if I loose! I won each time we visited Mallory a year or two back and that was memorable if for no other reason than I don't like the place very much. No, I don't have any particularly memorable races to recount.”
We then come to the question of sponsorship and why? "Oh that's easy, I became involved simply because I'd been doing something I really enjoyed for a very long time, and being in a position to do so, wanted to put something back. In fact I would like to do far more with the MGCC as I think too would the Collinsons, for clearly whilst it is great fun we would get greater exposure with our names being seen more frequently in race reports and so on. For example we'll go to a 750MC event as the sponsors of the Midget Challenge and they are all very nice people, but as a sponsor we might as well not be there. Of course at one time I was the sole sponsor of the championship but now I co-sponsor with John Collinson whose Cornwall Surveying Company should be mentioned more often. I think the series benefits from our input far more than we do from it, so it doesn't help when we are referred to in Safety Fast! as the Halfords Midgets, especially when you realise that the high street car parts and bicycle stores haven't sponsored the challenge for about eleven years." Andrew at this point of course makes reference to the mistaken caption that appeared a few months ago in a report on the Spridget 50 meeting held in May. "For what we put in we do need to get some mention from time to time, and I worry that the sponsors, all the sponsors in club motor sport, don't get enough exposure for their efforts. Recently I linked the Lenham name to the Eyewear, again simply to get some exposure for the garage."
When asked how the Lenham business came about Andrew responds quickly, "The eye-wear business is what pays the bills, Lenham is a hobby. I'm a bit like the guy with the shaver, I spent so much money on the car it was cheaper to buy the company than pay the bill! Peter Rix and Julian Booty, the original owners of the garage now both in their seventies, have a huge amount of knowledge and are still full of enthusiasm, two fabulous people. Peter puts in four days a week while Julian does two. It was a good deal all round for at their age they have to think of the future and they didn't want to see the garage become a building plot, none of us did. It’s always been a garage and we wanted it to stay that way, and since becoming involved I've helped them move forward. We now have a great web-site, kept right up to date, and we are selling an increasing number of very good cars, sourcing them is in fact the bigger headache. However like so many in the classic car business we don't really make a lot of money, it’s a lovely thing to do, but financially a struggle given how much time and energy goes in. By contrast my eye-wear companies, very well established, perform well. It’s been enjoyable working within the optical industry but now that the major supermarket chains are beginning to retail spectacle frames it’s becoming much harder, almost to the point of taking away the enjoyment I previously had for working. Something of which I'm very proud, however, is my chairmanship of the Federation of British eye-wear manufacturers. The other optical manufacturers bestowed this honour on me and I felt very proud. I've been at the helm for two years with another to go before I stand down, but to be held in such high esteem by your peers is quite something, I must have been doing something right all this time.”
Is there time for any other interests? "What do you think? With two optical companies, the garage and my chairmanship of the Federation there is little time for anything else, however, I do have some other cars to enjoy in addition to the Sprite. For instance I recently bought a 1600 GT Ford Anglia, lowered and stiffened with five and a half J rims. It’s perfect. I also have a 1935 Riley Kestrel four door saloon which I would like to rally, and with its twin overhead cam Riley Sprite engine and pre-selector box it would be just right. I also have a 1969 Lenham Formula Ford car which doubled up in its day, depending upon which engine was fitted, as a Formula Three car too. Wasn't it just wonderful when life was that simple! Bloody thing scares the living daylights out of me though! I don’t think at 58 I should be doing open wheeler racing, only bought it because it’s a Lenham, I was going to hang it on the wall – perhaps I should – would be a lot safer!" Finally I ask if he could have raced any cars from the past in period what would they have been? "Without doubt big sports cars from the fifties and early sixties. Those big front-engined cars, like the D-type Jaguar, DB3S Aston Martin, Maserati 500s, Ferrari 375MM or 250 GTOs, proper cars, this is where my love for motor sport comes from, I believe it was the finest time for motor racing." Not quite so glamorous perhaps but it’s still a good time to be in motor sport, and while there are enthusiasts like Andrew competing, it will remain so, thanks Andrew its been fascinating.