Rodney Clarke came from a brainy family. His father was a Professor of Modern History at London University, who married the daughter of another professor. He was sent off to Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and from, rather than going to university, decided to apply to for a three-year course in engineering at the Automobile Engineering Training College in Chelsea. At the time this was a hotbed of motor racing activities and Clarke developed an interest in the sport. When he graduated he decided to join the Royal Air Force and became a Flying Officer before being invalided out as a result of serious sinus problems.
At a loose end, he ran a bar, a hotel and then a cinema before deciding to go into the automobile business in 1943. He set up Continental Cars Ltd, his intention being to secure a Bugatti dealership after the war. He bought, sold and serviced cars for customers, while also returning to flying as a ferry pilot.
But things didn’t quite go to plan…
When the war ended the French government seized the factory at Molsheim, on the basis that Bugatti had collaborated with the Germans by selling them his factory. Ettore Bugatti fought the decision but it was not until 1947 that he won the battle. He died a few days later. Thus, there was no Bugatti dealership for Clarke. Instead he bought, sold and serviced exotic machinery, at one point he was even the owner of one of the celebrated Bugatti Atlantics. In order to expand the business he moved to premises on the main A3 road from London to Portsmouth, close to the village of Send, near Guildford. He promoted the business by competing in a Bugatti Type 59. It was a busy road in that era, but was travelled by many wealthy people and so Continental Cars did well.
His customers included two young men, both RAF officers: Mike Oliver, who had flown fighters in the Battle of Britain and in Malta, and Kenneth McAlpine. Oliver joined the business to sell cars, but soon became the head of engine development, while 29-year-old McAlpine, a member of the famous civil engineering family, was impressed by the standard of their engineering and proposed that Clarke build him a sports car. They set up a company called Connaught, a pun using the “conn” from Continental and the “aught” from automobile. Clarke purchased a Lea-Francis 14 Sport, and expensive car when the purchase tax was added and designed a new body, which was built for Connaught by the Leacroft Sheet Metal Works in Egham. The engine was tweaked by Oliver and the car proved to be very promising. No fewer than 14 of them were made as a result. Clarke and Oliver then decided to build a Formula 2 car for the 1951 season. This too was moderately successful and for 1952 Connaught had a factory team – and customer cars.
That year the FIA decided that the World Championship should run to F2 regulations and Connaught suddenly found itself in F1. There was never sufficient money but good engineering meant that the results were solid. When the F1 engine rules changed again in 1954, switching to unsupercharged 2.5-litre engines, Connaught had to find a new engine and turned to Alta, which had a pre-war unit which fitted the requirements. It was developed by Oliver. The Connaught Type B was, however, only ever supposed to be an interim car, while money was found for a ground-breaking rear-engined, monocoque car.
The company achieved little in 1954 and so was more reliant than ever on the largesse of McAlpine, who spent a remarkable £43,000 in the course of the season. The company might have closed that year but for an astonishing victory scored at the non-championship Syracuse GP in Sicily by young Tony Brooks in the autumn, beating the factory Maserati factory team. By winning the race, Brooks became the first British driver to triumph in a major continental race in a British car since Henry Seagrave’s victory at San Sebastian in 1924.
The victory convinced Clarke and Oliver to go on, as they suddenly found themselves being offered good start money by race promoters. The bad news was that after the Le Mans disaster in 1955 many races were cancelled. McAlpine also stopped racing, as he married that year.
Despite the efforts of Archie Scott Brown and Stuart Lewis-Evans early in 1957, the axe fell in May that year. Connaught shut down and the assets were auctioned off. Lewis-Evans’s manager, a 26-year-old car dealer called Bernie Ecclestone, bought two cars and ran then in 1958 for Lewis-Evans and Roy Salvadori. Ecclestone himself tried to qualify one of the cars at Monaco.
By then, British racing teams were finally breaking through with successes for Vanwall and Cooper. It was the start of a revolution that would create the modern British motorsport industry. Connaught missed the boat…
Clarke went back to the business of selling exotic cars, while Oliver returned to aviation, becoming the test pilot of Folland’s Gnat fighter programme and in 1964 the was later a test pilot with Hawker Siddeley before he switched to customer liaison. The two men remained friends until Clarke’s death in 1979.