When you meet Dick Smith it’s hard to believe he celebrated his 80th birthday last year. Still competing in time-trial car events, roadtrips across the globe and full of bonkers stories, he’s certainly not your average pensioner. We caught up with the racing enthusiast about how he came to own his famous car – the 1932 Frazer Nash Nurburg that runs on methanol, does two miles to the gallon and goes from 0–100mph in nine seconds – and the influence it’s had on his life.
Dick’s fascination with his 1932 Frazer Nash Nurburg began when he was studying dentistry at Durham University. He and Rosemary, his then-fiancée, were walking down Newcastle’s Northumberland Street when a book in a shop window caught his eye. ‘I stopped dead in my tracks and said to Rosemary: ‘Just look at that car, I’d give anything to own that. That is the ultimate car.’’ She bought him the book for his birthday and he dreamt of owning the car on its back cover ever since, but knew they’d never be able to afford anything like it.
Fast forward three years to when Dick was working as a locum dentist in Market Harborough in Leicestershire, and by chance picked up a copy of the local paper. ‘In the centre there were these adverts with cars for sale. I was turning the page when one just hit me in the eye – it was the name Frazer Nash,’ remembers Dick. ‘It read: Frazer Nash Nurburg, believed ex-works racing car that ran in the German grand prix. And I just realised it could be that car on the back of that book.’
Out of curiosity, they drove to a lock-up garage on the outskirts of Nottingham to view the car. When he found it was the very same he’d seen on the book’s cover, he couldn’t believe it. ‘My heart was beating so fast. But I had no money at all – I was just newly-qualified.’
The owner offered to take him for a spin around Nottingham’s ring road if they could both squeeze into the 29-inch cockpit. It was a 40mph speed limit dual-carriageway, with virtually no traffic in 1960 and they were cruising at 90-100. ‘There was a howling wail coming out the back of it – it was the most incredible thing for a young man,’ he recalls. ‘There was a car in the outside lane, which I thought he would overtake on the left, but he went straight up on to the grass bank separating the two carriageways. It was like being on a wall of death; I was peering into the cockpit of this ford,’ Dick tells us. ‘He just nonchalantly said: “Frazer Nash’s agility, old boy, I thought I should demonstrate it to you,”’ laughs Dick. ‘It just made me want the car even more.’
‘I wanted it so badly it wasn’t true. It was £275 but I didn’t even have £27,’ he remembers. He moved to Sunderland to start his new job and at the end of his first week sat down for dinner as usual. ‘I thought: Rosemary’s got a real twinkle in her eye. Then she put her knife and fork down half way through the meal and said: “I cannot wait to tell you something. You don’t know this, but the whole three and a half years we were engaged I’d saved all my staff nurse’s wages to buy furniture for our first house. So I bought the car for you as a wedding present. Now go and get that Frazer Nash!”’
‘I drove it back through a beautiful, balmy September night. It was dark and there was a big harvest moon out and virtually no traffic on the A1, which was called the Great North Road then,’ he recalls. ‘It was unbelievable. Just talking about it now still gives me goosebumps.’ He’s owned the sought-after car for over 50 years and absolutely nothing could make him sell it.
Since that night, he’s been totally attached to the car and has taken it across the continent, building a top reputation in the racing world. He was invited to join the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association, which has taken him to races through the city streets of Monaco, Pau and Porto (to name a few) and has raced on the Monaco circuit used by F1 cars today. He’s got plenty of racing career highlights but one of his favourite memories was winning the Richard Seaman Memorial Trophy, an important race in historic racing terms, which he’d been trying to win for 40 years. Due to fuel feed problems in his qualifying session at Donnington Park, he qualified in a different race, but this meant he’d have to start at the back of the track for the Richard Seamen Memorial Trophy – and 10 seconds after everyone else.
‘I was going absolutely bananas about this rule,’ he remembers. His eldest son, Andrew, told him to relax because he had absolutely no chance of winning it. ‘But when I sat on the back row of the grid the red mist came over me. So I drove perhaps better than I ever have.’ Despite his starting position he had overtaken 11 cars by the first corner and was lying third until the end. He ended up winning the race on the very last corner of the final lap – at the age of 72.
Dick’s sporting reputation led him to be approached by ITV asking if he’d drive Griff Rhys Jones up Hardknott Pass for his latest TV series. The road is one of the most difficult, narrow and notoriously dangerous passes there is: it’s so steep that when the road was laid the tarmac ran down slightly, causing waves on its surface. The two hopped into Dick’s Morgan Plus 8, a very fast road car with a 3.5 L V8 engine and 200 horsepower, and began filming. ‘I drove him up the hill at a suitably rapid rate. He seemed very impressed but also rather alarmed. He was quite unable to speak when we got to the top,’ he says, with a loud cackle. ‘I had to be very careful not to touch the rocks on either side of the road because one mistake and we would have been in real trouble.’
Dick continues to undertake all the work on his cars himself, ensuring they’re safe and adhere to the legal specifications. He puts his energy down to a mental attitude where you ‘don’t let yourself believe you’re getting old’, and because of his love of motor-sport. ‘It’s like being a junkie – you can’t give it up.’ Whether it’s an explosion of his raucous laughter or the howling engine of his beloved car as he races along at full throttle, you can hear the old man from a mile away.