We track down Ken Urquhart, a former employee of the legendary JW Automotive Engineering. He worked on Porsche 917s during that magical year of 1970.
BY: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
PHOTOS: Kian Eriksen
“You should meet Ken, he worked on Porsche 917s”. That is something you may hear at a RennSport Reunion, Goodwood Festival of Speed, Le Mans Classic, or any number of events held every year in Europe and the USA. But, when you are based in Cape Town, you don’t expect to hear that from a fellow enthusiast…
There was no way I’d pass up the chance to meet Ken Urquhart. Needless to say, a few weeks later I sat down with him to listen to his anecdotes about the late-‘60s, and in 1970, when he worked at JW Automotive, which was known for the Ford GT40’s successes in the late-‘60s, as well as managing four 917s during the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970.
Like many enthusiasts, I’ve watched videos from that era, and read stories about (and interviews conducted with) drivers and team managers at the time, but now I’d have the opportunity to speak to someone who had been a part of that history... oh, and happened to have met Steve McQueen.
Surprisingly, Ken’s career took an unusual path before he laid his hands on 917s. “I studied to be a dental technologist, but the work I did on (six-time South African F1 championship winner) Dave Charlton’s F1 cars in the late-‘60s opened a few doors for me. Remember, in those days it was a… very… amateur sport.
“In 1969, David Piper brought a Porsche 917 to South Africa for the 9-hour endurance race at Kyalami. That was the first time I assisted on the car. I always had a great affinity for model aeroplanes and gliders. It was through pursuing the hobby that I met Rory Byrne (the celebrated South African F1 designer), who became a good friend of mine. Then, I did an apprenticeship under the tutelage of Dave Charlton’s brother. Through these contacts I eventually took a job at JW Automotive Engineering (JW) and moved to the UK.
“In January of 1970, I went over the UK as my friend had organised me a job at JW, located in Maidenhead, west of London. Lola was just around the corner from there and Frank Williams’s team headquarters was located down the road.
“When I arrived at the factory, I wasn’t sure where I would be needed. Porsche had delivered numerous 917s and the first thing that became evident is that JW wanted to run 17-inch wheels at the rear of the cars, instead of the factory-fitted 15-inchers. This meant I had to enlarge the car’s bodywork to suit the modification. To my surprise, there was nobody else there who could do it, back then, fibreglass work was usually sent to a company called Specialised Mouldings.
“I used to build and repair fibreglass bodies and also raced Formula Vee in 1968 and 1969. That all contributed to my experience of working with glass fibre. The bodywork was really thin on those 917s. So much so that after a race like Daytona in the USA, where bits of gravel basically ate through the bodywork, you could put your hand straight through it. Suffice to say I did numerous repairs. We also incorporated carbon fibres in the rear to reduce the amount of fluttering.
“Back then carbon-fibre sheets weren’t available, only loose fibres that looked like straws. We would use a mixture of glass and carbon fibres with the resin.”
Ken points to pictures of the 917s that participated at Daytona: “For this race the 917 had an additional window above the windscreen. That was installed because drivers couldn’t see up the embankment through the standard ‘screen.”
Plus there is one important change Ken made to the roof panel of the 917: “The drivers also complained that the cockpits were getting too hot, so I designed and moulded the duct on the roof panel that allowed warm air to escape.”
“Around February or March of that year, Steve McQueen visited the factory. We had his 908, which he would race at the end of March in the 12-Hour Sebring endurance race. This car also had to be adapted to accommodate the fitment of a camera, which would be used for filming race footage. Back then, the camera could only run for around 17 minutes before the film spool was finished!
“I recall that he was walking with the aid of crutches at the time, because he had suffered a broken leg during a motorcycle accident. He was really a friendly and approachable guy and, like us, a true motor racing enthusiast.”
After packing up and moving to Le Mans a week before the race, Ken experienced one of the hardest, but memorable, seven days of his career. “Our workshop was 20 kilometres away from the track. This was where all the important work was done because the pits at Le Mans were very cramped. The mechanics were accustomed to driving the Ford GT40s on the road to and from the track and, during the first day of the test weekend, they did the same with the 917s! The villagers loved to see these race cars being threaded through the narrow streets. However, when the cars arrived at the track the Porsche engineers almost had heart attacks,” Ken laughs.
“From then on, we had to load the cars on a transporter to ferry them to and from the track. Needless to say, we also had to load and unload the tyres on, and from, the truck.
“We used to work behind our hotel, where there was a small garage. Just look at it: it’s more reminiscent of a scene photographed shortly after World War II, than anything like today’s modern setup at Le Mans. This was it – and that is probably me lying underneath that car’s left rear wheel arch,” Ken says, with a smile.
“After Le Mans, they asked me if I wanted to stay on to assist with the movie shoot, but I knew I’d mostly see the inside of the garage and I was young and wanted to travel. It had been a fascinating six months, but it was time to move on.
“Make no mistake, the week of Le Mans is a tough one. However, to watch the start of the race and see the 917s flying past after all the hard work you had done, was really an exceptional moment. After all, I would say just the spectacle of Le Mans, especially at night, is really unique. But times have changed, back then the entire race team was controlled by a few guys sitting along the pit wall.”
Between his dentist work, and motorsport exploits, Ken was a busy man during those years. He shows me some of his memorabilia, which includes an original 917-titanium bolt, his orange Gulf work overalls, black and white photographs of the drivers, as well as press releases and details of the various races.
For Ken, it might have been only a brief few years followed by less than a year working on 917s, but he has a variety of extraordinary memories to show for it.
Special thanks to @PorscheGirlCT (Michelle Hambly) for making this interview possible.