1970 Circuit With No Clutch

Photo: Esler Crawford
Against all odds, Ken Shields and Peter Lyster would win their Class and finish 29th Overall, having had no clutch since Friday night.

In June 1970, despite a photograph on the front cover, Cars and Car Conversions Magazine had but a single sentence about Ken Shields and Peter Lyster on the Circuit of Ireland that year.  It read: “One of the most impressive runs was that of Ken Shields who was leading the small GT class in his standard Sprite without a clutch!”

Hidden away in that sentence is a story of perseverance and endurance, and in particular by Ken’s navigator, Peter Lyster.

Before the Circuit that year, Ken bought Roger Cree’s Austin Healey Sprite.  It was the car Roger had won the 1968 Driving Test Championship in, and had won the UAC Ormeau Park Slalom in 1969.  It was quite a change for navigator Peter Lyster, more accustomed to sitting in roomy Vauxhalls, which were Ken’s cars of choice for many years, and brought class wins every time.

Everything looking good and going well on Hamilton’s Folly on the first night. Both crew members looking fresh, but troubles lay ahead. Photo ECP.

In 1970, things in the Sprite started well, Ken and Peter outlasting good friends Ronnie White and Harold Hagan  (No10) who had a blown head gasket on SS2, a similar fate having struck Ronnie McCartney and Rob Pollock (No8) on SS1, relegating both those teams to the role of spectator.

Through the first night Ken and Peter were comfortably best in their class.  Between Breakfast at Blessington and the Arrival at Killarney, the clutch release thrust bearing on the Sprite cried “enough”, and the pair limped into the Parc Ferme Control trying to figure out what to do. 

Ken recalls, “I was about to retire from the event, but Ronnie McCartney kicked the tyres and said ‘Ken, drive her until she breaks down’. And that is what we did.”

On Sunday morning they checked out of Parc Ferme but didn’t hold out a lot of hope of getting very far.  Unless they were able to stop on a downhill, Peter Lyster would have to get out of the car, give a push so Ken could get in gear, and then run and jump in.  The Sprite was tricky enough to get in and out of when stationary, never mind trying to do it on the run!  On one occasion Peter mis-timed his jump and collided with the door, almost doing himself an injury.

All through the Sunday Run Ken and Peter perfected the art of running with no clutch. Photo ECP.

All of this proved exhausting for both driver and navigator, but the stage times continued to look good, for once moving, Ken’s experience allowed him to work without the clutch and they were able to hold the class lead.  It was on the road sections where things were difficult.

Enter “Team Joshua White!”  Ronnie White, with navigator Harold Hagan and Sister Doris, ran ahead of the Sprite on the road sections, waving them across road junctions and helping them keep going without having to stop.  This reduced the burden a lot, but the effort still took its toll on the crew. 

On the way North on Monday, the route passed through Limerick City and this was a real nightmare.  Peter was in and out of the car at traffic lights and junctions, all of it adding to the exhaustion.  By the time they got over the border into the North, both men were suffering from lack of sleep and concentration was starting to slip.

The hairpin in Banagher Forest was a particular challenge. Ken made a gamble in turning the ignition off, pulling the handbrake, and then switching on again, and to his surprise, it seemed to work OK! Photo ECP.

One incident led to a rare expression of frustration from Peter.  Ken had been concentrating hard on keeping the car moving and misheard an instruction to make a right turn, overshooting the junction and having to stop.  It was like the last straw, having to get out when it should have been possible to keep moving, but he did it anyhow, and they made it all the way to the finish at Larne.

First place in Class 8 and 29th Overall, most of it without a clutch, and two men completely exhausted.  That one sentence in the rally report really doesn’t do it justice!

“One of the most impressive runs was that of Ken Shields who was leading the small GT class in his standard Sprite without a clutch!”

You can read the full report here ===> 1970 Circuit of Ireland