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Ronnie Grant, Racing Driver

May 28, 2019
by the gentle author

‘I was racing with people a third of my age…’

Last year, at ninety-three years old, garage owner Ronnie Grant shot to fame as one of the tenants of the railway arches faced with exorbitant rent increases by Network Rail. Ronnie showed admirable moral courage as one of the founders of Guardians of the Arches – linking more than fifteen hundred businesses – and became a spokesman in Parliament and the press, championing the cause of his fellows across the nation as the arches were sold off.

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited Ronnie under the railway arches in Clapham to hear the life story of this inspirational nonagenarian who has taken the brave initiative to stand up for others in his advanced years. We were astonished to find him unloading sacks of cement from a truck and, once we sat down to talk, we discovered that Ronnie was already a hero in another arena, as a racing driver.

“I used to be down here working hard at five o’clock in the morning and still here at ten o’clock at night. I had a cold once and I took too many codeine tablets, and I spewed up blood. I was carted into St James’ Hospital, Balham. I was given six pints of blood and one of those was infected with Hepatitis, so then I was put in isolation. I lay there and all I had to do was drink water. I thought, ‘When I get out, I am going to do everything I ever wanted to do.’ This was in the sixties and Volkswagen had just brought out this Formula V racing car. It had the front axle and engine of a beetle but you could make up a frame of your own. This is what I did and I did it here in my garage. I built a racing car in this arch, it was quite easy really. So I started racing and I started winning. I thought, ‘This has got to be good!’

As a racing driver, you have to be fit. At six o’clock in the morning, I would be up at Crystal Palace running round the track for half an hour, then I would play squash and do thirty lengths in the olympic pool afterwards. This was before I started work at half past seven or eight o’clock. I did that for donkey’s years. When I finished work at half past seven or eight, I would go swimming until ten o’clock. That keeps you fit.

I raced all round Europe in Formula V, and I used to get start money, prize money and travel expenses. We loaded the car onto a pick-up truck and my little son George sat in the racing car and I sat in the front of the pick-up. I raced in Holland, Belgium and German. I always used to be in the first eight or ten and I often won, so I used get francs in Belgium, guilders in Holland and marks in Germany – that was how I started racing.

Then I went into Super V and, through the grapevine, I heard that Lola Cars up in Huntingdon had a chassis but no gearbox. I met John Barnard and Patrick Head, they used to come here and help me working on the racing car. We went from there, Patrick designed a Formula 2000 car which I raced. I was still racing when I was sixty-five, so I did quite well at that. It gave me a lot of joy because I was racing with people a third of my age.

I am a Londoner, born in 177 Railton Rd, Brixton. My father, Harry Grant, came from India to study in London, but he enlisted in World War I and lost a leg. I do not know too much about his family, although they came to visit us once when I was a child. I remember they stayed at the Savoy and bought me a Crombie coat, which I got teased for a school because it was expensive.

During the thirties, nobody wanted to employ a man with one leg. My father did odd jobs and we got by. I had a gorgeous upbringing. We had a lovely family. We never went hungry. We had two bedrooms – me, my brother and my sisters slept in one room and my parents in the other. When I think about it now, how my mother cooked and did all the washing in a tiny scullery I do not know. She used to get up at five to light the boiler to heat the water. My brother was older than me and I had younger two sisters. We all had jobs. I used deliver papers in the morning and help the baker after school.

I wanted to be a sailor so they put me in the Greenwich Naval College. My dad bought me a bike and I used to cycle from Brixton Hill down to Greenwich to go to school. I was doing that for months until a car hit me – bang – in Camberwell and I finished up in St Giles’ Hospital with a broken leg.

When World War II came, my brother Dennis went into the RAF and flew Lancaster bombers, he did thirty tours and won the DFC. He won a scholarship and became a Lloyds underwriter but I was the dunce. If there were thirty in class, I was number thirty. I was seventeen years old but I put eighteen years old on the form and I volunteered for the navy. Unfortunately, I told them I was a van driver, so they told me, ‘Men of your level of qualification are required in the army.’ They put me in the infantry in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Then they told me they needed men in Burma and, if you volunteered, you got seven days leave. So I volunteered. I took the Empress of Scotland out of Southampton but, when I got to Port Said, they dropped the Atom Bomb. So they did not need us in Burma, instead they sent us to Palestine and Egypt, then Cyprus and Greece.

I met a girl there, Mary, and we came back together and we were married for many years. We adopted my son George who was her step-sister’s child. When he was eighteen months old, my wife left, she said ‘I’m going to see my cousin in Birmingham, look after him,’ and I did not see her again for years. I do not know what happened. George stayed in a nursery at Egham in the week, while I was working, and I picked him up at the weekend. I bought a house in Clapham and was doing it up and he came to stay with me there. I married Sheila who I had known since was eighteen. She was married to someone else and I was married to someone else. When she got divorced I rang her up and that was it, we have been together fifty-two years.

I became a cabdriver, driving a saloon with three doors and luggage rack on the side. With my partner Jack Laming, we started off with one cab. He had been chauffeur to Sir Duncan Hall-Lewis, they lived in the South of France. Jack came over to London and lived in the same block of flats as I did in Stockwell Rd. We bought this cab and we ran it together for the first year, alternating night and day. We changed over every month, but we both preferred night work because you can move about much quicker and you get couples and fours rather than solo passengers. That was all extra money.

Then we bought another cab. We started down in Melbourne Sq off Brixton Rd but, when we reached six cabs, Mr Good the owner said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to move.’ We moved up to a place in Stockwell and then we heard these arches were going so we came up here and we got this, luckily enough.

I have been a tenant of Network Rail since 1960. When I came here, these arches were nothing like they are now. There was one forty watt light bulb in each arch and a brick wall between them. It belonged to British Rail then, so I phoned them up and said, ‘I want to make a few improvements.’ They sent down a surveyor and he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to put a ramp in there and take up the cobblestones.’ He said, ‘You can do anything you like as long as you pay the rent.’ It was two pound fifty per arch per month then. Very reasonable.

When we first came here, it was like countryside. There was a little village green up the road with two-up-two-down cottages all the way round. It was a lovely village green, and I was friendly with the manage of the pub opposite and I used to park the cabs on the forecourt.

At one stage in the game, we had nearly forty-five cabs. Every year, we had to get our cabs overhauled as if they were new, clean the chassis and everything. Then people started asking us to do their cars, so I said,’Right, we’ll do cars!’ I was a motorcyclist because the only way to get around if you could not afford a car was on a motorbike, so we did cars, motorbikes and three-wheelers.’ That was how the garage started.

We were good at what we did and we never stitched people up, so everyone came back to us. Over the years, we have had the grandfathers, the fathers and the sons. People keep coming back.

Network Rail wanted to increase my rent by 350%. We do MOTs but we have not had a rise in our fees since 2010. In this respect, we are working for the government. We cannot increase our fees, but Network Rail can come along and say they want 350% increase. We paid £34,000 a year for three arches and they wanted £143,000 a year. It is not possible. We could just about manage £50,000 but that would be quite a high increase. It is a long way from two pounds fifty a month!

We battled with them and we got people together. United we stand. This is why we formed the Guardians of the Arches. We joined up with the Chu family from their garage in London Fields to fight this together. We are getting people together from all around the country.

When I spoke in the Houses of Parliament, we had people from Manchester, Newcastle, and Gateshead – all over the country – as well as London. We had a committee room and I got up and said my piece and other traders spoke as well. We are asking for a reasonable rent, not a 350% increase that will drive us out of business. Unless they increase the MOT fees, we cannot survive. BMW charge £150 an hour labour costs but we charge £70 an hour. If we put it up too much we will lose all our customers. Not everyone can afford it. There are hundreds of small businesses that are going to go out of out business, destroying livelihoods.

There are three neighbouring arches here. One has been empty eight years, one has been empty five years and Dentons catering equipment quit when they heard of the increase.

I am in favour of progress – I bought a washing machine last week using my apple watch – but I do not approve of them putting up the rent when they have not done a stroke of work in any of the arches for sixty years. All they have done is sit back and collect the money. Think of the money I have paid them since 1960, and there are thousands and thousands of us. It is diabolical, but I remain optimistic – I do not want to be anything else.”

Click to support GUARDIANS OF THE ARCHES crowdfunding campaign

The first photo of Ronnie with his mother and elder brother Dennis in the twenties.

Ronnie at seven or eight years old with his brother Dennis and aunties and friends in Bromley

Young Ronnie

In the thirties, Ronnie at sixteen years old, collecting milk crates for South Suburban Co-op at 16 Brixton Hill. He remembers the horse was called Trooper and the boy who wanted a lift was Percy Chamberlain.

Ronnie in his twenties, during World War II

Ronnie’s taxicab company

Ronnie as a cab driver

The Clapham railway arch as it was in 1960

Ronnie in a Ford 2000, designed by Patrick Head in the seventies

Ronnie at Silverstone, 1981

“At Silverstone on 31st March 1984, I spun, got on the grass and a Belgian smashed a car onto me. I lost my elbow and leg, I lay down in the mud and blacked out and thought this is the end! I was in hospital for nine months and visited by Jimmy Saville”

At Brands Hatch in the eighties

Memorabilia from Ronnie’s racing days

Ronnie and his son George who runs the garage with him today

Memorabilia from Ronnie’s racing days

Roger Price, AKA Roger the Lodger, twenty years at the garage

Memorabilia from Ronnie’s racing days

George Dunbarton, sixteen years at the garage

Memorabilia from Ronnie’s racing days

Ashley Gaynor, Manager, six years at the garage

Sarah Todd, Book Keeper at the garage

Ronnie and his beloved garage in Clapham

New photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Clapham North MOT, 629 Cottage Grove, Clapham North, SW9 9NJ

You may also like to read about

At Chu’s Garage, London Fields

At London Fields Railway Arches

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Anthony Finerty permalink
    May 28, 2019

    Loved your post today. As a motor racing fan never thought I would see a post like this on Spitalfields Life. I love the posts you do each day. Keep up your good work for a wonderful historical area of London.

  2. May 28, 2019

    These old time racers really were “The devil may care brigade “. There was nothing much in the way of safety where they sat. . Very few left of them, specially at 93 so well done Ronnie!
    Although the great Murray Walker is still with us . I wonder if he was the only person to ever meet his father on the battlefield . In 1945 he was driving a tank in battle in the final stages of the war in Germany where shots were still being fired popped his head out of the turret and standing there was his father who was a war reporter . He could not believe his eyes when he said “Hello Murray “. Isn’t that something ?

  3. Richard permalink
    May 29, 2019

    Enjoyed this great story. All the best to you.

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 30, 2019

    Go Ronnie!

    While racing is definitely not my thing I can relate to this story because I have worked in a railway arch in Bethnal Green and I know that the event business which was based there could definitely not have survived such an exorbitant increase in rents.

    I do hope that the Guardians of the Arches are successful in making Network Rail see sense and don’t destroy all the small businesses currently using their premises.

    Good luck with the campaign!

  5. May 30, 2019

    I started as a race marshal in the late sixties and remember Ronnie from those early days at various circuits and meetings around the country. Formula Vee/Supervee were important racing formulae at that time and started a number of drivers in careers that resulted in competing at the highest level
    I am still involved in motorsport as a volunteer after 40 years + and currently run rescue units for the BARC and other Clubs.

    I read the background and history with interest and it was good to recall those days when motorsport was less commercialised and more fun!

    Best wishes

    Paul Butt.

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 6, 2019

    Good luck to the Guardians of the Arches in their continued campaign. If anyone should overcome such greed shown by Network Rail, it is this amazing man and his fellow residents at the Arches who truly deserve to win.

  7. Ron Bunting permalink
    July 14, 2019

    I run my own tiny restoration business here in Australia and can relate to excessive rents. It’s hampering businesses of all sizes here as overseas investors buy up industrial properties and expect to get a high percentage return on their investments. Often those returns are the entire turnover of a business .Ronnies point about BMW charging 150 per hour is reflected here. The main dealers charge out at $250/hour here whereas I can only charge out at a fraction of that.
    Greed seems to be the business model of a lot of organisations in the 21st Century but as Ronnie also says,there are two arches near him which have been empty for years. I know of similar places near me because the rents ,often in 5 figures per month are simply too high. It seems like poor practice to me to own an empty building.
    The only thing London seems to have is electricity costs which are a fraction of the incredibly high prices we have been stuck with recently.

  8. Peter Metaxas permalink
    July 14, 2019

    What a great story. Part of my daily routine apart from eating, sleeping and breathing is to read the Spitalfields Life. My Mum [94 years] lives just off Valance Rd. near Rinkoff’s .
    Wonderfull stories and photos.
    Best Regards
    Peter Metaxas
    Iona, Prince Edward Island Canada

  9. Paul Heath permalink
    September 13, 2019

    Great to read this and see Ronnie is still going strong. We raced against him in F3 in the 1980s and he was a senior figure then! Hope he is successful in the fight, really interesting to read his full story.

  10. Jonathan permalink
    October 7, 2019

    Believe it or not, I call him uncle Ron. He has been my neighbour since I was 3 (22years). I saw him last week and at 94 he’s just the same as he has all ways been. I hope I’m still going as strong at 94. He is as amazing in real life as this report suggests. Still as sharp as ever.

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