During their teenage years, the brothers had both been bitten by the motorcycle bug and competed in sand races, speed trials and grass track events and they were both founder members of the reformed Westmorland Motor Club. Harry and Geoffrey were pioneer speedway riders too. Harry had finished 2nd to his brother in the 350cc event at the first Whitehaven meeting in July 1930 and they were both winners of the Silver Goblet and Silver Rose Bowl at Barrow-In-Furness speedway during the same year. At one stage Harry was a promising novice at the Preston speedway track, but then he lost his left arm in a shooting accident and everyone presumed his motorcycle racing days were over - everyone except Harry that is! With the aid of an artificial forearm and a hook, Harry started riding again and even amused himself by riding speedway again, albeit behind closed doors at the famous Belle Vue track in Manchester. He was such a fan of the sport that he would drive down to Manchester to watch the "Aces" most weeks and it was here that he first saw Midget Car Speedway. On May 16th 1935, Belle Vue Speedway presented an "All Car Meeting", which was reported as a failure, but it obviously caught the imagination of some and fired a new enthusiasm in Harry Skirrow.
Harry returned to Ambleside and built his own midget racer based on the wreck of an old BSA Scout. He returned to Belle Vue as a competitor and despite having the fastest car around the Manchester track, he was still not satisfied. With the help of Walter Mackereth, a blacksmith from Kendal, they built a new car and took it to Flookburgh Sands for testing. They experimented with front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and different wheelbases until they eventually produced a car that they were both satisfied with and turned their attentions to domination of the UK midget speedway car scene.
|The fully developed "Skirrow Special" from 1936 |
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
In the letter Harry describes how, with more enthusiasm than judgement, he sold his garage at Ambleside and put all his resources into producing a car that fulfilled the rules of midget car racing in the USA. He then relocated to London and rented a workshop from Victor Martin in Tottenham. Harry had asked the neighbouring firm of J.A.Prestwich to produce a 1000cc air-cooled v-twin engine based on two 500cc speedway J.A.P. units. The two cylinders were mated to a common crankcase and each cylinder had its own twin monobloc Amal carburettor and ran on methanol. This engine became known as the 996cc J.A.P. 8/80. The chassis and pressed steel disc wheels were produced by Rubery Owen and Harry also persuaded John Bull to produce special tyres using the same tread pattern and compounds as the larger 20" speedway bike tyres.
By the Spring of 1936 Harry had produced his first few complete cars and presented them to Eric Spence at Belle Vue Speedway. At first he wasn't interested as he wanted to produce his own cars based on the American Elto design, so Harry became a partner in Liverpool Speedway which allowed him to race and demonstrate his cars to his hearts content. It wasn't long before the Skirrow was recognised as the best car for the job and Harry eventually joined forces with Jim Baxter and the Belle Vue management to form a national midget car racing league with Harry and his wife promoting their own tracks at Lea Bridge in London and at Coventry in the Midlands.
Not only was Harry a talented designer, fabricator and a budding businessman, he was also an exceptional driver. In his book "Coventry's Two Speedways", author Colin Parker describes how Harry managed to turn his car onto its side during a meeting at Wembley. He scrambled out, pushed it back onto four wheels with his single arm and carried on racing. The same book also describes how the cars had to be transported from their Tottenham workshops to the Brandon track at Coventry, either on the back of a truck or being towed behind it, with the "driver" exposed to the elements in all kinds of British weather.
In his letter Harry continues to describe the diffficulties he faced. Despite being totally under capitalised and running into severe financial difficulties during the recession of the 1930s, Harry did not give up on his dream and persevered with developing his Skirrow Special and promoting racing or "Doodle Dicing" as it had become known, at more venues. He had plans to introduce his "Doodle Bugs" to the Moorville Speedway in Carlisle in partnership with Roland Stobbart and Jimmy Baxter, but the venue never recovered from the financial disaster of its one and only motorcycle speedway meeting and the proposed project never materialised.
|996cc J.A.P. 8/80 engine.|
|A cutaway showing the 4-wheel drive chassis of the Skirrow.|
|Action from Coventry in 1937. |
Ginger Pashley in an Elto leads Walter Mackereth in a Skirrow.
|Harry sitting at the wheel of the final development of the Skirrow Special.|
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
After the war had ended there was no immediate resumption of midget car racing and Harry found that he had lost touch with his associates and his cars. More importantly, Harry wasn't willing to take any more financial risks having lost everything in the 1940 air-raids. Bill Kitchen and his brother Jack were due to be demobbed from the Army and would be returning to the family business, so Harry decided it was time to move on again, this time to Devon.
The family bought a house in Maidencombe, just outside of Torquay and Harry persuaded his brother Geoffrey to join them. The two brothers bought a market garden and then sold it for a hefty profit in 1947. Their next venture was to buy the Loughton Motor Company in London together with some war surplus Nissan huts, which were erected next to the garage and rented out as storage.
Harry had managed to recover three badly damaged Skirrow cars from the remains of his garage at the bombed out house in London and had taken them to Devon where he rebuilt two and sold them. The third chassis became a donor for a single-seat sports car that Harry built in order to travel to London and back whilst overseeing his business. The car was described as looking like a miniature Allard. It used the same 996cc 8/80 J.A.P. engine as the midget racers with the addition of a 4-speed motorcycle gearbox, which Harry modified to give the car a reverse gear. Unlike the racing cars, this road legal Skirrow was front wheel drive, ran on petrol and could return 70mpg at a steady 60mph.
|Harry with his home-made sports car, which he drove to London and back on a regular basis.|
Harry sailed a 14 feet redwing yacht with the Babbacombe Corinthian Sailing Club, where he built and installed a motorised winch to haul the boats up the beach and also built trailers for other club members. Harry still had a strong competitive streak too and was awarded the prestigious Sir Reginald Leeds Trophy in 1959 after nine consecutive race wins in the Torbay Regatta and two race wins at Falmouth.
|Harry out sailing in 1953.|
(Photo coutesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
He was once asked in a newspaper if having only one arm had made life difficult... "Oh no" he said, "If I had another arm I just wouldn't know what to do with it, I can do most jobs and if I'm beaten I just ask for help. With this hook I can hold a welding rod right down to the last bit without burning my fingers, but there are some things that are on the official list of things I can't manage, like the washing up".
Shortly before he died Harry said to his wife... "I think I've done just about everything in life that I wanted to", to which his wife replied... "Yes - You bloody well have!".
But what became of the Skirrow cars? Victor Martin continued to provide service and spares after the war under the name of "Skirrow Special Cars Ltd" and his friend and colleague Walter Mackereth continued to race with great success in Hamburg and Paris. Most of the remaining cars were purchased by David Hughes, a midget car racing enthusiast from the East Midlands, who had built his own racing track in 1949 at Brafield in Northamptonshire. Hughes then took the Skirrows on tour in 1950 followed by the formation of the Midlands Midget Speedway Car League in late 1951. Sadly, the league featuring teams from Birmingham, Cradley Heath, Coventry and Leicester was short lived and was abandoned before the year was out. By the end of the 1950s the cars were beginning to wear out and Victor Martin was no longer able to provide back-up. Some of the cars were cannibalised to keep others going but Hughes eventually had to admit defeat. Thankfully a few Skirrows have survived and are now in the hands of enthusiasts and collectors who acknowledge the historical importance of the Skirrow Special.