Obituary: John Sprinzel, legendary pilot and entrepreneur who always needs speed
Death: May 2021.
JOHN Sprinzel, who died at the age of 90, was a British international sedan, touring car and rally driver who won the British Rally Championship (BRC) in 1959 and became a racing car modifier at successful, motorsport entrepreneur, author, rally organizer and world championship level windsurfer.
After creating a school teaching the nascent sport of windsurfing in Corfu, he was part of the Greek team at the 1982 and 1983 world championships.
For most of his life he was dedicated to making road cars faster, from the Austin A-35s and Morris Minors to the Austin-Healey Sprites, culminating in the highly successful Sebring Sprite, which he largely developed. .
One of the first mechanics he hired for his own Speedwell racing team at Golders Green, London, was a 28-year-old called Graham Hill, who would go on to become two-time Formula 1 world champion for BRM and Lotus and winning both the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Sprinzel himself drove a Sprite and an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Ti to win the 1959 BRC, and another Sprite to finish 14th out of 186 at the Monte-Carlo rally the same year. In 1960, he finished second in the RAC rally in Great Britain and in the Liège-Rome-Liège event, as well as fourth in the Safari Rallye at the wheel of a private Mercedes 190.
As a road racer, this time in an American seven-liter Ford Galaxie – “the first Galaxy to arrive in England” he said – he started on pole position for the Brands Hatch Six endurance race. Hours 1963 but, in horribly wet conditions, was well beaten by the Jaguar Mk 11 3.8 when its hood came off and it was disqualified.
He also competed in the 1960 12 Hours of Sebring, a sports car endurance race in Florida, in an Austin-Healey Sprite he modified and called the Sebring Sprite. This model has become something of a legend in the sport, playing dice with the mighty Ferraris and Porsches on the track despite its much smaller engine.
When Australian advertising mogul Wylton Dickson and North Irish rally driver Paddy Hopkirk had what they rightly called the “crazy idea” of a London-Mexico rally in 1970 to coincide with England’s participation in the FIFA World Cup final there, they turned to Sprinzel to organize it.
It brought together 96 participants from 22 countries from Wembley Stadium, the scene of England’s World Cup triumph four years earlier, on a 38-day, 16,000-mile odyssey through 19 countries via a crossing by boat from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and ending at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City where the 1970 final would be played.
On April 19, Sir Alf Ramsey, who had led England to this 1966 triumph, waved the starter’s flag. Its field captain, Bobby Moore, was there to dig up a piece of sacred turf to haul into each participant’s boot and replant at the Azteca. Rumor has it that most of the turf was found just outside Calais as drivers relieved themselves of the extra weight.
Working in a basement office in Belgrave Square, London, Sprinzel persuaded Moore’s 1966 World Cup teammate Jimmy Greaves, a self-confessed “gas freak”, to drive a Ford Escort alongside professional rally ace Tony Fall. Prince Michael of Kent, 27, the Queen’s cousin and die-hard boy-racer, also didn’t need a lot of persuasion to compete in an Austin 1800. Greaves finished an astonishing sixth place in the rally while that HRH Prince Michael was the last. seen somewhere in Mexico, although it eventually resurfaced safely in Mexico City.
The rally was won on May 27 by Finnish driver Hannu Mikola and his Swedish navigator Gunnar Palm in a factory Ford Escort sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
It was a story in itself: the rally was sponsored by the Daily Mirror, which spent a fortune there in hopes of boosting its readership during the World Cup years. But the Telegraph had quietly made a deal with the two pilots and the car company Ford, knowing they had a good chance of winning in their well-prepared 1850 GT Escort. Much to the Mirror’s dismay, the result was a scoop for The Telegraph, which had the exclusive rights to the Mikkola and Palm stories.
To this day, given the difficult logistics of half a century ago, it is considered one of the greatest endurance rallies ever and one of the best organized.
Hans Helmut Sprinzel was born in Berlin on October 25, 1930 but when Hitler came to power in 1933, initiating the crackdown on Jews and vandalism of Jewish businesses, his father Paul, a screen printer in the fashion industry, knew that much worse was coming soon. He moved his family to England and set up his own printing house in Golder’s Green, London. Young Hans became known as John and obtained British citizenship in 1940.
He was educated at Christ’s College High School in Finchley, north London, and Regent Street Polytechnic in the center of the capital, before starting as an apprentice printer in his father’s business after the war and to perform his compulsory two-year national service in the RAF.
He then worked for another printing house as a production manager before he got the motorsport bug and felt the need for speed.
In 1949, at the age of 18, he started “grass races” on his Ariel Red Hunter motorcycle. A four-wheeler graduate in 1955, he entered the RAC Rally, claiming he would drive an Austin A30. He got in so early that he was given number one to stick on his hood and doors. The only catch was that he didn’t have an A30. So he called his mother and asked if he could borrow hers to take a leisurely sightseeing trip to Wales with a friend.
She was okay with that until BBC TV showed a clip from the RAC rally ending in Blackpool, with an Austin A30 finishing fifth in its class.
“Later, I heard that mum said to daddy, ‘That looks like John! It looks like my car! ‘ … Mom was a good athlete, ”recalls Sprinzel. After inflating an Austin A35 himself, he won his first road race at Goodwood on Whit Monday, 1957. Motorsport enthusiasts were starting to notice the Sprinzel name.
“We agreed that we had to take advantage of it because these people wanted conversions on their cars,” he recalls. “So we started a business (Speedwell), working part-time, and it was so successful, so quickly. Then a young man named Graham Hill walked through the door during my morning print shift and said, “Heard you need mechanics!” In the end I sold [the business] to Graham.
Sprinzel went on to set up John Sprinzel Racing in the Lancaster Mews in London, which attracted not only oil enthusiasts but also famous buyers or just those who wanted to be seen. At the time, it was the largest MG dealer in the world. He remembered Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones coming with friends in a Cadillac. “He was a little beside himself,” Sprinzel recalls.
Sprinzel had his last motorsport race in an MG Midget in the 1968 London-Sydney rally. He was in the top 10 overall and the first private competitor, when the Midget suffered an axle failure. His driving career was over.
After his rally organization and subsequent retirement, Sprinzel sought a life first on land and then by the ocean, one of his first loves as a child. Leaving a small farm in Northamptonshire, he sailed for some time on his yacht with his wife Caryl, mainly around the Aegean Sea, before setting up a windsurfing school in Corfu. This led him to help organize a Greek team, which asked him to compete with them in the fledgling world championships of 1982 and 1983.
He and Caryl then “retired” – though both are still active in sports and local community work – to the small Hawaiian island of Molokai, a former leper colony.
For many years he served as Chairman of the Island Planning Council and authored three volumes of memoirs: Sleepless Knights (1962), Spritely Years (1994) and Lucky John (2013), the latter title referring to various career shunts that led to his nickname. He has also written regular columns on motorsport for specialist magazines and UK national newspapers.
His wife Caryl said he died in Molokai during the last days of May but she declined to specify the date or cause of his death. He continued to windsurf until he was 80 – “probably the oldest windsurfer in the world,” he said recently, adding that his wife was “a better windsurfer and pilot than I am!”