Scotsman Obituaries: John Sprinzel, car racer and modifier, author and windsurfer

John Sprinzel, car racer and modifier. Born: 25 October 1930 in Berlin. Died: May 2021 in Molokai, Hawaii, aged 90.

John Sprinzel was dedicated to making road cars go faster (Picture: Tom Coulthard and Paul Woolmer)
John Sprinzel was dedicated to making road cars go faster (Picture: Tom Coulthard and Paul Woolmer)

John Sprinzel was a British saloon car, touring car and rally racer who won the British Rally Championship (BRC) in 1959 and went on to become a successful racing car modifier, motor sports entrepreneur, author, rally organiser and world championship-level windsurfer.

He was dedicated to making road cars go faster, from Austin A-35s and Morris Minors to Austin-Healey Sprites, culminating with the highly successful Sebring Sprite which he largely developed.

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One of the first mechanics he hired for his own Speedwell racing team in Golders Green, London was a 28-year-old called Graham Hill, who would go on to become double Formula One World Champion for BRM and Lotus and win 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 of the 186 finishers in the Monte Carlo rally the same year. In 1960, he came second in both the RAC rally in Britain and the Liège-Rome-Liège event, as well as fourth in the Safari Rally in a private-entry Mercedes 190.

As a road racer, this time in an American 7-litre Ford Galaxie – “the first Galaxie to arrive in England,” he said – he started in pole position for the 1963 Brands Hatch Six Hours endurance race but, in horrendously wet conditions, was being well beaten by the Jaguar Mk 11 3.8 entrants when his bonnet came loose and he was disqualified.

He also drove in the 1960 12 Hours of Sebring sports car endurance race in Florida in an Austin-Healey Sprite he had modified and called the Sebring Sprite.

When Australian advertising mogul Wylton Dickson and Northern Irish rally driver Paddy Hopkirk had what they rightly called the “madcap idea” of a London-Mexico rally in 1970 to coincide with England’s participation in the World Cup football finals there, they turned to Sprinzel to organise it.

He rounded up 96 entrants from 22 countries to start from Wembley Stadium, scene of England’s World Cup triumph four years earlier, on a 38-day, 16,000-mile odyssey through 19 countries via a boat crossing from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and ending up at Mexico City’s Azteca stadium where the ’70 final would be played.

On 19 April, winning World Cup manager Alf Ramsey waved the starter’s flag. His on-field captain Bobby Moore was there to dig up a sod of the hallowed turf to be carried in the boot of each entrant and re-planted at the Azteca. Word has it that most sods were found just outside Calais as drivers relieved themselves of car weight as well as urine

Sprinzel persuaded Moore’s 1966 World Cup squad teammate Jimmy Greaves, a self-confessed “petrolhead,” to drive a Ford Escort alongside professional rally ace Tony Fall. Greaves finished an astonishing sixth in the rally.

The rally was won on 27 May by Finnish driver Hannu Mikola and his Swedish navigator Gunnar Palm in a works Ford Escort sponsored by the Daily Telegraph. To this day, given the challenging logistics of half a century ago, it is considered one of the greatest endurance rallies ever held, and one of the best-organised.

Hans Helmut Sprinzel was born in Berlin on 25 October 1930 but when Hitler came to power in 1933, initiating repression against Jews and the vandalising of Jewish businesses, his father, Paul, set up his own printing firm in Golder’s Green, London, and young Hans became known as John.

He was educated at Christ’s College secondary school in Finchley, north London, and the Regent Street Polytechnic in the centre of the capital before starting as an apprentice printer in his father’s firm after World War Two and doing his compulsory two-year National Service in the Royal Air Force.

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In 1955, he entered the RAC Rally, saying he would be driving an Austin A30. The only snag was that he didn’t have an A30.

So he called his mother and asked if he could borrow hers to go for a quiet sightseeing trip to Wales with a mate.

She was fine with that until BBC TV showed a clip of the RAC rally finishing in Blackpool, with an Austin A30 finishing fifth in its class. “That looks like John! That looks like my car!” she said. Having souped up an Austin A35 himself, he won his first road race at Goodwood on Whit Monday, 1957.

Asked by many petrolheads to get their cars to go faster, he first set up Speedwell Racing, where he hired and later sold the business to Graham Hill.

He then set up John Sprinzel Racing in London’s Lancaster Mews, which attracted not only petrolheads but celebrity buyers or simply wanna-be-seeners. He recalled Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones coming in with friends in a Cadillac. “He was a bit out of it,” Sprinzel recalled.

After his rally organising and subsequent retirement, Sprinzel sailed his yacht for a while with his wife Caryl, mostly around the Aegean, before setting up a windsurfing school in Corfu. That led to him help organise a Greek team, who asked him to participate with them in the fledgling world championships of 1982 and ’83.

He and Caryl later “retired” – although both were still active in sport and local community work – to the small Hawaiian island of Molokai, a former leper colony.

He wrote three books: Sleepless Knights (1962), Spritely Years (1994) and Lucky John (2013), the latter title referring to the various career shunts that led to his nickname.

His wife Caryl said he died on Molokai during the last few days of May but she did not wish to specify the date. He had kept windsurfing into his eighties – “probably the oldest windsurfer in the world,” he said. To carry his surfboard to the beach, he stuck it on his old “Bugeye” Austin-Healey Sprite.

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