Mr Big Healey: The Official Biography of John Chatham by Norman Burr – Review
By Richard Barnett
Think of subjects for racing driver biographies and all too often it’s Formula One that finds support from publishers. Those high-profile names have an appeal beyond the loyal followers of motor sport and their popularity (or otherwise) sells books.
But ask true classic car enthusiasts about the people they’re interested in, and those high-profile drivers probably won’t even get a mention. It’s those big players in the old car movement – drivers, mechanics, navigators – who command most respect and most interest.
So from the outset it’s a case of thank goodness for Veloce, the west country publisher whose biographies cover those who might not be household names, but do have a key role in motoring history or today’s classic car movement. Republished last year but originally offered in April 2010, ‘Mr Big Healey – The Official Biography of John Chatham’ charts the story of one of the classic car movement’s most endearing characters.
Chatham, born in 1940 to Midlands parents who had moved to Bristol, clearly preferred woodwork and metalwork classes at school to more academic subjects. When his father bought a garage in Bristol it was clear where he would be directing his learning.
“Thoroughly interesting, sometimes amusing, often compelling read”
The classic car movement has its characters, and it also has those people who will be associated with certain makes and models. Chatham fell in love with Austin-Healeys when he saw a brand-new red model in a local showroom. Having become used to the tired, smoky old saloons still cluttering the streets of Bristol throughout the 1950s, Chatham saw the Healey as something way more glamorous.
Having driven cars before being legally entitled to – including vans from the local bakery that his father’s garage maintained – Chatham ended up buying his very own Austin-Healey aged 19. That rebuilt car, which had been damaged and repaired, set its new owner back £365. From that begins his association with the to-this-day immensely popular sports car.
Author Norman Burr, an engineer whose Austin-Healey enthusiasm led to a friendship with Chatham, has an excellent turn of phrase and, while clearly writing for an enthusiast audience, doesn’t get bogged down in information that is usually the preserve of ‘anoraks’.
Instead, he charts Chatham’s business working with Austin-Healeys, and what free time he had competing with them. His long-term ownership of ‘DD300’, the ‘Big Healey’ he will always be associated with, is woven throughout much of the story, including his decision to sell it.
Too many motor sport biographies are weighted down in statistics and pay little attention to the subject as a person. John Chatham – ‘Mr Big Healey’, is the opposite. Author Burr’s light touch makes this a thoroughly interesting, sometimes amusing, often compelling read that is recommended to motor sports fans of any vintage.
‘John Chatham – Mr Big Healey: The Ofﬁcial Biography’, £24.99 published by Veloce