Obituary: Maurice Gatsonides

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The Independent Culture
IT IS taken for granted now that leading rally drivers are full- time professionals who make a handsome living from the sport. This was not the case between the wars and in the years just after the Second World War, when most rally drivers were keen amateurs who drove for the fun of it and were happy if a manufacturer provided a car for them and covered their expenses. Maurice Gatsonides deserves the credit for breaking the mould as he was probably the first full-time professional.

He was born in 1911 in Gombong, Java - in what was then the Dutch East Indies - where his diplomat father was posted. His parents then returned to Holland where he was educated. He joined KLM and qualified as a commercial pilot but left in 1935 to open a motor business near Haarlem.

An enthusiasm for motor sport led him to start rally driving. His first major event was the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally in which he drove a Hillman Minx saloon, so beginning a long association with British cars. His first important success was in the 1939 Liege-Rome-Liege rally driving a Riley Kestrel; he finished fourth. This event was run in late August and there were fears that the war would start before the competitors had completed the course.

During the Second World War, Gatsonides built up a profitable business making charcoal gas generators which kept cars and commercial vehicles running in occupied Holland where there was no petrol. This was a useful cover for his work in the Dutch resistance, helping escaped prisoners of war.

When the war ended he resumed his motor trading activities and also tried to become a car manufacturer at his garage at Heemsteede. He built a car using a Ford V-8 engine and other Ford parts which was called the Gatso or Gatford. This had startling aerodynamics with a cluster of lights on the front and covered occupants with a perspex canopy. The Gatso did not prosper, as it was under-capitalised and Ford components were hard to get.

Gatsonides now had agencies for Studebaker and the British Hillman and Humber. He took a Studebaker on his first major post-war rally, the 1947 Alpine Trial, and when the Monte Carlo Rally was revived in 1949, he won an award with a Hillman. The following year he was second overall with a Humber Super Snipe, a most unlikely rally car.

While the Monte had the glamour and the publicity, to the real rallyist success in the Alpine was the true criterion of a leading driver. The Alpine ran for a week in high summer over the toughest Alpine passes; the aim was to win an Alpine Cup for finishing without losing any marks. In 1951, Gatsonides was offered a works Jaguar XK 120 for the Alpine and Bill Mackenzie, the motoring correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, went with him as navigator and co-driver. The Jaguar broke down on the last day with a water leak when a cup was in sight; afterwards Mackenzie said he would never go with Gatsonides again, it was too frightening.

In the 1952 Alpine he again used an XK 120 and this time secured a cup. His great win though, which secured him a permanent place in rallying history, was the 1953 Monte when he drove a Ford Zephyr; afterwards he admitted that he had taken the easier route over the Massif Central, but despite this had lost time and his winning margin was only three seconds.

The Monte always had a strong element of chance and in 1954 Gatsonides was paired with another former winner Marcel Becquart in a works DB 2/4 Aston Martin. They had a huge lead but lost it when Becquart missed a secret control and they fell to seventh place.

Gatsonides also tried his hand at motor racing, but he was a steady long- distance driver rather than a wheel-to-wheel racer, so in his four appearances in the Le Mans 24-hour race he treated it more as a fast rally than a race; he was placed 12th with an Austin-Healey in 1953 and 11th with a Frazer Nash in 1954. He also drove a Triumph TR2 in the 1954 Mille Miglia, the legendary Italian open road race. He was nominated as a co-driver of a Maserati in the 1952 Dutch Grand Prix but the car fell out so he never had the chance to match his abilities against the grand-prix drivers of the day.

In 1954 Gatsonides switched his rallying allegiance to Triumph and stayed with the British firm for the next four years, gaining Alpine Cups in 1954 and 1956 and many minor places. During this time, he also had successful outings with Porsche and DKW.

By the end of the 1950s a new and younger generation of rally drivers had emerged, so he gracefully moved away from the front-line events but still kept active driving Citroen ID19s in the Mobil Economy Runs, rallies which required rapidity with a light throttle foot. He won the Mobil event in 1958, and scored a hat-trick between 1964 and 1966.

Gatsonides retired as an active competition driver in the mid-1960s but showed his talent in a new and very profitable field. He had considerable skill as an electrical and electronic engineer and developed two devices which have had a great impact on British motorists.

First he invented the familiar timing device for catching speeding drivers, using two parallel rubber tubes set a short distance apart which operate pressure switches as vehicles cross them. His second device was the Gatso flash camera which is now a familiar feature on road junctions throughout Britain, apprehending drivers who jump traffic lights.

Maurice Gatsonides was a man of great charm who had many friends in Britain; his son is now managing director of the Gatso electronic companies.

Maurice Gatsonides, rally driver: born Gombong, Java 14 February 1911; married 1941 (one son, and one daughter deceased); died 29 November 1998.