Obituary: Phil Heath

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the final links with 1930s racing at Donington Park in Leicestershire was broken with the death of Phil Heath. Today Donington is the established host to the British Motorcycle Grand Prix; Heath knew it as a parkland racecourse in more carefree days and in recent times was an organiser in classic racing.

He was born in 1915, the son of a Leicester insurance agent; he was educated at Oakham School and teamed with a friend he met there to make his racing debut in 1934. It was in a Morgan three-wheeler, previously used by Robin Jackson to win a 100mph Gold Star at Brooklands in Surrey and the novices found it a very powerful handful. "We touched the grass verge on both sides going down the straight," Rob Buxton remembers. "We turned it over once but weren't hurt, and then we did get a third place in one race."

A member of the Officer Training Corps at Oakham, Heath was an early volunteer in the Second World War and served with the Royal Artillery in Egypt. Inevitably a motorcycle came into his life, but the old AJS he bought in Cairo and painted khaki before riding it back to camp at Mersa Matru had to be left behind when the battery moved on.

In the early post-war years he was a noted rider, with second place in the 1948 1,000cc Clubmans TT, riding a Vincent HRD. That same year he was runner-up in the 350cc Manx Grand Prix and, with that level of success behind him, turned professional in 1949.

For two years he and his old partner Rob Buxton spent the summer months driving across Europe in an ex-RAF Ford van, carrying Heath's two solo racing machines and Buxton's 1932 Norton sidecar outfit from one race meeting to another. Living quarters were a tent, Heath's equipment his old army issue. He was also sending freelance reports back to England, and his description of the 1949 season in Geoff Davison's The Racing Year (1950) remains one of the most evocative accounts of racing in that period.

This nomadic life was a good learning ground, both in riding skills and in negotiating start-money with race promoters. At their first race the body of the ageing sidecar collapsed and Heath had to perch on the chassis tubes to stay aboard, but the veteran Norton earned its keep. "It was our start-money goldmine," Buxton explains. "We could get as much as pounds 50 for starting with the sidecar - the European organisers loved them."

Heath met his wife, Annette, then a young journalist, at a Belgian race meeting. They married in 1953 and he carried on the perilous life of a professional racer, Annette riding her little FN machine to fetch and carry spares. When Heath retired from full-time racing, he worked as a sales representative for the Excelsior Company of Birmingham and later sold advertising for the emergent newspaper Motor Cycle News.

He never retired officially, dividing his time between freelance writing, selling the spares that filled the extensive glasshouses in the grounds of the family home in Leicestershire, and running the library service for the Vintage Motor Cycle Club, of which he was a founder member. When Donington Park circuit was reopened in 1977, he was part of the celebratory parade, as one of the oldest original competitors from the original circuit.

He was due to spend time on research work in the Vintage Club's headquarters in Burton-on-Trent on Christmas Eve, and spent the night with a friend at what he called his "halfway house" stop in Ibstock, but on 24 December he did not wake up.

Frank Philip Heath, motorcycle racer: born 18 January 1915; married (one daughter); died Ibstock, Leicestershire 23 December 1998.