I have long admired the racing successes of Holbay Engineering as well as the historical connection with Lotus. I had read numerous articles and road test reports on various Lotus cars fitted with Holbay tuned engines – especially the Seven – and decided to try and find out more about the company, and why it went out of business circa 1992.
As a preface to my search for information, I had been a customer of Holbay for a year or so in the early 90s while I purchased new engine parts to replace worn out original Ford Crossflow parts. Whenever I wrote to Holbay Engineering with an order, a very helpful gentleman by the name of John Read would personally reply, provide pricing and availability plus detailed instructions on fitting the new Holbay parts. If there were any errors or omissions, Mr. Read would respond, and I would receive replacement items very quickly.
Approximately 2001, I e-mailed Holbay Engineering at the e-mail address on their then web site with a request for replacement parts. Never receiving a reply, I did a bit of digging and found out that after the untimely death of John Read in a flying accident, the company formed by him had folded in 1992. The web site was still being maintained in 2001 or thereabouts, but the Holbay Company had moved from the original address on Betts Avenue, Martlesham Heath, to a new location, a nearby village in Grundisburgh, and was now selling and servicing cars. There was no indication that the Engineering side of the business was still in operation. In 2002/2003, Richard Coles bought the engineering equipment from the ‘new’ Holbay business, and started up his own company called Coltec Racing Engines Ltd. Mr. Coles hired one of the original Holbay Engineering machinists, and commenced production and machining processes for Ford and other car makes plus motorcycles.
I came across a connection between Paul and Roger Dunnell and Holbay in John Tipler’s book “Lotus and Caterham Seven – Racers for the Road”. Mr. Tipler mentions Dunnell Engines in connection with some of the Caterham models, and credits Paul Dunnell’s father – Roger Dunnell – as the founder of Holbay Engineering. I had read of Dunnell Engineering’s accomplishments many times in Cars and Car Conversions, a long running, but now defunct British car enthusiast magazine (note: to be resurrected as an on-line magazine as of August 2009, by the sister publication Race Car Engineering via that web site). The magazine covered nearly every aspect of road and racing, and often in the latter years, featured articles involving Dunnell built and tuned engines in either Zetec or Duratec form.
I took the liberty of contacting Paul Dunnell regarding the Holbay connection, and he was very helpful and willing to answer my questions. I have his permission to reprint his answers.
Following in a Q and A format is an edited copy of our e-mails.
Q: I read on Holbay’s old web site (dated 2001) that they credit John Read with the founding of the original Holbay Group in 1959. However I read that your father had a great deal to do with the formation of the company or was the actual founder. Which is correct?
A: Roger was the oldest of 9 children, John being the youngest. Although they had different surnames, they were very much brothers, not half-brothers. My grandmother was a formidable lady, and kept her surname for the first 3 children. I always assumed that in fact she did not marry my grandfather until later, and that would explain the anomaly, but no, she didn’t get on with Grandfather’s side of the family, and so refused to take the name!
Q: How did the business get started?
A: Uncle John (Read) started the business in 1958/9. At the time we were living in Sheffield, and my father, Roger, built the engines in our cellar. It was not until later (1964) that we eventually moved to Suffolk, John having acquired premises at Martlesham Heath. Both my brother Malcolm and I worked as children alongside Dad and John, and of course later took a full time role within the company. In essence, Uncle John was the boss, who did all the deals, whilst Dad, Malcolm and I, along with a team of engineers and machinists, produced the engines and attended all the race meetings throughout Europe.
Q: As a customer of Holbay Engineering in 1991/1992, I always received personal follow-up and advice from John Read, and was saddened to read of his tragic accident pursuing the hobby he so much enjoyed. Many years later I was advised by Richard Coles that he had taken over Holbay Engineering in approximately 2003. Mr. Coles mentioned that he had managed to hire a former employee from the Holbay days, but was not able to provide much information on Holbay – the company, or the parts situation previous to his take-over. He did mention that some of the Holbay tuning parts were actually manufactured by Cosworth and re-badged by Holbay. Was there a strong Cosworth/Holbay connection during your father’s ownership do you know?
A: Malcolm had left the company around 1985, while I stayed on until 1989/90, before setting up Dunnell Engines. John’s death in 1992 dealt a blow to Holbay that it was unable to survive. It subsequently went into liquidation. Many of the machines were purchased by a gentleman from the Isle of Man (forgotten his name!), who set up Holbay Classic in the nearby village of Grundisburgh. To all intents and purposes, the business, although using the Holbay name, had little to do with its former self. Its main business being the sale of road cars and servicing of same. When this business folded for the second time in 2002/3, Mr. Coles (who had worked there at the time) purchased the equipment, and formed a new company named Coltec. I see that the name Holbay is still used as a link to Coltec. To my knowledge one of the old Holbay workers, a machinist, is still employed at Coltec. I’m sure that Mr. Coles could provide further information if pushed, but the fact of the matter is that apart from the domain name Holbay.co.uk, there is no tangible link to the Holbay that both you and I understand. The suggestion that a link existed between Cosworth and Holbay is ridiculous, and we certainly did not use Cosworth parts in our engines, although John and Keith (Duckworth) did exchange Christmas cards for many years. Dad continued to work until well into his eighties with John, and helped both Malcolm and I in setting up Dunnell Engines.
Q: To your knowledge has there ever been a book published on Holbay Engineering and its racing successes? I have searched the web, but there seems to be little information on Holbay as a formidable tuner/successful race engine manufacturer during the time of Lotus and its racing efforts.
A: I have been approached on three occasions to help write the history of Holbay. Until Dad’s death in 2005 it was a possibility, but now I feel less able. He was not only my Dad, but my best friend and I miss him dearly. Rebecca (John’s daughter), Malcolm and I are very proud of what was achieved. In our opinion Holbay ceased to trade in 1992. We take a dim view of the shenanigans from 1992 to the present.
Q: The connection between Cosworth and Holbay was suggested by Mr. Coles, but I find it puzzling that some of the old Lotus test reports in my collection from Autosport, Motor, Classic Cars etc., refer to the Holbay tuned Twin-Cam engines being further tuned for some Lotus road/racing cars by Cosworth. I do not understand why Cosworth would have to do any further work to race engines that have been fully tuned by Holbay. It is obvious that Holbay had all the expertise they ever needed to fully tune any twin-cam ever built. This is just my observation, but perhaps the report writers were merely passing on the information supplied by the respective owners, regarding their choice of engine builder. The reasons for both companies being involved is never clarified in the road tests.
A: Can’t recall that Cosworths were ever heavily involved into the old T/C. Remember that at that period they were developing and in production of the FVA/ C and DFV, with the BDA just being talked about, so the T/C would have not really been of much interest. They did of course do a few for Clark’s Cortina. However, if you want to copy the text of the article over, I’ll try and see what it’s all about. Indeed, we didn’t use the T/C until F3 rules changed in 1972 allowing its use. We started the development programme in June/July 1970, and displayed our new engine at the Racing Car Show in January 1971. It of course went on to win us many championships, until again the rules allowed 2.0 litre engines into the series in 1974, upon which we developed the Pinto F3 unit as a replacement.
It is often assumed that we produced loads of other spec T/Cs. This is incorrect. Only a handful of T/Cs other than F3 or F3 based race engines were ever built. Of course, the most publicised of these were the ones built for Lotus and used in the 7. I remember it well!