Harry Lester, His Cars & The Monkey Stable

Reproduced below is the front and back cover of a new book which is currently being printed and will be available in late April/early May priced at 25 GBP. The paragraphs on the back cover are reproduced here as they encapsulate the essence of the book.

“Garage owner and expert tuner of MG cars, Harry Lester was one of the more successful sports car competitors in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1949 he designed and built his own car, with a rigid tubular chassis, lightweight aluminium body and utilising the favoured engine of many club racers of the time, the XPAG unit from the MG TC.

So successful was the car in his hands that a trio of wealthy young amateur racers decided to form a team and commissioned him to build them a car each, plus a spare. They called themselves “The Monkey Stable” and enjoyed much success in their first year, 1952, a highlight being winning the team prize at the first 9 hours race at Goodwood.

In subsequent years their fortunes changed, as did their cars, going to Kieft MGs in 1953, then back to Lesters in 1955. In the interim, the Monkey Stable drivers twice drove for the Bristol team at Le Mans and one of their number, Pat Griffith, briefly became a works driver for Aston Martin, partnering Peter Collins in a number of long-distance events.

It all ended in tragedy, however, when team founder Jim Mayers was killed at Dundrod in the 1955 TT race, only weeks after another team member, Mike Keen, had crashed fatally at Goodwood.

Never before published in its entirety, this is the story of Harry Lester and his cars, together with the exploits of the Monkey Stable during their brief but significant racing career.

The story is told by Stewart Penfound, MG enthusiast and owner of one of the last Lester MGs made. Containing much previously unseen material from both Harry Lester’s and The Monkey Stable’s archives it is a story as much about the characters as the cars and is a significant addition to the record of motor racing immediately after the end of the Second World war.”

I suggested to Stewart that TTT 2 readers might like to learn how he came to write his book a sort of “a story of the story” if you like!

Over to Stewart…

“It has often been said that everyone has a book in them, and this is the tale of how mine came to be written. When I bought my Lester MG back in 1993 I didn’t really know what it was, or even who had made it, so, like most people who acquire a slightly unusual car, I tried to find out a bit more about it, and whether there were any more examples around. Well I did, and there were, and twenty two years later, and after a certain amount of prodding and cajoling from other Lester owners, I’m about to publish the result.

Firstly, though, I must go back to the mid 1970s, to when I dismantled my TA with the intention of restoring it as a T racer. With a couple of friends, I did a fair bit of flag marshalling, mainly at MGCC and historic race meetings. To us, the highlights of the MG meetings were always the T races, and as I had a car, why not have a go myself? That didn’t happen, and a number of years went by without any progress on the car. I kept up the marshalling, however, and got to know some of the drivers well, with the result that, when Malcolm Hogg retired as T Register Competition Secretary, I took over his role, as much to become more involved as to get off my backside and do something about that dormant dream to become a racing driver.

This was in the late 1980s, and it was around this time that Andrea Green joined the T Register committee and set up the Specials Register. Such cars were virtually unknown to the world at large back then, and this was when I first heard of a car called a Lester MG. A little while later one came up for sale by Ron Gammons. Here was an opportunity, I told myself, to acquire a car ready to compete in and with the bonus that the TA could be restored to use on the road. The Lester turned out to be the car that I had helped push over the line at Wiscombe when it had stuttered to a halt by our marshall’s post a year or two previously. I hadn’t taken much notice of it then, not knowing what it was.

Stewart Penfound driving his Lester MG at Prescott (photo by Derek Hibbert).

It didn’t turn out to be as ready to go as first thought, and I spent the next five years restoring it, treating it to a new aluminium body in the process, and converting it to wire wheels and all the while finding out more and more about Lester MGs and the man who made them, Harry Lester.

Specials in general were beginning to get more recognition, and just before the car was finished I displayed it in the MGCC tent at the 1997 Coy’s historic meeting at Silverstone along with two others, Chris Pamplin’s Dargue MG and Keith Hodder’s Parson MG. It was here that I got to know Mike Cross, who was restoring one of the two surviving Monkey Stable cars and as a result he, Chris and I shared what information we had on Lester cars and have done ever since.

One of the two surviving Monkey Stable cars – owner, Mike Cross.

The Monkey Stable cars lined up before the start of the Goodwood 1952 9 hours race, Jim Mayers’ car in front. Harry Lester is in the trilby hat, standing at the nearside of car number 33 but partially hidden from view.

The Monkey Stable’s team of three Lester MGs had won the team prize at the first Goodwood 9 hours race back in 1952, so, when Lord March announced that his inaugural Goodwood Revival Meeting (in 1998) would be having a race for cars that would have been eligible for the 9 hours race I cheekily contacted the organiser and said I had a car that was of the same type as the Monkey Stable cars and what’s more, had a couple of mates who had similar cars and would also like to join in.

To my surprise and delight, he said he had seen the cars on display, and were just what he was looking for. The Parson couldn’t make it, so we got George Cooper’s Cooper MG to come instead. So, in my first year of racing I found myself at Goodwood, out on the track with C type Jaguars, Aston Martins, Frazer Nashes etc. Scary stuff, but an experience I’ll never forget!

It was at this meeting, in September 1998, that I met two people whose knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Lester culminated in me writing it all down. They were Roy Jacobson and Dick Duncan, both Americans, both Lester owners and who both came over especially to see a Lester racing again at Goodwood.

Roy had owned one of the Monkey Stable cars for years and had done an immense amount of research into their competition history, as well as tracking down surviving Lester cars. Dick owned the only Coventry-Climax engined Lester and had done his own research, to the extent of tracking down and interviewing surviving members of The Monkey Stable. Roy subsequently sold his car and has disappeared from the scene, but five years ago Dick and his wife, Carolyn, came over for a visit, bringing his interview tapes and other material with him.

Over the course of a very convivial few days, I found myself agreeing to write it all up, naively thinking it would only take about 12 months. It soon became apparent that there were two stories to be told; one about Harry Lester and his cars, and one about The Monkey Stable, who went from Lesters to Kiefts and back to Lesters, whilst also driving for Bristols at Le Mans. It all ended in tragedy for them when in 1955 team founder Jim Mayers was killed racing a Cooper at the Dundrod TT, just after fellow Monkey Stable driver Mike Keen had lost his life at Goodwood, also whilst driving a Cooper.

More and more facts about Harry Lester, Jim Mayers and The Monkey Stable came my way over the ensuing five years. I was put in touch with and interviewed Peter Musitano, who knew Harry Lester well in his later years. I was also privileged to be given access to Harry Lester’s surviving personal archive, which revealed much new material.

Mike Cross had acquired Roy Jacobson’s car and with it came correspondence between Jim Mayers and the car’s first American owner, Bill Lloyd. Dick Duncan had also given me a personal account by Monkey Stable driver Trevor Line, who witnessed the disaster at Le Mans in 1955 when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes was launched into the crowd, killing 80 spectators. Trevor was in the pits, getting ready to take over his Bristol from Mike Keen and saw it all…

Quite a few articles have appeared over the years about Harry Lester and The Monkey Stable, but to my knowledge the complete story has never before been told in its entirety. It is a story not only about the people and the cars, but about a period and aspect of motor racing when a struggling garage proprietor could produce a car that caused heads to turn and enthusiastic young amateurs could compete at the highest level. It has been a fascinating exercise, made ever more enjoyable by the people you meet on the way.”

Stewart Penfound

The Lester MG badge and the Monkey Stable logo.

Harry Lester competing in TA KJH 114 at a VSCC sprint at Silverstone, in April 1949. This later became Jim Mayers’ car, fitted with the lightweight Lester body from George Philips’ TC.

Jim Mayers competing at Boreham, 21st June 1952.

Ed’s note: Thank you Stewart for a most interesting article. The book will be available from the T-Shop as soon as it is published and I understand that Stewart will be taking several copies to MGCC Silverstone in June.

The book certainly deserves support.

3 thoughts on “Harry Lester, His Cars & The Monkey Stable

  1. Nick Thompson says:

    Looking forward to getting a copy of the book.
    Harry Lester started by racing against Dick Jacobs in his self modified TA CS7695 with an all alloy body (MMM style). This car is now owned by myself and should be at Silverstone on the Saturday 21st June.

  2. Dick Duncan says:

    The efforts of Stewart Penfound are much appreciated by those of us who are the caretakers of the remaining cars. The book, Harry Lester, His Cars and The Monkey Stable, is a must have for the library of anyone interested in the history of Motorsport, truly a great read and valuable resource.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.