So, a one-armed fighter pilot sets up a racing team and builds a Formula 1 car. What a ripping yarn! Surf around the Internet and you can find it told here and there. You can read wonderful tales about how Sydney Greene was a decorated Spitfire pilot, who had several “kills” and was nicknamed “the Wingless Wonder”.
…until you look it all up in the official records. Not much of it stacks up – at least not in the way the story has been told.
Sydney George Greene was appointed a supernumary Flying Officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (Training Branch) in 1947, and was later given the rank of Squadron Leader, but that was after the war. During the conflict itself, he seems to have served with the Royal Observer Corps, a civil defence organization that was administered by RAF Fighter Command. The ROCs wore RAF uniforms. Greene was an aircraft recognition instructor and obviously a valuable one.
The sobriquet “Wingless Wonder” was not applied because he had lost an arm, as the stories suggest, but rather was the term applied within the RAF to all officers who were not pilots – because they did not have wings stitched on their uniforms, as the pilots did.
Call it journalistic license, but sometimes the facts are not as good as the resulting story. Nonetheless, Greene did good service for his country – as much as could be expected from a man with only one arm.
Born in Plaistow, in East London in 1908, Sid was 16 years old when he was knocked off his bike by a bus and lost his left arm. It was a devastating blow for the young apprentice, but he responded with remarkable determination and became a draughtsman, a job which allowed him to buy an MG Magnette with which he started motor racing. He did not adapt the controls, he simply drove the car with only his right hand!
When the war came, he was rejected by the British Army, which is not really surprising.
After the war, in addition to his RAFVR activities, he went into partnership with Monty Gilby to set up a business called Gilby Engineering. This grew rapidly in the 1950s, doing sub-contract work for big companies, such as Armstrong, Ford and CAV. Gilby returned to racing but soon switched to become an entrant. His biggest triumph was when Stirling Moss won the 1961 British Empire Trophy at the wheel of a Gilby Frazer Nash. The team also ran cars for the likes of Mike Hawthorn, Ivor Bueb and Roy Salvadori. The last-named raced a Gilby Engineering Maserati A6GCS sports car in 1953 and the following year Gilby took delivery of the first privately-owned Maserati 250F, which won a few minor races in Britain. This was followed by a Cooper-Maserati. Salvadori would later be replaced by Sid’s son Keith who first got a racing licence in 1955. Sid wanted Keith to be a racing star.
In 1960 Sid hired ex-Lotus designer Len Terry who designed a 1098cc Gilby sports car for Keith to drive. This was prepared by Peter Ashcroft (later to become Competitions Manager for Ford GB) and Terry Hoyle, who became a celebrated engine builder in rallying. The Gilby-Climax produced a series of good results in the hands of the young Greene and Peter Arundell and so Sid decided to build a Formula 1 car for his son to drive in the new 1.5-litre formula.
Terry produced an uncomplicated design, powered by a Coventry Climax engine. The car showed particularly well when Gilby talked Bruce McLaren into giving it a test run.
The problem was that Gilby Engineering did not have a budget to do all the big races and so it appeared only in British events and one or two others. It finished fourth in the Lewis-Evans Trophy at Brands Hatch and sixth in the Danish Grand Prix at the Roskildering. There were good results in 1962 as well but a switch to BRM engines did little to improve the car. At the same time, Gilby Engineering had been acquired by another company, which was not interested in racing, and so the team was disbanded and the F1 car sold to Ian Raby.
Keith went on to find his niche not as a driver, but as a celebrated team manager for a wide variety of organisations in differing racing categories. Sons cannot always be what their fathers want them to be.