There have been many drivers pass through the Lotus F1 team, in its various iterations, over the years. Many achieved great success as drivers, six winning drivers championships, for example, and others contributed to the seven overall constructors championships. Tales of Chapmans chicanery are legend but I’d struggle to find one you haven’t heard before. Regardless, Chapman almost always got his own way and so when he came up against Brian Henton, a winner in lower formulae who told Chapman his F1 car was “crap”, sparks were bound to fly. ‘Superhen’ might have been short of funds, but he was not short of confidence. Chapman called him ‘bolshie’ but he’s surely one of the most entertaining characters ever to have sat in a car with that black and gold livery.

Born in 1946 and brought up by his Mum after his Dad died in an industrial accident, Brian lived in a council house in Derby and, like most lads, was a football fan. When lighting a firework off of an electric heater in their modest house, he panicked, and tried to extinguish it in the toilet. The resultant explosion flooded the room and his frazzled Mother took his Rams scarf and rattle away and forbade him from attending the next game. Bored, and walking the streets of Derby, he caught a bus to Mallory Park and spent the day marvelling at the sights and smells of a club race. From there, he was hooked. After school came an apprenticeship at the same engineering company his Father had worked at which, unsurprisingly, failed to hold his attention. So he did some wheeler-dealing on Derby market, selling decorating materials amongst other things, and restored a 1929 Rolls-Royce, forgetting to factor in his labour costs. When the car sold he reckoned he’d made a penny an hour for the time spent on it. Eventually he saved up, and went racing.

Brian bought a crash-damaged Austin Healey 100/4 and bashed it straight again. The ‘hundred’ earned it’s name thanks to it’s top speed potential. After fitting some iffy ‘Ferrari’ wheels and some questionable performance bits it was better be described as a seventyfive, he’d somehow made it go slower. On the way to his first race at Castle Combe it fell off the trailer and, in the race, he spun off. From there he bought a Marcos, obliterating it in a huge smash at Silverstone, before having a bit of breather from racing and building up a business. Perhaps he bought his poor Mum a new toilet. Returning to competitive racing he joined Formula Vee in 1970, coming second in that year’s championship, before winning it in 1971. At this point his lack of funds were seemingly the biggest obstacle to moving up to even faster racing series, so he took some advice from a Journo who suggested he do something a bit outrageous to get noticed, to help attract sponsors. The inspiration for this, apparently, was Muhammad Ali who was at the peak of his fame. Henton said he would be driving for a top team by 1975 and go on to be World Champion. This didn’t exactly endear him to the racing fraternity, but he didn’t care. He was a good driver and he knew it. Someone coined the phrase ‘Superhen’, and it stuck.

In ’72 he came second in the British SuperVee championship and in ’73 moved up to F3. This meant touring Europe and, because proper sponsorship was still proving elusive, they toured, lived, and worked from a truck. Henton and his small crew would wait for builders to finish for the day before siphoning diesel from their construction vehicles to keep them on the road. One story goes that he gave the mechanic a wad of cash to buy crucial spares, and the lad vanished with the money, never to be seen again. Henton earned a works drive for March in ’74 and this, really, was his year. He won 17 races, two championships, and set lap records literally everywhere he raced. This was followed by a stint in a March F2 car and, eventually, that tenuous but amusing connection to Lotus.

By 1975, Lotus driver Jackie Ickx had had enough of the aging 72 F1 car, and the revolutionary (and flakey) 76 wasn’t quite good enough, despite the electronically operated clutch which was a forerunner of most automated gearboxes used widely today. Oh, and the thing had four pedals, imagine that! Anyway, this was an opportunity for a new driver to join and a few drivers had a trial in the old 72, including Henton. He hated it. He told Chapman it was “a load of crap. The worst thing I’ve driven”. Chapman, perhaps tired of young sycophants afraid to tell him how bad his cars were, actually agreed, and gave him the drive. After a few races with unspectacular results, if any, the two started to argue. Henton wanted out, and put it in writing, confident of getting a drive elsewhere. They had some spectacular rows. Chapman told him; “You will never, ever, drive a Formula One car again”, and put word out that Superhen was trouble. That, more of less, was the end of his time with Lotus, although there was a glimmer of a drive when Ronnie Peterson died but, again, he couldn’t find the funds to get the seat. Perhaps it was just as well. But Chapman’s statement was almost right, Henton lost career momentum at that point. But his life was no less exciting.

Back at school, Henton was a bit porky. I think it’s fair to say that. He hated cross country and said he was about three stone overweight. He had gotten into shape for racing but those were the days when the paddock was free of personal coaches and nutritionists. His racing record was good, particularly in his early career, and so he had caught the eye of the producers of the TV show, Superstars. The one where Kevin Keegan wobbled off his bike. In 1981 he went down to Cwmbran to enter one of the heats, faking a late arrival so he could first do a recce on his opponents. These included a British Lions Rugby player, a 100m Olympic champion, and swimmer Duncan Goodhew. Henton ate a steak and had a few beers, ever confident. I think he came last. Can you imagine Lewis doing that? No, me neither. And I know who I’d rather have a beer with.

After the Lotus debacle he spent time back in F2 cars, with March, and Ensign, there was an ill-fated privateer team entry in F1, then Arrow and finally Tyrell, where he set a curious record when competing in the 1983 British Grand Prix, at Brand Hatch. This was a lively race (find it on YouTube), won by Lauda in a McLaren, but Superhen managed to set the fastest lap in his Tyrell. A 1:13.028. To this day he holds the record for being the only driver to never score a point, but to have set a fastest lap in F1. He bowed out with the 1983 F1 Race of champions, qualifying seventh, and finishing fourth, in one of Teddy Yip’s Theodore cars. He retired from racing, aged 37, and hasn’t been near F1 since. Today he lives in a splendid stately home (complete with horse stud) in Leicestershire and is still active in business. You might say that he could have achieved much more in F1 had things gone differently with Chapman but, frankly, it seems to me that he has had an incredible life. I’d love to see more characters like Superhen on the grid today, scrapping to get there, and telling ‘em how it is.

Rich Duisberg

More like this in Absolute Lotus magazine, which you’ll find online here.

Pic credit; https://www.nationaalarchief.nl/onderzoeken/fotocollectie/abc93cb4-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84

About The Author

Rich Duisberg

Rich Duisberg* has had work published in Classic & Sportscar, Practical Performance Car, Modern Mini, Banzai, MogMag, Evo, GT Porsche, Complete Kit Car, Absolute Lotus, Alternative Cars, Classic Retro Modern, and elsewhere. Rich often appears on CBS’s XCAR and Carfection channels, and Motors TV, plus JayEmm on Cars, enthusing about historic motoring. His latest book (find his work on Amazon) was described by SniffPetrol as "hilarious", although he was also threatened with legal action by elderly DJ Tim Westwood. In his Midlands man cave is a 1972 Fiat 500, a Lotus Elise, a BMW barge and a vintage Royal Enfield pushbike. Previous machines of interest include an Mk1 MX5 (owned for 14 years!), an Alfa GTV6, a Porsche 968 and a Sinclair C5. The Metro (right) was bought for an experiment, and abandoned in Africa. "I am not getting in a car with him" -  said Le Mans winner, Derek Bell. *A nom-de-plume inspired by the BBC's League of Gentlemen.

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