I’m sure that any of you racing drivers out there have had an individual or two who provided advice and/or technical expertise at one time or another that was indispensable and made a significant contribution to your successes. One of those individuals for me was John Dobbins.
Dobbins, as he was called by virtually everyone, arrived in Ontario from Ulster in the late fifties. He brought old country mechanical skills which were soon being called upon by local competitors always in need of practical, dedicated and virtually free talent. He contributed significantly to early Canadian racing by preparing cars for Grant Clark and a number of early stars. One such happy racer was Len Coates whose Sprite suddenly broke 3 (or was it 2?) minutes at Mosport with a Dobbins built engine that Len described to me once as, “the best little engine my Sprite ever had.”
I met Dobbins in 1965, when I was a salesman for a British oil supplement called RedeX when he operated a BP Station on Yonge Street just below Lawrence. The details of how another young racer, Higgs Murphy, and I wound up with the keys to his station were typical of Dobbin’s relaxed attitude to life. Higgs and I had been scouting gas stations to set up a auto repair and racing shop business when I got a call from Dobbins who had been helping John Cannon campaign a low budget McLaren Mk2 in the 1965 USRRC Series. Cannon had asked Dobbins to join him for the inaugural CanAm Series. Within a day or so Dobbins had casually flipped us the keys to his business and disappeared. The story of how Higgs and I “learned” how to operate a busy British car repair shop and not so busy gas station could be another installment!
Higgs and I campaigned a very quick MGB in Ontario and Quebec regional racing in 1966. When Dobbins tired of the cross-country grind, Higgs jumped at the chance to work for Cannon. The highlight of the season for Higgs was the engine he built from “scrap” parts that powered Cannon to a win at Laguna Seca, beating the factory teams. Higgs wound up working with engine builder, Al Bartz in California and then created Canadian Racing Motors that built engines for Eppie Weitzes and George Eaton.
Dobbins prepared my MGB for an assault on the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1967. Ray Gray and I split the two factory team cars in qualifying but DNF’d with a broken hub…a long way to go for four hours of racing!
In 1968, Dobbins and I moved to a new shop on Birch Avenue in downtown Toronto where we serviced what he referred to as, “Some of Britain’s finest, built in her hour of need!” He described everything from Sprites and Minis to Jaguars and Rollers as being, “oil washed and air dried.” Our client base ranged from kids with clapped out Minis to Forest Hill residents with their Bentleys and Jags to dancers with The National Ballet with their Lotuses and Healeys.
One of our apprentice mechanics, Robert Scott who prepared my Merlyn Formula Ford in 1969, went on to work for Roger McCaig’s Can Am team and then Eppie Weitzes F5000 program.
From Birch Avenue I launched my racing business, RaceEquip, in Scarborough in 1969, but always kept in touch and consulted with Dobbins. A couple of years later fire demolished the Birch Avenue shop in which Dobbins almost died from extensive burns. When he recovered, he became a teacher at Centennial College in Scarborough. His gruff manner, vast knowledge, sense of the absurd and legendary swearing made him a favourite with students.
Dobbins died November 25, 2005, from complications brought on by a stroke.
There are mentors in our lives. Dobbins was one such for me.