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Coffee with West Vancouver's Motorsport pioneer
It seems only natural that Tom Johnston has a race car museum in the basement of his West Vancouver home.
A Dodge Viper, a Corvette C5, stacks of self-published books and countless framed photos from his racing days take over the entire room. Another car sits in the corner, a squat black motorcar he designed and built himself in the ‘70s.
Over the past five decades, Johnston has driven, produced and bought race cars. He is now a motorsport historian, inspired by the mementos in his museum to write books about racing in North America.
Johnston’s love of racing dates back to 1960 in Saskatchewan, when he borrowed his mother’s Morris Minor 1000 — a small car that could be mistaken for a Volkswagen Beetle — to enter into his first race.
He quickly moved on to a 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk 1 and, in 1965, imported a Lola Climax 1100cc racer for $2,500.
Johnston, however, soon realized racing full-time couldn’t pay the bills. After completing an engineering degree, he moved to the West Coast to open Keen Engineering.
But he never gave up on racing, participating in prairie circuits and venturing as far south as Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake and west to Vancouver Island.
“I was a slow learner,” Johnston jokes, “When I realized I wasn’t going to win the world driving championship, I started designing instead.”
So after being in the driver’s seat for 13 years, he put his engineering skills to work designing and building race cars, from sports racers to Formula Atlantics. His drivers included Bryan Evans, Tony Carruthers, Ross Bentley and Frank Allers.
“There wasn’t Racing Car Class 101 in school, so I had to use what I knew,” Johnston tells The Outlook as he leads the way to his museum downstairs.
Even though he needed to know the aerodynamics and dimensions for each car, as well as how to saw tubing and weld parts together, Johnston modestly says it wasn’t that difficult.
“Designing sports cars is half as complicated as a cell phone or a camera. Just imagine what goes into that.”
The very best racer can’t make up for a bad car, says Johnston, adding that top speed isn’t important because winning by a large margin puts the driver at risk and can ruin a car.
“Why not win by an inch? It doesn’t have to be by a lot. If you go too fast, it’s dangerous and you won’t win anyway.”
While race cars used to be “death traps” in the ‘60s, says Johnston, the sport is much safer today.
“It’s actually safer to race cars than it is to drive to work.”
In 1984, Johnston began buying cars for his racing team, including a Ralk RT4, a Swift DB4 and a Reynard 92H, all Formula Atlantic cars.
Johnston still races cars today, bringing a few of his “museum pieces” back to the track for vintage races in Mission, Ontario, Quebec and California.
For his dedication, Johnston is being honoured by the Greater Vancouver Motorsport Pioneers Society on Sept. 22 at the Cloverdale Fairgrounds in Surrey. Tickets are $15. Visit gvmps.org for more information.