Maurice Gatsonides Was Obsessed With Speed His Entire Life
Graphics By Mauricio Cremer
Maurice Gatsonides made a life out of measuring speed.
The Independent’s obituary named Gatsonides as “probably the first full-time professional” racing driver, but besides some competition success, his day jobs were also related to cars—cars that, for a time, included Gatsonides’ own designs.
From an early age, he seemed to be able to understand any machine, whether that involved being a commercial flight engineer, building charcoal gas generators during the Second World War, or designing the slippery bodywork found on his own brand of cars, Gatso.
Before Gatso could get off the ground, just before the war in 1938, he’d built a car named “Kwik”, around the first V8 Mercury chassis imported to Holland. Its svelte bodywork allowed for speed, but the car couldn’t keep itself cool, which led to its retirement. Having a few years to think about his next automotive venture, in 1946 he unveiled the first series of cars designed under his name: Gatford. Get it?
Gatford and, soon, Gatso
The idea behind Gatso is not unlike that of a modern grand tourer: take a simple (Ford) chassis, parts, and (primarily) Mercury V8 engines, and clothe them in slippery bodywork designed to cross Europe with ease. After all, it’s just the sort of car that serial rallyist Gatsonides probably dreamed about when driving from his native Holland to compete in the Monte Carlo Rally, the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, and other events. One of Gatford’s first brochures states, right at the top: “The GATFORD is a fast, comfortable, and above all, a reliable sportscar, designed to be driven for a long time at high average speeds”.
If Tatras were a bit sportier and designed in Holland, they’d probably resemble the Gatford and, after Ford objected to the company’s name, Gatso sports cars. The ‘4000-series’ models were similar, with different bodywork: the Roadster, Touring, Cabriolet, 4-Place Coupé, and Aero Coupé. Three headlights are always distinctive, and Gatsonides’ adoption of the centre light is as much for nighttime visibility as it is because he needed a bulge in the hood to clear the radiator and motor!
Above the driver, an aircraft-style canopy ensured that visibility would never be an issue; coasting across Europe in the early ’50s during a starry night must have been quite enjoyable in a GT car fitted with a canopy roof.
We won’t be the first to point out that touring Europe in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s would have been quite the adventure. Rallies like the Monte Carlo were less flat-out speed contests and more a combination of things: driver skill, mechanical preparation, route choice, and logistics were equally important. Thing is, while Gatsonides had a car company to run, his abilities and successes earned him drives with a number of factory teams, including Ford, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Humber, Sunbeam, and Jowett. If a big company will pay for you to race, why spend company money? In fact, the only Gatso believed to be designed for competition and raced in earnest was the Fiat 1500-based Platje, or “Flatty”.
Plan, plan, and plan some more
Gatsonides’ leaving Holland for weeks at a time to compete in motorsport events must have hurt Gatso cars, as the company declared bankruptcy—twice—and on the second occasion, its founder was out rallying.
This speaks to the reason why he often had a big advantage over his competition: he was an expert at measuring speed. Decades of rallying had shown Gatsonides that driver skill wasn’t the only way to win a driving competition. With far tougher routes (and no GPS!), being a meticulous planner was just as valuable as being a hot shoe.
What, exactly, is meticulous? Before the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally, a local newspaper interviewed the legendary (and then-still-racing!) Louis Chiron, who said that Gatsonides would win the upcoming event because he knew the roads better than the locals. Why? He had spent a month with his family in the region driving all of the mountain passes, often completing them multiple times in a single day.
In those days, portions of the rally were run as an average speed trial, meaning that the winner would have to finish with the closest speed to an average told moments before the route was to begin. A required average of 50 km/h (31 mph) across the harrowing mountain passes could have been one of about seven different possible speeds the organizers could have picked, so Gatsonides practiced each of the speeds on each of the stages. When it came to mechanical preparation, he experimented with ballast, the tread on his snow tires, and other improvements that were allowed under the rules.
One problem was that he was unable to upgrade the car’s brakes in advance of the 1953 Monte Carlo rally. On a notably difficult downhill run, the brakes on his Works Ford Zephyr quickly faded. The solution? Two teams of mechanics were placed at tight hairpins and equipped with buckets of water—to hurl at the passing race car, cooling its front brakes. Gatsonides won the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally.
From measuring countries to corners to commuters
These days, hitting an average speed over a big distance is an easy feat: just set your cruise to, say, 60 mph and you’ll cover 60 miles in an hour. A more precise measurement of speed through a corner is a far more difficult task, however. Timing must be spot-on in order to accurately gauge the small differences in speed a driver would achieve as he experiments with different racing lines.
As early as 1938, he had constructed his own timing equipment that connected to a car’s speedometer and allowed him to more easily drive to a preset average speed—but his innovations for rally worked best across an entire route, not a single corner.
Using his electrical engineering skills to better understand how to drive more quickly, Gatsonides invented a simple pulse-counting device that relied on parallel rubber tubes laid across the circuit at a set distance to measure his speed through each corner. The will-measure-100-pulses-per-second device wasn’t very useful to the average motorist in 1958, of course, but as speed enforcement efforts ramped up, he saw a new use for his Gatsometer and quickly began demonstrating it to traffic police.
His first demonstration ended up with both him and his son being fined for speeding: in order to prove the device worked, someone had to speed past it and break the law!
Until the Gatsometer, police had been timing “speeding” motorists across two fixed points with stopwatches, which invariably led to less-than-precise policing; the Gatsometer allowed for a quick, accurate answer to the question: “Was that driver speeding?”
Gatsometer B.V.’s next inventions? The speed camera, in 1964, and the addition of radar in 1971. Especially if you live in Europe, you’ve probably been caught by one of the company’s speed or red light cameras at some point, but take comfort that its inventor was not immune to speeding fines.
“I am often caught by my own speed cameras and find hefty fines on my doormat. Even I can’t escape my own invention, because I love speeding,” he once said.
Of course, the inventor of modern speed enforcement isn’t exactly popular with motorists, but you have to admit that devices to measure speed would have been invented eventually. If you ask us, we’re happy Gatsos came from a former sports car manufacturer and race car driver.
With much of his life and achievements measured to exacting standards, it’s only fitting that Gatsonides had a personal motto that would have served him well through the stress that long-distance competition and engineering challenges brought him over the years: “It can be done”.