I found a memory out of nowhere

Patrick Barron “Paddy” Hopkirk is a former rally driver from Northern Ireland.  He was born in Belfast and educated in County Kildare from 1945–1949 before attending Trinity College, Dublin until 1953.  He was awarded the MBE Honour in the 2016 New Year’s Honour’s list.

I recently re-discovered some of my notes about Paddy that brought back a great memory for me.

In the early 1960s I worked for the Irvin Parachute Company in Letchworth, Herts – but not in the parachute division, the main part of the company.  At that time it had broadened the business to include cars.  No, they were not manufacturing cars; they were making car seat safety belts.  They did, after all, manufacture and sell one heck of a lot of safety belts and harnessed for aircrew and the like!

Paddy used Irvin car seat belts in his rally driving and, in their one and only post war involvement, Irvin’s had a stand at the Earls Court Motor Show of November 1963.  I was one of the team that would be demonstrating the safety belt.  On the first day, three of us were given a lift from Letchworth to the show by one of our senior managers who, it seemed, thought he was Paddy!  He wasn’t.  I was riding in the front seat and if it hadn’t been for my Irvin belt every time he changed gear, I would have got to Earl’s Court with a bloody nose, at least, from collisions with his windscreen.

The next morning I went down with Paddy!  We went down the same road – the A1 – with the same belts as the previous day but 10 to 15 mph faster and not once did I even find myself moving my belt.

But why was I going?  What would my role be when we got to Earl’s Court?  It was something we all take for granted now.  I was demonstrating something called an ‘Inertia Seat Belt.’

On our display stand we had a kind of railway track.  If I remember correctly it was about 10 to 15 paces long.  On it was fixed a typical car seat with a vertical pole at the back.  Also attached to the pole was a normal looking safety belt.  Our ‘victim’ took their seat and I pulled the seat belt safely across their chest and into the belt buckle.  Once they were settled I asked them to lean forward and touch their toes.  They did that – something they would not be able to do with the then standard safety belt.

I’d then say, reassuringly, ‘Now all you have to do is sit still.  I’ll do all the work.’

It was then that I’d start to slide their seat – and them – back and forth on the rails, just as you see them do on the Cresta Run.  Once I was satisfied, I would ‘throw’ them down the track!   No, I didn’t run with them – they were on their own.  ‘First-time’ visitors were on their way before they realised that they were heading at speed towards an Earl’s Court column!  I knew it was OK because we had a low barrier at the end of our track – but my passenger only saw a tall column at the end of their ride – and that they could do nothing to stop themselves!  I must admit that we had quite a few squeals echoing around our part of Earl’s Court.  The passengers sat still – often hanging on for grim death by now; the front of the sled hit the buffer; the passenger was thrown forward – but not very far because our new, unique, inertia safety belt took control and our traveller breathed a sigh of relief and usually said ‘wow’!

My partner would then either unbuckle the traveller and help them out or leave them in the seat while pushing them back to the start.  Every so often one would ask for a second run!  Others asked where they could get a drink – preferably whisky!

Over the following months other companies started to copy our belts and bit by bit Irvin went back to aircraft business.

I am proud of this involvement – and of my ride with Paddy Hopkirk.  Paddy went on to great things – and I was pleased to have been part of making driving safe for him and the many millions of car drivers across the world who now have inertia seat belts as standard in their cars..

I was just a little bit of the development of a life-saving development.


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