WITH the benefit of hindsight, young Gordon Rae made a bad decision when he chose to take his driving test in a Morgan three-wheeler.

Admittedly it was not long after the Second World War when there were less vehicles about, but driving examiners were just as picky as they are today and this one took a dim view of the candidate having to lean out of the side window to see where he was going and get out and push every time the car needed to go backwards.

Gordon said: “I knew I was in trouble when it started to rain. The Morgan had a hood but because I’m 6ft 3in tall, I never put it up. I couldn’t sit in the car if I did. But the examiner said he wasn’t prepared to get wet, so I had to erect the hood and drive by craning my neck out of the window to see where I was going. He wasn’t very impressed by that.

“Also, the car didn’t have a reverse gear, so I had to get out and push it with him sitting in it when I needed to go back. I wasn’t really surprised when he failed me.”

For his second go, Gordon hired a Morris Minor from a Worcester driving school for an hour. The first 30 minutes were taken up by him getting used to it and the last 30 on taking his test. He passed with flying colours.

It opened the way to a quite remarkable career with racing cars. The day job was always as a boffin at Malvern’s top secret RSRE establishment (from 1957-1990) where he worked on design and development, particularly of missiles. But outside of that anything mechanical fascinated him, be it planes, boats or automobiles. The news that Gordon Rae recently returned to competitive motor sport at the age of 80 should surprise no one who has ever known him.

Still a tall, athletic, engaging figure, who would easily pass for 20 years younger, he was just back from a 10-mile bike ride when I arrived at his home in Lansdowne Close, Barnards Green. Gordon is well used to cycling. Years ago he was actually cautioned by police for “cycling furiously” around the Barnards Green traffic island on his way to work.

He said: “When I was young I never had a car. I could drive but I couldn’t see the point of spending money on petrol. So I used the bike.

I’m not into cars. Just racing cars.

When I started going to meetings to watch, I would hitch-hike.”

Off to places like Silverstone or Brands Hatch, if he couldn’t get a lift all the way back to Malvern, he’d sleep the night in a convenient haystack and continue his journey home the next day.

He said: “My parents never seemed to worry. When I went out of the door my father would just ask ‘I wonder what the boy’s up to now?’ They let me get on with it.”

It was Gordon’s father, a skilled precision engineer, who can probably take the credit/blame for all of this. He bought his son a big box of secondhand Meccano as a sixth birthday present and by the age of 12 Gordon was a wiz with a soldering iron. He began by making model plane kits which were sold to his mates at school and then moved on to designing and making his own radio controlled craft.

Gordon said: “I always wanted to make a full-sized plane, but there were too many restrictions.” And you could easily see him doing it.

However, a visit to the paddock at Silverstone in 1949 changed all that. One of the drivers was revving up an ERA and the noise it made kicked small aircraft out of sight. He said: “I’ll never forget that ‘Verrrrowwwww.

Verrrrowwwww’. I reckoned it could be more fun than model planes.”

So he went home and built his own racing car. It didn’t quite happen like that, of course, but after four years of design and development the first A-type RAE (conveniently standing for Rae Automobile Engineering) rolled out of his garage.

Gordon said: “It was an innovative racing car for 1953. It had a rear gearbox and fully independent front and rear suspension.”

Interestingly, that prototype, the first of a line of five RAEs, is still around, albeit in America, where it is currently being raced. Its first outing was at Silverstone, where Gordon found himself facing a battery of Lotus 7s and experienced drivers, among them the leader and second placed in the class championship. But thanks to his ingenious engineering and racing reactions honed by driving an erratic old Ford Prefect around Worcestershire’s slippery wet lanes, he found himself in the lead after half a lap and went on to win.

Gordon said: “I couldn’t believe it and I don’t think anyone else could either. It took the race commentator four laps before he even mentioned me because he didn’t know what the car was. He’d never seen it before.

“He was rattling on about how well the Lotus cars were going in second and third ‘and oh, by the way, the RAE is still in the lead’.”

So began a love of competitive motor racing that has seen Gordon Rae compete at virtually every circuit in the UK – Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton, Aintree etc – setting class lap records and winning at most. He’s even raced on the Continent and in the USA.

After a nine-year gap he returned to race driving this summer, first at Castle Coombe and then at Silverstone, to compete in the single-seater International Formula Vee class and in the process raising money for St Michael’s Hospice at Bartestree, Herefordshire.

He didn’t win, but then he didn’t expect to, but he was competitive.

Which was all he really asked of himself. Also conditions weren’t always helpful.

Gordon said: “I’m best in the wet.” It must go back to that driving test all those years ago.

● Gordon Rae has just published Aircraft Speed and Vintage Team Racing, priced £19.95.