Taking care of business
After doing his apprenticeship and working with his dad for a decade, Brian Sampson decided to turn his parttime engine-building work into a full-time business and in 1959 formed Motor Improvements – a name that would become famous in racing circles, though it was not meant to be called that.
“I wanted to register the name as Sampson Racing Engines or something, and the Titles Office wouldn’t register it because it was too close to Samson Engine Reconditioning [ ED: that’s not a typo; his dad’s business was spelt without the ‘p’],” Sampson explains. “Evidently the guy in there said, ‘Why don’t you call yourself Motor Improvements?’ – so it wasn’t even my idea. In fact, I wasn’t even there. Somebody else took in the paperwork!”
Motor Improvements started with one employee, but quickly expanded to eight by 1964 when they moved to Eastern Road, South Melbourne. Expansion continued and in 1978 they moved to Brighton Road, St Kilda with more than 20 staff, a move that would last 30 years.
“It was a case of ‘Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday’,” Sampson said. “On many occasions I would win a race on Sunday and when I came to open the workshop the following morning there would be a queue of customers waiting to spend money with us.
“The motor racing helped make my business and keep it going. And the business paid for my motor racing.”
In 1968 Sampson bought the well-known Eddie Thomas Speed Shop, which was actually a producer of gearshift kits (to convert column shifts to oorshifts) and carburettor adaptors, and he renamed it Speco Thomas. Speco stands for Speed Equipment Company, a South Australian brand that Thomas owned. The business soon grew from 100 units a month to 700 thanks to a nifty four-speed oorshift conversion Brian helped develop for Holdens and Falcons.
Sampson also took over Norm Beechey’s speed shop, which for a few years operated as Motor Improvements Brunswick before closing. “We had Norm’s guy in there, but you can’t run a business like that by remote control.”
Speco Thomas expanded its range by importing from the US specialised performance products such as STP oil treatment and VHT heatproof coatings for engines and exhaust systems.
Although STP disappeared after the American company switched to another agent, the VHT association went from strength to strength. As Sampson’s company grew, Australia became VHT’s biggest export market and the association remains strong after half a century.
Speco Thomas has for many years operated out of its present Moorabbin base and, while Brian remains the owner, it is now run by his stepson, part-owner and Formula Ford racer Brendan Jones, whose father Peter managed Motor Improvements from 1964 to 1999 and won 132 races in a one-off Cheetah Clubman sports car built by Brian Shead.
Interestingly, Brendan has won the past four Victorian Formula Ford 1600 Championships (2015-18) driving Brian’s old Spectrum chassis, which is prepared by its constructor Mike Borland – the nephew of Brian Shead, who built the many Cheetah cars raced by Sampson in the 1970s. Family circles run tight around Sambo…
Slight problem on the dyno for Sampson (left); Peter Jones (top) and friends – Jones was a top Clubman racer and ran Sampson’s business for more than 30 years. Sampson with Brendan Jones (above), and checking a cam grind at Motor Improvements (below).