Ian Burgess's: Cast of Characters

It’s like being back in the Sixties!

“We’re at Silverstone during the Coys Historic Festival. The speaker is a tall, burly, silver-haired man, who alternates between inspecting cars and greeting old racing friends: Cliff Allison, Tim Parnell, Bruce Halford, for he too is a Formula One driver of those days. The results tables don’t proclaim Ian Burgess as one of the greats, but there was a time when anything looked possible…

It was in the pouring rain at the Nurburgring in 1951 that anyone outside the racing business first noticed the name Burgess. The unknown 20-year-old hid in Ken Wharton’s spray in his Cooper and pounced on the last corner, to win the Eifelrennen 500cc F3 race ahead of the much more experienced Wharton, Bill Whitehouse and Ken Carter, the Cooper works drivers. It looked like a dream start to a career: after his first race in late 1950, JAP had offered him works engines, while after only four races he had offers of drives from Cooper, Arnott and Alfred Moss, to run a second Kieft alongside the latter’s son Stirling. He was also elected to the BRDC, one of its youngest ever members. He accepted the Moss deal, and was quickly introduced to Jaguar who were looking for a works driver for ’52. As a trial, he and Stirling set off in a C-type prototype, still with an XK120 body, to practice the Mille Miglia route. It ended in a disaster which short-circuited the young Burgess’s high-voltage hopes for years.

On one of the long straight stretches near Ferrara, Moss had just taken over from Burgess when a farmer in a brakeless truck swerved in front of the Jaguar. They hit it head-on. There were no injuries, but the prototype machine was extensively damaged. They straightened it enough in a local garage to drive home (via Monte Carlo. where Moss wanted to collect his new overalls) to face Jaguar’s directors. As the new boy, Burgess kept out of the way; he never heard another word from the firm, and the drive went to Jack Fairman.

More puzzling, as the 1951 season wore on, was how he would arrive at races to find that the second Moss Kieft was never ready for him. That Nurburgring victory, a works drive fixed up by Cooper driver Bill Whitehouse, was a highlight, but having Spurned Cooper’s contract offer once, there was no support there; the outcome was a fallow period of low-key outings in which he drove assorted private examples of Mackson, OSCA, Beart-Roger and Elva, plus the Works Kieft sportscar. In the 1953 TT at Dundrod (“The most frightening circuit ever devised”, he says now), his Kieft was leading the 2-litre class against the ‘Nashes when a Wheel collapsed.

Only after Charlie Cooper rescued him from this limbo in 1957 with a position at Cooper Cars did Burgess discover the reason for his career-stall: an interested party had put around an unpleasant rumour about the Jaguar smash, further claiming Burgess himself as its source. Not knowing, he could not defend himself, and suffered in puzzled silence.

It was the Suez crisis which inspired the racing school: with the petrol shortage and the threat of a ban on motor racing, Ron SearIs, a manager at Cooper, came up with the idea of a school at Brands Hatch. Burgess became its first principal and chief instructor, as well as overseeing race-car sales. There was a staggering response to the idea, over 2000 replies in the first week; Burgess recalls that after every course, pupils would write back to argue at length over how they were the next Fangio, and he had to employ an assistant to deal with this. That assistant was the late Andrew Ferguson, later to become Lotus’s team manager and president of FOCA. The school used two-seater versions of the Manxtail Cooper, plus sohc Climax single-seaters.

Burgess remembers this period happily, being a favourite of Charlie Cooper, John’s larger-than-life father. When a party of model-makers arrived and asked if they could see some drawings of the underside of the current Cooper, Charlie’s reaction was “Drawings? What drawings?”; and he ordered a few of the staff to turn a car on its side to let the modellers see for themselves.

From this “inside line” Burgess employed his considerable persuasive powers to ensure that one of the new Formula 2 Coopers would be available to him, and a promising fourth place in the 1957 Gold Cup at OuIton Park landed him a drive in Tommy Atkins’ F2 Cooper-Climax T43 for the following year.

Atkins was an extraordinary man. Exboxer, pre-war engineer and racer for Douglas motorbikes, he made a fortune through government contracts in precision engineering during WWII; hence the title High Efficiency for his engineering firm and race team. Obsessive in many things, tee-total, and jealous of his young wife’s movements, he would arrange for her to have her hair done in Paris — but pre-pay everything down to tipping waiters to avoid allowing her any cash in her purse. On one occasion, says Burgess, after hearing that she had been out swimming, he had contractors in the following morning to begin digging her a private pool at their splendid Guildford mansion.

Fiercely competitive, he would race Burgess to work every morning (HEM was near Coopers, and Burgess lived near Atkins, which he considered socially inappropriate for one of his drivers), and constantly tried to out-do Rob Walker. As soon as Walker collected his 300SL Mercedes, Atkins ordered a lightweight version to replace the Lancia Aurelia GT he had been using. In fact he had a standing order at nearby dealerships for any fast new model the moment it came out. Not an easy employer, Atkins would call in Burgess on Monday mornings after studying the lap-charts, point to the fastest lap and demand to know why they weren’t all that fast. A bathroom full of pills hinted at hypochondria, though it finally transpired that he had cancer of the throat. One day in the mid-Sixties, Atkins had breakfast with his children, went into his study, locked the door, and shot himself.

But the new partnership was in happier mood in 1958. Indeed it began brilliantly. Burgess scored, F2 wins at Crystal Palace and Snetterton, collected fourth at both Montlhery and Reims, and was seventh overall (third in F2) in the German GP at Nurburgring after a dramatic dice with Bruce McLaren, Ivor Bueb and Tony Marsh. That wasn’t his first Grand Prix, though; his debut was at Silverstone in the works T45; frustratingly its clutch failed and forced him to retire. Then — disaster. Approaching the banking at Avus, another car tangled with the little Cooper. Pitched into a concrete post, Burgess suffered serious injuries to back and legs.

It was a long and painful recovery, made worse for him by two things: the knowledge that but for the accident he could have won the F2 championship for that year, and that he had also lost the chance of a works drive with Cooper. Instead, John signed Bruce McLaren, and another career took off.

So for 1959 Burgess continued with Atkins, and also, through BP’s racing manager Dennis Druit, linked up with Guglielmo Del’s Scuderia Centro-Sud. This Modena-based outfit had finally given up struggling with the outdated Maserati 250F and was running T51 Coopers with a four-cylinder Maser engine in the back. (Climax’s FPF was the hot unit, but hard to obtain.) But it was not to be a productive period; the cars were unreliable, though Burgess scored sixth in the 1960 German GP. Still, while based in Modena, Burgess found some freelance work for Signor Rivolta of Iso cars, test-driving the Iso Lele chassis.

The Maserati connection continued into 1961, when Burgess joined Camoradi. Despite its Italian-sounding name, the team was American in origin: the title stood for CAsner MOtor RAcing Division, whose Founder, Patron and chief driver was ‘Lucky’ Lloyd Casner. Charming, handsome and wealthy, this ex-Pan-Am pilot took up motor racing as a hobby in 1958, racing British and Italian sportscars and then a 250F Maserati. In 1959 he adopted the sport full-time and set up Camoradi, entering Birdcage Maseratis in sportscar races and Climax-engined Cooper T51s and Lotus 18s in Grands Prix. By 1960 he was running Moss and Gurney, so it was a serious effort, though perpetually on a shoe-string.

“Casner was crazy — something out of Hollywood,” says Burgess now. “And Gregory, too — a real Wild West character. But that was the essence of racing at that time.” Nevertheless, Casner was a forceful driver who maintained a professional-looking outfit, with slick profiles and press releases masterminded by Tony Mawe, Camoradi’s business manager. Indeed, Lucky negotiated what should have been a bombshell PR deal: he persuaded Roger Vadim, husband and manager of Brigitte Bardot, that the French beauty should appear in the Camoradi pit at every GP. He never came up with the cash.

One of his drivers was that other wealthy young American Masten Gregory: after entering him for the Buenos Aires Sportscar GP of 1960, where he finished 12th in an RSK Porsche, Casner signed him for the ’61 season, alongside our man Burgess. ,

Camoradi was by now acting as the works Maserati sportscar team, with three Birdcages being prepared in Modena where Ing Bertocchi was in charge. “A terrible, tough old monster,” recalls Burgess. “He lived in the past, like the whole company. When I did some night practice with the Birdcage at Le Mans in 1960, the Magneti Marelli electrics were so feeble I thought the headlamps had failed. Lucas was desparate to supply decent ones, but Bertocchi wouldn’t have it. It’s a wonder he accepted pneumatic tyres.

“Optimistically, Casner had also ordered four GP cars: two Coopers for Gregory and Burgess and two Lotus 18s for other American drivers. But the team finished with one of each after BP money Casner was taking to financially struggling Maserati somehow disappeared in the vicinity of a casino, which hampered the season from the start. (Though BP stumped up some emergency funds, Maserati still went bust soon after.)

Gregory insisted on driving the Cooper until the Belgian GP, and Burgess drove it thereafter, after collecting a fourth in the Naples GP with the Lotus. Although Casner and Gregory won the Nurburgring 1000km in the Birdcage, the Cooper-Climax fared less well; with two failures to qualify, and nothing better than 10th at Spa, 12th at Reims and 11th at Aintree, Gregory switched to the UDT-Laystall team midseason. Burgess saw the season out, managing a fifth in Austria and sixth in the Oulton Park Gold Cup, but a new year beckoned, and he allied himself with a new US-linked team for 1962, Anglo-American Racing. (Casner himself continued to race, sadly dying in a 5-litre Maserati coupe at Le Mans).

Behind Anglo-American was Louise Bryden-Brown, a major share-holder in Alcoa, and a society figure with a magnificent house in Montpelier Square where young artists and sculptors congregated. But she had a fondness for motor-racing too; it was she who brought Dan Gurney to England, funding a Lotus 18 for him in 1961.

Anglo-American did not have the pull to get hold of the Climax V8, so Burgess set to work to build a lightweight car to improve performance with the four. Inspired by Alec Issigonis’ lightweight special, the result was very narrow and low, with an early attempt at underbody airflow management, and was the first F1 car to try side-radiators, though they were later relocated to the nose. Why, if it was so different, call it a Cooper? Burgess explains: “I insisted, because I was still employed by Cooper, and had constantly driven Coopers, first my own, then Atkins’, Centro-Sud, and Camoradi. So l was keen for it to be seen as a Cooper, despite being a specialised interpretation of the Cooper design then available to private buyers.” (Lately, Aiden Jones, then working for A-A, has been credited with the design work, but Burgess maintains it was entirely his baby.) The car still exists, in the hands of Ean Pugh.

It proved successful on the twistier circuits; in fact. A-A was the most successful privateer team of that year, Burgess scoring fifths in the Naples, Karlskoga and Copenhagen GPs, and fourth at Solitude. Money, however, was tight; Bryden-Brown’s artistic patronages and her weakness for drink and drugs were eroding her fortune and her health, and the Anglo-American enterprise only lasted for that year.

The following year brought another new team, a new car and yet more colourful characters. Tony Settember ran a tuning shop in California, and boosted his income flying lobsters in overnight from Mexico. His exploits racing a Corvette caught the eye of Hugh Powell, young son of a millionaire mortician. Rich and bored, Powell Jr was easily persuaded to fund Settember’s arrival on the European racing scene, first with the ‘Vette in 1961, and then with an Emeryson-Climax. Settember soon tired of the lack of results with the shambolic Emery outfit, and decided he might as well build his own car — backed of course by his youthful patron.

In premises behind the Seven Stars pub in London’s Goldhawk Road, the new Scirocco team and cars took shape. Settember and Burgess would drive, while along with Aiden-Jones, Settember brought in Ermano Cuoghi, later Niki Lauda’s mechanic, and bought Rob Walker’s Commer transporter. The monocoque car was designed by Set tember, and beautifully built by Williams and Pritchard to take the BRM VS, now available to privateers, though shake-down runs used a Climax FPF.

But yet again a rosy future began quickly to pale. Though the car showed flashes of promise, the finances soon became erratic. Settember’s workshop standards were high (making Paul Emery’s place look like a blacksmith’s shop, says Burgess), but could not compensate for a dire lack of readies. Worse, BRM had overstretched itself with the privateer engines; the preparation was so poor that engines needed a rebuild after testing outings, and Burgess recalls often arriving at Bourne to collect a unit, to be told it was not yet ready — could he wait an hour, or two…? It was always a panic: Burgess remembers a car being built on the move, in the back of the truck on the way to Reims. Race results made a sorry catalogue: seven Championship races, seven retirements, including double ignition failure at the British GP, and a dramatic exit from the Nurburgring for Burgess when a steering arm broke. Only a lucky inherited second place for Settember at the non championship Austrian GP lightened the gloom.

As the season struggled on, Powell’s interest visibly declined as he became obsessed with a girl with whom he spent days closeted in a motel near Heathrow. Wages began to dry up, and the team was twice stranded abroad for lack of funds; Burgess, who was effectively managing the outfit, discovered that it was all running on an overdraft when the bank began to kick up and refused any more cash. He negotiated a respite, and an advance to pay for Powell’s return to the States to arrange funds from his father — but instead of a rapid air-ticket, Powell was found to have booked a stateroom on the Queen Elizabeth for himself and girl. Settember and Burgess sprinted to Southampton and cornered him on board, managing to extract some emergency cash, but that was the last anyone saw of the boy millionaire. For boy he was; though he had claimed to be 22, transatlantic appeals to his father elicited a terse message that Hugh was under 21, and therefore not legally entitled to spend the family fortune, or liable for his own debts. It was the rabbit-chop for Scirocco; Burgess and Settember sold much of the hardware to Tim Parnell to pay what bills they could. Their drivers’ fees were never settled.

As if these dramas were not enough. Burgess himself had been involved in a rather public divorce, and felt that some time abroad might be appropriate. He and Settember planned, with backing from Shell, to buy and run a Ferrari GTO in continental events, and Settember set off to the states to finalise things; the next Burgess heard was a postcard from the States pulling out.

And there was yet another cruel flicker of hope to come, in the shape of Mario de Cabral, a Portuguese aristocrat, a brilliant athlete, concert-standard violinist, and fast if erratic racer with his own Cooper. He fancied a share in the GTO, and decided to sell the family heirloom, a very fine and famous violin called “the Blue Angel”. But a top London dealer discovered that it was a cheap machine-made copy — the original had been swapped by an unscrupulous guest player. The Ferrari evaporated, the last in a string of chimaerae which bedevilled Ian Burgess’s motor-racing career. He moved to Switzerland, and later Greece where he established two factories building system housing for extreme climates such as the Middle East; he also became involved in military intelligence in that theatre, before establishing a successful yacht charter business on the Med. He now divides his time between Majorca and London, and encouraged by Roger Fowles and Tony Hildebrand, is becoming involved again, hoping to repay something to the sport which has given him so much fascination.

He still adores motor racing, but inevitably regrets the disappearance of an era when privateers could make a serious impression: “Look at Rob Walker — enormously successful for years and years; Moss wouldn’t have driven for him unless he thought he would be supplied with a competitive car.” And on today’s super-professional racing industry: “I don’t approve of anything that reduces the emphasis on character. I think motor-racing has always been surrounded by an aura of character.” Talking to the still-irrepressible Burgess makes this obvious. His stories of those times are legion, and frequently scandalous, constantly punctuated by “Oh, you can’t print that”. (I’ve had to negotiate for what I’ve used above; copies of the rest available in plain brown wrappers.) It can’t just be the “rose-tinted specs” syndrome; these were characters you couldn’t invent if you tried.