Jenks

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A tribute by Simon Taylor

Generations of motor racing enthusiasts have cause to be grateful to Denis Sargent Jenkinson. Nowadays most youngsters become aware of Formula One via television, and their perceptions of what is and is not good about it are shaped on Sunday afternoons by the circus on the small screen. But between the early 1950s and the late 1980s, countless numbers of us first discovered the true excitement of motor sport from the eponymous monthly magazine with the green cover.

Inside, we devoured the solid galleys of usually unillustrated print, set in a typeface that often got smaller and smaller as it went down the page, an ethereal, far distant world of heroes and battles was magically brought into close-up focus by the anonymous initials at the bottom of the page – D.S.J.

Denis Jenkinson became a full-time MOTOR SPORT writer in 1953. That same year, aged eight, was sent to boarding school. In the austere dormitories, beside each bed, there was a small shelf on which each boy was allowed to keep one private item of great personal importance. In my case it was always the latest issue of MOTOR SPORT, posted to me each month by my father once he’d read it. I dutifully absorbed W.B.’s uncompromising opinions about cars current and vintage and motoring in general. I dreamed my way through all those wonderful classified ads. But D.S.J.’s writings I would read and re-read, until the next month’s issue arrived to supercede them.

It was the policy of MOTOR SPORT to eschew any glorification of its writers. Their names never appeared: only their initials, pedantically equipped with full stops. Yet even the newest reader rapidly understood, as if by telepathy, that W.B. was called Bill Boddy, and that D.S.J. meant Jenks, the Continental Correspondent who somehow got himself to just about every European race, and was often the only English language reporter to do so. This small, bespectacled man with his long red beard spent the season driving all over Europe – first in a Lancia Aprilia, then a Porsche 356, then a Jaguar E-type. And he didn’t only go to the races. He visited the factories and the racing teams, he shared meals and hotel rooms with the drivers, he even helped out as a mechanic or signaller. From the perspective of my prep-school dormitory I could not imagine a more charmed life, and I vowed one day to emulate him.

But being where it was happening wasn’t just why we all had to read every word Jenks wrote. It was also because of how he wrote it: in the easy, informal style of a personal letter to a close friend, bubbling over with the excitement of the moment and yet always ruthlessly well-informed and accurate, and spiced through with insider detail and trenchant opinion. It was only when I got to know Jenks well, almost 25 years after I’d started reading him, that I understood why: spending time with him was just like reading one of his pieces. The man himself possessed all the same qualities as his work.

First and foremost, Jenks was a true enthusiast, dyed in the wool and to the soles of his boots. Right up until the day of the massive stroke that effectively ended his life, he loved motor sport with a passion which never became tarnished, or blasé, or cynical. No-one could be more critical of what he saw as the bad things in motor racing. But no-one enjoyed more wholeheartedly what it was really about: great drivers and great cars at work, great battles being fought.

After spending a life reporting motor races his knowledge of the sport down the years, and his sense of history, were unrivalled yet he had no use whatever for nostalgia. He never looked back with regret. The most exciting racing car was always the newest racing car, the most exciting driver the fastest man of the moment. When the turbo era arrived, as younger writers bemoaned the loss of the great days of F1, his eyes sparkled at the prospect of qualifying engines with a life of three laps and a power output of 1000 horsepower per litre.

And his enthusiasm spread far beyond Formula One. You could glimpse his small frame in motorcycle leathers in the paddock at Shelsley Walsh – where long past his 70th birthday he finally broke his personal bogey of 40 seconds on his homebuilt TriBSA – or see his ancient Morris Minor chasing across Southern England at high speed, a pile of cushions on the sagging seat so he could see over the steering wheel, in search of parts for the Duesenberg he was permanently rebuilding. Any mix of mechanical ingenuity, human endeavour and speed always got his attention – so that when the first Concorde went into service he rode his motorbike over to Heathrow to watch it take off.

Secondly, he was a true eccentric: not one of those who contrives to be offbeat for effect, but someone who was different without thinking about it. He reckoned he was totally orthodox and it was everyone else who was out of kilter, and he pursued his own priorities in a way which seemed totally logical to him and almost certifiable to everyone else. He lived in a single-story cottage well off the beaten track in rural Hampshire, its four rooms cluttered with motorbikes in rebuild, a lifetime’s motor racing memorabilia, a V8 engine at the bottom of the bed. There was no mains electricity, but a Fiat 500 engine drove a generator to provide electric light – although if you went to the loo and turned on the light, the rest of the cottage would be plunged into darkness. There was a bath, but it was full of car magazines, all carefully stacked by type and in date order. In the undergrowth around the cottage various cars and motorcycles slept, their useful life over, while a lean-to made from Honda packing cases provided more working space.

Jenks was not interested in any local amenities, and was not registered with the Health Service. If he felt unwell he would wait until the next Grand Prix and go and see Prof Watkins. And Alan Henry famously tells the story of visiting Jenks for breakfast: the ancient Aga, its handrail decorated with drying socks, was persuaded to produce two fried eggs. Jenks proudly presented one on a plate for Alan, and standing at the sink flopped the other out of the frying pan and proceeded to eat it off the wooden draining board. Not used to entertaining, Jenks only possessed one plate.

With this individual approach to life went a healthy dislike of any authority. Jenks’ political beliefs, such as they were, were many leagues to the right of Ghengis Khan. Yet when he first went to the USA, in the days when any visit needed a visa, he answered the question “Are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party?” in the affirmative, just because he felt it was none of their business. Uncle Sam was unwilling to grant him a visa on that occasion.

With this anarchic streak went a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, and Jenks was capable on occasion of behaving like a conspiratorial schoolboy. Humour was never far below the surface in his work, and he was far from being merely a narrow-minded motor-racing addict. His favourite music was traditional jazz – especially Sidney Bechet – but he would recount with relish how, with a spare evening in Modena, he decided to take some friends to the opera in Verona, 70 miles away. As the idea took root the party grew to 11 people, so their cars were abandoned in favour of a borrowed racing car transporter. This immense vehicle took them to Verona, and after some haggling was parked in front of the Arena while they heard their Verdi. Then it carried them back to Modena, lustily singing snatches of their favourite arias.

Jenks’ whole lifestyle – a hermit at home, a rolling stone abroad – meant that he looked at life, and everything he wrote about, from a different perspective from us ordinary mortals. And it was this that brought such extraordinary freshness to his writing. He wouldn’t have dreamt of possessing a television, but he was a radio enthusiast – he liked to fettle his motorbikes while he listened – so when he stopped going to every Grand Prix he used to listen to my Radio Five Live commentaries. On my return I would find one of his neatly composed postcards taking issue with, or sometimes agreeing with, something I’d said.

On another occasion there was a TV programme he actually wanted to see, so he drove from his Hampshire village of Crondall to my house in London in the Morris Minor – which he’d christened the Crondall Flyer – to watch it. Afterwards we sat in my kitchen with a bottle of whisky between us while Jenks talked, wittily, controversially and absorbingly, mainly but not exclusively about motor racing. It was well into the early hours when the Crondall Flyer drove off into the night, valves bouncing in every gear.

So an enthusiast, and an eccentric: and thirdly a man of considerable physical and moral courage. During the war, which he thought of as a ludicrous waste of lives dreamt up by politicians, he registered as a conscientious objector, before going to work at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough – where he first met Bill Boddy, a happenstance that was later said to be a magazine equivalent of Royce meeting Rolls. After the war, with car racing far beyond his means, he raced motorcycles – working his way on a shoestring from race to race on the Continent, both as a rider and as an unpaid mechanic. At that time he had no abode apart from a sleeping bag under the bench of the lockup where he kept his bike. In 1949 sidecar racer Eric Oliver came looking for a new passenger, and Jenks was the perfect choice: small, light, absolutely fearless and with a huge will to win.

He stayed with Oliver for 18 months, during which they won a string of races against the best in the world and ended up World Champions.

Jenks was beholden to no-one. He wrote exactly what he thought, and paid no heed to what the establishment of the day might feel about it. When Jackie Stewart was campaigning for more safety in motorsport Jenks disapproved, and said so in print, branding Stewart a “milk-and-water” driver. But whatever his views, they always had their foundation in his understanding of, and love for, motor racing: as a result, while many disagreed with him, everyone respected him. His own respect was offered only where he felt it was deserved, and only to the greatest in the sport. The few whom he put on his personal pinnacle – Rosemeyer, Moss, Clark, Senna – could do no wrong, but he could be scathing, in print and to their faces, to anyone he regarded as second-rate.

In the case of Senna the admiration was mutual. Ayrton sought out the little man for deep, intense discussions about the attributes of a world-class racing driver. It’s hard to imagine any other journalist being taken that seriously by a World Champion. Clark, he used to joke, had been his Porsche team-mate: when the young Jimmy was racing Ian Scott-Watson’s 356 he and Jenks both did the Silverstone Six-Hour relay race. Stirling Moss, of course, regarded Jenks with both friendship and admiration after their Mile Miglia partnerships, which included that astonishing victory for Mercedes Benz in 1955 and provided the muse for some of his greatest writing.

Jenks never suffered fools, gladly or otherwise, and he could sniff out hypocrisy and insincerity a mile off. But to any genuine and like-minded stranger he would be warm and good-humoured. My father, a country solicitor who had no connection with cars or motor-racing apart from his own enthusiasm, owned a 356 Porsche. My parents were on a motoring holiday in the 1950s when, queuing for a level crossing in central Italy, another Porsche drew up behind and a small bearded man got out to watch the train go by. They exchanged greetings and at once fell into animated conversation, discussing Porsche oversteer and the relative merits of Vanwall and Ferrari. Then the train came, and my father just had time to say how much he appreciated his monthly copy of MOTOR SPORT before Jenks, with a wave, was on his way and gone.

In 1995, for the 40th anniversary of that Mille Miglia win, Mercedes got the 300SLR No 722 out of the museum and sent it to Italy for Moss and Jenks to do the three-day retrospective. But if there was one thing Jenks liked less than nostalgia, it was a ‘jolly’ pretending to be the real thing, and he declined the invitation. He’d done the real Mille Miglia four times, and he saw no fun in going on a sort of replica event. So Stirling asked me to go instead, and diffidently I rang Jenks for some tips on how to look after Moss at speed in the cockpit of a 300SLR. As expected I got plenty of grumbles down the phone about how it was an outrage that the new Mille Miglia, a jolly for rich old amateurs, was allowed to use the same name as the proper Mille Miglia, but he did agree to meet me at his local for half an hour. “I’ll see you there at 5.30,” he said crisply, “because I have things to do. I must be gone by six.”

We sat at a table in the corner of the bar, and he spread out the very maps he’d used 40 years before, carefully marked from his recces with Moss. He’d brought programmes, photographs and cuttings, and of course the famous metal box which had sat on his knee during the race, with its 17-foot roll of paper carefully marked with pace notes for every metre of the thousand miles. And out came the stories: many I’d heard before but never at first hand, many that were new to me. Being Jenks, all were vividly told and most were uproariously funny. When the pub finally locked its doors at 11.45 pm, we were the last to leave. Two days later I had a charming letter from Jenks, thanking me for the rounds I’d bought and listing some more Mille Miglia pointers that had occurred to him. The letter was, of course, beautifully written, and included some comparative average speed figures to three decimal places and some other details which he’d wanted to check since our conversation, presumably from the library piled in the bath.

In Italy, on the Mille Miglia Retrospective, Moss and the 300SLR were feted everywhere we went, but there was universal disappointment that the little bearded man who should have been in the right-hand seat wasn’t there. The tifosi knew all about Jenks, and respected him. Forty years on, from Brescia to Rome and back, the duo in the silver Mercedes that had averaged almost 100mph for 1000 miles were still fondly remembered.

Sitting in the pub, Jenks told me with glee the story of two old Italians who’d been heard talking in a village bar months after the 1955 Mille Miglia. The Englishman’s win was still in the air, and one said to another: “That young Moss, it was a miracle drive. You know how he did it? Sitting beside him, for the whole race, was a priest, a bearded priest, reading to him from a bible on his knee. That was how he could go so fast. God was with him.”

Jenks had no time for religion, and said he wanted no Christian business when he died. But a huge number of people who had loved him wanted to pay their respects, and at his funeral in December 1996 BRDC chaplain Lionel Webber was equal to the task. “Just think of it like this,” he told the congregation. “Jenks is up there with all his old mates Ayrton, Gilles and Jimmy and at this very moment he’ll be busy arguing with God, telling him he doesn’t exist”.

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