Clinking glasses with the legends of the Mille Miglia

I’ve not recently witnessed a more improbable scene than watching Sir Stirling and Lady Susie Moss, Norman Dewis and Patrick Head standing patiently in one of Ryanair’s famous queues at Stansted. My job was to escort them to Brescia for the start of this year’s Mille Miglia.

They were there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Stirling and Norman’s entry in a works Jaguar c-type equipped with a newfangled ‘plate brake’ better known to you and I as a disc. In 1952 after adventures that made Stirling’s 1955 run look positively uneventful, they retired near the finish while in what Norman only recently discovered was second place, not third as has been assumed.

Spool forward 60 years and Stirling and Norman are at the start not in the 1951 Le Mans-winning XKc003 in which they did their original run, because it was cut up by the factory in 1953, but 005 which is the car in which Stirling won the disc’s first ever race at reims the following month.

But before that they appeared in the square where all the cars were paraded for the town to see. From the reception granted them, you’d have thought Brad and Angelina were in town, not a couple of retired racers with a combined age of 173.

When Jaguar’s PR Boss asked me where he might find them, all I could do was point helplessly at a seething mass of humanity. Of course the boys took it all in their stride as the world’s press and public descended on them, conducting an endless stream of interviews, posing with pretty girls and apparently enjoying themselves. on the start ramp more pandemonium ensued. It was lost on no-one that rarely was the phrase ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ more appropriately used; and as Stirling lifted the clutch and glided off the start ramp, you couldn’t hear the engine over the noise of the crowd. They then drove around the town, returning to the start before handing it over to patrick to compete in the actual event.

Why Patrick? Because when its first owner Tommy Wisdom was finished with the car in 1953, he sold it to Brigadier Michael Head who campaigned it in Scandinavia for two seasons.

Patrick remembers the car well from his childhood and it was wonderful to see them reunited. When it was all over, we repaired with the Mosses and Norman to a Trattoria for a quiet evening after a long, hot and busy day. Some hours and several bottles later, we were privileged to be told by Norman a little of the life he hardly ever talks about.

Before Jaguar even existed as a marque, norman spent four years as a centre turret gunner in Bristol Blenheims. He was eventually grounded by a kidney complaint brought on by years spent in the poorly sealed turret which blasted sub-zero air onto his back. I suggested he must have been somewhat relieved by the news.

"Relieved?”, he replied.“No not really, disappointed in fact.”

At 1.30am I retired, leaving Norman in full low. Seven hours later I dragged my liverish body downstairs to find an immaculately turned out Norman having had his morning stroll, laughing and joking with stirling as if he’d been on tomato juice all night. This summer Norman Dewis will celebrate his 92nd birthday.

Andrew Frankel