In the swinging sixties, crime sometimes did pay…for motor racing. Gordon Cruickshank investigates Roy James, the great train robber.
Like any other sport, motor racing can boast its share of shady individuals. Whispers and rumours are as far as it gets in many cases, but sometimes the facts are incontrovertible and occasionally sensational. In August last year a man died who had wanted to make his name on the track, but who instead became infamous for ‘the crime of the century’. Roy James spent 11 years in gaol for his part in The Great Train Robbery, and then, after 18 years of freedom which included an attempted racing comeback, went inside again for the attempted murder of his father-in-law. From a promising racer in Formula Junior, then F1’s training ground, he became instead a notorious double convict.
Born in Fulham, London, in 1935, his profession was as a silversmith, a trade he plied at Harrods. But his was a competitive nature. He had a trial for Queens Park Rangers football team, became a champion waterskier, and then turned to karting in 1960. In 1962 he represented Britain at a European Championship meeting in France, winning four out of five races. After seeing Denny Hulme’s impressive FJ win in a Brabham at the 1962 Brands Hatch Boxing Day meet, he persuaded World Champion Jack Brabham, recently turned manufacturer as well as driver, to sell him that very car. Even in FJ this was a fairly substantial outlay; who’d have thought silversmithing would pay so well? It didn’t, as it happened – like many young and aspiring racers, James had a part-time job to boost his income. Not barwork, or labouring; he was a getaway driver, that crucial and romantic figure central to the sort of high-profile, high-speed, carefully choreographed crime which attained its own inverted glamour in the 1960s and which seems now to have vanished from our newspapers.
James was good. Reliable, fast and adept at throwing off pursuers, he was recognised by those in the business as one of the best. Consequently he became attached in the late Fifties to one of the top ‘firms’ – the South-Western gang run by Bruce Reynolds. Specialising in the bold heist and the wages snatch, Reynolds was well known in the underworld and to the police as one of the few gang-leaders with the contacts and the bravado to execute the big capers.
Inevitably this notoriety worked against him, for when something big was pulled off in the south, the police tended to start with the Reynolds gang and work outwards. The firm was quite able to arrange international operations, and in 1962 James landed a hefty payoff from a couple of robberies in the south of France. Later that year he came closer than ever to arrest, after a major wage snatch at London Airport. Although the gang got away thanks to James and fellow wheelman Mickey Ball, the police soon pulled them in to stand in an identification parade dressed in the false moustaches and bowler hats worn during the raid. Ball was identified, later being jailed for five years, but James got away with it. It was after this eventful and profitable season that he ordered his Brabham; indeed, he was later to claim that he only ever took part in criminal activities to finance his racing, though this hardly squares with the fact that the crime came well before the karting…
However, his Brabham stood him in good stead, and throughout 1963 James began to win regularly, setting several class records. His tally of some 16 wins in FJ and Libre events and 11 fastest laps even assured him of some Esso money for the following season. But this must have involved some careful organisation, because throughout that year Reynolds and his colleagues were scheming what remains the most famous theft ever in Britain – the Great Train Robbery.
It was a staggeringly audacious plan. Millions of poundsworth of used banknotes intended for destruction by the Bank of England would be intercepted as they travelled by train from Glasgow to Euston. Everything was beautifully dove-tailed. On the night of August 8, 1963, a false signal brought the mail train to a stop, and 30 masked men moved in to uncouple the mail coaches and empty them of their paper riches – a haul of £2.5 million. Only the vicious coshing of the driver kept the public’s mood the next morning from being anything other than admiring.
But although the South-Western gang were once again in the frame, James felt cocky enough to enter the FJ support to the TT at Goodwood only weeks after the robbery. He made a respectable practice time on the Thursday, but the next day his picture was on the front pages under the headline “Racing Driver Wanted”. Motoring News commented: ‘A notable non-starter was Roy James, who did not appear on Saturday. Scotland Yard, it seems, wished to interview him, and James was not to be found.”
Hiding out with contacts in London, James evaded the police for some weeks. But finally the Yard tracked him to an address in St John’s Wood, and after a cinematic chase over the rooftops with a bag of money in his hand, he was collared. He was convicted by one unfortunate slip – a single fingerprint on a saucer at the farm the gang had occupied as event HQ. Ironically the thoughtful James had used it to give some milk to the farm cat. He got 30 years.
Racing still gripped him, however, and when with good behaviour he was released from gaol 11 years later, in 1975, he went straight back to the circuits. After some ‘warming up’ in Formula Ford, David Mills, later Derek Bell’s manager, gave him a test at Silverstone in a Formula Atlantic.
“I was asked to help him by all sorts of people in the business,” says Mills. “I think the racing fraternity felt that it had been a terribly long sentence. 30 years- that’s life, after all. He was a nice enough chap, outgoing, many people liked him and felt he had served more than enough time. I had a Lola which Ted Wentz had been driving in Atlantic and then F2, and at the end of the season we put the Ford BDA Atlantic engine back in it for James to test, and I issued a press release saying ‘Roy James returns to racing!”
The 5ft 4in James had difficulty fitting the Lola chassis set up for the six-foot American Wentz, but Mills recalls that wasn’t the only problem. “It was really too powerful for him. Like all racing drivers he thought he would be even better in a faster car, but after all those years in prison…
“Mind you, he had kept himself in shape in the prison gym. I think motor racing was his life-line; he just kept it in his sights that one day he’d come out and be a racing driver again. He was so keen: I can’t describe how excited he was to drive a racing car round a circuit again. And he was getting down to some good times when he went off. That was the end of his dream. Such a shame.”
James got a wheel on the grass, lost control and rammed the crash barrier, breaking a leg. Quoted in Autosport he said, “My times were coming down nicely and I’d have had a decent position on the grid. After 12 years it felt good and I was elated. I can’t wait to have a go again. Time is not on my side. I can’t afford to miss a day.” But neither fate nor finance were on his side either. He had little to show for the big raid, much of the proceeds having been spirited away while he was in gaol by supposed confederates. And he was now aged 40, a hard time to recover from injury and attract sponsorship. Too hard: though he claimed to have a strategy to make it right to Formula One, the Atlantic crash was his last drive.
He returned to silversmithing, the skill he had been allowed to exercise in prison where he made trophies for the BRSCC, and made the F1 Constructors Trophy which was presented in Paris in 1975. But in 1984 he was again arrested, along with Charlie Wilson, another train robber, for a VAT fraud involving the melting down of gold coins. This time he was acquitted, but it was not his last visit to the Old Bailey.
In 1982 he had married Anthea Wadlow, who was a full 30 years younger than him. Within a few years the marriage broke up, and while James was granted custody of their two children, he was also expected to make a £150,000 settlement to Anthea. This settlement, never paid, became a bone of contention between James and his Father-in-law, David Wadlow, and in 1993 the dispute erupted. James pulled out a gun and shot Wadlow three times, leaving him permanently scarred and partly disabled. This time there was no advance planning or rapid getaway: it was James himself who called the police. He was sentenced to six years for attempted murder, but his heart began to fail and in 1996, still in prison, he had a triple by-pass operation. Released early in 1997, he died in August that same year of heart failure, remembered more for that rapid departure from the Goodwood paddock in 1963 than for any achievements on the track.