Historic scene: December 2017

Viva Salmone! That mock-Italian moniker followed Mike Salmon through a racing life full of great cars – and great stories

Not every story you work on comes to fruition, and it’s easy to find, among one’s notebooks and recordings, material still waiting for its moment.

Some years back Mike Salmon was considering doing a book of his six decades of motor racing and there was a vague idea that I might be the one at the keyboard. I went along to see him at the Surrey home of his good friend and mine Nik Cookson (who supplies the Tetraboost fuel additive that lets those of us too idle to convert our classics to lead-free fuel continue to drive them). Although the book didn’t happen before Mike passed away in January 2016, I recently turned up the recording of our conversation and it took me back to a day with this hearty Channel Islands gentleman racer who tried retiring but couldn’t stay away from the track.

It didn’t hurt that he was born into comfortable circumstances – his 21st birthday present in 1954 was an XK120 Jaguar and he took it straight to the track. He went on racing, barring that short retirement, until his 70s and even then was only flagged off because of what he saw as a footling medical quibble. His prolific racing took him around the international stage, sharing drives with Brian Redman, Roy Salvadori, Innes Ireland and Richard Atwood. He achieved 13 Le Mans starts, finishing an impressive fifth in 1963 with Jack Sears in a Ferrari 330LMB, as well as victories in the Martini Trophy and Autosport 3 Hours. A popular figure known for his smooth wheelwork, he was also an ebullient raconteur with a fund of stories, told in his slight drawl – and a good line in mimicry. Even if I didn’t know the people I could hear the character.

“It just wasn’t so costly then as a privateer,” he enthused as we settled down to talk, me with my recorder, he with a small glass of something. “Free tyres, free petrol, starting money, the capital outlay wasn’t huge – I never paid more than £3500 for a car.” (And that was for a GTO Ferrari.) Working at Jaguar he’d been able to buy a C-type through Lofty England and then an ex-Ecurie Ecosse long-nose D (“smashing car, loved it to bits”), replaced by a DB4 Zagato. Quality of machinery was never an issue, and running a garage concern handling exotic cars was an advantage too.

In his Zagato or Ferraris and Jaguars for John Coombs and Maranello Concessionaires Salmon already had a fun portfolio, but in 1964 came a dream offer. “John Dawnay [later Viscount Downe], a friend who had bought Project 212 from Aston, said ‘how would you like to race for me? You choose the car, I pay the bills. I don’t want to race but I want to be involved.’ ”

It was a blissful partnership that would see Salmon right through to the 1980s, from the Aston Martin project cars via GTO Ferrari to the Nimrod project and back into historics, often with the same DP214 he’d raced in period.

All this is in the history books, but I wanted to hear about some of the people he encountered – and becoming sales director at Maranello Concessionaire Mike knew everybody in the patrician arena of British privateer racing. Before that, though, there was Jaguar and Mike’s boss, competition manager Lofty England.

“One day Lofty called me in and said ‘Salmone – I was always Salmone – what did we drive to work today?’

‘I borrowed a friend’s Volkswagen because my C-type is in the competition shop being prepared for a race.’

‘And parked it in the works car park. Salmone, we don’t drive German crap when we work for Jaguar cars. Don’t do it again.’

He did, though. “Another time a friend of my uncle invited me to try his new 300SL Gullwing against my XK120, and the Mercedes just blew past it. Afterwards my uncle had a drinks party where we chatted about cars. On Monday morning Lofty called me in.

‘Salmone, what did we do this weekend?’ One of my uncle’s guests had been Ian Appleyard, so of course Lofty knew all about it. ‘We at Jaguar don’t drive German motor cars. And if we do, we don’t tell people what super cars they are. Get out.’

The antipathy didn’t extend to Italy, though. “The reason I sold the D was because much later at Silverstone Lofty said ‘Salmone, you’ve equalled Mike Hawthorn’s lap record. It’s time to move on.’ I said, ‘but you don’t make the right car now’.

‘No. Enough of sports cars. Buy a Ferrari GT.’

“I did buy a GT but it was an Aston Martin Zagato. After a disappointing test at Snetterton, I rang John Wyer [Aston’s competition manager] who made a classic remark: ‘I think this is more apparent than actual…’ “

Still dubious, Mike and his wife Jean (Bloxham, an Aston racer herself) drove the Zagato to Spa for the 500Km where in a wet race (“I did seem to go well in the wet…”) Mike finished fifth, triggering a call from Wyer. “I believe you have an entry for Le Mans? Bring the car to us, please.”

“The car came back,” Mike continued, “with a complete new engine, elektron gearbox, DBR1 brakes – the works. I thought, what in the world is all this going to cost? Eventually the bill came – £285, so I called Wyer and said there must be some mistake. ‘We don’t make mistakes at Aston.’ “

There was further bargain to be had, too: once Aston withdrew from racing in 1964 Wyer offered the pair of DP214s and all remaining racing spares to Salmon and his business partner Brian Hetreed. “He wanted £15,000 but I said we could only scrape up £7000. ‘Deal done’, he said. Amazing.”

After racing it at Daytona the 214 had to be collected from a port on the Clyde. Cue a tale of varied disasters as Salmon and mechanic ground north in their 38mph Dennis lorry, which ran out of water at 2am. “I’d noticed a public lavatory so I went in with big adjustable spanner and undid a brass tap. The only container we could find was a wellington boot, so I made several trips with that, and then a policeman arrived. “We’ve been watching you, sir. What are you doing with a spanner and a rubber boot? I said, I’m not as kinky as all that, officer.”

The same lorry – so unreliable that at times it had to be towed by their Jaguar MkVII road car while Mike drove the 214 – took them to the 1964 Nürburgring 1000Km where Salmon’s team-mate Hetreed was tragically killed in practice. “Obviously I went to withdraw the other car,” recalled Mike, “and the man in charge – white and brown shoes, I recall – said ‘This is understandable. The body will be flown back to England, everything will be paid for, and we hope you come back next year.’ They were so used to it…”

Successful privateer entrant John Coombs was another who gave Salmon prize drives. “That fabulous 3.8 saloon… Very clever, John. He got those cars so quick.” Another moment of mimicry: “ ‘Don’t grub about for more power, just get the bloody thing to handle!’, he would say. And my goodness they did. Although once I was invited to test his car at Goodwood and it was horrible. Couldn’t even take Fordwater flat. I came in and said ‘That’s impossible to drive!’.

“‘I wanted you to try the car like that,’ John told me. “That is how Graham Hill likes it. I think it’s completely impossible. Now we’ll change it and I think you’ll like it.’ After that the car was wonderful.”

As both an accomplished racer and an engaging personality Salmon slid smoothly into Col Ronnie Hoare’s Maranello concern, selling road cars, driving racing cars, and selling those on afterwards – what a mix.

I never heard Ronnie Hoare talk, but Mike’s languid nasal impression of the Maranello chief – ‘look here, chaps…’ – chimed beautifully with the image of the upright artillery officer. It triggered another chuckling memory in Mike, too: “When Ronnie took over the Ferrari concession after Hawthorn was killed he ran into Tommy Sopwith at the Motor Show who said ‘Congratulation, Ronnie. Now you’ll be the Prancing Hoare.’ ”

Did he get on with all the drivers he shared with, I asked?

“I had no trouble with anyone except Dickie Protheroe. He had bought the Maranello 330P but it wasn’t ready for Reims so the Colonel said ‘we’ll lend him our 250LM and you’re in charge of it’. We were at the same hotel and he was furious that we had wine at dinner before a race.

“After practice he insisted on driving the LM back to the Ferrari garage in Reims. You know he lost an eye in a stock car race? Well, he was obsessed with proving it made no difference. Very forceful. He turned into the garage in front of a car and it smashed into the LM. End of our race. We were due to go to a wonderful party in a château that night, too.”

More than once that afternoon Mike interrupted himself to say “Oh, that’s another wonderful story but I won’t bore you with that now”. As if. His career (barring the burning GT40 that marked him for ever, which he also talked about without flinching) looks like the perfect cocktail of employment and enjoyment. Today some would call it synergy; in Mike Salmon’s language it was just bloody good fun.

Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635