At times faster than Moss, and secure enough for Stirling to favour him as his Jaguar co-driver, Peter Walker set the Coventry marque’s Le Mans ball rolling and deserves a better press.
Frequented by ordinary, everyday drinking folk there isn’t, and never has been, anything particularly remarkable about the Horse & Groom pub in Eign Road, Hereford. However, 20 years ago and more, the bar had a regular guest who, apart from draining the odd glass or two of local ‘scrumpy’ cider, sat quietly in the corner, pencil and notebook in hand, writing and making sketches for dozens of innovative engineering projects.
He was known to his friends with some affection simply as ‘Pete’ — one of the lads — the chap who sat at the bar night after night imbibing a little and making copious notes about things that they neither understood nor wanted to understand. Unbeknown to the locals, their mate Pete was none other than Peter Douglas Conyers Walker, gentleman farmer, imaginative prankster, talented racing driver and one of his generation’s most misunderstood geniuses. Tragically, Peter Walker died in 1984 aged 72 but is still remembered today by his peers — people like Stirling Moss, who describes Walker as one of life’s ‘great guys’.
As an amateur racing driver in the 1930s, ‘Skid’ Walker was best known for the fearless manner in which he conducted Peter Whitehead’s ERA, at both circuit and hillclimb venues. When the War ended, the old Thirties cars were exhumed, and when motor racing resumed, Walker continued to thrill the crowds in Whitehead’s same ERA.
At the 1948 International Prescott Hillclimb meeting, MOTOR SPORT reported that Walker “made one of the most sensational ascents ever seen at Prescott. Scorning a raincoat, he drove in a sports jacket and seemed quite unconcerned about the rain. The ERA slid about alarmingly, but obviously much as its driver wished and clocked 49.9sec. Then, to show there was no deception or water in the timing apparatus. Walker made his second run in 49.96sec — ftd by a clear 1.49sec and 2.74sec faster than Hill-Climb Champion Raymond Mays’ best ascent. On his tour d’honneur, Walker was loudly applauded — maybe he is our new sprint champion?”
It was this and other similar performances which brought Walker to the attention of ‘Lofty’ England, and, along with Prince Bira and Leslie Johnson, he was rewarded with a drive in an XK120 in this newly-launched car’s first race at Silverstone in 1949. Walker finished second on that occasion but won at the same event a year later in one of six alloy-bodied works-prepared XK120s, registered JWK 977.
Peter Walker’s son Tim (who incidentally was named after Peter Walker’s great hero ‘Tim’ Birkin) clearly recalls being taken to school in this car. “The old man always used to drive like hell, except when I was changing gear from the passenger seat or being sick, but the odd burst up to 100mph on the long straight roads was always great fun.’ Tim’s mother and Peter’s first wife Patsy put JWK 977 to good use on several occasions as a cream and butter maker. Tim explains: “She used to tie a churn to one of the rear wheels of the Jaguar and drive it up and down the road until the cream had thickened to the correct consistency — it was a lot faster than turning it by hand on the kitchen table!”
Walker’s speed at the wheel of the XK made him an obvious candidate to drive the XK120C, or C-Type as it became known, and on 16 May 1951, he and Stirling Moss carried out initial trials with the new car around the MIRA test track at Lindley. Walker completed 20 laps and Moss just 13 but their best lap times — 1min 55sec and 1min 55.6sec respectively — were significant.
Moss was the acknowledged maestro of the Jaguar team, but here was the farmer from Herefordshire putting up a faster time. And the same occurred when Jaguar went to Le Mans in 1951. Walker, paired with his old mucker Peter Whitehead, caused a sensation during the Wednesday practice session before the 24-Hour race by completing a best lap at 4min 50sec in the dark, an average speed of 104mph; no other driver, including Moss, could get below 5mins. The Marchal foglamps fitted to the C-Type were acknowledged as being inadequate for high-speed work at Le Mans (but apparently performed a splendid job of illuminating rabbits when fitted to the Walkers’ road car), and Walker’s incredible speed was entirely down to his bravery, skill and legendary car control.
The 1951 Le Mans 24 Hours could easily have ended in disaster for Jaguar. After four hours of racing, C-Types filled the top three positions. However, after just 50 laps, the Biondetti/Johnson car retired with falling oil pressure and dry bearings, and a broken con-rod at Am age for the same reason saw the demise of the Moss/Fairman Jaguar.
It was discovered that these failures were due to engine vibrations causing a copper delivery pipe in the sump to crack, with the result that Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead had to adjust their driving style to ensure that the engine in their car was maintained in vibration-free rev bands. This they did with relative ease, nursing the car for hour after hour, to score the first of Jaguar’s seven glorious wins at the Sarthe circuit. Interestingly, Louis Rosier’s lap record of 4min 53.5sec, set in his Talbot-Lago in the 1950 race, was only beaten by Walker, Moss and Fairman.
After a celebration lunch given by Bill Lyons at the Hotel de Paris in Le Mans on the Monday following the race, Peter and Patsy Walker drove the winning C-Type directly to Henly’s showrooms in Piccadilly — a fair feat in itself considering what car and driver had already been through, and the problems that had beset the other team cars.
Walker’s 1951 Le Mans win was certainly a great achievement, but arguably less so than his exploits with the much-mocked V16 BRM, which Stirling Moss once described as ‘The worst car I ever drove’. Judged by any standards, the V16 was a difficult car to conduct at both low and high speeds, but the gentlemanly pilotes of the early 1950s did not complain, even when Reg Parnell and Peter Walker brought their recalcitrant mounts home in fifth and seventh positions on the occasion of the 1951 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, their legs so badly burnt by heat from the engines and exhaust systems that even walking was painful.
Gregor Grant reported: “Reg Parnell and Peter Walker saved the day for British motor racing. Their heroism in sticking to their task whilst suffering from agonising burns will enable the BRM designers to go ahead and modify the cars to make them completely raceworthy.” Still nursing his burns, but dismissing them as little more than “a bit of a nuisance”, Walker turned up at Dundrod to drive the C-Type in the TT. Jaguar cleaned up. Moss won at an average speed of 83.55mph, Walker came in a dutiful second at 82.57mph and the Johnson/Rolt car finished a creditable third at 81.31mph.
At the end of the season, Peter Walker returned to Herefordshire to attend to his farm, but son Tim remembers that there was always time for fun. “Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton were great friends and they used to come and stay with us,” he says. “They had famous parties, of course, and sometimes they seemed to go on for ever. On one occasion, after a particularly long night out, the police arrived to ask my mother if they could open the boot of father’s Bentley; they had ‘reason to believe’ that the signboard belonging to The Trumpet pub near Ledbury lay within. Mother assured them that they must have been mistaken, but they insisted on looking anyway. Sure enough, the pub sign was in the boot of the Bentley and the police made their displeasure felt in polite, but not uncertain terms. The sign was duly returned.
“Stirling Moss and Peter Whitehead came to stay occasionally too, but although they enjoyed a laugh and a joke, neither were drinkers, unlike father, Tony and Duncan, and didn’t therefore get up to the same sort of pranks. I recall Peter Whitehead trying desperately to straighten a pig’s tail on one occasion, though.”
Duncan Hamilton’s widow Angela recently recalled another occasion when the Walkers and the Hamiltons met at a restaurant after a race meeting at Goodwood. “Not content with sitting down to eat and drink, Peter brought a large number of chickens with him and let them loose in the restaurant,” she laughs. “He was a great chap, always joking and clowning around, but deadly serious when he was driving. Peter was very skilful, fast and brave; he told me once that he could have gone a lot faster during the night practice for the 1951 Le Mans, but had forgotten to take his sunglasses off and couldn’t see very well. A super chap; we all loved him very much.”
Stirling Moss who, at that time was Jaguar’s number-one driver, rated Walker very highly indeed. “He was fast in the car and easy to get along with — a regular guy — which is why I always preferred him as a co-driver,” he says. For 1952, Jaguar appeared at Le Mans with the ill-fated long-nose, long-tail C-Types, The restyling exercise was not a good idea as it turned out, and engine overheating problems saw that years’s French classic fall to Daimler-Benz, whose new 300SL ‘Gullwings’ heralded the German company’s return to international motor sport for the first time since before the War.
There was, however, one high point during this season for Jaguar when Peter Walker took a C-Type (chassis number XKC 001) to Shelsley Walsh and smashed the sports car record with a formidable time of 41. 14sec. Later in the year he took the record at Prescott with a remarkable best of 47.53sec. For many, this was the first time they had seen a C-Type Jaguar, and at both hillclimb venues, Walker’s performance in the car with his inimitable spectacular style caused a sensation, and brightened up the lives of a good few motoring enthusiasts who were still recovering from the dreary aftermath of the War.
By 1953, Peter Walker was clearly enjoying his motor racing, but his private life was beginning to change. Patsy, a “sensible, charming girl,” according to Angela Hamilton, was quickly tiring of her husband’s lifestyle. Being a tall, dashing, good-looking chap, Walker was rarely short of female company either. After the breakdown of his marriage, he sold his farm, imbibed a little more from time to time and carried on racing.
One of his girlfriends even tried to force Walker to give up the sport he loved so much, and went as far as trying to keep him awake the night before a race by filling his bed with sand, and generally making a nuisance of herself. But such antics never made a bit of a difference to Peter at this time, as Tim Walker points out: “The old man was first and foremost a sportsman. At Lancing school, he held the high-jump record for many years, always enjoyed shooting and when he was racing, it meant everything to him.”
The Daily Express meeting at Silverstone on May 9 was Walker’s first event of 1953 for Jaguar. Moss experienced a horrendous accident in practice, turning the car over, and although shaken started the race after the C-type had been hastily rebodied. All three Jaguars were still fitted with drum brakes, the engines on 2in SU carburettors were giving a comparatively feeble 215bhp, and the opposition from Ferrari and Aston Martin filled the first four places at the end of the race. Peter Walker brought his Jaguar home in fifth, Graham Whitehead was sixth in his half-brother Peter’s similar car, and Stirling Moss was seventh.
Walker’s next outing was Le Mans again. Having won all the major tournaments of 1952, Daimler-Benz closed their sports car programme at the end of that season and left the door wide open for 1953. The entry list for the 24 Hour race was a long one, and Jaguar faced stiff competition from Cunningham, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and Lancia. Walker was teamed with Stirling Moss for this event. Problems with the car early in the race saw Moss having to make an unscheduled pitstop, which dropped the C-Type (number 17) as low as 21st position at one stage, but, with a lot of help from Peter Walker, Moss brought the car back up to second, where it eventually finished behind the winning C-Type of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton.
Moss and Walker were also paired for the Goodwood 9-hour race and led comfortably for eight hours until the car was retired with oil surge and starvation problems, leaving the gate open for the works Aston Martins of Reg Parnell/Eric Thompson and Peter Collins/Pat Griffith to take first and second places respectively. The Ulster TT came next, and Walker had no trouble in breaking the sportscar lap record during the race with a time of 5min 1 sec at an average speed of 88.70mph, but his gearbox gave trouble and Moss managed to bring the car home in third place, yet again behind two Astons.
The 1954 season wasn’t as successful for Peter Walker. He remained with Jaguar, but not even his closest friends could really be sure whether he was beginning to lose interest in the team, or whether his love of motor racing was starting to wane. Whatever, Walker and Moss were teamed up for Le Mans in the D-Type (OKV 2), but retired during the twelfth hour of the race because of brake problems, having previously been delayed by clutch and lighting gremlins. Naturally, Walker’s innate talent never left him, but when asked by Jaguar to make himself available for testing prior to the start of the 1955 seasons he failed to respond and joined Aston Martin (which Lofty England affectionately referred to as ‘the tractor company’) instead./p>
With the benefit of hindsight it was not a good move; Jaguar’s great hat-trick of Le Mans victories was about to begin, but Walker doubtless had his reasons for swapping camps. Some consolation, however, lay in a fine victory in the Goodwood 9-hours, a race in which he shared the DB3S (63 EMU) with Dennis Poore.
At the Nurburgring that same year, Peter Walker was heard to utter a few prophetic words about his own future to his chums Roy Salvadori and Tony Brooks. For the ostensible purpose of learning the circuit, but more for the fun of driving, of course, the three of them piled in a DB2/4 road car — Brooks driving, Salvadori in the passenger seat and Waker’s 6ft 2in frame squashed into the rear luggage space. One of the finest, if underrated, drivers of his day, Tony Brooks had got the bit well and truly between his teeth and did one lap — a real flyer — but some time before the car had come to a standstill in the pitlane, Peter Walker had scrambled over the top of Salvadori, out of the car onto the road and announced: “For God’s sake take me to brandy. I’ve been racing for 20 years and I never realised what a stupid, dangerous sport it is.” Just a few months later at Le Mans, he crashed his Aston Martin heavily, sustained serious injuries and never raced again. He was 43.
Walker recovered from the accident but was never the same man again. Percy Hall, a barman at the New Inn, Pembridge, Herefordshire, where Walker regularly went for a swift half, knew the racing driver well and maintains today that the 1956 Le Mans crash had a profound effect on the rest of his life. “Peter remained the jovial charmer that he’d always been, but after his accident he used to occasionally mutter to himself and say strange things. But in all other respects, his brain was as sharp as ever,” says Percy. “I think he was basically an ‘ideas’ man who was constantly frustrated by being unable, for a variety of reasons, to get his schemes into practice.”
Fellow ex-works Jaguar and Aston Martin driver Jack Fairman remembers Peter Walker extremely well and has fond memories of him: “Peter was a great charmer, always had a fantastic sense of humour — he could make anyone laugh — but I think he would have been a better driver if he’d laid off the drink a bit. When he was in the right mood, Walker was undoubtedly the fastest driver of his day, even quicker than Stirling, but there were days when Peter seemed to have other things on his mind and he didn’t go quite as well as he so obviously could.”
After he retired from motor racing, Walker took up rabbit and chinchilla farming with Lady Ripley for a while, and even designed and built an ingenious new type of cattle grid, but both ventures came to nothing. And Peter drifted. Interestingly, Tim Walker has very few of his father’s possessions today as he explains: “I’ve no idea why, but after he finished with cars, the old man gathered up all his motoring magazines and books and threw them in the dustbin — he never even mentioned motorsport to me again.” Luckily Tim managed to salvage a few important items, such as his father’s old crash helmet, which Tim used on his motor bikes for a fair few years, and other odds and ends.
“Looking back, the old man was a strange bloke in some ways,” says Tim. “I didn’t see a great deal of him in the 1960s — he just used to appear and disappear — but I remember the good times with great affection, and his love of Jaguars, inevitably I suppose, brushed off on me.” Tim owns a 1958 Mk 1 with a genuine 27,000 miles on the clock since new, and a brace of nicely restored Mk 2s. “I like the Mk 1 for pure nostalgia — it was made just after the old man packed up racing — but in all honesty, it’s about as quick as a milk-float. On the other hand, the Mk 2s are still eminently useable road cars, even if a modern everyday saloon is probably quicker round corners.”
Towards the end of his life Peter Walker lived in obscurity, taking comfort in the euphoric effects of alcohol. Despite this, though, he was one of the few racing drivers who could really say — but never did — that he had achieved more in the 20 years or so he spent in competition behind the wheel than virtually anyone else. Lofty England, who was not noted for offering unwonted praise, once commented: “Peter was a charming bloke and I believe that had he been able to go motor racing full-time instead of four or five times a year, he could have been very good indeed. Quite often, on the fast circuits he was as quick, if not quicker than Moss.” That’s how good Peter Walker really was. L M