Portrait of the artist as a racing driver

For 50 years Leslie Marr has been best known as a painter. But before that he bought himself a Connaught and went racing
By Paul Fearnley

Nursing a bruised face – and a consoling beer – while standing in the raised bucket of a mechanical digger on the outskirts of New Zealand’s southernmost city is an unusual way to conclude a motor racing career, but Leslie Lynn Marr has rarely taken the obvious route. Scion of a marriage that conjoined North East shipbuilding/owning dynasties, a cosseted life in the family firms beckoned. But ships had never floated his boat.

“There was pressure to do the family thing,” says Leslie. “My uncle, who was in charge because my father had died [when Leslie was nine], said there was a place for me, if I got a degree. Not that he had one, you understand.” Leslie duly obtained an engineering degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge, but war then intervened.

“I joined the RAF and became a Flight Lieutenant. I was involved with ground radar in Palestine, where for 95 per cent of the time there was nothing to do.” He needed a hobby, and took up painting. “I used primitive brushes and tubes of paint I’d bought in Alexandria and glued kitbags onto plywood panels for canvases.” Despite having no artistic training, he had the knack. “It was a Road to Damascus experience, quite literally. I realised I didn’t want to be an engineer or work for my family; I wanted to paint, to go to art school to learn how to do it properly.”

Back in the UK Marr became part of the controversially fervent Borough Group under the tutelage of David Bomberg, an artist derided by many contemporaries but retrospectively eulogised as a giant of 20th century British art. Leslie remains a practising professional artist. At 86, he uses a studio more than he used to, but still works fast, boldly and vividly. It’s a passion that has ebbed only briefly.

“My time with Bomberg was intense and eventually I had a big fallout with him, and with painting. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t think I’d have gone racing.

“It was cars that had grabbed my engineering attention; I liked knowing what all the clatters and squeaks meant. But most of all I liked driving them. My first race was in 1950 in my old Aston Martin International. It was wonderful.” Here, then, was his new passion.

In 1951 Marr stepped up to a 1934 Aston Martin Ulster team car, LM15. And for ’52 Ecurie Oppidans, a team he had set up with AM expert Derrick Edwards, had a big plan: an F2 Connaught A-type.

“It was quite a leap, but I wasn’t worried. I was just excited about getting the car. In fact, it was difficult to buy a car from them. Cooper would’ve sold me one just like that, I suppose, but I preferred the Connaught: it was a beautiful piece of engineering.

“Mike Thorburn, Connaught’s front man, told me there was a car for sale but the firm wasn’t sure to whom to sell it. But after he’d seen me have a terrific ding-dong with a Jowett Jupiter he said I could have it.” And so chassis A5 was Leslie’s, for £1800, and not long after Mike Hawthorn had raced it to victory in August’s National Trophy at Turnberry.

“I underestimated the car completely,” admits Marr. “The first time I drove it I went off at the end of the long straight at Snetterton. I was used to the Aston, which did 100mph; the Connaught did very much more. I thought, ‘Hell, I can’t stop!’ I went sideways and knocked down a small tree.” Undeterred, Leslie was hooked. His mother, however, was not so keen.

“Every weekend she would stay in bed and await my call to tell her that I’d survived another race. I was in the first post-war meeting at Crystal Palace [May 1953] and the BBC’s cameras were there. Mother, who’d just got a TV, decided to see what all the fuss was about — and saw me have the biggest crash of my career. Wheels were flying everywhere as I disappeared into a wood. Apparently she stood up, muttered my name weakly and fainted.”

That season Marr scored wins in minor Formule Libre races at Snetterton and Silverstone, and set fastest practice time, 0.6mph off Stirling Moss’s 1951 HWM mark, for the Wakefield Trophy at the tricky Curragh circuit.

“We had no major problems with A5, unless I went 100 revs over the limit, when everything came out of the side. We worked hard to ensure it was well turned out and it usually behaved well. The biggest problem was that I’d jumped in at the deep end.”

The following season started well with a third place behind Ken Wharton’s BRM V16 in Goodwood’s Glover Trophy. Leslie again finished third (in the F2 class) at an Aintree 200 run in torrential conditions, and was the third British car home (13th overall) at the British GP. At Oulton Park’s Gold Cup he qualified fifth, ahead of Roy Salvadori’s Maserati 250F, and finished seventh. He also finished third in that meeting’s Formule Libre race. He was getting better. Gradually. But it was double-or-quits time because the new F1, introduced in 1954, had marginalised F2. Marr gambled: A5 was sold, and he put his name down for one of the new B-types, complete with all-enveloping body.

“I hadn’t really thought about the body, but when Rodney [Clarke, the car’s designer] recommended I go for the streamliner – ‘It’ll cost you another £500’ – I said OK.

“Rodney was a genius. He thought about the car all the time. He’d be talking to you when suddenly he’d whip out his notebook, eyes glazed, to jot down an idea for a new mod. At the back of his office was a big yard, and across that was the workshop. Connecting the buildings were two straight, painted white lines. I parked over them once and was ordered to move, because the ‘old man’, mind full of a new idea, head down, would have walked into my car.

“They admitted later that the streamliner wasn’t the better body option. I didn’t like not being able to see the front wheels, and when you took your foot off the throttle it didn’t slow down like a normal single-seater. I wasn’t convinced, but I thought, ‘Well, I’m stuck with it.’ I didn’t want to spend any more money.” Chassis B3 had cost him £4000.

Delays meant Marr’s 1955 season didn’t start until late May. His debut victory at Davidstow, Cornwall was of the minor variety, but it provided the marque with a welcome morale boost. The wave of race cancellations in Europe following the Le Mans disaster, however, stymied Leslie’s plans to contest some of the lesser events. There were fewer opportunities to use an expensive F1 car, so he had a quiet year. He spun out of the British GP with disc brake failure, had a couple of dices – won one, lost one – with Jack Brabham’s Bristol-engined Cooper Bobtail at Charterhall, and out-qualified Peter Collins and Alfonso de Portago at the Gold Cup. He removed the body to compete at Shelsley and Brighton, but although he enjoyed such against-the-clock events, they weren’t the F1 adventure he’d anticipated. The chance to race in New Zealand was.

“The streamliner was an eye-catcher and the organisers really wanted it. They paid my fare, Derrick’s and the car’s.” It was to be a trip of contrasting fortunes. It didn’t begin well. The New Zealand GP was held at Ardmore, near Auckland. The UK cars, Moss’s 250F, the B-type – fitted (by Connaught) with a 3.4 Jaguar D-type engine for improved reliability — two 750S-engined Ferrari 500s for Peter Whitehead and Tony Gaze, and Reg Parnell’s one-off Aston Martin DB3R single-seater, were shipped to Wellington by mistake.

“The Connaught arrived in the middle of a dock strike. Even the New Zealand PM couldn’t get it released, so Derrick went to Wellington and had just about bribed the dockers when the foreman turned up. He wanted paying too. At which point Derrick, who was tough, threatened to chuck him over the side. We got the car.

“The organisers promised to pay whatever expenses we accrued, so we flew it up in a Bristol Freighter. But when I gave them the bill they refused to pay. I knew they were having a committee meeting the following week and told them I was coming. I flew up to Auckland, only to discover they had rescheduled it for earlier that morning. Bastards!”

Despite not having practised, Leslie finished fourth behind the runaway Moss. Then he finished third in the Lady Wigram Trophy. Hey, this wasn’t so bad. Cue the Dunedin Road Race.

“We were horrified to find that a section of the circuit wasn’t metalled. We explained that we hadn’t brought these expensive cars over from England to drive on dirt roads. It would damage them and/or the spectators. The response was unsympathetic, so I completed one lap to get my start money. Even so, my gearbox was leaking.”

Next was the Southland Road Race in February 1956 at Ryal Bush, a 3.6-mile triangle of roads north of Invercargill. “It was narrow, but at least it was metalled. We were doing 170mph in places. I got pole but made a bad start and a Ferrari got ahead. I was following closely when it threw up a stone that felt like a brick when it hit my face. I got upset and tried to overtake at the next corner, and finished backwards in a ditch. I should’ve won, but I’m pleased I didn’t. If I had, I wouldn’t have retired and would probably have finished up dead.

“Although I was getting a bit tired of it all, I hadn’t planned to stop. But when Connaught told me I needed a new engine that would cost £1000, and that it might last two or three races, I decided to get out. Connaught bought the car back for what I’d paid, so I did all right.

“I was serious about racing, but the idea was to have fun. I’d wanted to see how far I could go, and realised after New Zealand that I wasn’t going to get any better. I still had some money left; I was still in one piece… I’d always been fatalistic about my racing. I always thought I’d be all right. It was silly, I know, but how else could you approach it? Anyway, mother did all the worrying.”

She was right to: the cars were fast, the drivers bold, the death rate vivid. The picture painted is exciting, not pretty.

Leslie Marr’s artwork is exclusively represented by Piano Nobile in London. Request a catalogue of his work on 0207 229 1099, or visit: www.piano-nobile.com