My hero Mike
I grew up in Guildford, Surrey, which is 10 miles east of where Mike lived, in Farnham on the Surrey/Hampshire border. About the only thing he and I otherwise had in common was that we both caught the motor racing bug in childhood; in my case from a photo of Reg Parnell driving an Alfetta seen in a copy of Autosport brandished by my big brother, Rod – and Mike from his father, Leslie, who ran his TT Garage business in East Street.
Now forgive me if I digress a little, but another – much earlier – car buff was author Kenneth Grahame – creator of the classic Wind in the Willows. While I was 16 years Hawthorn’s junior, Grahame was 70 years older so he lived through the horseless-carriage revolution 1890-1908 (ish), which was when his masterpiece was published.
In it, one can sense Grahame’s grasp of how an incipient car guy might react in his description of the classic incident that caused Mr Toad’s conversion, when he and Ratty were travelling with their canary-yellow cart, drawn by an old grey horse:
“Far behind them they heard a faint warning hum; like the drone of a bee. Glancing back, they saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed… from out of the dust a faint ‘Poop-poop’ wailed… and with a blast of wind… it was on them! The ‘Poop-poop’ rang with a brazen shout… and the magnificent motor car… its pilot tense and hugging his wheel… dwindled to a speck in the distance.”
Their terrified horse reared and plunged the cart into a ditch, Ratty shook his fist and ranted at the departing car and driver…but Mr Toad simply “…sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road… he breathed short… eyes still fixed on the dusty wake of their destroyer… and at intervals faintly murmured, “Poop-poop! Glorious, stirring sight! The only way to travel… O bliss! O Poop-poop! O my!…”
Now spool forward to 1955-56 and the boyhood me was larking about in the woods in Stoke Park, Guildford, overlooking the Guildford Bypass. Rising above the everyday traffic hum came a piercing bray, and three sleek Jaguar D-types – painted such a dark green they looked almost black – came bawling up the incline past me, in line astern. Our local ace Mike Hawthorn had won Le Mans in one of these gorgeous missiles. Wow! I was fit to burst. They blazed past, red tail lights flashed on for the Fanum House roundabout, and they shot left, out of sight – London-bound – on the A3. That really did it for me. “O bliss! O poop-poop!” indeed.
And maybe a year later I was riding my bike on a country road near Puttenham, about halfway between Guildford and Farnham, when I heard a similar braying engine note rushing up behind me. I glanced back as I pedalled into a left-hand curve, and right upon me – going impossibly fast – was a dark-green Jaguar 3.4 saloon. I barely glimpsed its driver as he slammed by, clearing me – on the corner’s apex – by perhaps an inch, little more I swear. I wobbled up the grassy verge, front wheel tripped and over the handlebars I flew. Disentangling myself from beneath my Raleigh bike I sat up, breathed in – aaah, racing oil. Cor! I bet that was Mike Hawthorn. For me, that was a repeat case of “O bliss! O poop-poop!” I was hooked.
I NEVER MET our country’s first World champion driver – he died up on the A3 Stag Hill on January 22, 1959. I was then 13. I can’t recall how we heard the news. I think perhaps it was from a neighbour. “There’s been a bad crash up by Coombs Garage on the Bypass – it’s that racing driver, Mike Hawthorn.” I was aghast, one of my earliest heroes gone (‘Sterly’ Moss had been the first – I couldn’t pronounce ‘Stirling’ – and Mike was second).
It was only a mile or so from home. I cycled up to take a look. They had just loaded up the folded wreck – a Jaguar 3.4, bent like a hairpin. Many years later works mechanic Len Hayden told me how he had been detailed by ‘Lofty’ England to investigate the wreck. “I cropped away the roof, then only had to saw through one sill,” he told me, “and the thing fell in half.” Len attributed Mike’s loss of control to the car’s prototype Dunlop Duraband tyres. “They were Dunlop’s answer to the Pirelli Cinturato, and they gave plenty of grip – up to a certain very critical point – but then just let go, no warning… I’m sure that’s what caught out Mike…”
One of our lost world champion’s closest friends was John Nicholson, living today in Arford, south of Farnham. He tells me how Mike “…first competed in motorcycle trials. I first met him spectating at one at Charity Farm, where my then-girlfriend lived, at Selborne. I think he’d just started his apprenticeship at Dennis’s in Guildford. We hit it off and later went to Guildford Tech together. I got my HND qualification, but he didn’t. He wasn’t – aaaah – particularly academic. Leslie sent him to Chelsea College in London to study mechanical engineering and we shared a room together in Cathcart Road, Fulham, and later in Earl’s Court. He was fun to be with – never a dull moment actually.
“MIKE JUST OPENED ONE OF THE MORRIS MINOR VAN’S REAR DOORS AS IT DROVE PAST AND TOSSED IN A LIT THUNDERFLASH FIREWORK”
“I eventually went to work at Connaught’s in Send and started racing – with an MG – in 1950, before he did. As a road driver he was very fast, but brilliant. Very competent; I was always happy to be driven by him.
“I got married and settled in Maidenhead. When Mike was in this country between races, he often used to fly himself in his Fairchild Argus over from Fair Oaks, near Woking, to White Waltham aerodrome where we would meet him and have a meal or just go to the pub. He was seldom happier than being in a bar with his pals. He’d often get us tickets for races, and for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone we’d go up and stay in the Jersey Arms at Brackley.
“One Bonfire Night we went to the big one at Chiddingfold. Another great friend, Neil MacNab, was with us – plus our respective girlfriends. Mike had brought some big thunderflash fireworks with him. As we were walking in, a Morris Minor van drove slowly past, and Mike just opened one of its rear doors and tossed in a lit thunderflash…
“It went off with an absolutely shattering BANG! – smoke billowed out of the Minor, its front doors burst open and three big burly chaps fell out, coughing and spluttering. One of them yelled at us ‘Who did that? Did you see?’ And Mike instantly pointed at Ian – who stood 6ft 7ins tall and had weighed 17-stone when he was 17. Well, seeing these three men coming for him Ian just stuck out a fist and impaled the first of them, who walked straight onto it. He went down like a sack of potatoes – so the other two retreated.
“There was a big beer tent there with a lady playing a piano… and people singing. During some distraction or other Mike flipped open the piano lid and dropped another thunderflash inside. It went off with another ear-splitting bang – and I think the piano went out of tune thereafter. We all got thrown out – of course – but as I said, being around Mike was never, ever, dull…”
ANOTHER GREAT contemporary friend of Hawthorn’s was the late, great Nick Syrett of BRSCC fame. He used to recall their regular Saturday ritual when Mike was home in Farnham: “I’d meet him there at TT Garage in the morning, and we’d go to the Duke of Cambridge, or The Albion, or the Duke of Marlborough – or out to The Barley Mow at Tilford – for a few beers, then a steak-and-kidney pie lunch in the café – then spend the afternoon at the cinema. We might go back to the house on Folly Hill, maybe see his mum, then to more Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire pubs – always driving from one to the next – usually with other friends and girls… That for us was just a standard normal weekend.”
Interestingly, when Mike was back in England between races he’d see little of ‘Mon Ami Mate’ Peter Collins, from whom he seemed inseparable when abroad. Home time was spent much more with his anchor group of boyhood pals, plus late recruit Nick. He was very much a celebrity – but one upon whom even local fans (like me) would never dream of intruding. And, despite his raffish reputation, one of his younger local girlfriends told me recently “He really was just gorgeous, and – this might surprise you -– to me he was an absolute gentleman” – sigh – “regrettably…”
Which I think is a fitting note on which to end.