Matters of moment, January 1970

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Graham Hill – author

 

Graham Hill, reigning World Champion driver—well, until three days ago—promised that his autobiography would be ready by Christmas and in spite of his spell in hospital he kept his word. In fact “Life at the Limit” (William Kimber, 36s.) was published on December 8th. Hill wrote the book himself, unlike most famous drivers who employ “ghosts”. The result is a riot, and confirmation that Hill always was larger-than-life, in the Duncan Hamilton image. With his dry sense of humour he conveys episodes in his life, motoring and otherwise, in a manner which takes the reader from page one to 255, as Hill would put it, without pitting.

The book is perhaps a reminder that some of today’s racing drivers have to strive hard to be “characters” whereas in the old days they were such without realising it, by reason of birth, wealth and the prevailing way of life. Graham recognises this, remarking that things have altered even since the days of Hawthorn and Collins, and that racing is now such a busy occupation that there is less time for play—although Hill has obviously had his share of fun.

Certainly the Zborowskis, Segrave and Seaman moved in a different climate from that of Hill; for instance, Hill was climbing Snowdon while, as he phrases it, “the Queen was getting herself crowned at Westminster Abbey”. In pre-war times he would no doubt have been at the Coronation. Nor, one thinks, would the better-known racing drivers of those days have tucked in behind a Royal procession in an old Morris tourer and cad’s caps and tried to get into Buckingham Palace, as Hill and his pals once did. And one imagines that most of the Brooklands crowd had been in and probably owned a car before they were 24, at which age Hill bought his first one, a 1934 Morris, which did not prevent him from driving it home without a previous lesson; later it was changed for a Chummy Austin, about which Hill has amusing reminiscences and two pictures in his book.

These things apart, Hill did get invited to the Palace, to meet the Queen Mother, as he tells in this highly amusing and interesting autobiography by one of today’s great motor-racing characters. Hill packs in the full story, from the time when he joined the Universal Motor Racing Club and thereby embarked on the long road to fame and fortune, to his 1969 accident which put him out of racing and into hospital. He competed in his first race without having so much as seen one (he finished second), and on the strength of this he became Chief Racing Instructor to the Premier Motor Racing Club! Anyone who is hoping to get into motor racing on a shoe-string, even today, should find much encouragement from Hill’s book.

The accounts of his spell in the Navy, of how he tried to get from Cheltenham, where he worked for Smiths instruments, to London on Saturdays to see his current girl-friend, first by cycling, then by motorcycling, and why it didn’t work out, and similar bits of early Hill history are great fun and there is something on these lines on nearly every page. We are sorry to learn that Hill’s solicitor made him delete much of the better material for fear of libel: it is a great pity that merely telling the truth in print these days is likely to bring one into the Courts. But there is enough left to make “Life at the Limit” a truly memorable book. The many accidents that have happened to Hill and his fellow drivers are rather an eye-opener as to the hazards of continuous racing. The inside stories, of the game are there, too. How one Lotus 15 passed for two in qualifying for the Oulton Park Gold Cup meeting in 1957 which nobody discovered at the time, and why Hill’s Austin A35 once went so very fast at Goodwood, etc.

Hill reminds us that, but for a change in the points-system, Moss would have twice won the World Championship, instead of missing it altogether, and he covers the Moss crash at Goodwood without contributing anything to the mystery, except to suggest that something broke on the car. And, remembering how some journalists forgot all about the 4-w-d Ferguson when writing of the present spate of 4-w-d cars, it is interesting to note that Hill and Ireland, as well as Moss and Fairman, drove the Ferguson, and to read Hill’s opinion of this, and of the Rover-BRM gas turbine Le Mans Car. He also deals with going on Veteran Car Runs to Brighton, again in a revealing manner. His actual race accounts are brief but to the point and the book has many good, but small pictures. But it is Hill-the-man rather than Hill-the-driver who comes through and as this isn’t racing history as such there is no point in searching for errors—anyway, the only one we have spotted was Hill saying Innes Ireland finished third in his first Grand Prix, at Zandvoort in 1959, whereas he was fourth, a lap behind the placemen. The surprise Hill experienced when he asked a BRM mechanic for the tyre pressures he wanted and was referred to Peter Berthon comes over well, as does the story of what happened when, for a lark, Reg Parnell told the Press that Bette Hill had had twins while her husband was racing at Roskilde in 1959! Hill describes his mistake which let Brabham win the 1960 British GP, whereas he could easily have confined himself to blaming the failing brakes of the BRM. His descriptions of what a shunt and a fire are like for the driver in the cockpit alone make the book worthwhile. Incidentally, he refers to the cramped cockpit of the early Lotus, so that twice he was unable to turn the steering wheel far enough, his hand contacting his thigh, causing him to crash on the first occasion—Chapman’s cure for this serious fault is another memorable item! How little the present-day driver sees from the car is evident when Hill tried to continue a race with a wheel off his car.

Hill does not refer to his friends(?) the Press reporters, and in this he is probably wise. Indeed, so enjoyable has he made this book that one becomes greedy for more—what he thinks, for example, of the different types of Press coverage (he was very cross with the daily Press when they hounded him, following his nasty accident at Cliff Davis’ stag-party, when Hill was trying to get on stage with the stripper) but he makes even this a hilarious story. There is a good deal more that could have been put in—Hill’s journeys from circuit to circuit, his flying, and so on. But make no mistake, there is plenty of real meat in his book—what he earned, apart from nothing, when he began as a racing mechanic (a far cry from £55,000 won at Indianapolis, his share spent on a new twin-engined aeroplane), the early retaining fees paid to him, etc., all told in the crisp and amusing Hill style. So many fascinating little snippets come in, too, such as Mike Costin driving a 2-litre Lotus 15 from London to Chester, and what happened at Samantha’s christening, that one regrets there is no index to enable one to quickly re-discover them. Incidentally, after his last accident Hill is still undecided whether seat belts in this instance would have saved him or whether it was better that they were undone. . . . All in all, a most enjoyable book; very good light-reading. Hill-the-author is almost as professional as Hill-the-racing-driver. “Almost”, because towards the end the author tends to write as if time was the criterion and some races get superficial coverage, sometimes only a few lines. His book must surely make for Graham Hill Racing Ltd. and Grand Prix (Bahamas) Ltd., who own the copyright, more lovely money, for the taxmen to whittle away?