The guiding inspiration to a generation of writers and fans alike, Jenks was unique and will be remembered as one of the most enigmatic figures in all motorsport
Denis Jenkinson, one of the most highly acclaimed motoring writers and race reporters and for many years Motor Sport‘s Continental Correspondent, died at the age of 75, peacefully in his sleep, after a massive stroke, in the BEN Home at Sunninghill on November 29. His views on all aspects of motor racing were followed worldwide; yet he never ceased to be a down-to-earth 100% enthusiast.
I have sometimes said that a person was a ‘character’, whose like we would never see again. This was never more true than of DSJ, ‘Jenks’ to his friends and readers. Just pre-war he cycled from London to take a look at Brooklands and there helped Bob Cowell with his racing Alta. I met him soon afterwards when we both had wartime tasks at the RAE, Farnborough. His knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, motor racing was obvious. “After the war you must write for Motor Sport” I told him. “No,” he replied, “you are the writer, I am the engineer…” But in my digs that evening he was persuaded, and soon he was telling me how to use colons and commas… He could be dogmatic and did not like nonsense or showing-off but to his friends he was ever helpful and understanding, his only outward sign of disapproval being a quizzical smile. The war over, this short, bearded man went abroad to report Grands Prix for us in a sad Fiat 1500, his complete library on the back seat, then an aged Lancia Aprilia and his Porsches and E-type Jaguars. Before that he had used a solo Norton and, the French warming to his idea of his English name and Catford, where he lived, on race posters, he earned small sums of starting money in some minor races. He quickly cobbled up a rather faster Norton which led to his becoming World Champion Eric Oliver’s side-car passenger.
Happiest on long Continental runs, on some of which I accompanied him, Jenks drove and rode everything as fast as he could. Going home with him for Christmas one year, the Norton outfit went sidecar-over-bike at the first corner, bike-over-sidecar at the next; he had used a few nails to fasten the ‘chair’ to a plank, causing me to clutch a sidecar tube all the way to London to try to avoid being tipped on my head.
Knowing all the top F1 drivers and doing three Mille Miglias with Stirling Moss, including that legendary win in 1955 in the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, never changed this modest enthusiast. Away from the glamour, simple cars provided him with transport and DSJ enjoyed his workshop; if it was fun he didn’t mind that the end product failed to materialise. He made an excellent replica body for his 1924 GP Sunbeam chassis, despite it having no engine, and carefully set the timing-gear clearances with a feeler-gauge for the ex-Whitney Straight Duesenberg, despite it too not being a runner.
At times, he could be dogmatic. He disliked Hockenheim, refused to report on the Hungarian Garand Prix, nor did he attend a Japanese GP. He had firm views and he voiced them.
He left us for Autosport but, sadly, illness soon intervened and now a unique personality, an immensely respected writer in the racing world, is lost to us. Almost to the end I continued to receive his erudite letters from his cottage near Odiham, Hampshire, which was ‘typical Jenks’. His like will never… well, it won’t. I and so many others have lost more than a friend. His books, articles and our memories of him will live on as the finest obituary anyone could have. Rest in peace, old friend, and dream of fast cars and all those circuits. WB
Jenks always said he had to live until he was 100 because he still had so much still to do. He also said he would never retire from work because, in his mind, he’d never really started it. Yet somehow, his death last month at the age of 75, ten months after being incapacitated by a stroke, almost came almost as a relief to those of us who remembered him firing on all cylinders. It would be no exaggeration to say that Jenks was pretty much the single-handed inspiration to a generation of motorsport writers. Nigel Roebuck, Eoin Young, Maurice Hamilton, Simon Taylor, Doug Nye and myself were among those who, for want of a better expression, fell under his spell.
For almost forty years, his Grand Prix reports and features made Motor Sport compulsory reading for anybody aspiring to a career in motor racing journalism. We all envied his off-beat, rather bohemian existence. In April, he would set off to the continent, variously at the wheel of his Lancia Aprilia, Porsche 356 or E-type Jaguars, to report the Targa Florio road race. And he wouldn’t return to Britain until after the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Of course, we all revered him for his co-driving exploits with Stirling Moss in the Mille Miglia, the reports of which have rightly assumed the status of religious tracts to racing fans the world over.
In 1955, having committed the entire 1000-mile route to a 17ft long sheet of paper which was encased in a little metal box which he scrolled past a perspex window – the ‘bog roll holder’ as we all affectionately came to refer to this tailor-made artefact – Jenks kept Moss guided by a series of pre-agreed hand signals for the entire ten-hour marathon which they won brilliantly.
In 1956 and ’57, he again partnered Moss in the Maserati team, but a trip down the side of a mountain and a broken brake pedal weld scuppered their chances of a repeat victory.
Twenty years after his famous victory, Jenks and I set out with Motor Sport managing editor Michael Tee to retrace the route in a Mercedes 450SL saloon. We flew to Stuttgart with Moss, visited the Mercedes test track and then, while Stirling returned home, we drove down to Brescia and relived the whole magic experience.
It was the first of many pleasure trips – ‘boondoggles,’ as Jenks always called them – which we enjoyed together. Increasingly, I got stuck with the role of ‘troop leader’, arranging cars and doing the driving, while His Nibs sat in the back like some sort of Indian Potentate, enjoying all the fuss. They were good times.
He was also one of Ayrton Senna’s passionate fans. While the rest of us fretted about whether or not he should have shoved Alain Prost off the track at Suzuka, or whatever, Jenks saw the Brazilian driver in a straightforward light. Always absolutely fascinated by what made a star racing driver tick, he could often be seen, late on a Saturday afternoon at some Grand Prix or other, deep in conversation with Ayrton.
For his part, Senna always treated Jenks with great courtesy and careful consideration, listening patiently as the little bearded gnome rattled out his theories about the ingredients required to be a topline competitor. Jenks was really delighted one year when a Christmas card arrived from Ayrton inscribed “To Friend Jenkinson”.
Mind you, at times he could be a prickly old so-and-so. David Niven once said that one of Errol Flynn’s favourite pastimes was to strike up a conversation with two strangers in a bar and end up engineering a blazing row between the two of them, while sitting back and watching the fun. When feeling liverish, or just plain mischievous, Jenks would often take a leaf out of Flynn’s book and set you up a treat with his deliberately contrary lines of argument. And we always fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
Jenks didn’t come to many races during the last few years of his life, and I began to detect that his interest in contemporary F1 matters was waning ever-so-slightly towards the end. But he always found something to make him chuckle. After returning from Adelaide in 1994, just after Damon’s notorious coming-together with Schumacher, he rang me, chortling with delight.
“My motorcycle pals have been giggling about that collision,” he said. “I mean, him a former motorcycle messenger, used to dodging in and out of traffic. They’re all saying ‘oh no, Damon, you didn’t see the Volvo coming up in the bus lane!”
Jenks had a wide range of interests. Grand Prix motor racing, motorcyle trials-riding, old cars and a passion for jazz. He was basically a loner who carved his own furrow but, if he liked the cut of your jib, he would allow you to come along for the ride.
As one who was privileged to meander along at his shoulder for almost two decades on the Motor Sport bandwagon, I shall miss him enormously. As indeed will thousands of motor racing enthusiasts who were devoted to his writing.
As Stuart Turner once said; “I believe that at any public meeting, there should be somebody at the back shouting ‘Balls!’ at the top of his voice. And I think Jenks has done this very well for our sport.”
It’s given to few people to live life absolutely on their own chosen terms. But that’s what Jenks did, pretty well from start to finish. Those who knew and cared for him should be thankful for that. Alan Henry
The world of motor racing has lost a very special person. A man who spent all but 10 years of his life studying, writing about, competing in and generally being involved with our sport. I can’t remember when we first met, but it must have been nearly 50 years ago when he was winning World Championships with Eric Oliver and I was having fun in my 500. Jenks was always interesting and controversial, intelligent and amusing. Only two years ago at the Goodwood Festival, my wife was helping him in and out of the SLR. As he was struggling a bit, she offered to hold the little gizmo he had in his hand. It was the 17ft ‘bog roll’ routefinder he had used in the Mille Miglia in 1955. Refusing to give it up to Susie, he said, “it isn’t that I don’t trust you, dear, but I know who trained you!”
Here was this lovely, weird little man holding on to his most precious belonging, the way a child holds a security blanket. There are so many amusing stories about Jenks, and I hope they will be told so that he will be remembered as one of the sport’s characters. Stirling Moss
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