Denny Hulme: The Bear Truth

Twenty years ago Denny Hulme died of a heart attack while racing at Bathurst. For one onlooker, it made memories of a reflective three-day tour with the man they called 'The Bear' all the more special

hulme lead

Gentle giant Hulme was a formidable competitor once behind the wheel

Grand Prix Photo

In streaming rain on Bathurst’s 190mph Conrod Straight, the yellow BMW M3 appeared to aquaplane gently onto the grass verge. It glanced the wall and crossed the track, still clearly under control, to be braked safely to a halt.

It was October 4, 1992, on the 33rd lap of the Bathurst 1000. At the wheel was the 1967 F1 World Champion, Denny Hulme. The 56-year-old had suffered a fatal heart attack.

Twelve months earlier, Hulme had driven a similar BMW M3 to fourth at the mountain classic. The following day, he and I travelled to Tasmania to tour the route of the inaugural Targa Tasmania road rally.

‘The Bear’ was in a mellow phase. Life had dealt him an unimaginable blow in 1988, with the loss of his 22-year-old son Martin in a diving accident. Denny and Greeta, his wife of 28 years, were latterly living apart.

But over three days of relaxed driving in a borrowed Porsche 911 the quiet, giant Kiwi reflected warmly and openly on his career.

Born Denis Clive Hulme in 1936 in rural New Zealand, Denny covertly taught himself to drive in his father’s sand-hauling trucks by the age of 15. At 18, apprenticed to a local garage and shovelling sand on weekends, he was able to buy a new MG TF. The beach, and the TF’s tight pedal box, both encouraged Hulme to drive in bare feet; a habit he would take to England five years later.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Hulme began dabbling in local hillclimbs. The first proper race was an all-MG handicap at the 1957 New Zealand GP. Hulme scrapped from last on the grid to win by two seconds.

In early 1959, Hulme bought the Cooper T45-Climax 2-litre driven in that year’s New Zealand GP by Bruce McLaren. Hulme spent the winter months rebuilding it and impressed by qualifying fifth for the 1960 race. In that southern summer, Hulme and Whangarei carpenter George Lawton, in another T45, emerged as series favourites. At stake was a scholarship to send one driver to Europe.

Hulme Brabham

Hulme first worked and then drove for Jack Brabham

Grand Prix Photo

“They couldn’t choose between us, so they sent both of us,” Denny recalled. “Up ’til then I really hadn’t had any intention of leaving New Zealand, but it seemed like a good opportunity.”

Their Coopers ran in 1.5-litre Formula 2 spec. “The very first F2 race we went to was Easter [1960] at Goodwood [the Lavant Cup], and I remember being quite overawed. Dan Gurney was there in a Porsche, and Rob Walker had a Porsche for Stirling Moss. Jack [Brabham] was there, and Roy Salvadori, Innes Ireland [who won in a Lotus]…”

At Snetterton’s Norfolk Trophy, Lawton and Hulme finished first and second. Hulme shrugged his shoulders at it all. “I was just out there enjoying myself; it was always my attitude just to go and do your own thing. I just felt that we were having a reasonably good season.”

It changed tragically in September’s Danish GP at the Roskildering. “George, who was just in front of me in his Cooper, somehow spun, tagged a bank, flew up in the air… It threw him out, came down on top of him and killed him.

“That was a real blow. I was sort of wandering around England without a friend or a partner, other than the team manager, and I thought, ‘Well, hell, this is all a bit rugged’.”

Hulme would be distracted by a trip home for the 1960-61 summer season, taking a rented Yeoman Credit Cooper 2.5. He returned to England and took up John Cooper’s open invitation to build a chassis for 1961.

“In the Cooper book, there’s quite a few chassis numbers that aren’t there, and it’s because these cars didn’t have chassis numbers, as such — they were cash under the table.”

From the archive

With Kiwi journalist Eoin Young, Hulme set off on the continental tour in a Ford Zephyr MkI. It was a great adventure, but lean times later in the year pushed Hulme into a mechanic’s job at Jack Brabham Motors — working on Triumphs and Sunbeams, not single-seaters.

In mid-1962, however, Hulme got his lucky break; if a less lucky one for Formula Junior driver Gavin Youl, who snapped a collarbone in a crash. “Jack came in one day and said, ‘Well, we can fix the car — how ’bout you taking your hat to Crystal Palace and driving it?”

Hulme was an immediate front-runner. On Boxing Day 1962 he took an updated BT2 to victory at Brands Hatch. “It was snowing! But that was the first Brabham ever to win a race, and I was home and hosed then.”

Ascending to the status of works driver, and third-car Grand Prix status from Monaco in 1965, did not endanger Hulme’s gritty practicality. “We were able to make bits and pieces to put on our own cars, and I’d certainly feel happier if I’d made and fitted it.”

The arrival of the 3-litre Repco Brabham engine in 1966 took even Hulme by surprise, and Dan Gurney’s departure delivered the big opportunity he needed. His first full F1 season began with the Climax, but even after getting the Repco, he recalled, “It just didn’t go well in ’66. I wasn’t really close to having a win. And then in 1967, everything changed.” He snapped his fingers. “As quick as that.”

Hulme 67

’67 season with Brabham brought drivers’ crown

Grand Prix Photo

The first race was at Kyalami. “I just bolted. I couldn’t believe, not how easy it was — although, I thought Jesus, this isn’t bad — but I just cleared out from the rest. I was leading by almost a lap, and the brakes quit on me.”

He won just two races that year, Monaco and Germany, but sealed the championship over his team leader at the season closer in Mexico.

Keke Rosberg, all those years later, only won one,” he pointed out. “But if you look at the second and third places I also picked up, through reliability, it all added up. I didn’t devise it, it wasn’t my idea, I just came out with more points than anybody else.

“Ford had come along with the DFV Cosworth, and that was gonna be a very hard thing to knock over. But I do believe that Jack’s car handled better than the Lotus.”

Hulme admitted he perhaps wasn’t the most approachable of champions. The British press nicknamed him ‘The Bear’, and not only for his wrestler-like physique.

“I, ahh, used to get pretty bloody grumpy with the way they behaved, and I still do,” Hulme chuckled. “I just wanted to be around the car, working on it, getting it onto the circuit.

“When I set out, I only wanted to race cars quicker than anybody else. The World Championship didn’t mean anything. It was just a day at the races. But it’s true that, once you get halfway through the season and you find that it’s within your grasp, you don’t let too much slip by you.”

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 15: 1968 Stardust Can-Am Race. Race winner Denny Hulme of McLaren Racing drives his Chevrolet powered Gulf-Mclaren M8A. (Photo by /The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Hulme loved driving for McLaren in Can-Am, and was devastated by his death

The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

Hulme’s reign as champion would be rocked by a loss many had thought impossible. Jim Clark and Denny had more in common than their quiet, rural backgrounds. The two would very often dine together and fly to races in Clark’s plane.

“He’d come to New Zealand and you’d go deer stalking or water skiing with the guy. There was no great thing for him to rush off and tell the press how bloody good he was, or find the nearest TV camera. Jimmy just wanted to relax, lie on the beach of Monte Carlo.

“He was so easy going, you really wondered how he drove so fast. Jimmy would whistle into a corner and you’d think, ‘He’s never gonna get round’. And it would, like it was on rails. There were never big slides, he was just so fast.”

When Clark went to Hockenheim, “where I think they were paying him a substantial amount of money to go”, Hulme picked up his drive in the Ford P68 for the BOAC six-hour race at Brands Hatch. “So I was standing in Jimmy’s shoes. It was pretty devastating alright. Jimmy didn’t make mistakes. At all. You never knew Jimmy ever flicking it off the road.”

By this time, Hulme had left Brabham for his friend Bruce McLaren’s team. They enjoyed a lucrative partnership via the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ in Can-Am.

From the archive

“I got more fun out of driving the Can-Am cars than I did out of F1. I used to feel quite pumped up when I got back to England on a Monday because I could go and win $25,000 in an afternoon driving Can-Am, and only $5000 or something if I won a GP. So I used to think, y’know, stuff this Grand Prix business.”

Remember, this was well before F1’s currency changed to ‘Bernie Dollars’. “I can remember that Chris Amon got, I think, £68,000 to drive for Matra [1971]. He was the highest-paid Fl driver at the time. I couldn’t believe that. Most people got, if they were lucky, £10,000. Chris promptly went out and bought an aeroplane.”

McLaren, though 10 months younger than Hulme, had taken his countryman under his wing. Hulme recalled being skint at a Formula Junior race in Reims, 1960. “Bruce just put his hand in his pocket, found 100 quid to get me home to England. Me and my MkI Zephyr, Bruce in his E-type Jaguar. That’s how it was.”

Hulme 74

After 10 years in F1, Hulme decided to call it a day at the end of 1974

Grand Prix Photo

Hulme got a lesson in McLaren practicality at his first GP for the team, Kyalami 1968. “Bruce said, ‘I’m not going to South Africa, haven’t got enough cars. We’ll get a V12 BRM, drop it in the back of this chassis, and you can go and contest the South African GP.”Umm, righto, how’s the car gonna get there, Bruce?”

The story covered more than trains, planes and rented automobiles, and a McLaren-BRM on the end of a tow-rope back and forth along the Pretoria Main Road.

“Everything was terribly simplistic to him. You had to use your initiative. It wasn’t any good if you just turned up at a circuit, ’cause you wouldn’t find your bloody race car there.”

Hulme had made annual visits to Indianapolis from 1968. He netted fourth on his maiden outing, driving one of Gurney’s Eagles after his and Bruce’s troubled turbine cars were withdrawn before the race. In 1969 he ran as high as second in an Eagle, before retiring.

For the 1970 Indy, while the boys at Colnbrook were finishing construction of the second M8D Can-Am car, Bruce and Denny headed off to Indy with the purpose-built, Offenhauser-powered McLaren M15.

Hulme recalled the front suspension which allowed the driver, via what he described as motorcycle brake levers, to tilt the chassis into each corner. Hulme found it effective, but hard work. The car also had Monza-style fuel caps, which the officials forced them to modify before practice with a different spring.

From the archive

The first sign of the failed fuel cap springs was ‘rain’ on Hulme’s windscreen. “And the next thing — boof! She’s on fire… at 220mph. [The methanol] had gone back to the turbo, and the fire just came forward, against the wind pressure of 220mph. I just find that amazing, that the flame went ‘whoof!’ up to the front of the car.”

Hulme’s hands and feet were badly burned. “They bandaged me all up and I went home with Bruce in the plane. When we got back to London they had arranged for me to go straight up to Harley Street. Bruce said, ‘Oh, I’m off to Goodwood to test your car’.”

Hulme had just disembarked at Surbiton station when he heard the news on the radio.

“Jesus, it was bloody devastating. I was on my own, in total bloody bewilderment. Hands both all bandaged up from the surgery I’d had. I’m standing there looking like a mummy, and I hear that Bruce had been killed. It was bloody heartbreaking from there on.

“See, I’d had no reaction from my own accident at the time. It was just an accident, I was conscious all the way through it. Then suddenly, the team manager had gone; the boss, friend, everything.

“I turned to rubbish then, I just…I couldn’t contain myself at all after that. I would have given Bruce an arm if he would come back to life. But it wasn’t to be. Here’s this dedication to his Can-Am cars, and the bloody thing should bite him. He was the most generous person in the world with those things.”

Just five days later, Piers Courage would die in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort. Hulme’s anger and frustration reached critical mass.

“Piers had the big off and the car’s upside down and it’s all on fire. I stopped at the pits and tried to get the clerk of the course to stop the race. And they just said ‘humph!’ and threw their hands in the air.

“I thought, ‘Christ, what else can I do? I’d better keep racing, ’cause that’s what I’m there for.’ Maybe I should have thumped the guy, but it seemed that this was the standard.”

Hulme joined with Jackie Stewart and BRM boss Louis Stanley as one of the more vocal advocates for better circuit safety. They were far from universally admired for it, but the reserved, intimidating figure of Hulme was an asset to the movement.

Hulme Bathhurst

Hulme continued competing at events such as Bathurst after his grand prix retirement

“It was very difficult. I just couldn’t understand the mentality of [the organisers and promoters]. The younger drivers were pleased to be in F1 and didn’t want to rock the boat. But we were never very far wrong.”

Then there was a small but intense light on the horizon. “Bernie Ecclestone said, ‘Listen, we’ll disband the drivers’ union and I’ll run the show. I’ve probably got a bit more clout than you.’ Initially, it didn’t seem like it was going to work. We were still a bit sceptical of Bernie, but it wasn’t long before everything was 101 per cent.

“I’d been seeing the problems, and I always made a point of going to the funerals. Although I hated it. But unless you go and do these things, you can’t get up on the soapbox and thump your fist and change it.”

Hulme witnessed it all. He had been deeply affected by the appalling death of Francois Cevert at the 1973 season-closer at Watkins Glen; 1974 was book-ended by the losses of Peter Revson at Kyalami and 25-year-old Helmut Konig at the Glen.

Denny Hulme, by then 38 years old and with 112 Grand Prix starts, eight wins, one world championship and a blown engine, went home.


As we spoke, 17 years almost to the day since that final GP, Hulme was still actively racing in everything from touring cars to trucks. Countless images have remained with me when I think of those three days with Denny: the patches of wax paper skin on the backs of his hands; the voice with the resonance of furniture wheeled across a wooden floor.

For Hulme, I know there was at least one image from that tour that truly tickled him — which said much about the modest, gentle giant.

We were fuelling the 911 in a tiny town beyond Launceston. With its lush hills and grazing sheep, it must have looked very much like home. Denny climbed from the Porsche, stretched and wandered into the small shop.

The young petrol attendant walked over to me. “Who’s that guy?” he asked, a faint look of admiration as he nodded towards Hulme. “That’s Denny Hulme,” I beamed. “But I don’t suppose you get many Formula 1 World Champions through here, do you?”

He looked at me blankly. “I don’t know. But we don’t get many Porsches.”