Cowboy, sailor, racer, inventor… and ‘chippie’

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Yes, Lance Macklin lived a varied life – and mischief was never far away. But that didn’t stop Moss and Salvadori respecting his ability, as ex-GP driver Howden Ganley explains

”All my life I’ve wanted to run a chippie”. So said Lance Macklin to his young second wife Gill, and thus began a new chapter in the life of a man who had been one of Britain’s leading racing drivers in the 1950s.

Lancelot Noel Francis Campbell Macklin was born in 1919, the only son of Captain (later Sir) Noel Macklin, the driving force behind the Invicta and Railton cars and creator of the WWII Fairmile MTB and MGB boats.

Educated at Eton, Lance boxed and rowed, played polo, and was at home on skates or skis with an opportunity to be on the British Olympic ski team, only for an accident to end his chance.

After school he worked on a ranch in Argentina as a ‘gaucho’ before joining the Royal Navy at the start of WWII. He served on Fairmile boats as an ordinary seaman but was later commissioned as a sub-lieutenant. Soon he was commanding his own motor gunboat, fending off the more heavily armed E-boats. In what he described as “a rough war” he became the youngest Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy.

He began his competition career in 1948, driving the famous Fuzzi special, in which he installed a Mercury V8 in place of its two JAP engines. His first circuit race was at Chimay in, appropriately, an Invicta. An impressive performance in an 8-litre Bentley at Spa led to an offer to join Aston Martin for 1949. John Wyer, team manager, says in his wonderful book The Certain Sound, “I was very happy about Macklin, who, I thought, had great talent and whom I regarded as a coming man”. Paired with George Abecassis in the DB2, Lance finished fifth at Le Mans. His friendship with Abecassis led to a place with the new HWM team alongside a young Stirling Moss. The two soon became firm friends with a mutual interest in racing and chasing girls. As Sir Stirling says today, “I was 18 or 19 and Lance, being about 10 years older, seemed very sophisticated. He was a really interesting bloke with a dry sense of humour. He dressed nicely and was great at ‘slanting’ – sliding down a bar toward any good-looking girl.”

Roy Salvadori remembers Lance as “a very charming man”, and wife Sue remarks, “You never heard a bad word about Lance.”

Eric Thompson recalls that when Wyer paired him with Macklin in the DB2 at Le Mans in 1951 there was some initial resentment from Lance. “He was upset that he had to drive the previous year’s car, and share with me who he didn’t really know. We were never social friends but he warmed to me after I was faster.” They eventually finished third, the first Aston Martin, so Lance was happy with the outcome, as well as his excellent co-driver. “I didn’t see very much of him over the week at Le Mans,” Eric remembers, “as he always seemed to be shacked up with some bird. We were doing four-hour stints and I think Lance may have been attending to a lady or two during his four-hour ‘rest’ periods.”

For all his interest in the social side Lance was serious about his career. At the end of 1952 he signed on with Bristol for a very much larger retainer of £1000 as opposed to the £50 that Aston Martin paid, but also because he felt that he should have been the number one driver at Aston. Although Wyer reported to David Brown that Lance was “a really brilliant driver who is obviously capable of great things”, he did not offer the status that Lance desired.

The drive with Bristol lasted for just the 1953 season, the new 450 model proving unreliable at Reims and Le Mans, and the only success was some distance record-breaking. In later years Lance told his wife that “leaving Aston was a big mistake”.

Meanwhile he continued in single-seaters with HWM and during the years 1952-54 he contested 11 championship Grands Prix with the team, as well as many non-championship races. Lance’s most notable success with HWM was winning the International Trophy at Silverstone in 1952, but he had numerous top placings in races around Europe. He was entered in two more Grands Prix in 1955 driving the Stirling Moss-owned Maserati 250F at Monaco (where he failed to qualify) and Aintree, where he finished eighth. At Albi he was running a strong second until the engine mounts broke.

Moss says: “I let him drive my Maser’ because he was a good and steady driver and probably would have brought in as much starting money as anyone else. And he was a good mate!”

After leaving the Bristol team Lance signed with Donald Healey, who had won the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally in an Invicta, to undertake sports car races in 1954, the most notable success being a third place at Sebring in what became the Austin Healey 100S (S for Sebring).

He remained with Austin Healey for the 1955 season (taking a fifth at Sebring with Moss) and this was to involve him in the greatest disaster in the history of motor racing. At Le Mans as he pulled out to overtake Mike Hawthorn’s suddenly slowing D-type Jaguar his Healey was struck from behind by the Mercedes 300SLR of Pierre Levegh. The ensuing accident cost the lives of Levegh and over 80 spectators.

It has been suggested that Lance was an innocent victim of circumstance, yet a sizeable portion of the blame was directed at him, and clearly the accident had a great effect on him. That he himself survived Lance attributed as much as anything to the fact that his Healey, unusually, had an aircraft-type rubberised fuel tank. The tail was so badly damaged that a metal fuel tank would almost certainly have split and caused an even worse fire.

In September of that year he had to crash his car to avoid a multi-car pile-up in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod. Two drivers, Jim Mayers and Bill Smith, died in the accident, and others were injured. Michael MacDowel was sharing the works Cooper Bobtail with Ivor Bueb and he recalls Macklin returning to the pits in a very distraught state. He says: “The poor fellow was totally overcome although he was in no way to blame for the tragedy.” Coming on top of the Le Mans disaster, the Dundrod accident was almost the final straw for Lance, and after sharing a Healey 100S with Archie Scott Brown in the 1956 Sebring 12 Hours (they retired) he did one more race and then stopped racing.

Following his retirement from the sport Lance married Shelagh Cooper, the widow of journalist John Cooper, sports editor at Autocar, and they had two children, Patrick and Miranda.

“We first met at the Dundrod TT in 1950 when I asked him for his autograph,” recalls Shelagh. “I then worked for Dean Delamont at the RAC, so I saw quite a few racing drivers when they came in for their licences, including Lance.” Lance and Shelagh were married in Geneva at the end of August 1956, and lived initially in Monaco and Cap d’Ail.

Lance became export sales director for Facel Vega luxury cars, and when the company folded he moved to Ireland, bought a defunct railway station and started a battery company. It failed very quickly.

Today Shelagh, now Lady Montague Browne, says: “Lance was very charismatic, a fascinating man. I was never bored. He also gave me two wonderful children.”

Unfortunately the marriage foundered and Shelagh commenced divorce proceedings in 1962, but Lance then met a lady who brought about a complete change in his life. Gill McComish, a young New Zealander who was a very accomplished skier, was living in London in 1963. Lance obtained Gill’s phone number and called her with the words, “I’ve heard about this really good-looking New Zealand bird who is a great skier. Will you meet me for a drink?” Gill demurred, saying that she was going to the local ‘laundromat’ that evening. But Lance obtained directions and they eventually met in front of a row of washing machines.

Today Gill Macklin lives in Auckland, a slim, attractive lady who recalls her years with Lance fondly. “In spite of what he had achieved in life, he was modest and shy, not at all boastful,” she says. “He was also very charming but I sensed that he was a womaniser.” Lance helped Gill to improve her skiing technique and the pair then worked on boats in the Mediterranean, eventually owning a 40-footer which they moored in Paris – a city which was familiar to Lance – and lived aboard.

Another Macklin venture was the spinning visor, used at one time by Graham Hill, but once again a lack of capital ended the business. Gill recalls riding her motorcycle around London in the rain testing it.

“Most of Lance’s many business ventures failed to work out for some reason,” says Roy Salvadori, “except car sales at which he was superb, and very successful.”

It was now time for a ‘proper job’ and so Lance joined Jack Barclay and was to become the manager of the Fiat side of that business – appropriate because of his friendship with another playboy, Gianni Agnelli.

Lance and Gill married in 1965, and among the witnesses were John Pertwee, of Doctor Who fame, and Michael Harrison, who says: “Lance was a great character – always up to mischief.” Pertwee was often a partner in the mischief.

Gill remembers that they still had contact with many people in racing and used to attend functions at Fort Belvedere, home of the Hon Gerald Lascelles, himself an Aston racer. “I met many of Lance’s friends from his racing days,” Gill recalls, “including Prince Bira, Fangio and Toulo de Graffenried.”

In 1968 Lance decided they should move to New Zealand, where he tried growing tomatoes, but had more success when he went back to selling cars. However, he fell out with the dealership, which is when ‘chippie’ appeared on his CV. A fish and chip restaurant, the Star Cafe, became available in Otaki, north of Wellington on the North Island. Gill remembers it as hard work, long hours, and worst of all, “it turned out to be a non-profit business”.

Despite the birth of a son, Perry, it also caused strains on the marriage. “Lance was not really cut out for hard work,” says Gill. “I did most of it while he sat and talked to the customers. Lance’s ideal life would have been to reside on a Pacific island…” Thompson says, “Lance wouldn’t be engaged in anything involving such hard work. He was not brought up to it.” Sadly the marriage failed, and the cafe was sold.
Lance then went to live in Spain where he built himself an underground house, which he described to Thompson as ‘a cave’. With his usual inventiveness Lance added a heating system using waste heat and solar, as well as a wind generator. He and Gill remained friends and she and Perry visited him in Spain. When his health deteriorated he was brought back to England by his daughter Miranda and lived his final days in a Kent nursing home. He died in August 2002 and is buried in the riverside churchyard at Bisham.

Gill and Perry still watch all the GPs and keep up to date with motor racing. To the question, “Was Lance the great love of your life?” she muses momentarily. “Yes,” she says quietly, “he was.” She then adds: “As a husband and provider he left a bit to be desired. But as a friend and lover he was wonderful.”

How does history judge Macklin’s race career? There’s a telling line in Wyer’s internal memo to David Brown on the 1950 TT at Dundrod. “Macklin drove well in the first hour when pressing Parnell [in the leading Aston] and made his fastest lap after going down an escape road, but subsequently appeared to lose interest.”

Alf Francis, chief mechanic at HWM and then for Stirling Moss Ltd, wrote in his book: “I am sure if Macklin had really tried hard in those [HWM] days he could have equalled Moss on almost any circuit.”

Roy Salvadori says: “He was a fantastic driver, very easy on the machinery. He excelled at all sports but never really adopted one as his own and put his all into it.”

Sir Stirling, perhaps the best placed to comment, says: “Lance’s was really a wasted talent.” How would he rate him among the drivers of his era? “I would put him at ninth overall. He was a very good driver.”