Keeping up appearances

Ecurie Ecosse was famed for its Le Mans success, but when patron David Murray fled abroad the inevitable question was – why? by Eric Dymock 

Wine merchant, pub owner and chartered accountant – David Murray was all of those. He was also a passionate motor sport enthusiast who turned a small Edinburgh garage business into a racing team which lifted two Le Mans victories from under the noses of big-budget rivals. Never well funded, Ecurie Ecosse survived on minimal sponsorship and voluntary contributions, apparently using up Murray’s own substantial reserves too. In 1976 Murray’s widow, Jenny Lockhart Murray, maintained that he was brought to ruin by motor racing. If only it had been that simple.

Becoming a team owner was not the plan. Murray was a competent amateur driver, racing the ex-Bira ERA R12B Hanuman before buying a San Remo Maserati 4CLT. But in practice for the 1950 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring he made a mistake. “Silly, silly Murray in a hurry,” he reported. “I steered the Maserati over the brow of a hill and, checking my mental map, began to go into a right turn. Only it wasn’t a right turn, the road went left.” The Maserati hit a tree and overturned. Though not badly hurt, Murray decided that there were safer ways of being close to the racing.

The charismatic and forceful Murray became patron, organiser and owner of Ecurie Ecosse, supported by Wilkie Wilkinson, one of that rare breed, the famous mechanic. The Le Mans wins of 1956 and ’57 remain landmarks in the history of private teams, albeit with covert factory support. He went on from Jaguars and a Cooper-Bristol to Cooper Monaco and the prescient but ultimately unsuccessful Tojeiros raced by Jackie Stewart. In the 1960s Murray ran out of credit on the track as well as, so it seemed, at the bank. He had always grumbled about money, jokingly called the Edinburgh team ‘Ecurie Shoestring’ and dedicated his 1964 book: “To all who have given me so much encouragement and assistance without thought of monetary reward, and to all who have taken so much without thought of my diminishing financial resources.” He did not make much of an issue over being strapped for cash when Ecurie Ecosse was new, but by the time the book was written it had become a preoccupation. In 1969 it looked as though he had been telling the truth. The Inland Revenue brought an action against him for unpaid tax, but he had taken flight to Las Palmas from which there was no extradition. According to Jenny, he never intended to return.

David Murray’s career ended in March 1973. The Scottish Daily Express, Tuesday April 10: “David Murray, who put Scotland on the world motor racing map before mysteriously vanishing four years ago, has died after a car crash. Firemen cut him free after a collision with a bus at Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands. He had severe multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, but it was not his injuries that killed him. The 63 year-old enthusiast, who helped to mould champions, made a good recovery over the next three weeks and was able to write to friends, then died from a heart attack. The news reached Scotland yesterday – the first open indication of where he had settled after leaving Edinburgh in 1969 during legal proceedings.”

Jenny Murray told me he could not face stepping off a plane to receive a summons for bankruptcy. Their four years in the sun on Gran Canaria was cut short. “He got a job with Turquands Barton Mayhew, a big accounting business, with a London head office. Las Palmas was a small sleepy branch dealing with shipping. David saw the potential. Scandinavians and Germans were building hotels and he enlarged the business. The firm was impressed. When his boss retired they offered David the job. I don’t think he knew whether the company was aware of his background. I’ll bet they did [know], but didn’t care so long as David was doing a good job.”

Speculation over Murray’s defection continued. Jenny told me of his collision with the bus: “He was terribly smashed. David was in a Mini. It was two o’clock in the morning. We never really found out what actually happened. I didn’t know till the next day. He had taken me home from a party and was on his way back when the accident happened. The following morning I never thought anything was wrong because we had separate rooms. About 12 o’clock I found David wasn’t there. He had been taken to a ghastly maternity hospital. I got him to the British hospital, where he remained critical for about three days. We were afraid of brain damage, then, when he came to, he was quite bright, seemed perfectly all right. He had his jaw set and lived another two weeks. Then he had a haemorrhage. They had a post-mortem. It was all over.”

Murray’s fortunes had been ebbing away for years. Research for my book, Ecurie Ecosse (PJ Publishing), showed he was not completely without resources. His creditors got 60p in the pound thanks to some Edinburgh properties sold following sequestration.

“He had two jobs in Las Palmas,” said Jenny. “He worked full-time for the chartered accountant and then in the evening with a Canarian motor racing association. The man who ran it had been with the Grand Touring Club of Spain. He seemed very happy to have David in the evening, so David was probably earning quite a lot of money. He would start at eight o’clock in the morning and didn’t come home until nine o’clock at night. He was doing well and we weren’t living extravagantly.”

Funds for Murray’s motor racing had come from Edinburgh pubs. His father had had two in the High Street and he bought a third. “That’s where we had made our money,” said Jenny. “Then we went into the wine business and made a lot more. We had a chain of wine shops. We had always been interested in wine – mostly drinking it – and David had contacts through the whisky business. We bottled our own wine, we had wine clubs; it was a good-going business. The best shop was called Alistair Campbell. That was the original name and we just kept it on. It was sold in order to build the Ecosse single-seater Jack Fairman drove at Monza.”

Things were so good Murray had gone into the garage business, buying Merchiston Motors and adjacent properties in Merchiston Mews. As houses fell vacant he bought them too, until faced with rebuilding as a result of subsidence. “I remember David saying that we were losing a lot of our income. Finally we sold off all the wine shops and were reduced to the garage alone. The banks wanted their overdrafts back and we had to borrow money. He thought it worth keeping the garage because people wanted to put money in to keep it going.”

Jenny did not know how serious things were. “I didn’t understand about chartered accountancy. David kept everything confidential. So far as I knew things were going along fairly normally until one day he said, ‘Look, we have to be less extravagant. Stop, cut down here, cut down there, but after a time it will be OK.’ I had no idea we were in such a bad state. Everybody thought he’d spent his money on motor racing; then he got this job in the Canary Islands. A lot of people never believed we had lost our money. They thought we’d stashed it away in the Canary Islands. It may have looked suspicious but that wasn’t the case at all. There was absolutely nothing. Nothing. We had to start again from scratch.”

Jenny was astonished at her husband’s failure. “I just wish I knew. It’s mysterious to me, because he appeared to act exactly the same way during the crisis, and the only explanation I can come to is that he thought he would be able to straighten things out. After a while everything seemed all right, all the bills were being paid and he was going to continue in the garage. It was a terrible shock when the new owners said to him ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to go’. He thought he was going to run it for them, and of course the person they gave it to proved to be a disaster. The place went bankrupt in about six months.”

The crisis that took them into exile was eclipsed by what Jenny faced following the accident. “When he died we went to the bank – we had two bank accounts – and found there was nothing. Well, something like £10 in one and £5 in the other. That was a terrible shock. When I came home I heard that David had been paying his creditors. I didn’t know who they were. But now I realised where all the money that he earned in Las Palmas had been going. He must have been sending it back. But to whom I have no idea.”

The accountancy firm paid for Jenny’s flight home. She also paid tribute to one of Ecurie Ecosse’s most loyal supporters, Lord Bruce (now the Rt Hon Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, KT), who wrote saying that if she was in difficulty the Ecurie Ecosse Association would pay for her transport home. “I thanked him and said that was very nice but David’s firm was going to do that. But if there was a gesture the association would like to make, they could give him a tombstone. In the islands you got buried. There was no cremation. A tombstone would be nice, and they did that. I suspect Bruce just paid that. I brought back the receipts and a picture to prove it had been done.”

There was still no money for Jenny in Edinburgh. Turquands Barton Mayhew insured its employees, which had covered Murray’s medical expenses, but she had to rely, in failing health, on family, friends and the social services. She survived on the insurance fund until her death, not long after I talked to her.

David Murray could probably have borrowed a few thousand pounds from wealthy friends to buy off the Inland Revenue, yet he chose not to. Jenny’s belated discovery that he was sending money back from exile confirmed what his business partners, among others, had long suspected. He had not been paying off creditors, he was almost certainly paying off a blackmailer. Turning up at the pits with young women was a subterfuge to conceal Murray’s real sexual predilections. In the Edinburgh of the 1950s homosexual activity was regarded as more scandalous than loose women or false accounting; it was 1967 before it ceased to be a criminal offence.

Murray had been in scrapes before. In 1954 he had gone missing from the Ecurie Ecosse team hotel in Buenos Aires and been retrieved from a house of very ill repute. Ian Stewart, the best Scottish driver before Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, recalled Jenny having hysterics. “I knew where David was and so did Wilkie. The hotel reception told us where to search. We went to the brothel and pulled him out. What possessed him to be so obvious? I don’t know. We never heard what Jenny said to him.”

Sir Jackie Stewart’s late brother, Jimmy, knew about the blackmail allegations. He told me, “There was concern over David’s behaviour with a young mechanic who worked at the Mews.” The family of a former business partner confirmed that Murray’s homosexuality sometimes got in the way of commercial dealings. Staff at the Mews rarely talked about it. Forty years later it was still difficult to find people who would say much, beyond: “I don’t know what went on in David Murray’s social life after 10 o’clock, but it was very odd…”