'Heroin? That's how MI5 pays me..'
They don't make racers like Ian Burgess nowadays - but even in period he was a case apart
Looking through some of our readers' contributions for forthcoming You Were There pages (a feature, incidentally, that on its introduction I predicted would run out of steam after four months 10 years ago), I came across a picture of a Cooper entered by 'Tommy' Atkins. Tommy, who raced at Brooklands pre-war, owned and entered a number of cars through the 1950s and '60s for a variety of drivers, under the High Efficiency Motors banner. The name took me back some 15 years to a highly entertaining lunch with the late Grand Prix driver and drug smuggler Ian Burgess. While researching the Scirocco Formula 1 car I managed to contact the elusive Burgess, the team's lead driver. "No phone numbers, my dear chap just drop a note to my pied a terre and I'll see it next time I'm in the country." These visits were short and furtive due to Ian's awkward relations with authority.
Now look, I was talking about Atkins and you've distracted me with Burgess. Anyway, having taken me to the Pitt Rivers Club in Mayfair ('taken' in the sense that he invited me there and at the end said with wide-eyed innocence. "Your people picking up the bill, are they?"), Ian enlivened the lunch-time chop with scurrilous tales about racing, drinking and spying, entertainingly interrupted by the arrival of one-time fellow Cooper driver Jackie Epstein.
Round, florid face beaming over a glass of red, Burgess repeated with immense sincerity his defence that the reason he had such a huge stash of heroin on him when stopped by customs was that this was how MI5 paid him for his intelligence work in the Middle East. This may have been true.
Among his tales of racing for Cooper, Camoradi and Centro-Sud, he recalled driving for Tommy Atkins in 1958 and '59.
"Very short fuse, Tommy, and very, very jealous of his young wife," he told me gleefully. One day Atkins went back to his home mid-afternoon to find that his wife was out. When she returned he grilled her about where she'd been. "Just at the swimming baths, Tommy."
"And the very next morning," continued Burgess, leaning back and waving his glass, "the poor woman was woken by digger engines in the garden. Tommy had him own pool built for her by the weekend!"
Burgess's visits home had to be brief and unannounced. While doing his 10-stretch he made many useful friends well, he was a jovial soul. Then he moved to an open prison from where, so I've been told, he was liberated early, without Her Majesty's permission, by some of the boys. Always handy to have friends in low places.