Jim Clark had yet to etch his name on the broader racing conscience by the spring of 1959, but four victories in one afternoon were a hint of greatness to come
Writer: Richard Williams
Its paintwork so dark that on a murky day the green could have been taken for black, the big Lister-Jaguar appeared to flex its shoulders as it powered through the downhill left-hand kink before the pit straight. The 3.4-litre straight-six engine blared as the young driver, his dark helmet and goggles visible above the Perspex screen, held the throttle to the floor, his hands barely moving on the wheel as he balanced the car against the awkward camber.
The kink was called Devil’s Elbow, and it had almost caught him out once already that day when he and a rival – both of them in identical Lotus Elites – touched as they went for the same patch of Tarmac during practice. In time they would become close friends, but now the other man came off worse, shedding a wheel and losing bits of pale-blue fibreglass as his car slewed across the track into the earth bank. No more racing for him that day. But the driver in the other Elite, the white one, slid through unscathed.
It was March 30, 1959, the Easter Monday meeting at Mallory Park, a day on which Jim Clark, less than a month past his 23rd birthday, would go on to win four races, three in the Lister and one in the Lotus. Four wins in a single day: not so unusual back then, when even Grand Prix aces could be seen competing in the lesser formulae at circuits around the country. But something about the presence of Clark at the wheel, not least the contrast between the fuss-free way he let the delicate little Elite find the best route around the track and his willingness to take on the burly Lister in a battle of strength and will, was enough to make an impression on the spectators, including a 12-year-old boy attending his first motor race.
We had arrived at the circuit in my father’s 1936 Rover 14 saloon, just in time to witness the crash that sent John Whitmore’s damaged Elite home on its trailer. I was already a fan of motor racing, with a deep devotion to Stirling Moss, but had never heard of Jim Clark. The events of that day were to lay the foundation of a second and equal enthusiasm, one that would feel more personal even when it came to be shared by countless enthusiasts around the world.
So I was unaware that this was Clark’s fourth season of motor sport, although only his second with a full programme of club racing, and that he was already coming under the pressure of parental disapproval. The one son among four children, he was now expected to renounce the frivolity of motor sport and take increased responsibility for the family’s sheep farm on the Scottish borders. But having graduated from a DKW saloon via a Triumph TR3 and a Porsche 356 to a D-type Jaguar, he was moving closer towards his goal. The Lister and the Lotus were the cars that would finally carry him to the brink of the big time.
His friend, neighbour and fellow farmer Ian Scott Watson, a founder of the Border Motor Racing Club, had lent him the DKW and the Porsche to race and then sold him the latter in order to raise the £1600 necessary to buy the brand-new Elite, which he planned to use as a road car between Clark’s competition activities. They had driven down together in the white 356 from Duns to Mallory, while the cars were transported in a converted Bedford coach (the Lister) and on a trailer behind a farm van (the Lotus) by the mechanics of Border Reivers, the team founded and sponsored by Jock McBain, a Ford dealer with a garage near the Clark farm.
It was while Clark had been buying farm equipment from McBain that the two men chatted about their mutual obsession and forged the link that would provide the young driver with the first significant platform for his talent. Border Reivers had been set up to rival David Murray’s Ecurie Ecosse, and after Clark had spent the 1958 season at the wheel of the team’s D-type Jaguar, McBain bought the Lister as an upgrade for his protégé.
The car had begun life four years earlier with a Bristol engine. First owned by Austin Nurse, a Birmingham garage owner, it enjoyed success in the hands of various drivers, including Roy Salvadori. After a bad crash with Nurse at the wheel during the support race for the 1956 British GP at Silverstone, it was rebuilt for the following year with a new frame, a Jaguar engine and blunt-nosed, chopped-tailed bodywork drawn up by Thom Lucas, Brian Lister’s in-house designer: the burly shape, fabricated in Byfleet by Maurice Gomm, led it to become known as ‘the flat-iron Lister’. It was raced by Bruce Halford, its new owner, and Archie Scott Brown, the legendary Lister exponent.
At Le Mans in 1958, in the hands of Halford and Brian Naylor, it was running promisingly in sixth place as night fell before a succession of problems dropped it to 15th at the finish.
McBain paid Halford about £1500 for the car, and Clark went down to Luton (with Ian Scott Watson in the Porsche) to pick it up. He drove the Lister the 280 miles back to Duns in his stockinged feet, since the pedals were too close to permit the wearing of shoes. It was a Sunday morning and, near the USAF base at Huntingdon, he put his foot down to overtake a serviceman in a Ford Thunderbird. This was six years before the imposition of an overall 70mph limit, and anyway the car had no speedometer, but he saw 5500 on the rev counter and calculated that it meant he must have been doing 150mph.
He had also discovered that the cockpit was far too cramped. “I honestly don’t know how Bruce managed to drive it,” he would recall. “We managed to carve a bit out of the bulkhead behind the seats to push the seat back.”
The Nottingham Sports Car Club’s Easter Monday meeting would be his first outing in the car, as well as his first visit to Mallory Park. The 1.35-mile circuit, laid out on land used during the Second World War as a stand-by landing ground for the RAF, had opened for motor racing in 1956, with only rudimentary facilities. Now, at the season’s opening event, competitors were greeted by a brand-new tower for timekeepers and commentators, with a members’ bar at ground level and a new grandstand at Shaw’s Hairpin, the track’s only slow corner.
The programme of races started at 1.30pm with a couple of 20-lappers for series-production sports cars, up to 1000cc (won by Bob Gerard in a Turner-BMC) and 1000-1200cc, in which Clark and the white Elite, lacking the competition that another Elite would have provided, cruised to an untroubled win ahead of Pat Fergusson in the fastest of the quartet of Elva Couriers which, with a gaggle of MGAs, made up the field. One down, three to go.
Next for Clark came the 20-lap race for sports cars over 1200cc, in which he and the Lister – with road registration, HCH 736, on its battered nose – led from pole position and comfortably beat John Dalton’s Aston Martin DB3S, Mike Bond’s Ecurie Chiltern DB3S and the Hon Edward Greenall’s Lotus XV. A pattern had been set for the rest of the day. He won the second of two heats of the day’s Formula Libre event, ahead of the 1100cc Lotuses of Jim Blumer and Lewis Bramley, and after a pause for a 500cc Formula Three race, won by Jack Pitcher in a Cooper-Norton, he lined up, again in pole position, for the final.
A battle had been anticipated between the Lister and the 1500cc Formula 2 Cooper-Climax of Chris Summers, the winner of the first heat. But on lap two, with the Cooper following almost in the Lister’s shadow, its driver missed a gear under braking for the hairpin and bent a valve. That was the end of the contest for the lead, but it was not the last noteworthy incident. We were standing at Devil’s Elbow, in order to admire Clark’s handling of a car that seemed too big for the circuit, when Ken Flint, a Liverpool garage owner, lost control of his handsome British racing green B-type Connaught, the only pukka Formula 1 car in the race, which spun into the bank and rolled over. The uninjured driver was able to scramble out, while we craned our necks and marvelled at the car’s steering wheel, which had been bent into a Dali-esque shape.
With no one else able to challenge Clark, who won at an average speed of 80.99mph, Bramley and Blumer took second and third places, with Dalton fourth.
So ended the first meeting of a memorable year for Clark: “a field day”, as he would remember it. That season he would compete in 53 races at 21 different meetings, winning 23 of them. Of 26 races in the Lister between March and October, he won exactly half. Perhaps his best day in the car came in July at Aintree, where he came second to Graham Hill’s works 2.5-litre Lotus XV in the sports-car support race to the British Grand Prix. There would also be another win at Mallory in September, followed by two victories in a day in his farewell to the car at Charterhall, his home circuit.
The big machine had taught him a great deal about racing. “It was a beast of a thing, really vicious, but it was fun to drive,” he would tell a biographer. “It was a lively car and you could drive it on the throttle. At Gerard’s you could set the car up going into the bend hard, and get around the corner without touching the steering again. If you wanted to come out tight you just put your boot in it: the tail came around and it was a matter of driving it on the throttle the whole way.”
It also taught him quite a bit about brakes – “in that I couldn’t rely on them”. Scott Watson remembers that the inboard rear discs were particularly prone to overheating. Not only did they fade, but they transmitted their heat along the driveshafts to the differential, whose bearings had to be replaced after every meeting as a result. “We cut holes in the bodywork, but never cured it.” Last year, now with a 3.8-litre engine and in good condition after 30 years of loving ownership by an Italian family, it was sold by Kidston’s to Steve Boultbee Brooks, a British property developer and adventurer, for about £750,000.
By the time Clark completed his fourth victory, the 21-year-old Whitmore was practically home, having headed back to his father’s farm in Essex with his Elite, a former Paris Show car now somewhat the worse for wear. It had been a disappointing day for him, but his earlier performances in the car at Snetterton and Silverstone had caught the attention of Colin Chapman.
The Lotus boss was also already aware of Clark’s talent, having given the Scot a test in a Formula 2 car at Brands Hatch in October 1958 and only narrowly beaten him, thanks to a fumbling backmarker, when both men raced Elites on Boxing Day at the Kentish circuit.
In his introduction to Jim Clark at the Wheel, published to mark the Scot’s first world title in 1963, Chapman recalled his reaction when the virtually unknown Scot passed him for the lead: “Good God, what’s happening here?”
Shortly after the Mallory meeting Chapman would contact Whitmore, inviting him to share an Elite with Clark at Le Mans that June, to be entered by Border Reivers and run with works support.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Whitmore remembers. “In practice at Mallory, before the crash, Jim was a second or so quicker than me. I thought, ‘This guy is good’. It was exactly the same at Le Mans. We were very much controlling our driving, getting the maximum fuel efficiency and trying not to use up the tyres. But every time we had a pitstop the starter wouldn’t work. We had to keep changing it, which we had to conceal from the scrutineers, and every stop took 12 or 15 minutes.” Nevertheless they were able to finish 10th overall, two places behind Peter Lumsden and Peter Riley in their class-winning sister car, which enjoyed an untroubled race. (A few weeks later Whitmore’s own Elite would be written off at Monza, when brake failure at 140mph sent it cartwheeling over the bank and into the trees on the outside of the Parabolica; again the driver was unhurt.)
The two farmers formed such a friendship that Clark often stayed at Whitmore’s Mayfair pied-à-terre on his visits to London. “Jimmy was funny because he could never make a decision,” Whitmore says. “He was very astute in a car, but outside it he was so difficult. I’d say, ‘Let’s go out to eat – which restaurant would you like to go to?’ He’d say, ‘It’s up to you’. I’d say, ‘Shall we go to a movie?’ He’d say, ‘Yes, but you choose’. He had a very lovely girlfriend, Sally Stokes, for a long time, and everyone said, ‘Why aren’t you marrying her?’ They were very good together and she wanted to get married. But he couldn’t do it. He never made any decisions. Until he got in a racing car.”
As we got back into the Rover and prepared to leave Mallory Park late in the afternoon,I know I told my father, with all the conviction a 12-year-old could muster, that Jim Clark would be world champion one day. From that moment on, the hitherto incomparable Moss would have to share my affections.
By the start of the following year Clark would be testing an Aston Martin GP car for Reg Parnell at Goodwood, shortly before embarking on a successful season in Chapman’s Formula Junior Lotus 18: the last stepping-stone to F1 and the two world titles he was to claim before the Hockenheim accident that took his life on April 7, 1968. Many people can remember their grief on hearing of that tragedy. For me, it was some comfort to think back and cherish the memory of the big Lister hurtling through Devil’s Elbow, on the very edge of control, at the dawning of a legend.