Farewell to The Bear

The son of Clive Hulme, who had won a VC in Crete during World War 2, Denis Clive Hulme was an imposing man who inherited his father’s flintiness and disdain for fools. On the surface he was a gruff, tough individual, but at times he indulged his sense of humour by scaring interviewers witless, before privately collapsing in titters at their anguish.

I was apprehensive the first time I met him. Here, after all, was the 1967 World Champion, the man who’d won two CanArn titles and countless Gp7 encounters, and who was the victor of eight GPs. Topped out with that grouchy reputation. The reality could barely have been more different. You had to prove yourself initially, but once you’d passed Denny’s test you never knew what it was, you just sensed at some point that you had been accepted you were in. Then you could observe the real Denny Hulme, and that was something worth seeing.

Regular readers of Motor Sport will recall our feature on his 25th anniversary visit to Monaco earlier this year (published in our July issue) and his contempt for Nigel Mansell’s post-race histrionics. Also, his dismissal of an ageing Louis Chiron. “At the end of the ’67 race I stopped at the Royal Box and he was Clerk of the Course. I’d been leading for at least two hours of the bloody race and he came over and leant in the cockpit and said, ‘What was your name, Monsieur?’ It bloody pissed me off. He was well past his sell-by date, I reckon!” The language was typically colourful, but that was Denny for you. If you got offended by it, you could always find somebody else to talk to.

The story of the burns he sustained at Indianapolis in 1970, only days before Bruce McLaren was killed, is one of the most uplifting in the sport’s history, for in the midst of all this personal agony The Bear’s broad shoulders had to carry the entire weight of the shattered McLaren team. Nothing much was written about it all at the time, because that was the way he wanted it. He still had to be drawn on it 22 years later. It’s hard today to imagine a World Champion travelling by train to have his burns checked, yet there was Denny, hands bandaged, standing on the platform with his fare tucked into his wraps, waiting for somebody to open a door for him.

Just a month later he raced at Mosport’s CanAm opener. Possibly only he knew how important it was for the team that he did, but beneath the gruff exterior beat a sensitive, compassionate heart.

“That day Bruce was killed was the worst of my life,” he said. “I heard it on the radio coming back from Harley Street. I’d had no reaction to my hands, no shock, no self-pity. Then suddenly Bruce was gone. It was the worst ever in the week or so after that, because the reactions to both things hit me at the same time.”

And still, Denny never said a word to the outside world. Never betrayed his emotion. Even when he removed his gloves after each outing and would peel away a layer of new skin as well, he never looked for sympathy. Clive Hulme would have been proud.

Denny shared Jackie Stewart’s concern over safety issues, and felt the various tragedies of the era deeply. For a long time he was Chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association but again he kept what he did quiet. On his day he could run with anyone in F1, as he showed with the new McLaren M7A in 1968, or at Kyalami in 1971 and ’73, or Sweden later that year. But his real element was the CanArn, the Bruce and Denny Show.

“I always looked forward to the CanAm more than F1 ,” he said. “The cars were so damned nice to drive. They’d get round the corners pretty good. They were so exciting, with instant power…” He loved his reunion with an M8D at Goodwood shortly after Monaco, on the 22nd anniversary of Bruce’s death.

He lived his life his own way and quit F1 when the time was right, at the end of 1974, but he never lost his love of racing. He was quite happy handling the odd truck or, as he was in Bathurst, piloting a GpA saloon. He liked being involved, and was quietly proud of his own niche in the sport. He was finally awarded the O.B.E. in June, and it chuffed him no end.

The night I heard the news that Denny had gone, I sat straight down to write his obituary for our weekly sister Motoring News. And I kept thinking how shattered he had been by the death of his son Martin a few years ago. A phrase kept running through my head: the loss of men such as Denis Clive Hulme leaves the rest of us behind, his friends and his fans, in a world that is poorer for their passing. I smiled a little when I thought of him perhaps meeting up again with Bruce, of a CanAm-style welcome party in the sky. And I thought how grateful I was to have known one of the sport’s true characters. He was a Good Bloke.