Racing returns to Isle of Man
Pre-war racing cars on public roads - that is the promise of the Merlin Manx…
Lance Macklin had a talent that could have made one of our finest drivers. Trouble was, says Chris Nixon, he was too busy having fun to care
“Lance really is an astonishing character. He has this tremendous athletic flair and he could have been a very great driver without any question at all. In the same way he could have been an Olympic skier. He has a quite astonishing sense of balance and I don’t believe there’s any game he couldn’t have played really well, but the extraordinary thing was that he was never, ever interested.” George Abecasis
It is an irony of life that some people blessed with remarkable skills are reluctant to make the most of them. Such a man is Lance Macklin.
Born in 1919, Lance followed his father and grandfather to Eton. From them he went to Switzerland to study languages in Villars and he became an expert skier. He also discovered girls and had an innocent teenage friendship with a pupil from a nearby finishing school. Early one morning he stepped from her ground floor window into six inches of snow. His footprints were traced back to his college and he and the girl were expelled.
With the outbreak of war, Lance volunteered for the Navy and was assigned to motor gunboats. These had been designed by his father, Noel Macklin, who was knighted for his war efforts.
With peace restored, Lance and his friend Peter Hodge set up Chipstead Motors working out of Lance’s London flat which, rather conveniently, had a large garage.
He used the business to realise his schoolboy ambition to be a racing driver. Although Noel Mackin had a strong motoring background (he designed and built the Invicta in 1925) he hated racing and refused to help. Lance bought a curious fourwheel drive machine called the Fuzzi, which proved adequate for sprints but no use for circuits. He then bought a half-share in a 4CL Maserati.
Mackin entered a race in the Isle of Man but to his disgust, his entry was refused by BRDC Secretary Desmond Scannell on the not unreasonable grounds he had no racing experience at all. Scannell suggested Mackin begin his career in something less potent than a supercharged GP car – a sportscar, perhaps? Lance owned a 1932 Invicta and Scannell found him an entry in the GP des Frontieres in Chimay, Belgium, with £50 starting money.
For some time Lance had been in practice for this moment, driving his Invicta as fast as he could on public roads. At Donington he had noticed that the faster drivers drifted their cars round corners and he found the best place for this was Belgrave Square, in the heart of London’s Mayfair.
“In those days it was surfaced with wooden blocks,” he recalled, “and the moment it rained they became so slippery it wasn’t true. Sometimes I’d come out of a nightclub at two o’clock in the morning, it would be pouring, so I’d leap into the old Invicta and spend 10 minutes going round Belgrave Square in a four-wheel drift.”
At Chimay, Macklin was in fourth place when the Invicta’s battery fell out. However, a British journalist gave him a glowing write-up which led to a drive in the Spa 24-hour race with Ian Metcalfe in his Bamato-Hassan 8-litre Bentley.
They lasted 13 hours before the clutch gave up, but Lance had made a good impression with his handling of this huge brute and was approached by John Eason-Gibson, team manager of the winning Aston Martin team of Jock Horsfall and Leslie Johnson. This led to a test drive at Silverstone in the spring of ’49 and an invitation to join industrialist David Brown’s fledgling team. Astons took part in two races that year with the new DB2s, the 24hours of Le Mans and Spa. Lance was reserve at the first and finished fifth (with Nick Haines) in the latter.
At Le Mans the following year his proposed co-driver pulled out, so John Wyer Astons’ new team manager asked Lance to suggest a replacement. He nominated George Abecassis and, driving the famous DB2 ‘VMF 64’, they finished fifth. George owned Hersham and Walton Motors with John Heath and they had a season of F2 racing planned with their HWM cars. Impressed with the way Macklin drove the Aston, Abecassis in turn invited him to join HWM.
For three years Lance was part of a shoestring operation which did a great deal to put Britain on the motor racing map. Driven by Moss, Heath, Abecassis, Lance, Peter Collins and Paul Frere, among others, the HWMs (unit cost: £1500) made a huge impression throughout Europe and the UK, while the grossly expensive BRM (unit cost: over £200,000) became a laughing stock. But it was Lance who scored the team’s only major victory, in the International Trophy at Silverstone in 1952.
Rex Woodgate was a mechanic with HWM in 1950. “Lance was a super driver,” he says, “though a little in the shadow of Mossy perhaps. He was quiet and private, misunderstood by some who thought him aloof, but I found him jolly good company.
“He and Stirling did a lot of things together, like chasing ladies, although they didn’t have to do much chasing! During practice they would spot the prettiest girls in the crowd and signal to them, so they could meet up later.”
John Heath was impressed with his drivers’ skills, but their exuberance infuriated him at times. Moss drove a storming race in Bari, but Heath was not pleased to find he and Macklin had knocked back Coca-Cola to the tune of £15 and charged it to his room.
With two weeks before the next race, in Naples, Heath took the team to Capri for a break. There Macklin and Moss expected to be joined by Miss Italian Air Force, but were unable to contact her. Meanwhile, Moss found a photo of Miss France in a magazine and fell in lust. “I know her,” said Lance, “she’s the daughter of a Monte Carlo policeman.”
Capri and Miss Italian Air Force suddenly lost their allure and our heroes persuaded Heath to lend them his Citroen Light Fifteen. He should Macklin toasts third place at Le Mans in ‘Si with Eric Thompson have known better. They drove flat out from Naples to Monte Carlo, some 700 miles, in a clay. On arrival, they discovered Miss France was out of town so they set off back to Naples as Moss recalls with glee.
“We really thrashed that Citroen on those roads. On the way back we stopped for lunch and I noticed that the front tyres were absolutely bald! We swapped the wheels around so John wouldn’t notice. He did, of course, and made us pay for new tyres.”
Stirling has happy memories of Lance in the far-off HWM days. “He taught me all my bad ways! The great thing to me, as an impressionable 20 year-old, was his sophistication. He was 29 or 30 and very smooth but in the best way. I coined the phrase ‘the Lance Slant’, because we’d be in a bar, I’d turn to offer him a drink and find him slanted across the bar towards a beautiful girl. He was bi-lingual in English and French, good-looking, charming and a very smooth talker. He was an absolute wow with the girls.
“As a driver I rate him not far short of Peter Collins, whom I thought was never quite as good as Hawthorn. Mike’s trouble was he was not consistent, whereas both Peter and Lance were. He was careful so the car came back in one piece, as a rule.”
In 1951 Lance finished a superb third overall at Le Mans for Aston Martin, (driving ‘VMF 64’ again), this time with Eric Thompson. He was also heavily involved with the development of the DB3. Designed by Professor Robert Eberan-Eberhorst of Auto Union fame, this was David Brown’s first racing sportscar and it was not a success. Lance gave the car its maiden outing in the TT at Dundrod, and although the DB3 was quite fast, it developed an oil leak and ran all its bearings.
In 1952 he raced the Aston three times and only finished once, a fourth at Silverstone in May. At Monaco his DB3 threw a rod and at Le Mans the final drive packed up after 20 hours when he and Collins were third behind the leading 300SL Mercedes. It was his last race for Aston Martin; He was not happy with his retaining fee of £300 per year and felt that he deserved better.
In common with many drivers, Lance regarded The Steering Wheel Club in London as a home away from home. Among the friends he would meet there were John Cooper (Sports Editor of The Autocar) and his wife, Shelagh, who recalls:
“I first saw Lance racing an Aston in the 1950 TT at Dundrod. I married John in 1953 by which time he and Lance were great friends. Lance was living on the Continent, but every time he came to London he would call us and we’d dine at the Wheel. After a race at Silverstone or Goodwood it would be The Green Man at Brackley and The Spread Eagle at Midhurst. He was very good company.”
It was at the Wheel when the call from the Bristol Aircraft Corporation came. He was offered £1000 to lead the new Bristol sportscar team in 1953. He accepted with alacrity but later admitted: “Leaving Astons was probably the worst mistake of my life.”
Signing with Bristol turned out to be a complete waste of time. He was asked to do just two races: at Le Mans, where his car broke its crankshaft, caught fire and crashed when his co-driver Graham Whitehead was driving, and at Reims in the 12-hour race, when it failed before he could start.
In 1954 John Heath decided to enter his HWMs in the new F1 races by enlarging the engine to 2-litres and using fuel injection, but it was a futile gesture. Macklin persevered with the, team and had the dubious distinction of driving the HWM in its last appearance as a works entry, in the French GP at Reims. He was 30 seconds a lap slower than the fabulous new W196 Mercedes and his engine expired after 10 laps. It was an ignominious end to a remarkable venture and although Lance had undoubtedly enjoyed his years with the team, they had been pretty unproductive for him.
It is perhaps surprising he lasted as long as he did, for his ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude to racing did not sit well with Heath and Abecassis.
“He never cared whether he started in a race or not,” recalled Abecassis, many years later. “If his car blew up in practice and he couldn’t start he wouldn’t be disappointed, he’d just say, ‘Oh, well — I’ll go into town and find myself a bird.’ Sometimes it was a nightmare to make him practice at all. If there was some blonde he was after he just wouldn’t turn up.”
With the demise of HWM, 1954 was a pretty quiet year for Lance, although he joined the works Austin-Healey team and managed to finish a remarkable third overall at Sebring with George Huntoon. The next year he and Moss finished sixth there in a 100S. Lance then finished second in class in the Milk Miglia, behind Abecassis, also in an Austin-Healey.
He enjoyed racing for Donald Healey (a man who also loved the high life) and he was now also enjoying the company of Shelagh Cooper, whose husband had been tragically killed in a road accident the previous year. But he himself was about to become embroiled in tragedy, at Le Mans.
Driving a works production Austin-Healey 100S, Lance was unwittingly to become involved in the worst accident in the history of motor racing, when the Mercedes 300S LR of Pierre Levegh hit the back of the Austin-Healey and was launched into the crowd, killing more than 80 spectators.
Levegh was killed too, but that did not stop him and Macklin coming in for a lot of criticism, which should have been directed at Mike Hawthorn. He had been involved in a colossal dice with Fangio for over two hours, the Jaguar D-type and the Mercedes 300S LR passing and repassing all round the circuit. Having been told to come in to hand over to co-driver Ivor Bueb, Mike left it to the very last second before moving across to the right of the track and heading for his pit. In doing so he pulled in front of Lance’s Austin-Healey and braked heavily, forcing Lance to do the same. The production discs on the Healey were no match for the racing Dunlops on the D-type and Lance swerved instinctively to the left to avoid running into the back of the Jaguar straight into the path of Levegh’s Mercedes, with catastrophic results.
Lance was adamant that Hawthorn caused the crash. “He always maintained Mike started it,” says Shelagh, “as did Donald Healey, and he was deeply upset when Mike, a good friend, refused to acknowledge any responsibility for it.” Hawthorn’s supporters rallied round, many pointing the finger at Macklin and even more shamefully at Levegh, who was dead and unable to defend himself.
In 1958 Hawthorn published his autobiography, Challenge Me The Race and Macklin was incensed by his version of the disaster, in which he cleared himself of all responsibility but failed to state just who he thought was to blame. As Levegh was dead, Macklin concluded Mike was putting him in the frame and sued for libel, but Hawthorn’s death in January, 1959, put an end to that.
The accident had a profound effect on Lance, but he raced his friend Stirling’s 250F Maserati in the British GP at Aintree, finishing eighth before having another severe shock in the TT at Dundrod. Driving an Austin-Healey again, he narrowly avoided a crash which killed two drivers.
Early in 1956 he drove an Austin-Healey 100S at Sebring once more, this time with Archie Scott Brown, but they failed to finish. It was at that point Shelagh persuaded him to stop.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous. You’re never going to make a living as a racing driver, so try something else.’ The sad thing is he could have done anything he wanted, but he couldn’t be bothered. He liked racing, riding, skiing, and sailing as an amateur, and he was brilliant at them all, but he didn’t want any of them as a job.”
In August that year Lance and Shelagh were married and, at about the same time, Jean Daninos invited him to join Facel-Vega and run the export side. The Macklins went to live outside Paris and as Shelagh recalls: “We had a very good time, driving all round Europe, delivering Facels to the rich and famous.”
Lance certainly enjoyed this new, all expenses-paid lifestyle, but has admitted that the temptations that went with it played havoc with his marriage, which was over by the time Facel-Vega went bust in 1963.
A year or so later he married a New Zealand girl. They went to live there for a while, but when that marriage failed too, Lance returned to England and worked for HR Owen, before emigrating to Spain. He stayed there until quite recently, when he became too ill to look after himself and so his son Patrick and daughter Miranda brought him back to England.
Lance clearly enjoyed his racing career until the Le Mans disaster, but it never really took off. It is equally clear he never made the most of his undoubted talents, as his former Aston Martin boss, John Wyer, confirmed:
“I had watched him at Spa in 1949 and thought he was outstanding among the younger drivers who were beginning to come to the fore. In 1950 we all believed that he would go right to the top in motor racing and I am sure he was capable of it but, in spite of his great natural talent, he lacked something – application perhaps, or perseverance. I think he could achieve so much without effort he expected everything to be easy and was disconcerted when it was not.”
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