Ian Stewart beat Moss – but then followed a very different career path. By Eric Dymock
When Ian Stewart defeated Stirling Moss at Charterhall in the October of 1952, Bill Boddy was astonished. Both drivers were in C-type Jaguars, Moss was approaching the top of his form, and even though Stewart might have had an advantage on a familiar track, this did not as a rule bother Moss. So there had to be another explanation.
WB conjectured that since WE ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson, a veteran of Brooklands, had prepared Stewart’s Jaguar then it must be faster. Wilkie had tended to the Bellevue Garage racing MGs of Kenneth and Doreen Evans and had been head mechanic for Billy Cotton; he had even been good as a driver. And now he was in partnership with David Murray, an accountant and ex-driver, in Merchiston Motors — a mews garage situated in Edinburgh — and as such was Ecurie Ecosse’s head mechanic.
Motor Sport said: “Clearly, `Wilky’ [sic] Wilkinson has laid an expert hand on Ian Stewart’s Ecurie Ecosse XK120C Jaguar, because try as Moss did in Wisdom’s XK120C, Ian won — a popular win — by 15.6sec, setting fastest lap.” The caption to a photo of Stewart’s C-type emphasised this: “Clearly, Wilky Wilkinson has given the Scottish car something others haven’t got.”
The real explanation, that Ian Stewart was every bit Stirling Moss’s equal on the day, never came up. Yet Stewart was able to overtake Moss on the long and badly cambered Paddock Bend right and stay ahead. It was quite the opposite of racing in England, where the Scottish team was invariably at a disadvantage, yet it was no flash in the pan.
A letter to Motor Sport in January 1953 made this point: “Sir: I feel very strongly that Ian Stewart has not been given the credit he deserves for winning the sportscar race at Charterhall. Every account I have read glosses over Ian’s superb driving and infers that he won only by having the fastest car. This is not true; I have the greatest respect for Wilkie and no knock at him is dreamt of. That Stirling Moss is one of the truly great is beyond all doubt, but so also is Ian Stewart. With only a fraction of Stirling’s experience, Ian is his equal in ice-cold, meticulously accurate, devastatingly fast cornering.
“Ian Stewart will in time reach high enough to stand comparison with the great Richard Seaman.”
Dark and dashing Perthshire farmer I M M Stewart was the best driver Scotland would produce until Jim Clark. His only rival for the title, Jimmy Stewart, followed him into Ecurie Ecosse. Jimmy drove brilliantly, but was injured in a works Aston Martin at Le Mans, crashed an Ecosse D-type at the Nürburgring when its disc brakes failed, and then turned down Lofty England’s offer to co-drive for Mike Hawthorn — at Le Mans in 1955! Yet even Jimmy acknowledged that Ian was the faster driver. Bill Dobson, Ian’s contemporary in the fledgling Edinburgh outfit, never had any doubt either: “Not one of us could come anywhere near him. He had the same car as anybody else. He was just very good. He knew what to do.”
Jimmy Stewart’s younger brother, now Sir Jackie, attended races as a small boy in short trousers: “I got Ian Stewart’s autograph.
“It was clear from the start that he was skilled and talented. He looked good in a racing car. He was stylish, just as Stirling was stylish, relaxed, whereas Mike Hawthorn seemed to be working very hard in the car. Ian looked as though he was part of the car, and the manner in which he drove brought him good results. His lap times were the target for other drivers. It was a real shame that he gave up when he did. If he had gone professional a few seasons later, he could have been into the big money.
“David Murray had an eye for drivers: Ian, my brother, Desmond Titterington, Ninian Sanderson and John Lawrence were all good. But Ian’s elegant style stood out.”
Ian Stewart grew up wanting to be a Spitfire pilot: “We all wanted to be Spitfire pilots.” Born in Edinburgh on 15 July, 1929, into a family with interests in farming and the licensed trade, he was 16 when WWII ended. His ambitions soon came back to earth when his mother unexpectedly bought an MG TA. Ian returned from school, took one look at it, and inside 48 hours learned to drive. He drove the MG in rallies and at the Bo’ness hillclimb, then bought a half share in a Jaguar SS100, becoming irredeemably addicted to high speed.
After National Service he bought a Healey Silverstone: “I’d had the SS100 at Bo’ness and Rest-and-be-Thankful, but in hillclimbs you did not have much time, it was rather like one-lap qualifying. I didn’t fancy it much. I wanted to race.”
So Ian entered the Healey for the inaugural meeting at Winfield, a precursor of Charterhall, and gained a third and a fourth place. He was hooked and acquired an XK120. His parents were in the throes of a divorce and Ian somehow managed to get a new Jaguar written into their settlement: “I didn’t tell anybody; it was so embarrassing. But that’s the truth. I did the whole of 1951 as a Merchiston Motors privateer, with Wilkie looking after the car.”
The XK started off silver, but after an altercation with a furniture van it was painted red. Then, on the way to race at the short-lived track at Tumberry on the Ayrshire coast, Stewart dozed off and turned the car upside down. Fellow XK competitor Freddie Mort from Stranraer, the Motor Sport letter-writer, gallantly lent him his.
Stewart went from success to success: “The XK was a great car. David Murray entered it in races for me throughout that summer. I didn’t have to do much except drive it.
“My first win was at Winfield. No crash hat, great fun, and give Wilkie his due, that car was prepared beautifully. You could step into any car he prepared, forgetting the odd suspension aberration, and you knew it would not fall apart. But he was essentially an old-fashioned mechanic; he polished ports and balanced carburettors beautifully.”
Wilkie’s other work was less accomplished. The XK’s drum brakes were scarcely up to racing so he drilled holes in the steel disc wheels to cool them. Each hole was carefully made into a miniature air scoop by bending the edge outwards with a crowbar. Unsurprisingly, the wheels cracked and had to be scrapped.
XK120s formed the nucleus of a team that was shaping up in David Murray’s mind. He had one XK of his own but he needed two more. He sold his to Bill Dobson, son of an Edinburgh haulier, who had already been talked into buying a Ferrari 125; Peter Whitehead came close to winning the 1949 French Grand Prix with it, and later claimed the Czechoslovak GP at Brno, but it was a difficult car and was gratefully disposed of in favour of the Jaguar.
Stewart was already racing his XK120, and paying for it, and the third recruit was Sir James Scott-Douglas Bt, overweight and something of a playboy.
Stewart, established as a driver, was also recruited for his diplomatic skills. Reg Tanner of Esso was promising sponsorship and Murray called an afternoon meeting in his accounting office in Rutland Square, Edinburgh: “It was done, I think, to impress Jamie Scott-Douglas about the resources the team would have. I can’t be sure of the sum, one or two thousand pounds, but we all repaired to the Café Royal afterwards for dinner. Jamie was still dithering; David patted me on the shoulder and told me to tell him what a good idea all this is. I probably talked him into it because I was young and enthusiastic too.”
The truth was that Murray had brought Scott-Douglas in principally for his money — his flat in Berkeley Square was overrun by hangers-on taking advantage of his generous nature — although he turned out to be a highly competent driver. He raced for the team in its inaugural year of 1952, but in due course the money ran out. He died quite young of pituitary gland trouble.
Dobson likewise raced only in 1952 before returning to the family haulage business following an ultimatum from his father. Ian’s family was just as sceptical. Motor racing was just a sport, and like yachtsmen, hunters or golfers, anybody who took part expected to pay for the privilege. There were a few professional drivers in grand prix racing, but practically none making a living in sportscars.
But Stewart’s exploits in the 120 in 1951 had not gone unnoticed, in particular at Winfield, when he defeated Gillie Tyrer, whose 1940 Mille Miglia BMW was one of the most successful club racers of the time. With the C-type imminent, the astute Lofty England sent a list (and precis) of the likely candidates for them to William Lyons: “Ian M Stewart has won a number of races with his XK120 and, according to those who should know, is a very polished driver, the most promising one on Scottish circuits. He would be good to have in an XK120C.”
In February 1952 Lofty elevated Stewart to his priority list along with Duncan Hamilton and L (presumably Leslie, Mike’s dad) Hawthorn.
Stewart drove for the works team at Le Mans, where the cars failed. He also raced C-types for Ecurie Ecosse but, as with the XK120s, the drivers were expected to buy their cars: “I was a bit stuck, because having got myself a works drive with Jaguar, and Lofty England having said you shall have a C-type, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. However, an accountant friend was a racing enthusiast, so faced with this terrible dilemma, I asked him what I should do. I couldn’t go to my father, so we raised the money by selling the XK120 and borrowing the rest. My father found out and went through the roof. He marched into David Murray’s office, made him buy the car and also pay me a retainer of £100 per annum. I think in the end that turned David against me. Being forced into buying the car was a considerable blow. He and my father spent quite a long time shouting at each other, but the old man walked out satisfied.”
Ian won race after race with XKC 006, beginning with the 1952 Jersey Road Race. Murray entered three cars, but the C-type was not ready until the Tuesday before the event, and had to be run-in. Oil consumption was a problem with racing XKs, and careful running-in was essential. Stewart picked it up from the factory and completed this process on Jersey.
“I collected the car at the works on Tuesday afternoon and set off with some trepidation, with Lofty’s words ringing in my ears. All he said was: ‘See that you win.’ I was filled with foreboding and determination, all soon forgotten in the joy of the drive. A brand-new C-type smelling of fresh paint and without a single rattle was quite something. I’ll never forget the noise — a combination of that deep exhaust note and a peculiar ‘zinging’ resonance from the bodywork that you don’t hear in other cars. I reached the ferry in a mood of complete euphoria.”
Deeply worried, tense, adrenalin-flushed before every race, Stewart put in his customary calm, relaxed performance — that saw him win. Beating Moss twice established him as one of the UK’s finest drivers.
His best result in a works Jaguar was a third in the 1953 Goodwood Nine Hours with Peter Whitehead, and he came home second at the Nürburgring 1000Km along with Roy Salvadori in Ecosse’s XKC 041.
Jaguar renewed his deal for 1954, and he briefly led the Buenos Aires 1000Km in a C-type before crashing. It was to be his last race. When his father became ill early that year, Ian had to take over the family business, and tore up his contract.
The farm was losing money and had to be put back on its feet, and the family licensed business needed an overhaul. The task occupied him for 10 years. There was no question of doing it out of motor racing income, even though, as JYS stated, he was good enough to have been in the big money within a few years.
“I’ve never lost my fascination for cars,” admits Ian. “I loved cars and driving more than anything else. But I didn’t have time to wish I’d kept on. If I had lived in the Midlands or close to Silverstone, it would have broken my heart, and I’d have gone right back into it. But with the family situation as it was that was impossible. Back then the sense of responsibility, doing the right thing, especially in the agricultural world, was all that mattered. I had a business to save.”
Which is why this very promising talent was lost to the sport.