The Channel Islands chancer

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Boley Pittard was a racer renowned for his vibrant character as much as his driving skill. But in a deadly era of the sport, he was never to fulfil his potential
By Paul Fearnley

He was running wild by the end – and little wonder. The Nazis invaded the Channel Islands in June 1940, and stayed until May 1945. There was no résistance in the French sense, but small acts of sabotage and stubbornness did incur the occupiers’ wrath, and his father and grandmother were among those deported in 1942/43. Hence the boy, all but unchecked, exhibited a wide streak of devilment.

An outlet was required. It came in the late 1940s, in the form of a cinder track built by Jersey’s Georgetown Speedway Cycle Club.

“He scored many wins there,” recalls friend and rival Loy Jehan. “He was a showman. He’d wheelie the length of Gorey seawall. He’d even cycle off the pier on the understanding that watching holidaymakers would give him 2/6d!”

Motorbikes came next: Rudges, Triumphs, BSAs; scrambles, trials, sand races. Then cars: Renault Frégate and straight-eight Hudson among his unlikely racers.

His need for speed had outgrown the islands by 1960, so he sailed away – with a head full of ideas and an empty wallet. Boley Pittard was seat-of-the-pants in every sense.

He washed up in Warren Street, London’s vipers’ nest of car salesmen. He was in (one of) his element(s).

“He wasn’t from London but he was a real Cockney sparrow-type,” says former Motoring News journalist Andrew Marriott. “A rough diamond, a ducker and diver – but very likeable. A big personality that made an immediate impact.”

One of Boley’s new friends was Bobby Day, who ran his father’s Alfa and Merc dealership on the Finchley Road and was shortly to become a two-time British kart champion. Before you could choke up a two-stroke, Boley was thrashing around at impressive speeds.

Day remained a karter, but in 1964 Boley graduated to cars. His weapon? A 1650cc pushrod Ford Anglia. His target? The ‘Formule Libre’ tin-top encounters one level below the British Saloon Car Championship.

“Nobody knew him from Adam,” says Marriott. “But the next thing he was winning left, right and centre.”

His first victory came at Goodwood at the end of March. By the end of April he’d earned his stripes: Willment ones – up his bonnet, along his roof, down his boot.

Mechanic Mike Brown had joined Willment that season: “I think Boley kept pestering [team manager] Jeff Uren, who replied, ‘If you’re that good, supply us with a car and we’ll look after it.’ That was on the Friday. On the Monday there was a white Anglia on the forecourt.”

Barry Cox, a karting mate of Boley’s (and driver of the white Mini in The Italian Job!), concurs: “It was second-hand. Boley bought it on HP for £400 and ‘put it through the books’ so that he got his money back. This was all he had, and he intended to use it to run the car. What he did have was charm and charisma. Basically he blagged his way into Willment’s. The plan then was to show them how good he was and hope they continued to help.”

Willment had Jack Sears, Frank Gardner and Bob Olthoff on the payroll, so Boley was a sideline – and a financial drain. But he was winning – and fun to have around.

“He was good company. And a terrible womaniser,” says Brown. “All the mechanics chipped in on the Anglia when they had a bit of spare time. But I don’t remember going to his races. He was left to his own devices. He would have struggled to change a wheel, bless him, but fortunately not much went wrong.”

Indeed. Seventeen wins made Boley that season’s most successful club racer. His only glitch came at Silverstone when a mix-up with a backmarker – on the slowing-down lap! – sent the Anglia rolling through a trackside hoarding. When asked live on television where this had occurred, Boley replied: “Don’t ask me, mate. I only came here for the first time this morning.” Which was true.

He had the speed, the one-liners and a trademark beret – he was a star in the making, a fact recognised by the Grovewood Awards’ committee. It voted him second – behind E-type and Brabham F3 racer Roger Mac but ahead of Merlyn F3 hotshoe Chris Irwin – and handed him £300. Boley appeared not to have a care in the world – even after crashing one of Ken Tyrrell’s F3 cars during a wet February tryout at Silverstone. However, 1965 was to prove a difficult second season.

Alan Day Racing and Ian Walker Racing joined forces to run Alfa TZs for Boley and Tony Hegbourne. The cars looked sensational, sounded the part, were well prepared and driven hard – but there was usually a lightweight Elan around to show them the way. Fate, too, was against them. During May’s Spa 500Kms, Boley’s overseas debut, Hegbourne flipped on the Masta Straight. His injuries were severe and he succumbed six weeks later.

The programme’s international campaign was scrapped, the GTA saloons never materialised, and Boley had to top up his season in a Willment-run Lotus 35 F3.

Then he slipped off the radar.

Boley was the sort around whom rumours gusted. Some were self-generated, some were not; some had a grain of truth, some were pure fabrication.

“There was an apocryphal tale that he came over here [Italy in mid-1966] because he was wanted on a GBH charge: a road rage incident on Chiswick High Road,” says Jonathan Williams, who at the time was dominating Italian Formula 3 with de Sanctis.

“It would come as no surprise to me if he had thumped someone,” says Cox. “Boley was a lovely guy, but you wouldn’t want to mess with him. He’d knock your block off. I don’t think he’d start a fight, though. He was more a knight in shining armour. I’m not saying there’s an unsigned ticket for his arrest still out there, but perhaps this incident was the signal that it was time to go.

“He’d got this drive in Italy and I remember him setting off in the middle of the night: race bag, suitcase with clothes sticking out, F3 engine on the back seat. It was like he was driving off into the wilderness.”

Boley’s new gig was with Milan-based F3 team BWA.

“I didn’t know Boley well as we never lived in the same city,” says Williams, “but he was a very useful driver. I remember he finished second to me at the wonderful old Mugello [in July]. The BWA wasn’t as dire as it looked, apparently.”

In September Boley set fastest lap but crashed out of the Italian GP support race, and in October, again at Monza, he was second in the FISA GP.

“He came back a few months later,” says Cox. “He’d done well, won a few bob, and was wearing a cashmere coat the team had given him. He was loving it: lots of sun, girls and fun. I went to stay with him. We rented a flat from Lorenzo Bandini. Five pounds a week, I think it was.”

Italy was an attractive proposition for a quick Brit: the start money was good, the standard not as consistent as in the UK, and the attendant life was dolce. But it bordered on bonkers, too.

“You had a one-in-four chance of survival,” says Chris Craft. “Most of the circuits were slipstreamers. The rest were plain crazy. The local drivers tended to get carried away. There was little thought of safety. It was alarming.” Of course, when Boley, thanks to mutual friend Cox, offered him the BWA drive for 1967, Chris had his arm off. “I didn’t know Boley that well. We’d both raced saloons, but our paths had rarely crossed. In ’66 I’d raced a privateer Merlyn in F3 – until I fell asleep at the wheel on the way to Vila Real in Portugal [in July]. That BWA offer gave me the chance to do F3 properly.”

The seat had become vacant because Boley had switched to Tecno of Bologna, who had recently broken into formula racing having made its name in karting. He joined as its number one. His number two was Clay Regazzoni.

“They were a good team, nice people, and going places,” says Craft. “Boley should have gone with them. That’s the real shame of it. ‘Regga’ stayed, and by 1970 was winning the Italian GP for Ferrari [after which he clinched the Euro F2 title with Tecno].”

Instead, having dominated the first heat of Monza’s Vigorelli Trophy, Boley had a very public, very Latin row with his mechanics after his lead in the final was squandered by a mechanical ailment he clearly felt avoidable. He was absent from Vallelunga a fortnight later, and two weeks after that arrived at Imola with a T60-series Lola bought from Frank Williams.

“Frank and I had bought four cars from Eric Broadley, who just wanted rid: three F3-spec cars and one F2,” says Robs Lamplough. Designed by Broadley and Tony Southgate for 1965, the marque’s first monocoque open-wheeler had a patchy record. “But Boley was quick, and didn’t take any prisoners…”

“I’m not sure why Boley left Tecno,” says Cox, “but a rich Italian friend had promised to buy him a Matra. That was the car to have; it cost £3000, an unheard-of sum. Boley reckoned he’d cracked it. But Matras were hard to get hold of, so perhaps the same bloke bought him the Lola as a stopgap.”

On May 21 Boley won his heat at Monza’s Fina GP but retired in the final. A fortnight later, at Monza’s Coppa dell’Autodromo, he led his heat before inexplicably dropping back to 10th.

“I had a flat in the block next to Bandini’s,” says Craft, “and Boley and I became good friends. We spent most nights out together. Sometimes we’d drive to Monte Carlo in my E-type. But when we raced it could be fraught. In fact we had an argument after that race [Craft finished third]. Boley had wanted to control it, had perhaps done deals with some of the other drivers, but I wasn’t part of the plot, had got involved and, he reckoned, screwed things up.”

Agitated, Boley was possibly not in the best frame of mind as he oversaw the brimming of the Lola on the dummy grid for the 125-mile final and, as he shot away from the actual grid, the Lola went up like a flare. Bravely, he steered it out of the field’s way, across the grass and into a wall before jumping clear. It was a month after Bandini’s fiery death in Monaco and as a result Monza’s marshals had been re-equipped and were on tenterhooks – yet still Boley suffered first-degree burns to 80 per cent of his body.

One theory was that he’d accidentally kicked the carb’s fuel union as he clambered in.

But Craft, Williams and Lamplough are adamant that a quick-release Monza fuel cap had either not been clicked shut or knocked open. Under acceleration the fuel sloshed over Boley and onto the cockpit floor, where the battery beneath his legs provided the cruel spark.

“It was easily done,” says Lamplough. “I had the same thing happen to my Lola once. Luckily it didn’t catch alight.”

Boley was taken to Saint Gerald’s Hospital in Monza. Craft, who himself had miraculously survived a flat-out, head-on impact with the Armco in the final, stayed with him for the next six days.

Williams also visited: “Boley begged us to get him to the UK [to the famous burns unit in East Grinstead], but it was impossible to move him. He hadn’t lost his spirit, though; whenever the nurse came in, he demanded to know if his ‘marriage furniture’ was intact.”

Craft: “He kept asking, ‘How’s my face?’ and I’d tell him it was fine. But, because of his goggles, crash helmet and underpants, they were the only bits that were. Nomex race suits had just come out, but Boley was vain and thought they didn’t look flash enough, so he kept his old one: white with red stripes, just like James Garner’s in Grand Prix. Nylon, I think it was…”

Williams: “It melted and resolidified under the skin. Unsurvivable. I was tougher then. Today, I would have wept.”

Craft: “Boley had a private room and was well cared for, but the hospital was basic. There was none of the complete isolation, changing of air or special clothes that I’d seen used on burns victims in the UK. We got in the surgeons who had tried to help Bandini, only to be told it was too late. They said it right over Boley. ‘Tell those bastards I can understand every word!’

“I tracked down Boley’s father and he came over with one of the cousins. I asked Boley if he’d like to see anybody else. He asked for his ex-fiancée, Patsy. She had since married [multiple British kart champion] Mickey Allen, but Mickey was okay with it and Patsy flew out. Between me driving her to the airport and returning to the hospital on the Saturday Boley died.” He was 29. He’d pretended to be younger.

His death was widely reported by the Italian newspapers, some of which linked him to the Great Train Robbery.

“I’ve met some proper villains,” laughs Craft, “but Boley wasn’t one. He was just mischievous. He was a real character, and I reckon he liked to build that up a bit. The GBH thing was perhaps true – I heard he’d smacked a milkman – but some of the other stuff… He wasn’t the son of a fisherman [his father was the manager of a wholesale electrical distributors]; his real name was Peter – that’s what his dad called him; and he wasn’t a wide boy. He was articulate and came from a middle-class family.”

Chances are he knew someone who knew someone who’d been involved in the Robbery – and that was sufficient. The rumours suited his purpose, so he neither denied nor confirmed them.

“To go racing in those days you had to be either rich or opportunistic,” says Cox. “The stripes on Boley’s race suit weren’t those of his house at Eton. But those rich guys liked him. They liked his on-the-edge persona.

“But equally he had this international air; he spoke French and Italian. He was whoever people wanted him to be. That was how he got his foot in the door. He had no other option. Let’s face it, he’d been born on Sark – and there are no cars on Sark. Basically he was the guy with the holes in his shoes blowing them all away.” Yet they all loved him. And missed him.

“I didn’t know Boley that well,” says perennial tin-top charger Les Nash. “But my first race finish in my Anglia was behind him at Brands. We chatted a few times and I liked him. Years later I was walking down Petticoat Lane, looking for antiques, when I saw this bloke with a handcart. On it was a load of cups and trophies. Boley’s! That really choked me up.”

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