Ken Gregory and Stirling Moss: a winning partnership
"It’s often been said that I was the first professional racing driver, so it’s fitting that I had the first professional driver manager. Gordon Cruickshank spoke to Ken Gregory about our partnership through my racing career"
It’s a long list, the CV of Ken Gregory. Driver, team manager, constructor, director of Brands Hatch, mainstay of the BRSCC and 500cc clubs, race organiser, writer, publisher, airline owner, and the man who brought serious sponsorship into motor racing. Oh, and he’s pretty sure he added a new word to the English language. It’s been a long racing career, too, dating to 1949 when as an RAC official he attended the Grand Prix at a disused airfield called Silverstone. In July this year, at a very fit 83, he was back to watch what threatened to be the last GP there, and took time to talk to us before flying back to his Spanish home.
Among these exploits Gregory, who has a habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything and worrying about the workload later, took on a job which had not existed before – that of a racing driver’s personal manager. That driver needed a manager because he too had the ‘yes’ habit, taking on every drive he could fit in. He was Stirling Moss.
Not that Gregory was a passionate motor sport fan when he left the army. The RAC post merely sounded interesting. But that GP captured him; he got involved with the 500 Club and became secretary. Perhaps it was first meeting a 20-year-old Stirling socially, at a 500 dinner, that made their relationship mutually beneficial. Stirling’s father Alfred wanted his boy home on time; Ken told Moss Sr that his son was coming to his flat for coffee first, enabling Stirling to see his girlfriend home.
A deception, perhaps, but a minor one; the trust between the three of them grew to the point where Gregory would make decisions on the new star’s future alone – even the biggest one of all. When Mercedes signed Stirling to join Fangio for the 1955 season, it was Gregory who brokered the deal. Moss, in the States on a rally (the ‘yes’ factor again) didn’t even know. And he was dubious.
“SM was comfortable driving for British teams – not because he was patriotic but because he was comfortable with the British way of doing things,” says Gregory. “But he would have taken the Ferrari drive offered in ’51 except he had a commitment to HWM. He was strict about things like that.”
That HWM drive was part of the 1950 portfolio, when Gregory and Moss were already closely linked. “Stirling needed a London base his father approved of, so he moved into my Hampstead flat,” says Ken. Soon they were travelling to races together. Gregory meanwhile had become a works Kieft driver by sheer cheek when Cyril Kieft asked who might drive the factory car. “Me,” said Ken. That was the start of a 500cc adventure which saw Moss and Gregory become directors of Kieft and instigators of the advanced new swing-axle design in which Stirling won on its debut in ’51.
Moss was now jetting – or propellering – between Britain and the continent, running Formula 2 for HWM, F3 for Kieft and driving a works Jaguar. But everyone needs holidays… so Moss and Gregory drove to Barcelona for the GP in a Sunbeam-Talbot which they wrote up for a magazine, and then on to Monza to test the V16 BRM.
This was the intense life Moss drove himself to, restless, urgent, always eager for the next thing, and Gregory was happy to join in. “I went around with Stirling as much for company as anything else,” he says. “He needed company.” It was, though, a complex train of travel arrangements and race entries, and at the end of ’51 Moss asked Gregory to be his manager. No matter that in addition to all of the above Gregory was now organising the London-Brighton run – he accepted.
This was new territory. “It was an experimental year,” says Ken. “He was the first ever professional racing driver, in that his only income was from racing, which made me the first professional racing driver manager. There were no books about it, no history to study.”
With the schedule quartering Europe the new star and his minder were inevitably much together, and it helped that Ken was friendly with Alfred Moss. “That year we spent much time together on the continent. Before me his father was his confidant; eventually he would discuss things with me and I’d discuss them later with Alfred.”
Moss Sr was a redoubtable figure. “He had 15 or 16 dental practices and was a committee member of the Half-Litre Club [the 500 Club’s new title]. He was a source of great support to Stirling.” He later provided offices for Ken and Stirling when the combination of club affairs, business interests and Moss-managing overflowed the previous premises.
“Oh, and we started a burger bar there, too,” Gregory adds casually, memory as sharp as the crease on his shirt. “There was a space downstairs in Alfred’s premises he wasn’t sure what to do with. Hamburger bars were fashionable, so we thought we’d start one, only we thought that as they weren’t made of ham, we’d call the place The Beefburger.”
Now I haven’t grilled the OED about this, but it must feel pretty good to think you’ve enriched the language…
Ken Gregory and Alfred Neubauer
Gregory’s relationship with Alfred became crucial to the Moss story in late 1953, apart from anything else because through a packed season the Boy Wonder was flitting bat-like across continents and often incommunicado, whereas his father was normally contactable. “Things had become so intense,” Ken recalls, “that I could no longer go everywhere with him.”
Ken’s problem was what to give Moss to drive in the new 2½-litre GP formula. No British make was ready to step up, and with Moss spurning Ferrari (after flying to Bari at Il Commendatore’s behest two years before only to find there was no car for him) only Maserati and Mercedes-Benz looked like serious options.
With supreme confidence Gregory acted, without telling Moss: “I cabled Uhlenhaut and asked for a meeting.” It’s a measure of Stirling’s international presence that the great Mercedes engineer not only met him but arranged a further encounter with that jovial barrel of a team leader, Alfred Neubauer. “A lovely man. I told him I had the best driver in the world. Bit of a cheek as they had Fangio, but he said ‘we’ve made our choice; we’re not certain Stirling is ready.’ And you can’t argue with Neubauer.” Meanwhile Maserati had signed a full team. It looked gloomy.
When Gregory told Stirling about this as he prepared to cross the Atlantic for a rally and a Bahamian holiday, he simply said, “Ken, I leave it entirely to you.”
“He was very despondent,” Gregory believes. “After the disaster of the Cooper-Alta [with no decent British car on offer Moss’s small team had tried to build its own under Alf Francis] I think he was close to quitting, the way Jenson must have felt last year.”
It seems an odd thing to say of a man who was being lauded as a 1950s prototype superstar, winning race after race and always in the society papers as well as the racing comics.
“But don’t forget,” Gregory points out, “that at, for example, the Daily Express Trophy meeting Stirling was driving in F3, saloons, sports cars and the major race. When you win the others but are driving a heap of trouble in the big race, where do you go? He was fixed on matching Fangio. He was internally driven to be the best, obsessed with doing more and more races to get better and better.”
This is where the three-way trust became important. “Stirling needed to be in a 250F, so I said to Alfred we need to buy one. And if I’d failed at Maserati I’d have gone to Maranello, despite Stirling.
“I flew the next day to Modena to meet Orsi and Alfieri. I wanted them to put Stirling in the team, but they had three Argentinians already and that was a big trade market for them, so they said they’d sell us one. We agreed on 9m lire – £5100. I didn’t know where the money would come from. We didn’t sign anything until 2am (first I had to persuade them to switch the centre throttle to the right) and I rang Alfred at 3am saying ‘I’ve bought it. You have to help find the money’.” Sitting in the Buckinghamshire sunshine Gregory shrugs. “Sometimes in life you have to make big decisions…”
But in 1953 there was five grand to be found. From where? “Stirling’s parents and sister Pat helped, and the rest came from ShellMex BP. Fuel sponsors were one of the main sources of income then.” It’s worth mentioning here that Ken took Pat on her first car rally…
What about Gregory’s own racing? “I’d got so far but the next step was F2. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it wouldn’t have worked while I was working for Moss. From 1954 things moved rapidly. Stirling adapted to the 250F very quickly, and after Marimon was killed in the German GP, Maserati took Stirling into the team officially. They paid for everything and we kept the starting money.” Such was the Moss name that Gregory didn’t exactly have to ‘sell’ him. I ask what sort of finance deal the sports car drives, fitted in among GPs, brought. “Well,” says Ken, “he was a professional driver. There were fees to earn. It wasn’t for pleasure.”
With the Maserati the Moss machine was under way, and the results came at last.
“Then we got the telegram from Neubauer – is Moss engaged for 1955? Well, Stirling was getting on a plane for New York, and he said, ‘Forget it.’ I let him leave and said to Alfred, ‘We can’t let it go.’ He said, ‘Well, you know Stirling. See what the money’s like.’”
Here Gregory interrupts himself: “Anecdote,” he raps out, betraying his three-stripe war service, and tells the tale of an interrupted phone call which Moss wouldn’t return. “I’m not calling a bloody mobile – that’s expensive!”
“So I flew to Stuttgart formulating plans for what I could ask and I was shown into Neubauer’s office. Then he told me the terms; they were more than I’d dared ask.”
However, Gregory knew he needed a sweetener for Moss. “I told Neubauer what would help me enormously would be if you paired Stirling with Fangio at Le Mans, because he idolised Fangio. When I told Stirling about this he said, ‘I told you I didn’t want to drive for them,’ but I said, ‘Wait ’til you hear the money. And you’re driving with Fangio.’ He stopped arguing then.”
Here Ken interjects a tale about Moss going to Hockenheim to try the Mercedes and sign the deal. Picture Post sent reporters to cover it – and Neubauer kidnapped them! “There was a string of Mercedes at the airport but the car with the Picture Post people set off in the other direction. Took most of the afternoon to get to the track.”
“By this time,” he goes on, “Stirling and I had developed complete trust in each other; when he was out of the country I could pass a quote for him, which is why his name was always in the papers. He had marvellous press coverage.” By now everyone knew that face – it was gold dust. “I was looking after publicity and the advertising was starting to come in; Stirling Moss as a brand name was developing.”
More than developing: at the end of ’54, when the Mercedes deal was signed, the trio formed Stirling Moss Ltd, cashing in on what Moss has often said was his biggest asset – his memorable moniker. Gregory is careful to make the point that Moss only endorsed things he approved of – which maximised the power of that memorable visage looking out of a magazine. Sales of Craven A cigarettes soared when The Boy lit up.
SML was a tax-efficient device which allowed Gregory to sign contracts. “If Dad said it was alright, it was alright. I’m not sure he would completely have trusted it if it were just me.” But while Gregory signed contracts, he didn’t fake autographs. “Every fan who wrote got a photo signed by Stirling. He signed them by the hundred.”
After the Mercedes deal the work spiralled. At the same time the pressure of 24-hour life with Moss was telling on Gregory. In his 1959 book, Behind the Scenes of Motor Racing, the memory is clearly fresh: Stirling Moss’s boundless energy, his impatience, his late-night arrivals home were all tiring even to someone with Gregory’s reserves. A genius, but demanding, is the summary. It would take a separate flat and an office assistant to let him shift up a gear alongside Stirling’s superstar life.
There were wider responsibilities for Gregory too: Ken was already close to Peter Collins, nominating him to accompany Moss in the 1955 Targa Florio, which they won. Collins now asked Gregory to be his manager too. “Delightfully vague,” Gregory calls him, laughing cheerfully, “but very different to Stirling. Stirling always arrived on time and expected to finish on time. With Peter you were lucky if he was only an hour late.”
Stirling’s year with Mercedes was memorable, but it didn’t distract Gregory. Having created the Boxing Day meeting at Brands Hatch, where he became a director, he was embroiled in BRSCC affairs, managing two top drivers and running two offices. He had also been appointed by the RAC to become an organiser for the races at Nassau, one of Stirling’s favourite venues. And in case he got bored, Gregory became involved with importing Heinkel bubble cars. “I loved that!” he says, face lighting up. “Something completely outside racing.”
There’s no need here to expand on what Moss achieved after Mercedes with Maserati and Vanwall, but by 1958, when Stirling was interleaving driving for Vanwall and Rob Walker, Gregory’s team now ran so smoothly that, dangerously, he had time on his hands.
“Alfred and I missed running cars, and said ‘why don’t we run a team?’” They bought an F2 Cooper, and again Alfred played banker. “He put up the money but I repaid my half in the first year.” This was where the Meadow Green BRP livery appeared. “We got a lot of stick for that, but it was memorable.”
Green, of course, was Moss’s colour. Ken laughs: “I soon learned how superstitious he was. At the RAC I was able to issue him with Licence Number 7. And he had another rule – no sex two nights before a race!” The colour, if not the shade, was apposite, as Stirling would soon drive for BRP too. But that team’s complex history is for another time.
With Stirling’s stellar success in Cooper and Lotus only increasing, the cruelty of that 1962 day at Goodwood when it all ended was immense. So was the effect on Gregory. Apart from the personal shock, the post-crash workload was huge. “He received 400 letters a day, and the press were desperate to get to him,” Ken recalls. “I eventually sold the rights to a bedside interview for £10,000.” That was made easier as he knew the press from both sides: he’d just become a publisher, taking over a racing magazine and later renaming it Cars & Car Conversions – a bible to a certain generation.
Stirling’s crash meant a new chapter for both. With Moss recovering and tempted to run his own team and Gregory’s air interests thriving, they felt it was time to pursue separate careers. Gregory expanded BRP (with Moss still involved), beating Lotus to full team sponsorship while also making use of his army glider training. “I copied Chapman in buying a Piper Comanche, and formed Gregory Air Taxis.” From the ’50s he was running two flying schools and owned 27 aircraft, working up to HS125 executive jets. “We flew The Beatles, Sinatra, all the names.
We took John and Yoko to Gibraltar for their wedding.” It didn’t make him another Branson. “I made a lot of money and I lost a lot of money,” he says, wryly referring to a bank crisis in the 1970s which brought him back to earth.
Now long retired, he’s on top of today’s F1, debating 2009 with the insight of a man who has played every part in the business. He describes himself as the first manager of the first professional driver: racing for money was hardly new, and there had been managers between the wars too, but the Moss-Gregory pairing took marketing a talent to a new level.
Neither of them would claim their tie-up was perfectly harmonious. Gregory has written “a close friend of Stirling needs to fight him in spirit every inch of the way” and there were, in his words, “strong differences of opinion”. Nowadays they are unlikely to consider sharing a caravan to races as they planned in ’52. Perhaps the links over a dozen years were simply too many and too various to run perfectly. Yet Gregory remains unstinting in praise of “a genius with a slide-rule mind”. It’s Ken, not me, who brings up the old saw about whether Fangio backed off to give Stirling that British Grand Prix win at Aintree. “I don’t know the answer,” he says, prodding the table with a firm finger, “but I do know that Stirling was undoubtedly capable of beating him in sports cars.”
Like The Boy himself, Ken Gregory is still selling Stirling.