David Purley, GM: 'As large a character as motor racing has known'
David Purley embodied motor sport's great qualities as he lived life to the full, writes Mike Lawrence. The former Army Officer bravely tried to save Roger Williamson from a burning wreckage, and endured agony of his own following an immense crash at Silverstone
When David Purley’s Pitts Special crashed into the sea off Bognor Regis on July 2nd, motor racing lost one of its most popular drivers. The widespread shock and grief experienced by so many was not because David Purley was a great driver, he was not though he was probably a better one than his results suggest, but because David embodied so many of the qualities which we like to think our sport represents.
Some bemoan the lack of “characters” in the sport these days yet Purley was as large a character as motor racing has known. When the news of his death came, so many of us began recalling our fund of “Purley stories” – grief had not hit us at first, none of us seriously thought he’d make old bones but all of us secretly felt he was indestructible. Remembering him through many hilarious anecdotes seemed natural, he was so full of life, he lived life so much to the full, that it was natural to recall him with his ready smile and mischievous giggle. He was the sort of man that most of us would like to have been.
David was born in 1946, the only son of Charlie and Joyce Purley. Charlie is a man of little formal education who began his business career by buying and selling crates of fish which he trundled around on his bicycle. Eventually he turned a back street electrical repair shop into the giant Lec Refrigeration business of which David eventually became a director.
A wealthy father is no handicap for a racing driver yet David rebelled against what could have been an easy path through the family business he was too much a chip off the old block for that. In later years, David was to accept family help with his racing and was to join the company, but first he had to demonstrate his own independence.
Purley was quick, but unsympathetic to his machinery, and it was a year of blow-ups rather than results.
When he was 16, he had his first unfortunate encounter with mechanical failure. He was at a mixed boarding school and twice his alarm clock failed to go off… When he twice was discovered where he ought not to have been, he was expelled. He was not, anyway, cut out for the academic life.
At first he went to work for Lec, as the company pilot, but a blazing row with his father saw him leave after only nine months. Always one for an exciting life and possessed with a good head for heights, he joined a demolition gang as a “top man” working on tall buildings in London, a pretty dangerous job in winter when ice covered the bricks.
Eventually his gang broke up and he left. Driving home he was passing by an Army recruiting office, thought it seemed like a good idea, went in and signed for three years with the Coldstream Guards. His mother was not amused when she found out.
Although he was keen to see action as quickly as possible, he accepted a Commission and after two years at Sandhurst was posted to Aden with the First Parachute Battalion. During his training, he’d survived the first of a number of close shaves when his parachute became tangled with that of his instructor. For 90 seconds he descended to earth sitting on top of his instructor’s ‘chute, holding on to the air escape hole. “It was a heavy landing,” he would say later.
Service in Aden was no picnic, it might have been a small trouble spot but it was a nasty one and Purley received his full quota of mortars, grenades and machine gun fire. “Under those circumstances, you’ve got to have a certain lack of imagination. It’s no good being highly sensitive when you’re firing or being fired on. There were times when I’ve never been so frightened in my life. What happened out there, what I did and what I saw, has never worried me, but it made me hard. I won’t be pushed around by anyone.” Purley rarely spoke of his periods in action, but he was certainly at the sharp end of things. When later he was hailed as a hero for his attempt to save the life of Roger Williamson, his army days helped him keep his sense of perspective. He had his own ideas about heroism.
In 1968, while still in the army, David was introduced to motor racing by his neighbour, Derek Bell. With a cousin, Derek Ridler, he shared an AC Cobra but by his own admission was a very hairy driver and he eventually wrote off the car at Brands Hatch. Motor racing had got into his blood, however, and the following year he was out with a Chevron B8. Purley was quick, but unsympathetic to his machinery, and it was a year of blow-ups rather than results.
“Throughout my racing career, I always drove faster when I was slightly nervous”
At the end of 1969 he left the army and set up his own F3 team with two mechanics. It was a time for learning and his results were uneven yet, starting in 1970, he scored a notable hat-trick of wins on the Chimay circuit in Belgium. David was not one of those drivers who are motivated by the thought of becoming World Champion, rather he sought personal challenges and responded to them and his attitude to Chimay indicates why, by comparison, he was often comparatively lacklustre on other circuits.
“Chimay was a very fast, dangerous, circuit which used to get my adrenalin going. Throughout my racing career, I always drove faster when I was slightly nervous: at Chimay, the Nürburgring, at Rouen. It gave an edge to my driving. For this reason I was never particularly quick in practice unless we’d had problems and I had to screw myself up to get a time in the last few minutes of a session.”
The other side of this coin came at Oulton Park on Good Friday 1972. In his F2 debut, he claimed pole position though his race lasted only 200 yards before his throttle cable broke (the race was won by Niki Lauda in heavy rain). David might have been a better F2 driver had he had problems in qualifying but, by setting pole ahead of a small and largely mediocre field, he felt he had cracked F2 on his first attempt and so the challenge was no longer there. His only creditable F2 finish that year was third place at Pau -but then that is a tricky circuit and it was raining hard. His other achievement that year was his third Chimay F3 win.
David began the season on pole but then floundered. He was lacking direction but a chance meeting with Mike Earle, another member of the Bognor Regis motor racing tribe, led to Mike becoming David’s team manager. Mike was able to bring not only experience but also a strong personality – Purley hated sycophants – and the two men maintained not only an enduring professional relationship but also friendship.
For 1973, a March 73B was bought for an assault on the two major British Formula Atlantic Championships and a deal was made with March for an occasional rent-a-drive run in F1. Purley had a good season in Atlantic and by the time he began to drive in the occasional GP was leading both Championships. As it turned out, he finally finished runner-up to Colin Vandervell in the Yellow Pages series and retired while leading the final BP round, thus handing the title to John Nicholson.
His entry into F1 was hardly sensational but he managed to qualify for Monaco and, until he crashed his car and had to scratch, was the quickest March driver, with the exception of Hunt, during practice at Silverstone. The third Grand Prix he entered was the Zandvoort race.
In 1973 two British racing drivers, Mike Hailwood and David Purley, were awarded George Medals. Hailwood had gone to the aid of Clay Regazzoni in South Africa and Purley tried vainly to save Roger Williamson trapped under his burning March. The George Medal is a rare honour and both men earned it but the difference was that Purley’s attempt was televised. Even before he received his honour David was dubbed a “hero” by the mass media while Hailwood’s achievement received relatively little attention.
“To be honest,” Purley was to say later, ‘I think it ruined my motor racing career because afterwards I was never the racing driver but always the chap who won the George Medal. I looked on it as a great honour but, remember, I’d been in the Army and half my brother officers and the men I’d been serving with had been decorated for gallantry. I’d daily rubbed shoulders with men who had received similar awards.”
In my book David was a hero, but the depths of his courage did not emerge until later when he set himself the task of walking normally again after surviving the heaviest impact which any human being has ever, survived. The incident at Zandvoort was a public example of his bravery and his instinctive caring for a fellow human being in trouble and, as such, demonstrates some of the qualities which made David Purley such an attractive personality. He showed bravery at Zandvoort” but it was nothing compared with the courage he was later to demonstrate privately over a long period of time.
Just a week after Zandvoort came the German GP at the Nürburgring. David had to face both the pressure of publicity and coming to terms with himself as a driver. When he arrived at the circuit, the officials were at pains to drive him around to show him all the safety arrangements, particularly the fire-fighting arrangements. They meant well but had missed the point. Purley had not suddenly become a campaigner for circuit safety.
In practice for the race, Purley was extremely slow, nearly 30 sec slower than George Follmer’s Shadow which was in penultimate place. Technically he could have been excluded under the 110% rule but, unbeknown to him, all the other drivers had signed a petition which urged the organisers to allow him to start regardless of his time. Each of them knew just how much he needed the race. Grand Prix drivers are often accused of selfishness but this was an example of them recognising the personal need of a fellow professional.
“That performance at Nurburgring was as equally brave as his rescue attempt at Zandvoort”
David began the race slowly but got quicker and quicker until he was back in his rhythm. That performance was, in its own way, as equally brave as his rescue attempt at Zandvoort.
What was to be his last F1 race for the time being was at Monza where he managed to finish ninth.
1974 saw Purley racing March and Chevron cars in F2 for Bob Harper, under the team managership of Mike Earle. The European F2 Championship had a class field that year including Depailler, Jabouille, Pryce, Stuck, Laffite and Tambay and with second places at Rouen, Salzburgring and Enna, Purley claimed fifth in the series. It wasn’t a sensational season but it showed that he was on the right lines again.
There had been some discussion about Bob Harper moving into F1 for 1975 but when Harper decided it was not for him, Purley formed his own team to run in F5000 with a Chevron B30 powered by one of the Cosworth-developed 3.4-litre Ford V6 engines. The engine initially lacked reliability and Purley was never any great shakes as a test driver so the car remained well below its potential. David was not terribly interested in motor racing except as a personal challenge, he could never discipline himself enough to pound around a circuit systematically honing a car. That 1975 season produced two wins and fifth place in the Championship.
During the winter of 1975/76 while David was in Australia Mike Earle and the Lec team, greatly assisted by the development expertise of Derek Bell, set about transforming the Chevron. When David returned he found himself behind the wheel of a completely different motor car and proceeded to walk away with the 1976 ShellSport Gp 8 Championship taking six wins, a second, two fourths and a fifth. At last he was showing his true potential.
Midway through what was to be his last full season of racing, the decision was made to go into F1. Charlie Purley enthusiastically underwrote his son’s plans and in return the car was named for him as the Lec CRP 1. Building his own car was typical of David for he could equally have bought his way into one of the lesser F1 teams. He had around him, though, a team he liked and trusted, one whose strength and loyalty had been proven – it was like being back in the army and leading a platoon where every man watched out for his comrades. Former BRM designer, Mike Pilbeam, was given the task of designing “a simple, straightforward car for simple straightforward people” and it was Mike’s care ‘in stressing the car which eventually saved David’s life.
In F1 terms, the Lec team was run on a shoe-string but the car was always well presented and Purley was driving well even if he was at the back of the grid. The early Grands Prix outside of Europe were given a miss and the team joined the F1 circus for the Spanish race for which Purley failed to qualify. He was so far off the pace that Monaco was given a miss but had, in the meantime, taken sixth in the Race of Champions. In Belgium he began to move up the grid, qualifying in 20th place and finishing 13th. In Sweden he was 19th on the grid and was classified 14th at the end. In the French GP he started in 21st slot but crashed on lap four. He had begun to find his position on the grid which all new drivers and teams have to, and if he was not giving Lotus and Ferrari sleepless nights, he was qualifying ahead of up to a dozen other runners. 1977 was a season when there was generally a surfeit of entries.
In the wet / dry race at Zolder, Purley actually led for half a lap before pitting for slick tyres and always later reckoned that he might have won had it kept raining. In truth, though, it was a freak moment of glory. Not knowing that Purley had led the race, Niki Lauda, who believed he had been impeded by him, stormed up at the end with a few choice comments about “rabbits” in F1. David’s pithy response might be translated politely as “Hie thou hither, varlet” – and Niki did. At the next race the Lec appeared with a rabbit painted on the cockpit side.
Given Purley’s previous proven ability to qualify his car, not to mention his performance at Zolder, it was odd that he was required to take part in a pre-qualification session for the British GP at Silverstone but one supposes the reasoning was that Lec was a private team so David had first to fight for right to officially practise.
Mike Earle: “In the first session there’d been a small electrical fire which a marshal had promptly doused. By the time we got the car back to the pits, we had 55 minutes to prepare for the second pre-qualifying run.
“Had we had a larger budget he could have switched to a second car which was sitting 95% complete in our workshop. I ordered the team to change the engine but that would have eaten into the second session and David reckoned he needed the full session to set his time. Some extinguisher foam in the throttle slides jammed them open as he approached Becketts and he went straight on and into the barrier.”
“He was in constant all over pain for six months”
It has been calculated that Purley stopped from 110 mph in just 26 inches and suffered deceleration which briefly touched 170 g. The impact stopped his heart but prompt action by a doctor revived him. David was conscious when Mike arrived on the scene and, in shock, began to argue with his team manager about the cause of the accident, and the doctor encouraged Mike to keep on arguing, and therefore interested, while he was cut out of the car. The upshot of the argument was the team would have the second car ready for the next day if David was feeling up to driving but, in fact, he was not expected to survive the 20 mile drive by ambulance to Northampton General Hospital.
He did survive, though in constant all over pain for six months. During the next six months came a gradual easing of the pain and he undertook a couple of Porsche 924 races just to see if he could still do it. His performance suggested that he no longer could but that was not the way in which David Purley was prepared to leave motor racing.
In August 1979, I was privileged to be present at Goodwood when David climbed into his second Lec. It was the first time he’d sat in a single-seater in over two years, his left leg was one and a half inches shorter than his right and the damage to his ankles had been such that he would never be able to run again. Had he got within five seconds of his previous best time, it would have been a marvellous achievement. As it was, within 36 laps he had bettered his previous best time. As soon as he saw the pit board he braked and called the session to a halt. The handful of us watching could not believe it, but to David it was just another challenge successfully overcome.
Purley then raced the Lec and a Shadow DN10 four times in the Aurora Championship, picking up fourth place at Snetterton. For Mike Earle that was the most satisfying result of their long association: “He came back into the pits and the crowd broke into applause. He called for me to push him round the back and help him out. He was in agony but didn’t want to show it.”
David Purley never raced a single-seater again after the end of 1979 though quite recently was in negotiations to run with a team in a Gp A BMW. The family business was no longer prepared to sponsor him, and who can blame it? David tried to get sponsorship but his heart was not really in it, he was too much his own man to go cap in hand for money and had no time for all the bullshit and hype.
In his latter days he did take a greater interest in motor racing as a sport rather than as a personal challenge, he would appear as a judge at meetings and Lec has supported the Racing For Britain Campaign (subscribers can buy Lec products at staff discount rates). The real point is that when he left motor racing, he left it on his own terms.
He was not satisfied by the fact that his left leg was shorter than his right and eventually tracked down a Belgian surgeon who was prepared to undertake an operation to break his left leg, stretch it by a millimetre a day, and then graft in bone to complete the operation. There were two snags, the pain would be greater than anything even Purley had known before, and the operation had never been previously performed on an adult. If it failed, it would leave him a permanent invalid.
David Purley had known the sort of pain which, mercifully, few of us ever experience and he had known it over a long period. He had also known the frustration of wheel- chairs and crutches and had become an active supporter of his local PHAB (Physically Handicapped & Able-Bodied) group. For him to coolly take the decision to spend months in hospital in agony and perhaps never walk again takes a rare brand of courage for he knew what he was letting himself in for.
Months later he was walking again and not only walking but taking part in Enduro motorcycle races and piloting his own Pitts Special bi-plane (registered G-POKE – no comment). When he bought it in early 1981 he said he hoped to make the British aerobatics team but although he was a competent pilot, capable of doing all the stunts we see at air displays and flying competitions, his routines were not tight and disciplined. “I can’t be bothered about that envelope of air you have to stay in to stand a chance in competition,” he told me. Ironically, he also maintained that aerobatics was less dangerous than motor racing.
David Purley was a man of extraordinary courage and was probably a better driver than the record book suggests. Mike Earle is of the opinion that, had he not crashed at Silverstone he was driving so well that his Grand Prix career could have taken off and he might have become a driver in the Regazzoni mould.
He was also a man capable of great kindness, try to take advantage of him and he could be hard as nails but most people who met him simply liked him for his charm, his humour and thoughtfulness. When you were in his company, he made you feel like the most important person in the world.
He loved practical jokes and sometimes played them when being, say, interviewed on radio or just before going on the air in a television studio. I know, once I was in that position when presenting a radio programme, but there was never any malice behind his stunts, you laughed with him or at least tried to keep a straight face during the broadcast and then laughed afterwards.
In his final years he entered his second marriage and he and his wife Gail had a daughter. Although he had settled down and was taking his responsibilities seriously, he still enjoyed stunting his plane and was a familiar sight over the South coast. Not so long ago, he twice survived crash landings but finally his luck ran out.
As a driver, David Purley was never an “ace” nor likely to be, for he was born at the wrong time to be successful with his approach. His attitude, talent, and flamboyance belonged to the Fifties. He did, however, embody so many of the qualities which are representative of motor racing at its best, and whenever great characters of the sport are remembered, one of them will surely be David Purley.