The fighter

With a particular disdain for fear, Dave Purley was the bravest of the brave and proved it by surviving a truly horrific F1 shunt

By Rob Widdows

No racing driver has ever survived such a big accident. And it’s unlikely that a grand prix car will ever again be allowed to run flat out into an earth bank faced with unforgiving railway sleepers.

When David Purley crashed at Silverstone in practice for the British Grand Prix, nobody thought he could have survived. The car went from 108mph to a horrifyingly violent halt in just over half a metre, engineers later calculating that the driver had been subjected to deceleration of 179.8g. No human being had ever survived that kind of force. 

But Purley was a very fit man, a former paratrooper, and he did not know the meaning of defeat. As English as Elgar, as British as the Union Jacks that adorned his racing cars, he would have had Pomp and Circumstance on his iPod had such a device existed. As it was, he shouted the banzai call of the paras inside his helmet, especially when keeping his right foot planted where other mortals feared to tread. The phrase ‘balls to the wall’ was invented for him. He was proud to be what he called one of the last of the late-brakers.

On the morning of Friday July 14, 1977, his little team from Bognor Regis, funded by his father’s LEC refrigerator business, was ready for action. First they had to qualify for a grid position, up against all the big guns of the time. Silverstone in 1977 was all about James Hunt and John Watson, but David Purley was not about to be left out of the limelight. The privateers were determined to show their home crowd what they could do. Further along the pitlane a young French-Canadian, making his debut in a McLaren, was out to make an impression as well.

Mike Earle, who ran the team with military precision, is unlikely ever to forget the events of the next few hours. Going into qualifying he had no particular worries, except that they didn’t have a spare car to fall back on in the event of any mechanical failures. There was a second car, back in the workshops at the LEC factory, but there were only eight people in the team and they simply ran out of time to get it ready for Silverstone. On top of this, they were building their own DFV engines, and money was getting tight.

“Otherwise it was a pretty normal day,” remembers Mike, now in the executive suit, a big wheel in sports cars and guiding the career of the youngest ever F3 driver, 16-year-old Max Chilton, “but, you know, it was the British Grand Prix and we all wanted to do the best job we could. The circuit in those days was all about bravery and Brave Dave, as we called him, had plenty of that. So we thought we were in with a chance, felt we could get a result.”

In the first session, running a new engine, they ran into what seemed a fairly small problem. A fuel hose was touching part of the engine and was getting too hot. Eventually it split and a small fire started in the engine bay, Purley pulling off to have it put out by the marshals. In the two hours between sessions there wasn’t time to change the DFV, so they set about cleaning up the mess left by the extinguishers.

“I knew that not having the spare car would come to bite us, and it did,” says Mike Earle. “So we vacuumed out the engine bay, cleaned everything up, checked it all over and put a new nose on for the second session. What we didn’t know then was that the extinguisher powder and the leaking fuel had solidified into a kind of cement inside the throttle slides. The DFV throttle mechanism used a clever system of ball bearings and rollers in the slides, with springs at either end. The powder had got into the little channels under the slides, mixed with fuel and turned into a thick, gloopy sort of paste. Nobody had ever come across this problem before;we were totally unaware of it. David wasn’t really interested in what was going on anyway; he just  wanted to know when the car would be ready to go out again.”

The second qualifying session that July afternoon went well in the early laps. It was warm and dry, the car was on song and the new nose was working well. Purley was running in the top 12, the times steadily coming down, when suddenly he failed to come past the pits. No big deal, perhaps, but then the session was red-flagged and Brian Henton came in and stopped by the LEC pit.

“Brian said: ‘He’s off at Becketts and it’s a big one.’ That’s the first we knew,” remembers Mike. “So we ran to race control and they told us David was trapped in the car. Greg Field, our chief mechanic, grabbed his toolbox and we jumped in the car to get round to Becketts.

There were emergency vehicles and fire engines everywhere. We got out, ran round to where he was and Greg said, ‘Bloody hell!’ He fell straight down on the ground in shock. I could see that the car had been shortened by about two feet and then I saw that the front and rear bars were almost jammed together with David wedged between them, so they couldn’t get his helmet off. I wasn’t in shock, that came later; I just said to the doctor: ‘What do we do?’”

The next 40 minutes saved the life of David Purley. Doctors and marshals worked, quickly and calmly, to stabilise the driver and extricate him from the mangled remains of the LEC.

The strength and integrity of Mike Pilbeam’s chassis had probably saved Purley from being killed on impact with the bank. The car was compressed, almost bent in half, by the sheer forces of the accident but Purley, although in bad shape, was going to survive.

“The doctor told me to keep him interested, to keep him talking,” says Mike. This is clearly a sombre memory even now. “I just talked at him, anything to keep him awake. In a strange way, it was funny, we started an argument.

‘The throttle stuck open,’ David said.

‘Bollocks, you made a mistake.’

‘Bloody throttle stuck open.’

‘You lost it, I saw the skid marks,’ I responded.

‘Bollocks,’ he said. ‘How bad is the car?’

‘Pretty bad.’

‘Will it be ready for Saturday?’

‘If you are, yes!’ I said.”

By now Greg Field and the LEC mechanics were working to dismantle the car, using power hacksaws to remove the rear roll-over bar and the steering rack, which had been pushed back onto the top of the tub. There was banter with the driver they loved, the man who was their hero. They had to keep him talking while the doctors waited to lift him free.

“You screwed up our weekend,” Earle said to Purley. “We were looking forward to the British Grand Prix, weren’t we lads?” “Yeah, you’ve ****** up our weekend,” they said, gritting their teeth.

After a phenomenal effort by the marshals and medics, Purley was taken by ambulance to Northampton General Hospital. Mike Earle went with him. By now he was getting concerned about his driver’s condition. And he had every reason. 

“I couldn’t look at his legs, they were like a child’s guy. Truthfully, I just couldn’t look at them, they were such a mess. In the ambulance David tried to chat up the nurse – typical Purley, telling her she was a pretty girl, over and over. Then he suddenly went downhill, lost a huge amount of blood; he had several fractures to the pelvis, and the blood went everywhere. I was terrified,” says Mike. “I thought he looked like he was going to die and I realised how badly affected I was by the whole thing. I mean, he was the team, he was everything to us. In the days afterwards I was asked to do interviews and I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t talk about it.” Earle looks off into the distance, choked by the memory even now.

Back at Silverstone, the CRP1 had been taken away to be examined by the technical stewards, the accident investigators. They needed to know why a man of Purley’s ability had gone straight on at Becketts, flat-out into the bank at virtually undiminished speed. The rev counter tell-tale was still showing 9000rpm. But dismantling the throttle slides led them to discover that the extinguisher powder, mixed with petrol, had jammed the mechanism open wide on the entry to the corner. Purley had stood on the brakes but he had nowhere to go, stopping from 108mph in less than a metre. Everybody agreed it was a miracle he had survived. 

A report later recommended a new type of fire extinguisher powder be used, and plastic caps were fitted on the ends of the DFV’s throttle slides to protect the moving parts from being contaminated by dust, dirt and sand.

“Mike Pilbeam’s car was very strong,” adds Mike Earle. “He was an excellent engineer and we had used a very expensive system of riveting in the tub which was previously only used in the aircraft industry. These solid rivets were applied by a high-pressure gun and the result was a very strong construction. That helped in the accident, no doubts. There was no fuel spillage, that would have been disastrous.”

In Northampton General Hospital David Purley was making slow and painful progress. Initial examinations revealed a mind-boggling list of injuries, the worst of which were two broken legs, 17 breaks below the knees, five above the knees, six fractures of the pelvis and several broken ribs. When his parents Charlie and Joyce came to visit there was, as so often with Earle and Purley, a moment of black humour.

“The old man came to the hospital with Joyce,” Mike says, smiling now; “and he told her, in typical Charlie style, how to handle the visit. ‘We don’t want any tears, and don’t let him see how upset you are; they say he’s not looking good.’ Then they walked into David’s room and Charlie fainted, keeled over on the floor. A few days later he came to the workshop and told me to get the second car built up. ‘That will make the boy feel better,’ he said. ‘He’ll want to get driving again.’ He was just so proud of David, told anyone who’d listen what a fantastic driver he was. He knew nothing about racing but he’d tell the paddock, ‘My boy, he’s bloody good, you know.’ ”

The traumatic events of July 14, 1977 left Purley with one leg three inches shorter than the other. He was to spend many months in hospital recovering from the initial injuries. One of his problems was that he was engaged to Gail, a striking blonde who was more than six feet tall. So something simply had to be done about those legs before the wedding.

“He had the worst dress sense of any man who ever lived,” laughs Mike, warming to this part of the story. “He bought some new shoes and got a local cobbler to add three inches to the heel of one of them. Walking around, he said: ‘I’m not bloody going up the aisle like this,’ so I said maybe he should shorten the other leg. ‘Piss off,’ he replied, ‘she’s six feet and one inch tall.’ That was when he decided to go and see a Belgian surgeon who had a technique for re-forming the legs to an equal length.”

Brave Dave spent six gruelling months in that Belgian hospital experiencing unthinkable – and constant – levels of pain. Most men would have failed this test of fortitude, but not this particular one.

“It was,” Mike Earle explains, “an extraordinary process and very, very painful. The surgeon first re-broke the leg, then stretched it with plates and screws, and let it re-calcify. Then he did it again, breaking, stretching and allowing the bones to re-calcify. It was a revolutionary process and could only be carried out on the toughest, fittest kind of person. But David went through it, went to war on it, came out, got married to Gail and got back in a racing car.”

The little team from Bognor took the newly-built CRP2 to Goodwood. It was to be a private day, nobody there but his mates. “He hated testing at the best of times,” laughs Mike, “but he wanted to see if he still had it. So he did an installation lap, came in, and I told him that if he beat his best time at Goodwood then he could stop. Out he went and within three laps he was on it. His seventh lap was quicker than anything he’d done there. When he saw the pit board he didn’t bother with a slow-down lap, he just slammed the brakes on, did a U-turn into the pit road and parked it. I said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He looked at me: ‘You said if I went quicker, I could stop, so I’m stopping.’ And that was that.”

Well, not quite. Purley raced the new CRP2 in 1979 but ground effects were beginning to bite and the car was not on the grand prix pace. So they put it away and bought a Shadow to have a crack at the national-level Aurora F1 series. A top-six finish at Snetterton closed Purley’s career. 

Mike Earle recalls the day: “He raced well, he really did, and I told him so when he came in. But he didn’t get out of the car, just sat there. Then he asked me to push him round the back of the pits to the truck. ‘I can’t get out, Mike,’ he said. ‘My legs are killing me and I don’t want to look like a plonker.’ And that’s when he decided to quit.”

David Purley was born 20 years too late; he should have been racing with the Innes Irelands of this world. He loved to race, he loved his little team – they called him the ex-parrotshooter. It was like being back in the army, taking on the world together. “He didn’t really take much interest in the whole racing business, never read the weekly mags,” explains Mike. “I mean he just loved to race, anybody, anywhere: he would have raced his wheelchair. When we led the grand prix at Zolder in the rain in ’77, holding out on a drying track while the rest stopped for slicks, he asked me afterwards: ‘Who was that bloody bloke in the red car with the red helmet, like a rabbit up my chuff?’ I told him, that was Niki Lauda in the Ferrari...”

Earle’s team found it tough getting sponsorship, too. “Yes, well, that was because he used to ask the sponsors to send a cab to meet us off his private plane from Bognor… His idea of a good sponsor deal was to put his local Bistro Vino sticker on his helmet in return for 40 free dinners.”

As more and more Purley tales come to life, some not suitable here, we are weeping with laughter. And that’s just how the man would have wanted it to be. The day he died, in July 1985, flying aerobatics over Bognor beach, was a black day. We simply thought the bloke would live for ever. And in some ways he has.