Going off the rails

Reflections on The Great Train Robbery… and how it interrupted a promising young driver’s career
Writer Mike Doodson

It is 50 years since the Glasgow-to-London mail train was brought to a halt in a remote part of Buckinghamshire, by the simple subterfuge of placing an old glove over a green signal light, and a gang of villains got away with more than £2.5 million in used banknotes. The attack has gone down in history as The Great Train Robbery, commemorated in various books and several high-budget motion pictures. But where, you might ask, is the connection with motor racing?

Well, it has been wildly conjectured that Bernie Ecclestone was somehow involved in the affair, a yarn that the man himself, with his wry sense of humour, has been less than strenuous in denying. But the real connection involves the youngest member of the gang, Roy James, whose undoubted talents at the wheel could have led to a professional racing career. Perhaps inevitably, James’s crime would catch up with him, leading to a lengthy spell in the slammer. Though perhaps not on quite the same glamorous level as Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie & Clyde fame), Roy ‘The Weasel’ James is best remembered now as our country’s most celebrated getaway driver.

James came from a broken south London family, and on leaving school was apprenticed to a silversmith while also committing burglaries, stealing cars and getting involved in gang crime. Fascinated by motor racing from an early age, he once ‘lifted’ a Jaguar belonging to Mike Hawthorn from its parking spot directly in front of the Steering Wheel Club. He began modifying Jaguar saloons for use as getaway vehicles, then took up karting in the early days of the sport. It would appear he went to ingenious lengths to fund his karting, including the heist of valuable jewellery from a wealthy English woman whom he tracked all the way to Monaco, where he broke into her hotel room. His thieving inevitably earned him short spells in prison.

The first racing car he bought was the Formula Junior Brabham that Denny Hulme had driven to victory at the Brands Hatch meeting on Boxing Day in 1962. Denny would later tell me how surprised he and designer Ron Tauranac had been when this unknown would-be racer showed up at the factory and paid with a briefcase full of folding money. There’s a gloriously pedantic internet thread in which grown men argue over whether the prototype chassis was a Brabham BT2 or a BT6, but perhaps the best story is the one about the car finding its way to New Zealand, where customs officers discovered it had once been owned by the notorious train robber and insisted on cutting the ends off the chassis tubes in case there were any rolled-up bank notes hidden inside.

As an avid racing fan, I was aware of Roy James from stories in Motoring News, which reported his acquisition of the Brabham. My first contact with him was at Oulton Park, where I was marshalling at the first Formula Junior round of 1963. Early on, while leading, he arrived sideways at Knickerbrook, where I was handling the flags, and crashed into the undergrowth. We dashed over to check him out. I had already spoken to him in the paddock that morning, a slip of a man, 27 years old, with crew cut and a distinctively cockney accent. He got away unhurt from the afternoon shunt, seemingly relaxed.

James was clearly a fast learner, because although he crashed in that first race, and again at Goodwood a week later, he quickly got the hang of Formula Junior (the equivalent of today’s F3). Despite competing against semi-professionals, some of them in factory-backed cars, he won eight of the 14 races he contested in 1963, with three further podium appearances. He even won his final race of the season, at Cadwell Park just 10 days after the robbery, before disappearing from the scene.

It now seems that James acquired his ‘sponsorship’ after helping to knock over a payroll truck near Heathrow Airport in 1962, when he drove one of the two getaway Jaguars. Then between races during the summer of ’63, he and some criminal friends finalised plans for the caper that would put them all into the history books, and most of them into jail.

In fact The Great Train Robbery was an immaculately planned operation that was built on inside information and split-second timing, not to mention the boldness of a military raid.

The gang consisted of a dozen or so men, each with a fixed task that had been practised in advance. The only serious snag? Having fixed the trackside signals, forcing the train to stop, the ex-train driver they had suborned into assisting them was unable to move it back to the cutting, where they had Land Rovers waiting. They tried to persuade train driver Jack Mills to reverse his locomotive, but he was savagely bludgeoned in the process. The ‘high value’ carriage was targeted, but none of the Post Office staff there was hurt. In all, more than £2.5 million was stolen. The bulk of the haul was in £1 and £5 notes, none of it traceable because it was old money being returned to London to be salvaged.

In a clever plan that would protect them from roadblocks and house searches, the gang went to ground at a specially prepared farmhouse nearby. By the time they surfaced a few days later, the men had become careless about following their plans. When the police eventually stumbled across the farm, they found several fingerprints. One was on a saucer Roy James had handled when he put it out with milk for the farm cats.

The search for the gang was front-page news, even though at first the police were drawing blanks. Then, at the end of August, after the discovery of the saucer fingerprints, the name of Roy James hit the headlines. I will never forget the thrill of seeing a lunchtime newspaper poster in Manchester, where I was articled to a firm of chartered accountants: “Cops track the weasel racer.” Inside, according to an excitable hack, Scotland Yard was looking for James, dubbed (much to his distaste) ‘The Weasel’, and he was described as a racing driver.

My respect for The Force’s deductive powers took a dive here, for only that morning, in the columns of Motoring News, I had seen James’s name among the entries for the FJ race that would be supporting Sunday’s Tourist Trophy at Goodwood. The news must eventually have got through to plod, who arrived at the circuit with bells ringing on their official-issue Wolseleys. James had been tipped off and passed them in the opposite direction aboard his modified Jaguar, towing his racing car on a trailer.

It would not be until December that the law caught up with him, somewhere in London.

He was attempting to escape over the frosty rooftops, clad in his underwear and carrying a briefcase containing £12,000 in used notes.

One could only admire the chutzpah of his lawyer, who claimed something about his client having no connection with the robbery and that he’d be able to explain the completely innocent circumstances of his arrest.

The jury didn’t swallow a word. In assessing the appropriate punishment, the judge undoubtedly put a great deal of weight on injuries suffered by the train driver, who had made only a halting recovery. Most of the nine in the dock were handed 30-year sentences, a verdict that seemed disproportionate, even for the times. Condign punishment or an act of savage retribution? It is hard, now, not to see it as harsh. Perhaps the judge was infuriated by the fact that the police had been made to look foolish and that very little of the stolen money – none of it insured – was ever recovered.

A couple of the robbers (Ronnie Biggs and Charles Wilson) subsequently escaped from jail, but not James. He was banged up for eight months in solitary, just in case he, too, attempted to go over the wall. Among the publications he was allowed to receive in Wormwood Scrubs was Motoring News, where I was now employed, and for a while he corresponded (he remembered that Oulton Park encounter). His letters, written in beautiful copperplate script, were heartbreaking to read. Conditions in prison were dire, and he was acutely aware that an example was being made of him for a physical assault in which he had played no part. At one stage he was even put in a cell with a bricked-up window.

Only his fascination with racing, and a vague hope of returning to competition, sustained him. In 1975, after 11 horrible years, he was released on parole. Brands Hatch boss John Webb then came on the scene: he saw the publicity benefits of assisting the return to racing of a famous thief who’d served his debt to society. Thus it was that Webb arranged for James, now in his late thirties, to do some Formula Ford racing.

Perhaps James was rusty, or maybe just too old, for he seemed to have lost some of that early sparkle. In one FF race at Mallory Park, where he had qualified on the front row, he managed to crash at the first corner, taking out joint championship leader James Weaver and a very annoyed Nigel Mansell.

It was around this time, by pure chance, that I met James for the second time.

It happened in Soho, where I was sheltering from a rainstorm under the canopy of a jewellery shop, when the door opened and Roy walked out. We instantly recognised one another and had time for a friendly discussion about his revived career.

The racing results did not improve, though, and neither did James’s return to life outside jail. He had a bad crash in a Formula Atlantic car, breaking his leg, and moved briefly to Spain after marrying a much younger woman. Back in the UK, he was lucky to be acquitted of his involvement in a scheme to import gold without paying the excise duty. The marriage went wrong, he was violent towards his wife and he took a firearm to his father-in-law, whom he shot three times. He was sentenced to six years, eventually being released early on medical grounds. He underwent heart surgery but died soon after in 1997, at the age of 61.

As we know, the name of Bernie Ecclestone is sometimes put forward as being the mysterious ‘Mister Big’ behind the Great Train Robbery. Bernie himself enjoys winding up inexperienced journalists by hinting that he might indeed have been involved. Some years ago it was left to an interviewer from The Independent to put an end to the tosh. “There wasn’t enough money on that train,” quipped Mr E.

“I’ll tell you where that [rumour] came from. Roy James, the guy who drove the getaway car, had been a racing driver. That’s why they wanted him in the getaway car. Anyway, Roy was very friendly with Graham Hill, and when he came out of prison he asked me for a job. I owned Brabham at the time, but I wasn’t going to let him drive for me. Instead, I gave him a trophy to make, because he’d also been a silversmith and goldsmith.”

That trophy (awarded to the season’s best F1 race promoter) is surely the most hideous in all of motor racing. But at least it serves as a reminder of a life that might have been so different if it hadn’t gone so wrong. “That’s still the trophy we give to the promoters every year,” Bernie told The Indie. “He made it. The recipients don’t realise that.”