The larger than life sports car racer, Duncan Hamilton

Sports Cars

100 years on from Duncan Hamilton being born, a sportscar ace shadowed by drama

Duncan Hamilton at Goodwood in 1951

Hamilton in the Lago-Talbot at Goodwood in 1951

It is 100 years since Duncan Hamilton was born in Cork, Ireland. A stalwart in the postwar era of motor racing, he won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1953 and came close to repeating the feat the following year.

During a career that lasted the duration of one of motor sport’s golden ages, Hamilton competed against all-time greats, proving his talent in single-seaters and sports cars, and his outstanding pace in the wet.

Spells at the wheel of Maserati, HWM, Ferrari and Jaguar racing cars bore impressive results and memorable victories, as he fought on a level with Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn.

The results alone don’t do justice to his larger-than-life character, however.

In the words of Denis Jenkinson: “He was one who not only went out to meet it, but who embraced it warmly at every opportunity. When people trot out the old cliché ‘they don’t make them like that any more’, it is the Hamiltons of the world for whom the expression was originally coined.”

Drama was never too far away with Hamilton, who mixed a string of good results with several sizeable crashes, including on the occasion he was duelling for the lead of the 1953 Oporto Grand Prix and was taken off the road and straight into a nearby electricity pylon.

Alongside the list of broken bones, he also managed to take out the city’s electricity in the process, making work at the hospital he was transported to exceedingly tough.

En route to the Brighton Speed trials, he saw a Bugatti in the mirror and waved it through, only realising, as it drew level, that it was his very own car that he had been towing. Fortunately, a felled lamppost was the only casualty of that episode.

Hamilton was introduced to motor sport at Brooklands, where he donned overalls and carried a bucket of water to sneak into the pits and offer his services to mechanics.

He flew Supermarine Seafires in the war with the Fleet Air Arm, then turned his focus to the track. His racing career began at Brooklands in Austin Sevens and Bugatti Type 35s, but it was in sports cars where he really etched his name into the history books.

Driving a Nash-Healey in his first Le Mans 24 Hours appearance in 1950, he went on to finish fourth with Tony Rolt, and their partnership continued for the next five years.

Middling years in ’51 and ’52 led to a sixth-place finish and DNF respectively, their Jaguar engine giving up after four hours of racing, but the following season would be a career high for Hamilton.

Duncan Hamilton

Hamilton in his Jaguar C-type en route to Le Mans victory in 1953

The pair secured overall victory in ’53, piloting their Jaguar C-type to win against the sister car of Moss and Peter Walker.

Not even an errant bird on the Mulsanne Straight could prevent Hamilton from soldiering on, his car’s broken windshield and his own broken nose were mere inconveniences.

Despite the damage to both car and its driver, Hamilton surged on and drove the final stint of the race to take the chequered flag and win.

From the archive

They very nearly went on to secure back-to-back victories at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Hamilton’s spirited drive in the rain during the 1954 race almost making up for his D-type’s lack of power compared with the V12-engined Ferrari of Maurice Trintignant and Jose Froilan Gonzalez.

He continued racing at the most challenging event on the racing calendar for another four years, making it nine consecutive seasons at Le Mans.

It wasn’t solely at Le Mans however where he showed his speed and talent behind the wheel of a racing car.

At Silverstone in 1951 for example, his performance in the International Trophy race was sublime, piloting his Lago-Talbot to a podium finish.

Mike Hawthorn and Duncan Hamilton

Mike Hawthorn and Hamilton in Miami, 1956

He handled the monsoon conditions expertly, finishing second to Reg Parnell and almost half a minute clear of Fangio in his Alfa Romeo.

Hamilton’s ability in the wet was notorious. Works Ferrari man Gonzalez regarded Hamilton as ‘the world’s fastest wet weather driver’ at the time.

From the archive

The 1956 Reims 12 Hours with Ivor Bueb was another race in which he piloted a Jaguar to victory, adding yet another feather to the decorated cap.

It was this victory that landed him at Ferrari but not in the manner you might expect. Having ignored team orders from Jaguar to let Mike Hawthorn through to win, he was subsequently sacked after the race. Within hours, he had an agreement with Ferrari.

The partnership didn’t last long, however, and Hamilton returned to race his private Jaguars.

Grand Prix races with HWM in 1952 and ’53 gave him a best result of seventh place at the 1952 Dutch Grand Prix.

Hamilton continued to race up until 1959, when the tragic loss of great friend Hawthorn prompted him to hang up his racing overalls for good and take a step away from the motor racing world.

He converted his passion for competition into sailing as well as opening up his own car dealership that continues to trade today.

He was, by all accounts, a remarkable individual who had a drama and style that set him apart and on the centenary of his birth, his son, Adrian Hamilton paid tribute to his character.

“My dad was one of the last of that extraordinary band of post-war drivers who, hardened by the hostilities, feared nothing and were determined to enjoy every minute of their lives to the maximum,” he said.

“Their enthusiasm for racing was only matched by that for partying afterwards, and we’ll never see their like again. I am fiercely proud of all he achieved and am sure I won’t be alone in raising a glass to him on the centenary of his birth.”