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.
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.