David Purley

Born:
26th January 1945
Bognor Regis, West Sussex
Died:
2nd July 1985 (Aged 40)
off Bognor Regis, West Sussex, aircraft accident
Nationality:
British
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

David Purley may not have been among the quickest of his generation, but he was an undoubted star. Brave, foolhardy even, he was awarded the George Medal for his attempts to save Roger Williamson. He died while stunt flying over his home town as he had lived life – staring danger in the face.

Background and early racing career

The heir to Bognor’s Lec Refrigeration Company, Purley was a former paratrooper who survived his ‘chute failing to open fully during his first jump. That escape set the tone for a daredevil life.

Friendship with fellow Sussex man Derek Bell led Purley to race an AC Cobra in 1968 although his season ended with a heavy accident at Brands Hatch. That prompted a switch to a GT Chevron B8 for 1969 and single-seaters soon followed. He was successful on the most fearsome tracks – winning the Formula 3 race on Belgium’s dangerous Chimay road course in successive years from 1970 to 1972.

Formula 2 with a private March 722-Ford was his main focus in 1972. He qualified on pole position for a British Championship race at Oulton Park and was third at Pau although poor reliability prevented further results.

Formula 1 privateer

A true privateer, he graduated to Formula 1 in 1973 with a hired March 731-Ford while also racing in Atlantics. His second Grand Prix start at Zandvoort was interrupted when Williamson crashed and was trapped underneath his burning car. With marshals ill-equipped and looking on, Purley stopped and fought to save his friend in vain. Purley was awarded Britain’s highest accolade for civilian bravery – the George Medal.

He returned to F2 in 1974 with Hong Kong businessman Bob Harper’s March 742-BMW. Things improved when they switched to a Chevron B27 and Purley finished second at Salzburgring, Rouen-les-Essarts (a non-championship race) and Enna-Pergusa to clinch fifth in the 1974 standings.

The next two seasons were spent driving the unique Chevron B30-Cosworth in British Formula 5000. The renamed ShellSport British Group Eight series also allowed F1 machinery in 1976 and resulted in the one major championship title of Purley’s career.

Emboldened by that success, Purley returned to the F1 World Championship in 1977 with the Mike Pilbeam-designed Lec CRP1-Ford. Rain briefly turned the form book on its head during that year’s Belgian GP at Zolder with Purley leading for less than a lap as faster cars pitted. However, he crashed while pre-qualifying for the British GP a month later and the Lec hit the barriers at 108mph with Purley suffering severe leg, pelvic and spinal injuries.

Subsequent career

The wreckage can be seen in the Donington museum and is witness to an amazing escape for he recovered to race again in the 1979 British F1 Championship. His last race was a national sports car event at Brands Hatch in 1984. With racing ever more expensive, Purley was increasingly finding his thrills by stunt flying with a Pitts Special. It was in this endeavour in which his luck deserted him and he inexplicably crashed off the coast at Bognor Regis.

David Purley was a larger-than-life hero pure and simple.

Championship seasons