Leslie Johnson was a successful businessman who raced with enthusiasm in single-seaters and sports cars after World War II. He has the dubious distinction of being the first retiree from a world championship Grand Prix but was more successful in endurance events.
Family background and early racing career
The untimely death of his father forced the teenage Johnson to run the family furniture manufacturing company. Funded by success of the business, he began rallying in 1937 and his BMW 328 finished third in the RAC Rally of 1938 and 1939.
He began racing in single-seaters immediately after the war but crashed his ex-Louis Chiron Lago-Talbot T150C in the 1947 Swiss GP. Two spectators who were standing in front of the barrier were killed. He returned for the Belgian GP which he finished in seventh and last position. It was at Spa-Francorchamps that Johnson scored his first international success by winning the 1948 24-hour race with Jock Horsfall and an Aston Martin DB1 in a traditional Ardennes downpour.
English Racing Automobiles
He acquired the ERA concern that year and relocated the company to Dunstable. Johnson took a hands-on approach to developing the new streamlined ERA E-type – racing the car from 1948 although it proved to be an expensive disappointment. He drove it in the 1950 British GP but retired after two laps with his supercharger on fire.
That was his last GP and Johnson was already starring in sports cars. The Aston Martin DB2 he shared with Charles Brackenbury in 1949 retired at Le Mans and finished third in the Spa 24 Hours a fortnight later. Now driving a Jaguar XK120, Johnson was fifth in the 1950 Mille Miglia but lost a certain third place finish in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours with a late transmission failure. He shared a Nash-Healey with Tommy Wisdom in 1952 and enjoyed his best result at Le Mans – finishing third overall to win the 5000cc class.
Ill health and retirement
Johnson had suffered heart complaints since childhood and he collapsed during the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally. The attack forced him to retire from racing and take a quieter life on his Gloucestershire farm. He married the widow of former Aston Martin team-mate Pierre Maréchal but Johnson died in 1959 after another heart attack.