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#LockdownChallenge: A Grand Day Out At The 1959 Tourist Trophy

By John Harbottle

The latest showing for DSC’s Lockdown Challenge came with astonishingly apt timing.

This story was always going to be posted this morning, but the news that Sir Stirling Moss had passed away yesterday just makes this all the more relevant.

Read on from the perspective of a then young fan, his first-hand experience at one of Stirling’s most storied victories, the 1959 Tourist Trophy at Goodwood.

The pictures are all copyright to the author John Harbottle – none have been published before.

I was born in 1940 and brought up on Tyneside, which in the 1950s was about as far as you could get in Britain from a motor racing circuit with the possible exception of Cornwall. Nevertheless, from the age of about 13, I became obsessed with motor sport. By the time I reached the age of eighteen, at the end of 1958, I was fairly well informed on the world of motor racing and desperate to start watching it at first hand.

No other member of my family had the faintest interest in motor racing. It was clear that if I was to follow my enthusiasm I would have to get my own transport, and this I did in 1959. My car was a 1935 Hillman Aero Minx, a very pretty but rather slow pseudo-sporting tourer based on the very ordinary Hillman Minx saloon. One recently sold at auction for £18,000 but mine was cheaper: £115, although admittedly it was not in particularly good condition.

In those days what we now call endurance racing was known as sports car racing and enjoyed a status at least equal to that of Formula 1. There was a Manufacturers’ Championship for the most successful constructor but no drivers’ championship. By 1959 there was a 3-litre capacity limit and, effectively, three manufacturers actively engaged – Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin. I think it is coincidental that these are the manufacturers currently supporting GTE Pro: in those days Porsche was a niche manufacturer of rather esoteric small-capacity sports cars which appealed to a discerning minority, and Ferrari was largely a constructor of racing cars who were only beginning to dabble in the idea of selling very expensive (and by all accounts fairly unreliable) road cars. Only Aston Martin occupied a place in the market roughly comparable to where they are today – makers of exclusive GT cars for a wealthy clientele.

Aston Martin won the 1959 Le Mans 24 hours, leaving the championship finely balanced. The final round was to be the 6-hour Tourist Trophy at Goodwood on 5th September. I determined that this would be my first international motor race!

From Northumberland I drove down to Lincolnshire to collect my friend Ramsay (where are you now?) and the next day, Friday the 4th September, we drove from there to Goodwood. The journey, in the Aero Minx, must have been fairly wearing, including the A1, a traverse of London, and then the drive down through Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex. All I can remember about it is that the weather was gorgeous and that for the last few miles we folded the windscreen down and drove with our heads in the slipstream to keep cool. We were probably doing about 40 miles an hour but it felt like 90! We went into Chichester to eat and then camped on a patch of vacant ground near the circuit.

I think the race started at midday, but there were no supporting races and no warmup, or even a parade lap or buildup of any kind. We installed ourselves at Lavant Corner and the first we saw of the race cars was when they came round on lap 1 of the race. My overwhelming impression, oddly, was of the colour they presented. 1950s motor racing, like World War Two, appeared to take place entirely in black and white. Magazine pictures, TV and the rare cinema newsreel that bothered to show it were all monochrome. I knew Ferraris were red and Aston Martins were green but somehow that hadn’t prepared me for the colourful sight they presented when viewed in real life.

I cannot remember the precise mathematics but essentially Aston had to win the race and make sure that no Ferrari finished higher than third, to take the title. Hence each maker came to Goodwood with a full team of three cars. It was normal in those days for the star drivers of the time to be fully involved in endurance racing and they were all there: Stirling Moss, Roy Salvadori, Maurice Trintignant for Aston, Tony Brooks, Phil Hill and newcomer Dan Gurney in the glorious Ferrari Testa Rossas. The third manufacturer, Porsche, were ostensibly only competing in the 1600cc class, but even they employed Jo Bonnier, who had won that year’s Dutch Grand Prix for BRM, and von Trips, about to embark on a short-lived but stellar career in F1 with Ferrari. Jack Brabham, who was leading the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, had no regular sports car drive but at Goodwood he drove a Cooper entered by John Coombs.

But the outstanding driver, at the Tourist Trophy as everywhere else, was Stirling Moss. He really towered over his contemporaries in a way that I do not believe any driver can claim today. It doesn’t matter what car he was driving, or in what category – F1, Sports cars or even touring cars, he was head and shoulders above them all. And sure enough, as they came round on the first lap there he was, well ahead and adding to his lead with every minute of the race. In fact, Astons were in places one and two and third place was held by a 2-litre Lotus, driven by . . . Graham Hill, then still only on the verge of the Big Time. The Ferraris were nowhere, and their car number 11, driven by Phil Hill, retired on the first lap.

Pit stops were fewer and farther between in those days than they are today – the first stop for Moss’s Aston number 1 came after an hour, at which point the car enjoyed a significant lead over the number 2 car, driven by Jack Fairman and Carrol Shelby, then best known for finishing first at Le Mans with Roy Salvadori but soon to make his name on a larger stage. Moss handed over to co-driver Salvadori, who continued to add to their lead until, at 2.35 according to Bill Boddy in Motor Sport, he came in to refuel again and hand back to Moss. Below is my photograph of Salvadori in the ill-fated car shortly before the pitstop.

By that time we had started to walk round the circuit and were approaching the pits area when a dense cloud of smoke appeared over the pits and rapidly filled the sky. It emerged via the PA that a mechanic had spilt fuel on the leading car which had gone up in flames. My photo is below – for more intimate pictures google “Goodwood Aston Martin pits fire 1959” and look at Images. It was an iconic happening.

This changed the complexion of the race completely. Second place had been held by the no2 Aston Martin of Fairman and Shelby, which now assumed a relatively slim lead. Graham Hill’s Lotus, true to form, had hit trouble sometime earlier and second place was now taken by the 1600cc Porsche of Bonnier and von Trips. The two surviving Testa Rossas, which had been floundering among the 1100cc Lotuses and Lolas in the early laps, were settling down and at least showing some reliability, with the result that the no 10 car, driven by Gendebien, was now in third place.

In those days you could switch drivers between cars of the same team. It was a practice that survived the 70s (remember Steve McQueen) and into the Group C era, when Jaguar could ensure that Derek Warwick won the drivers’ championship by holding him in the pits at the start and then slotting him into whichever of the team cars was doing best at the first driver change. So the no 2 Aston was duly called in and Moss dropped into its cockpit. That put the Porsche into the lead but it was short-lived. Before long the Aston Martin was back in front and there it stayed for the rest of the race. All the excitement took place behind.

The final laps of the race were exciting, at least for the plummy-voiced commentator and us spectators. For most of the second half of the race the Porsche held what looked like a secure, and slightly miraculous, second place, but as time went by it became apparent that the number 10 Ferrari was very gradually closing the gap. Ferrari’s number one driver in 1959 was Tony Brooks. In his own car, number 9, he seemed thoroughly unhappy (although his co-driver, Dan Gurney, threw the car around with spectacular abandon and won our private acclaim as Man of the Match) but at the final pitstops he was put into the third-place Gendebien car and sent out to save the day for the Prancing Horse. Below is my photograph of Brooks earlier in the race in car no 9. I was, of course, a newcomer to the art of photographing racing cars and made the elementary mistake of trying to pan the passing cars at the fastest part of the circuit. Hence the fact that, in this case, I nearly missed altogether.

Brooks closed the gap steadily, meticulously followed by us on our watches. As we moved into the last 20 minutes of the race excitement rose all around the circuit, stimulated by the race commentary which drew our attention to the fact that the Sports Car Championship was on the line.

Unfortunately, there were two reasons why we should have been less excited than we were:

(1) If the Ferrari had finished second, its team would have been equal on points with Aston Martin, as the commentator kept telling us. What he kept to himself (or perhaps didn’t know?) was that in that case the championship would have been decided in favour of the team with the greatest number of race wins. This was Aston Martin, who would then have had 3 wins to Ferrari’s 2, but why spoil a good story?

(2) As Brooks hunted down the Porsche he gave every appearance of a man on a very serious mission. What none of us knew until we read the race reports later was that he had been misreading his pit signals and thought he was ahead of the Porsche and holding second place. It was only on the last two laps or so, when he could see the silver car ahead of him, that he realised his mistake and really started trying – too late!

So Aston Martin won the race and the championship and we all went home in a euphoric state of patriotic pride which I don’t think I felt again to the same extent until le Mans ‘88.

One more photograph, which I took at the beginning of Lavant Straight where the cars were still travelling quite slowly. It is of Ron Flockhart in the last D-type Jaguar to race in a World Championship event. The Jaguar factory had withdrawn their works team at the end of 1956 but Ecurie Ecosse won the Le Mans 24 hours with D-types in 1956 and 1957, Flockhart the lead driver on each occasion.

In this event, the car was not at home on the aerodrome circuit and the short-stroke 3-litre version of the XK engine was never very happy, but it finished in a decent 7th place overall and I’m very glad that I was there to see it! We had to wait another 26 years to see another competitive Jaguar running in the premier class.

That race was also Aston Martin’s swansong at the top level. The factory team was wound up after it and despite a number of credit-worthy efforts at various times over the ensuing 60 years, we are still waiting to see them come back with a car capable of outright wins in prototype racing, a possibility that has, alas, just become more remote than ever. However, that race was the beginning of one good thing: it kindled my enthusiasm for endurance racing, an enthusiasm that has never waned and is as strong in my 80th year as it has ever been.