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DSC Bookshelf: Mike Hawthorn, In Period & Remembered

By Paul Tarsey

There’s a slight change to our book reviews this time because I have pulled together four different books from the shelves, all of which deal with the same subject; namely sports car star and Britain’s first World Champion, Mike Hawthorn.

Two of the books are very old, one was written by Hawthorn himself in 1957, chronicling his career up until that point, entitled ‘Challenge Me the Race’ followed by a second just a year later, capitalising on his World Championship success entitled ‘Champion Year’. The other two books are ‘Mon Ami Mate’ by Chris Nixon which highlights the parallel lives of Hawthorn and his friend Peter Collins and ‘Golden Boy’ by Tony Bailey and Paul Skilleter.

You cannot judge Hawthorn by modern day standards. He was an impressionable ten years old at the start of WW2 and was the product of a privileged, though not aristocratic, upbringing.

Indeed, having a father in the motor trade may well have been seen as a tad unacceptable by his fellow students at the exclusive Ardingly College in Sussex. However, he grew up with all the views of a young middle class man of the time, jingoistic, positive, uncompromising and patriotic.

War brings out both the best and the worst in people and the men who were just seven or eight years older than Mike had spent years in combat with fellow Europeans and hence memories were still held in sharp focus.

Death was an everyday feature of life itself and indeed had he been that few years older he would be the personification of the RAF fighter pilot, with a pint of bitter in one hand and his trusty pipe, smoking away in the other. His boyish good looks and devil-may-care attitude made him a hero to many and a role model for the ‘bright young things’ seeking adventure.

Nixon in particular paints a picture which may highlight Hawthorn by the standards of today as boorish. He demonstrated the traits of snobbism which were prevalent at the time and also displayed the kinds of xenophobia and chauvinism which were very prevalent in daily life. This was shown by his referral to Stirling Moss (behind his back) as Moses, his way of highlighting his Jewish ancestry. I interviewed a lifelong Farnham resident a few years ago. She recalled seeing Hawthorn pour a pint of beer over a fan who had the temerity to ask for an autograph when in a local pub, Hawthorn not doing this as an act of aggression, simply because he saw it as funny (and I suppose ‘because he could’). Different days indeed, because that would have been all over social media in modern times, with all the accompanying comments!

His racing career was meteoric, even by today’s pressure-cooker standards. His first ever race was in 1950, driving a race-prepared but roadgoing sixteen year old Riley Imp and twenty one months later he made his debut as a Ferrari works driver at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps in June 1952. Hawthorn deals with this period in his first book, although factually rather than emotionally. It is true that Mike’s father Leslie was perhaps the prototype ‘karting dad’. A sometime-racer himself, he indulged his only child and committed the resources of family’s Tourist Trophy Garage to preparation of much of Mike’s racing machinery, particularly in the early days.

Ghost written by Gordon Wilkins, ‘Challenge Me the Race’ has a somewhat hastily-written feel to it, although Hawthorn is candid about much of his racing career to that point.

It is interesting that he sometimes goes against the public expectation of what a 1950s racing driver was like, even describing his epic battle with Fangio at Reims (referred to throughout with its now-defunct English spelling of Rheims) as ‘boring’, when the rest of the motor racing world had been enthralled by the contest.

The same flavour pervades ‘Champion Year’. Again, this is ghost-written by established journalist Wilkins and has the same feeling that this was a conversation between the two of them and then written up by the ghost writer.

That conversational style works well for Hawthorn and the narrative flows easily. Clearly serious injury and death were part of the world of a racing driver in those days, and Hawthorn deals with this head-on.

In ‘Champion Year’ he talks of the death of team mate Luigi Musso at the French Grand Prix at Reims with an understanding and compassion which we might not have expected. But clearly the Grand Prix accident which had such a huge effect on him was that of Peter Collins and he speaks eloquently and candidly about Pete, stating how much he loved him, at a time when men, particularly red-blooded racing drivers, just didn’t show that sort of emotion. All the books cover this accident; explaining how Ferrari team mates Collins and Hawthorn were chasing Tony Brooks’ Vanwall, having his own day-of-days, with all three Englishmen having a tussle for the lead. Hawthorn explains that he saw the accident unfold in front of him, Collins simply misjudging his entry speed at Nurburgring’s Pflanzgarten and flying off into the trees. ‘Golden Boy’ and ‘Mon Ami Mate’ are more analytical, as they should be, whereas Hawthorn’s story is much more ‘raw’, having been written just a few weeks after the tragedy which had killed his best friend.

‘Champion Year’ was delivered to publishers William Kimber just days before Hawthorn’s fatal road accident and hence he never saw the finished book. (This news came as an unpleasant surprise to a friend of mine who had recently paid a high price for a copy ‘signed by the author’!)

‘Mon Ami Mate’ by the late and much-missed Chris Nixon, deals with the parallel lives of Hawthorn and Collins. The title is from the nickname by which they each addressed one another, a hotchpotch of French and some Cockney English.

Nixon acknowledges that superficially these two men were from similar backgrounds, each being privately educated by well-to-do parents who, themselves, were from more humble origins.

Both had the gadabout attitude of that post WW2 period when everyone was just pleased the war was over and they could get on with life again. Hawthorn was more extrovert and self-aware than Collins, but they formed a strong bond.

It has been said that they were not close away from the circuits, which is more than believable because they lived in different parts of the country and, latterly at least, Collins was madly in love with his new wife Louise, and wanted to spend his time with her, rather than ‘the chaps’.

The other consideration on this assertion is that, even for the top drivers of the period, there was so much more racing. Whilst the modern-day F1 year is longer, with more races than there ever were in the 1950s, even the top drivers were working almost every weekend driving sports cars, saloons, Formula 2 and anything else that would pay the rent. Hence there wasn’t a huge amount of time from socialising away from the track. In addition, sports stars, in general, did not live in the rarefied world they do today and would socialise with their home town chums in the pub when not racing. Nixon’s book goes into all this in a good deal of detail, whilst the second Hawthorn book ‘Champion Year’ deals with things in simpler terms.

Both of the modern books also deal with a fact which was little known at the time. He had been pilloried by the press and much of public opinion for avoiding National Service. This was a requirement of all young men at the time to devote two years of their lives to working in the Army, Air Force or Navy.

Mike was seen as, what would be termed a few years later a ‘draft dodger’ although there may have been health issues which kept him at home, which he may have chosen not to disclose to the public.

Le Mans 1955

We cannot review books about the life of Mike Hawthorn without talking about the disaster at Le Mans in 1955. “Champion Year” makes no mention of it, focussing solely on 1958, but “Challenge me the Race”, written in the first person of course, makes interesting reading in light of reviewing the facts 65 years later.

That Hawthorn was involved is undeniable and both “Golden Boy” and “Mon Ami Mate” take slightly different slants on the causes of the crash. Tony Bailey and Paul Skilleter have written the book very much as fans, and indeed that is a major part of its charm, but they do not point the finger at Hawthorn as the originator of the crash, although they are thorough in their analysis.

Chris Nixon, in “Mon Ami Mate” is more objective in his views and the consensus seems to be that it probably was a racing accident, albeit a dreadful one which cost the lives of 82 people.

There is though a strong argument that it was Hawthorn’s on-track arrogance, pushing through slower cars just prior to a pitstop, which was the blue touch paper for the disaster.

The most interesting words are from Hawthorn himself.

Both of the more modern books talk about Hawthorn breaking down in the pits and saying ‘it is all my fault’ and shouldering the blame, but his account tells the tale as his being so upset by the carnage that he could not carry on.

He had to be persuaded by Duncan Hamilton and team boss Lofty England, to continue. Hawthorn’s account has the feel of having been re-written by his lawyers after the event, as he very clearly distances himself from being part of the cause. This may be untrue and unfair but, in the light of the other accounts, it seems a little out of kilter.

Just what DID happen on 22nd January 1958?

On the 19th January, John Michael ‘Mike’ Hawthorn was guest of honour at the National Sporting Club dinner where somewhat incongruously to our modern-day sensibilities, he was presented with a cocktail cabinet to mark his achievement of becoming World Champion, the last race, in Morroco having been only nine weeks earlier. In typical Hawthorn style, he invited the packed room to come and see him sometime and help him to empty it! Nobody in the room could have known that he had 60 hours left to live.

But there was another side to J.M.Hawthorn. He had been diagnosed with kidney disease and, at the time of his death, this was becoming worse by the month. In the 1950s there were certainly no transplants, Christiaan Barnard’s ground breaking first heart transplant wouldn’t happen until the end of 1967. But there were no dialysis machines either because although Willem Kolff had piloted the concept in the 1930s, the clinical use of dialysis machines was still five years away. The disease caused him to have off-days when he was racing and had even caused blackouts, but he chose not to share the information with anyone but his closest confidants, not least for being afraid of losing both his driving licence and his racing permit.

‘Golden Boy’ was an interesting character in many ways. Maybe because of his illness he found it difficult to establish deep friendships. Much has been made over the years of his closeness to ‘Mon Ami Mate’ Peter Collins and indeed the two were inseparable over a race weekend, particularly when they both drove for Ferrari. Mike had many acquaintances and was very much the centre of attention in the lounge bar of his favourite pub, the Barley Mow at nearby Tilford.

There was also always a cloud which hung over his reputation after the Le Mans disaster in 1955 and neither ‘Mon Ami Mate’ or ‘Golden Boy’ dodge this fact Although exonerated by the public enquiry, many felt that he had been at the very least, partially culpable for the catastrophe. These attacks by the press hurt Mike and he carried this to his death.

One of the must-have attributes any racing driver possess is a competitive spirit and Mike had that by the ton. This probably explained why every trip from his home in Farnham was nearly always a race. Undoubtedly he would be a magnet for every jack-the-lad who wanted to blow off a Grand Prix driver but Mike was rarely the model of self-restraint that maybe he should have been. Which is why perhaps he had such a fine cavalcade of road cars; Riley Sprite, Alfa Romeo 8C and a Lancia Aurelia B20 all came and went, but were frequently supplemented by loan cars from manufacturers like Ferrari and Jaguar. One of which was a Jaguar ‘Mark 1’ 3.4 litre which bore the registration number VDU 881. It was this car in which Hawthorn was to lose his life.

Both modern books detail the day of the accident not only with narrative and eye-witness statements but also by way of photographs and diagrams. On the morning of 22nd January 1959 Mike Hawthorn was chatting on the forecourt of his Tourist Trophy garage in Farnham, Surrey, prior to taking a drive to an appointment in London, 40 miles to the northeast. He had inherited the business from his father and the thriving business was assisted by the reputation of its proprietor, indeed by now the signboard above the garage proclaimed “Mike Hawthorn’s Tourist Trophy Garage”.

As Hawthorn stood on the forecourt a grey Mercedes 300SL slowed down in the road outside. R.R.C. ‘Rob’ Walker, owner and entrant of many Grand Prix cars and patron of Stirling Moss, spied Mike and, making eye contact, gave a large, light-hearted V sign! He then drove off in the direction of Guildford at some speed. This was obviously like a red rag to a bull to the super-competitive Hawthorn and he leapt into his Jaguar to make chase.

Inevitably the reigning world champion closed in on the Mercedes, Rob saying, in his characteristic mahogany tone, “I wasn’t used to a Jaguar catching me like that”! The road between Farnham and Guildford, known as the Hog’s Back, is a long and fairly straight piece of trunk road which has always been a magnet for speed freaks and these two drivers were as mad about speed as anyone. By the time they got to Guildford, the Jaguar was ahead.

In 1959 a by-pass was different from our expectations today. The recently built Guildford by-pass had four lanes, two in each direction, but no barrier between the two directions of traffic and is joined from the Hog’s Back just south of Guildford by a long left-handed bend. The weather in Guildford that lunchtime was horrible. Heavy rain was made all the more unpalatable by strong, gusty winds and the two cars joined the bypass (the A3) with a typical amount of traffic for a weekday lunchtime (bearing in mind we are talking about 1958 levels and not what you would see today).

The next corner on the road was a long right-hand bend and Walker watched in horror as the tail of the Jaguar stepped out as traction was lost by the rear wheels and the car swapped ends. It clipped the tail of a lorry travelling in the opposite direction before heading backwards across a grass verge on the opposite side of the road and colliding side-on with a tree.

The irony of the collision with the tree, which was not a large one, was that it was the only one for several hundred yards, unlike the area which is covered with vegetation today. The damage to VDU 881 was catastrophic though. The impact was between the front and rear doors on the left hand (passenger’s) side and, this was long before seat belts, Hawthorn was thrown about the inside of the car. His lifeless body was found lying across the rear seat.

It can clearly be imagined what a huge story this was. The reigning World Champion, newly retired, was dead. Immediately the stories started that Hawthorn and Walker were racing but Walker denied this for several years, saying it was a coincidence that he had been on the same piece of road at the same time, but the bigger question was just why and how the hugely experienced Hawthorn had lost control.

The Jaguar was, by all accounts, far from standard. Although it was owned by Jaguar Cars Ltd it had been modified at various times in its life. Indeed it had raced at Silverstone, driven by Hawthorn in 1958 and had ‘disappeared’ from its home at the Tourist Trophy Garage for two weeks before the Silverstone race, probably for preparation by Jaguar’s competition department.

Hawthorn was also suspected of having his own modifications done in Farnham, although this would be in contradiction to the way a loan car would normally have been treated. Nonetheless, these petty details may not have worried the cavalier Mike Hawthorn.

The first possibility for the cause of the accident would be human error. Whilst we all like to believe that our heroes are invincible, even the very best do sometimes make mistakes and the wet road and strong, gusty wind may have just caught Mike off guard. In addition, VDU 881 was shod with Dunlop’s new radial tyre. Mike Hawthorn had, of course, used these tyres on the D Type at Le Mans but in very different conditions. Early radials did not share the progressive breakaway of their crossply equivalents, which is why the four-wheel drift was so prevalent in racing, instead, they maintained their grip for longer but then broke away quite suddenly.

Some have blamed the car. There was talk of a hand-throttle being fitted (a sort of early-day cruise control) but there was no evidence found to support this theory. That Mike Hawthorn, world champion would be using a hand throttle whilst dicing on the Guildford bypass is far-fetched although there has also been the theory that this somehow failed in some way. With no evidence that this was even fitted, even after the police inspection of the wreckage, this would seem unlikely.

The third possibility is something to do with Mike’s health. By now he was aware that his condition would be terminal, possibly in the near future. The pain and the blackouts were indeed attributed by some to his reasons for retirement, indicating that perhaps the situation was worse than most people suspected. Did he blackout? Was he overcome with nausea as his car scrabbled for grip? We shall never know.

Mike Hawthorn died on 22nd January at approximately midday. He was 29 years old.

Challenge Me the Race by Mike Hawthorn was first published in April 1958 by William Kimber. It is long out of print but is available second hand via the usual on-line channels. Typical Price is £20-£40.

Champion Year by Mike Hawthorn was first published in March 1959 and is also available as a second-hand item online at £20 to £40.

Golden Boy by Tony Bailey and Paul Skilleter is available from Paul Skilleter Books paulskilleterbooks.co.uk at £29.95

Mon Ami Mate by Chris Nixon is available from Chaters Booksellers, chaters.co.uk priced at £59.99