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Interview with Sir Stirling Moss

Sir Stirling Moss

We are greeted at Sir Stirling Moss's house in the centre of London by Lady Susie, his wife of 27 years. She shows us through a narrow hallway into his compact office. On one side is a glass cabinet displaying models of toy racing cars.

On the other, above a doorway, hang two twisted steering wheels, trophies of his two major crashes: Spa 1960 and Goodwood 1962, reminders of battles almost lost, but also symbols of his endurance, his bravery and his luck, for Stirling is a lucky man; a survivor.

He finished building the house on a bomb site in 1962, which seems fitting for a man who was soon to be faced with rebuilding his life. “I've had three wives,” he jokes, “so the house has changed a bit over the years.”

He slips into his seat behind the long desk which is angled to enclose him, in much the same way I imagine as he took his seat in the eighty or so cars he drove during his career. Behind him, through a full length window is a garden, wedged into the tiniest of spaces; a mini paradise complete with trickling waterfall.

A modest man, Sir Stirling Craufurd Moss OBE, still finds it hard to believe that in his day, he was one of the most famous men in the country. 'Who do you think you are - Stirling Moss?' - was a popular catchphrase, often used by police when warning people who were driving too fast. Stirling himself was pulled over early one morning, whilst driving across London and passed a car on the wrong side. Although there wasn't much traffic about, a policeman appeared and was no doubt astonished to find Mr. Moss himself in the driving seat!

No ticket was issued, but further up the road, Stirling had a thing or two to say to the driver of the car he had overtaken. He gave the man a pound note and said to him “Take this, and for God's sake go and get a driving lesson, even if it's just one.”

For most 77-year olds it's time to start slowing down. But as we discover, Stirling is not like most men. Forty five years after the crash at Goodwood which ended his career, he is still sprightly and very much in demand.

One of the original jet-setters, he still travels the world to motoring events, a deeply respected figurehead of motor racing. His diary on the Stirling Moss official website proves the point, listing his many engagements and commitments. The recognition of his monumental career and the British public's affection for him continues. In the last few months alone, he has been honoured with a life-size bronze statue at Mallory Park, been awarded an FIA (Federation Internationale De L'Automobile) Gold Medal and been chosen to receive an unprecedented second RAC Seagrave Trophy (he received the first in 1957). On top of that, he will be featured on a postage stamp in 2007, and in May 2007, he will feature as the narrator for a new children's cartoon: Roary the Racing Car.

Ironically, Stirling doesn't currently have a car of his own and it's not something that he's looking to acquire in the near future. “Owning a car isn't high on my agenda, especially living in the centre of London where a car can be a hindrance,” he says. Lady Susie has a Smart car though, which seems a sensible and practical choice, whilst Stirling rides a scooter. “It means I can get around easily without having to worry too much about where to park.” Given a choice of road car, he says he would choose an Aston Martin, a Mercedes 500SL or a Porsche.

Certainly ideal models to showcase his distinguished cherished number plates, SM 7 and 7 SM (SM 7 is on retention certificate]. Both have been in his possession since the 1960's. He also owned 777 SM and SFM 777 for a while and MAR 10 on an old army jeep.

M 7 was mine too, which I should have kept hold of; cherished numbers are a great investment these days. COM 1C and MAG 1C seem to me to be particularly good ones.”

The number seven has always featured very highly in Stirling's life, he regards it as his lucky number. He often had a horseshoe with seven holes painted on the side of his cars, along with the race number seven. “I took it from my mother, she thought seven was lucky too and always liked to have the number on her personal plates (DPG 7, JB 1477, FLR 177 and MG 6672). She and I had sevens in our birth dates too. It became a real family tradition; my son is even hoping to marry on 7 - 7 - 2007.” And of course being 77 in 2007 is very special too!

Stirling's father was a dentist, but also had a passion for cars. Alfred Moss enjoyed racing, winning once at Brooklands in 1923. But he only ever saw racing as a hobby, something he was to disagree about with his son later on. He met his future wife, Aileen Craufurd at Brooklands in 1926. She loved horses but after being an ambulance driver in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, she developed a love of motor cars too. Stirling, their first child, was born on 17 September 1929. Aileen was keen to call him Hamish, but Alfred thought it a touch too Scottish, so they agreed on Stirling, after the place in Scotland where she was born.

Alfred stopped racing when they married, but Aileen's enthusiasm for the sport grew. With her husband supporting her efforts, she soon became Ladies' Trial Champion of England. It is clear to see where Stirling's racing interest came from, but more than that, his parents had competitive natures - they loved to win - a trait they were to pass on to him.

By the age of three, the young Stirling was already learning to box. His mother encouraged him to horse ride too, something he proved exceptional at, but didn't enjoy, saying he only did it to please her. His love of speed was already developing - at school he became an accomplished sprinter. He went on to excel in most sports including athletics, rugby, boxing and later rowing. But what he enjoyed most of all was careering around at home in a clapped out Austin 7, bought for him by his father.

This happy childhood came to an end when Stirling was bullied at public school in Hertfordshire. It was to go on for many years. Even though he was able to fight back, it didn't stop and Stirling felt unable to tell his father about it, for a number of reasons, primarily because of his Grandfather's Jewish roots. The extent of the torment and its effects on him were only fully revealed a few years ago in his authorised biography by Robert Edwards. Yet, Stirling's strength of character meant he was able to use his experiences to help him develop a competitive spirit. “I'm fairly outspoken,” he says now, “I'm not wishy washy, I'm definite on things. I was fortunate in that I had a fair amount of confidence, which of course is necessary.”

Stirling says his first ever driving experience was on his parents' farm. “I remember taking the chain harrow round. I didn't think about racing then, I just enjoyed driving, going up a bank we called the cut. I was first attracted to racing when I was fifteen. I used to enjoy reading about Prince Bira (of Siam]. He was a very good amateur.” In August 1945, aged fifteen and eleven months, the young Stirling decided to apply for his driving licence. He expected it to be delayed because of his age, but was surprised when it was processed straight away. The first car he drove on the road was a Morgan three-wheeler, which was waiting for him in the garage for his sixteenth birthday (purchased with £50 he'd made from his equestrian wins and the sale of the Austin 7).

In his biography All But My Life by Ken W. Purdy, Stirling explains how his parents were keen to instil a strong financial awareness in him, which meant that if he wanted something badly enough, he was expected to sell another of his possessions to pay for it. “I was taught that everything is attainable if you're prepared to give up, sacrifice, to get it. I think my parents gave me the belief that; whatever you want to do, you can do it - if you want to do it enough. And I do believe that. I truly believe it.”

But when he was sixteen his father saw Stirling's cheque book stub and discovered that his son had put down a deposit for a racing car. “My father was furious,” says Stirling, “he was totally against me wanting to race. He'd had a go at it himself and not got very far.” Alfred Moss confiscated the Morgan for a while and thus made his point. But it soon became clear to Alfred that his son was not going to become a dentist as he'd hoped. Once he realised that Stirling had definitely made up his mind to become a racing driver, he supported him completely, allowing him to enter driving tests and rallies. In March 1947, aged 19, Stirling won the Cullen Cup.

He worked hard even in those early years, firstly as the trainee manager of a hotel in Victoria, learning the full range of jobs, from barman to commis chef. But the long shifts and poor salary meant he had little time at weekends for racing.

His father offered him the position of farm labourer. Stirling agreed and moved back home. It was hard work, but he could now find the spare time he needed to devote to racing.

By 1949, Stirling's reputation was growing, along with his confidence. In July of that year he raced in his first overseas event at Lake Garda in Italy, and won the 1100cc class by more than four minutes. Even more astonishing was the fact that in practice, he had out-qualified Mario Tadini aboard a V12 Ferrari. But the young Stirling wasn't being taken very seriously.

Despite having won eleven of nineteen races by 1950 and set a new class lap record at Brands Hatch, his age was against him. Many believed that he would soon burn himself out. He needed to prove himself further. He entered the RAC Tourist Trophy race on 16 September 1950 and surprised his critics by winning the race against the odds, in the pouring rain, even managing to set a new circuit record. He was promptly asked to lead the Jaguar team for 1951. When he woke up the next day - his 21st birthday, not only had he come of age but he was finally recognised as a professional racing driver. Newspaper headlines at the time read: 'Moss couldn't be caught,' and 'At 21 he's Britain's speed-king.'

In 1954, Stirling raced for Maserati, a move that would transform his career. He'd come through a couple of difficult years, but now that was changing. In 1955 he moved to Mercedes Benz to partner world champion Fangio, whom he beat in the British Grand Prix. It was Stirling's first Grand Prix win, a huge achievement for him and for the country - the first Briton ever to win it. Another of his most outstanding triumphs that year came when he won the gruelling Mille Miglia. The Daily Sketch headline on Monday May 2, 1955 read: 'Whirlwind Moss wins the car race of his life.' It reported:

“Stirling Moss swept to victory in the greatest race of his career to-day when he out-drove and out-manoeuvred the world's best drivers in the 1,000 mile Italian Mille Miglia race to set up a record. Moss drove his German Mercedes over the twisting route round Italy at an average speed of 97.95 m.p.h. and was the first Briton to win the race.”

In 1956, Stirling was back with Maserati and won the Monaco Grand Prix in May followed by the Italian Grand Prix in September. He won three Grands Prix in 1957 with Vanwall and in 1958 he won the Argentine Grand Prix for the Rob Walker Racing Team as well as the Dutch, Portuguese and Moroccan Grand Prix's for Vandervell Products Ltd.

At the Portuguese Grand Prix at Oporto that year, fellow British racing driver Mike Hawthorn was threatened with a penalty. Stirling honourably defended Mike's actions but in doing so, lost the World Championship to him by one point. Mike became Britain's first World Champion although he'd only won one race that season to Stirling's four (Mike was placed in more races that Stirling]. Such a gentlemanly act was not unheard of in those days. Although at the time Stirling was upset because he felt he had let his fans down, looking back, he has no regrets. It is certainly clear that he was more than capable of winning, but perhaps wasn't lucky on the day. He had come second four times in as many years but said his aim was to win as many races as he could rather than chasing a particular trophy.

In one race or another, he had beaten every man who held the world championship over a ten year period. He won more than half of the races he finished, more than any other driver ever, which is why he is regarded as the best driver of all time never to have won the Formula One World Championship. It is a status he happily laughs about: “Nigel Mansell was hanging in there for too long - he nearly won so many times and then he did it, he became World Champion, I was so glad he was off my patch!”

On 22nd January 1959, not long after his World Championship win, Mike Hawthorn crashed his road car on the Guilford bypass and died at the scene, aged 29. Rob Walker, a Formula One racing team owner was the only witness. In an interview in 2001, Rob admitted for the first time that Hawthorn had been driving too fast that day. Although Stirling was not aware of Rob's revelation, he doubts if Hawthorn actually made a mistake. It was a tragic end to a promising career.

Within motor racing, the Moss/Walker partnership became legendary. In 1959, Stirling drove for the Rob Walker Racing Team exclusively, winning many races up until the abrupt end of his career in 1962. Sadly, Rob died in 2002. Stirling was great friends with both men and remembers them fondly. “Rob was fantastic, very meticulous. We were in Casablanca in 1957 when he took me on to join his team. It was on a handshake, a gentleman's agreement.

I never had a contract - you can't do that now. Rob even had 'Gentleman' down as his occupation in his passport! Mike and I got up to all sorts of jokes and larks with the other drivers, we had a great time.”

Crashes and fatalities of drivers and spectators were all too common in Stirling's day. In the 1955 Le Mans race, a staggering eighty spectators were killed. “We used to lose two or three top drivers a year. The only way to deal with it was to get behind the wheel and forget everything else except what you were doing. Concentration is one very important ingredient in a racing driver. One has to have confidence in one's ability, otherwise it's best to get out. In every race, I reckon I left myself a certain amount of leeway.”

Stirling was well known for having extraordinary peripheral vision as well as incredible powers of concentration, but he still had his share of crashes. In those days, it was often due to the cars falling apart! “I've had fuel tanks split, twice had the steering sheer, seven wheels have come off plus eight complete brake failures. Cars in my era were not like they are today; many cars I raced in had production line parts.” Indeed it has been said that Stirling's insistence on driving British manufactured, privately owned cars (rather than factory owned models) severely handicapped his progress.

In the 1950's at any rate, British cars were no where near the fastest in the world. Grand Prix driving was by far the most dangerous sport at that time. According to Ken W. Purdy, in Stirling's biography (1963), the mortality rate amongst racing drivers was twenty-five per cent, whilst the number of drivers killed between 1946 and 1963 was approximately 175. About fifty of these were relatively well-known drivers.

In 1950, Stirling had a particularly lucky escape in an HWM (Hersham & Walton Motors). He collided with a tree at over 80m.p.h. breaking his kneecap and four top front teeth. Fortunately, being a dentist, his father was able to quickly make a bespoke denture for him.

In June 1960, Stirling suffered major injuries in a crash at Spa in Belgium, when a wheel came off at 140mph. Despite breaking his back and legs, he was sitting in a car again just four weeks later. After each crash he always made a point of looking forward to his next race. “I was always thinking, I must get out of this bloody hospital. The crashes didn't do anything to stop me. My only thought was when I could get back behind the wheel. I was a young man; the danger and excitement was a very important ingredient, like cooking with salt, it could be very dangerous. At that age, it's an important, integral part of the thing. People would ask, 'What do you do for a living?' and I loved telling them. Bravery and stupidity are so closely related.”

The final crash, at Goodwood in 1962, forced the end of his career. Stirling was aged 33. It took three quarters of an hour for him to be cut free from his blue Lotus. He was alive but unconscious, choking on a piece of chewing gum. One of his worst injuries was a shattered eye socket. He remained unconscious for a month and was paralysed for six months. “It took me five years before my concentration came back,” says Stirling. “There's not a bone in my body I haven't broken. I've done my nose about six or seven times, but the 1962 crash was the worst, purely because of the damage it did to my brain.”

That wasn't all that was different. Stirling made a brave bid to return to racing, but it wasn't to be. His instinct had gone. “What I used to do was automatic to me. If I wanted to go a bit faster, I'd just drive harder. After the accident, it wasn't like that anymore.” In his 1963 biography, Stirling told Ken W. Purdy: “Motor-racing has given me a wonderful life. I've seen the world, I've met hundreds of interesting and pleasant people I shouldn't have known otherwise, I've made a good deal of money and, most of all, I have enjoyed myself.”

Rebuilding his life after the crash and accepting that his career was over, proved to be the biggest test of his life. “I took a very great deal out of motor-racing, but I put a lot back, too. I do feel that I gave it all but my life.”

Interview: Ruby Speechley
Photography: Stan Thompson

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