Stirling Moss

Moss 2

Those two words have epitomized the glamour, sang-froid, class, and skill of motor racing at the highest level for generations of fans. New Zealanders got more chances than most to see him up close.

Michael Clark and Donn Anderson remember the man as he made the legend

by Michael Clark

Stirling Moss grew up on an estate on the Thames called ‘Long White Cloud’. It was prophetic given his love of this country, and the success he enjoyed here. I thought he was merely being polite when over dinner in an Italian restaurant, a short walk from his home in Mayfair, he said, “If I didn’t live here, I’d live in New Zealand”. But I’ve since read that same sentiment in his wonderful book, which summarized his racing career.

Arguably no other driver made their first trip to these shores with greater fanfare, but in January 1956, his name had already transcended the sport. People without the slightest interest or knowledge of motor racing knew his name. And what a name it was — a brand that lasted his entire life. His Scottish mother had proposed their little boy be given a more traditional name associated with her country of origin, but a compromise was reached in honour of her birthplace — Stirling. He added glamour to any event, and signing the 26-year-old was a major coup for the organizers of the third New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore because he was riding the crest of a wave, 1955 having been a significant breakthrough year. At the end of April, he and Denis Jenkinson arrived in Brescia for the famously mad 1000-mile dash around Italy on public roads: the Mille Miglia. They’d prepared diligently with Jenks’ famous ‘loo roll’ of pace notes, and on the morning of 1 May they departed at 7.22am. Their Mercedes-Benz 300SLR arrived back in Brescia a staggering ten-and-a-bit hours later. They had not only won but established a record that was never beaten. After being runner-up to his teammate and idol Juan Manuel Fangio in the Belgian and Dutch GPs, Moss arrived at Aintree, near Liverpool, in mid-July. The crowd was wildly patriotic, but Moss was still conscious that it was only a decade since the war and here he was driving for the Germans. He qualified on pole and achieved his first championship win but always wondered if Fangio had gifted it to him. “Many years later, I asked him because no matter how fast I drove that day, I couldn’t shake him. There was nothing in it at the end.” So what did the Maestro say? “Well you know his English wasn’t great, but he told me — it was my day.”

 

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No to Enzo
Stirling finished runner-up to the Argentinian in the world championship. When Mercedes withdrew at the end of the season, Fangio went to Ferrari and Moss went to Maserati. His decision not to drive for Ferrari stemmed from a snubbing in 1951 when, as a 21-year-old, he’d arrived at Bari in southern Italy for the town’s non-championship Grand Prix. He and his father had flown to Rome and then endured a train journey to Bari only to be told ‘his’ Ferrari would be driven by Piero Taruffi. He vowed on the spot never to drive for Ferrari. A month before arriving here, he’d been in the Bahamas racing an Austin-Healey. Already, in 1955, in addition to the works Mercs, he’d driven his own Maserati 250F, a handful of sports racers, including a Porsche 550, and a Standard 10, with which he was familiar given he drove an ‘8’ on the road … Different times. He was a busy boy, and this need to be constantly on the move never left him. If a tenant in one of his flats needed a light bulb changed, he wouldn’t call a man. The tenant was personally re-illuminated by not only one of the five or six best racing drivers ever, but also by one of the planet’s best known Britons. And this was happening when he’d already seen eighty.

 

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God of speed
As Bill Gavin told us last year in ‘Lunch with …’, he was part of a small band drafted in to take Stirling water-skiing, one his new passions, when he arrived here in 1956. Meeting Moss changed the course of Gavin’s life. He was not alone in being wowed by Stirling’s star power and charisma. Hamiltonians Howden Ganley and Jim Palmer had both just turned 14, and seeing their idol in the flesh was an image that has never left them. The English gentleman was a last-minute addition to the sports car race, his Porsche passing Howden’s MG TF–mounted father on his way to victory off the back of the grid. In the Grand Prix, Moss was aboard his own Maserati, in pale grey, and despite a pair of modern Ferraris in the field, ‘the boy’, as the British press had dubbed him, won comfortably. Those two wins at Ardmore triggered a highly successful year that included winning the Monaco Grand Prix and beating the Ferraris at Monza. In a rush of patriotism Moss joined Vanwall for 1957 and ’58, so by the time he came back for his second visit to Ardmore he was, with Fangio retired back in Argentina, unquestionably the most famous racing driver on the planet. Stirling Moss had become inextricably linked with the glamour of speed, and motor racing could not have had a more personable and professional ambassador. The risks to drivers in these years prior to safety cells and flame suits were addressed only with primitive safety helmets. Drivers were hurt, and worse, on a very regular basis. Had it not been for the fact that both his parents had competed (his father twice at Indianapolis in the 1920s while studying dentistry in Indiana), then he might have struggled to convince parents who were comfortably off that motor racing was a good career choice.

 

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Not cricket
Had it not been for Stirling’s sense of fair play, he would have won the 1958 world championship. He had won four races to eventual champion Mike Hawthorn’s one, but, after his compatriot was disqualified, Moss went to the organizers to explain what really happened and the ruling was overturned. And with that, Hawthorn was champion.

Perusing the 1959 New Zealand Grand Prix entry list, it was notably stronger than any previous race at Ardmore. In addition to Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren in works Coopers, there were seven 250Fs, four Ferraris, and a works BRM. Moss’s Cooper was in the dark blue livery of his friend Rob Walker. This is his brief race summary: “After my problems in the heat, I had to start the final from the back of the grid, but I was up to second by the second corner and led from two to the end.” Pretty standard stuff for Moss, really. In June, one of his better but less well-known victories came in an Aston Martin DBR1 at the Nürburgring. A fortnight later, in the same car at Le Mans, Moss again found ultimate success elusive. He went to the final round of the world championship at Sebring as one of three men who could take the title, but a 22-year-old kid called McLaren won, while his team-mate, Jack Brabham, pushed his car home in fourth, giving Brabham the first of his titles.

 

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Moss started 1960 at Ardmore, but after winning his heat he was forced to retire from the Grand Prix. He was still driving anything that offered decent rewards, and sixty years ago that ranged from an Austin-Healey Sprite in Florida to a ‘Birdcage’ Maserati in Cuba. Interspersed were Porsches and a 3.8 Mark II Jaguar. He won Monaco again in his first drive in a Lotus, and was optimistic about taking on Brabham’s Cooper, but everything changed on the blackest day in F1 history in the middle of June. Over the course of the weekend in Belgium, two drivers were killed and another two suffered massive injuries, Moss being one. Despite breakages to ribs and back, together with damaged legs, he was — astonishingly — back in a car, and winning, seven weeks later. New Zealand in January had become a tradition; this time in a Lotus. The result at Ardmore was the same as in 1960, a heat win but retirement from the GP. Moss won the last two of his 16 F1 GPs and both were legendary. Ferrari had a major power advantage in 1961, but at Monaco he put the Lotus on pole, and after 100 tortuous laps, beat the best of the Italian ‘shark-nose’ beauties.

 

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Genius versus the exceptionals
Bill Gavin was at the Nurburgring in ’61, and nearly six decades later he eulogized over Moss’s win: “I know people talk about Fangio winning there in ’57, but surely that couldn't have been as impressive as Stirling’s drive — unbelievable.” The winner’s view was that, “The most traffic I saw that day was on the Autobahn after the race.” Rob Walker was good enough to bring both a Lotus and a Cooper downunder in 1962, and his man chose the former for the Grand Prix. The heavy rain highlighted the difference between a genius and those like Bruce McLaren and John Surtees who are merely exceptional. Jim Palmer was in the race and remembered being lapped “many times” by Moss who, “Seemed to be just driving with one hand on the wheel and the other over the peak of his helmet.” Moss won the Lady Wigram Trophy, but Mclaren beat him at Teretonga. And then at Goodwood on Easter Monday 1962 it all ended. He has always been staunch in his view that, despite not having irrefutable proof, it was probably due to a breakage. Bill Gavin saw what was left of the car. “It was amazing anyone could have survived it — from the roll bar forward there was virtually nothing left.” For 38 days the world waited for news: Was he out of the coma? When would he race again? When he was winning just two months before his crash, the possibility of him surviving but not racing was incomprehensible. Thirteen months after the crash he returned, privately, to Goodwood with a Lotus sports-racer. While his lap times were respectable, it no longer ‘came naturally’, so he announced his retirement from top level racing. I gingerly raised the prospect that he might have retired too soon and he is in full agreement. “I should have waited, but we didn’t know then what we know now about how long brain injuries take to heal.”

 

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Stirling Moss became the best roving ambassador for everything good about motor racing for the next fifty plus years. The world wanted to know what he thought on a wide range of subjects, and despite his hectically busy schedule, he always had time. He was everything that was good in sport and especially motor racing — an absolute once-in-a-lifetime legend. Without question, no other driver in the history of motor racing ever had the impact of Stirling Crauford Moss and we Kiwis were privileged to see him here as often as we did — including long after he stopped racing. 


Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine.
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