King David Tremayne investigates
the heroic life and death of a dashing daredevil who, despite
his rich boy reputation, was 100 per cent pure racer.
Chimay hardly rests in the memory like great redundant circuits
such as the old Niirburgring, the old Spa-Francorchamps, Rouen
or Clermont-Ferrand. Yet it is a key element in David Purley's
story. Nestling on the border of France and south-west Belgium,
Chimay ran clockwise over a 6.75-mile lap through the north edge
of town and into the country via a series of fast sweeps and curves
that culminated in a dangerous high-speed plunge downhill on the
Beaumont to Chimay main road. The annual GP des Frontieres for
F3 cars was a flat-out slip streaming bund, and for three years
Purley reigned supreme. In 70 and 71 he beat James Hunt, in 72
Tony Brise. He made Dick Tracy look like a wimp, but you didn't
beat Brise - or Hunt, for that matter -without having a great
deal of natural flair, too.
Chimay encapsulated everything Purley held dear about racing.
There was none of the exotic veneer of Monaco, nor the sterility
of nearby Nivelles. It was unadulterated motor racing, a throwback
to the 1950s into which Purley might best have fitted. A place
where you pushed the risk as hard as you dared, knowing that mistakes
exacted the highest price, where the bravest won.
Purley was a maverick, a man's man and a husband's nightmare,
who raced - and lived -on his own terms. He hated testing, but
loved the adrenalin rush of wheel-to-wheel competition. He was
expelled from his progressive co-educational school "after an
alarm clock failed to go off when it should have".
At 17, the nation's youngest pilot, he buzzed the seafront at
Bognor in the aeroplane operated by father Charlie Purley's Lec
refrigeration business. When he and Charlie argued, he stormed
off to London, worked on a demolition site, then on a whim enlisted
for the Coldstream Guards. He enjoyed telling the story of how
his parachute once failed to open, and he floated down atop his
instructor's, or of the landmine in Aden which destroyed the armoured
car he was in, killing six of his companions.
When he took up motor racing on leaving the Army in 1967, it was
in a predictably wild car: a big blue AC Cobra which he eventually
reduced to component parts in the mother and father of shunts
at Brands Hatch's Paddock Bend. When he moved via a Chevron B8
to a Brabham BT28 and an Ensign, he was generally regarded as
a rich kid with expensive toys. Yet in F3 he raced hard and well
against the Williamsons, Brises, Pryces and Hunts; he won the
odd race besides Chimay, and set fastest lap at Monaco in 1972.
But it was when he put his F2 March on pole position at Oulton
Park early that year, ahead of the likes of the emergent Niki
Lauda, and then lost the Formula Atlantic title only after mechanical
failure in the final round of 1973, that the racing world began
to see him in a different light.
He came to national prominence in the tragedy
that befell Roger Williamson at Zandvoort in 1973.They were running
their March 73lGs in tandem when Williamson's car burst a tyre and
came to rest upturned and burning. Single-handedly, Purley attempted
to rescue him, receiving George Medal for his bravery. Greg Field,
now team coordinator at Benetton met Purley in '69 and worked for
him from 1973 to the end of l976: "He quite liked all the attention
after that," Field said, though Purley always maintained it was
his paratrooper training that kicked in when he saw a fellow racer
in trouble, and that he remembered little of his actions until the
immediate, poignant aftermath: "He used to scoff at the GM, and
we used to kid him it meant Gaberdine Mac, and that he was a dirty
old man. Once it had all settled down, though, he'd sign his name,
David Purley, GM." Four years later he was in the news again, after
surviving the severest deceleration known. After quitting F1 at
the end of 1973, to race hard in F2 and then win the Shellsport
F5000 series in 1976 with a FordGA V6 powered Chevron B30, he had
commissioned his own Fl Lec for 1977.
In the Belgian GP he led for part of a lap during others' pit stop,
but while that owed something to fortune it tended to overshadow
the fact that on merit he had risen from 13th on the grid to seventh
place before faster combinations pitted. In that race he upset Lauda,
who remonstrated a little too much about rabbit backmarkers, prompting
Purley to say: "I was leading at the time, and if you wag that finger
at me again, I'm going to stick it where it hurts!" After that the
Lec bore a white rabbit, and later Niki sported a rat on his Ferrari.
Purley was trying to prequalify for the British GP at Silverstone
on July 14 when the throttle stuck open at Becketts, the result
of extinguisthant from an earlier engine fire jamming the mechanism.
The Lec stopped instantly from 106mph and Purley sustained seven
broken ribs, five pelvic fractures, eight breakages in the left
leg, two breakages in the left foot, and seven in the right. It
seemed his raring days were over.
Frustrated at the limp he was left with, he underwent months of
painful surgery in which his left leg had continually been stretched
just as it began to heal, so that the bone had to knit a little
bit further until an extra inch was found and that leg matched the
In '79 he returned to motor racing, first with
his Lec, later with a Shadow DN9, in the Aurora British F1 series.
At Snetterton he took the Shadow to fourth in a triumph of courage
and bloody-mindedness. When he rolled into the pic Line he stayed
in the cockpit, and was pushed round the back of the garages. Entrant
Mike Earle explained: "I said to him, 'Bloody well done, mate, I'm
impressed! And if I'm impressed with you, that really is bloody
well done!" Purley smiled at his old friend and said quietly: "Do
me a favour, Mike, I don't want to look a wally, but I can't move.
Take the car round the back and I'll get out there." And so they
pushed him where nobody could see and lifted him out. But he had
proved something to himself, and could now quit on his own terms.
On July 2 1985, after years of painful recovery, he was flying his
bright red Pitts Special when he failed to pull out of a dive towards
the sea just off Bognor Regis. This time, even Purley could not
John Watson, Purley's neighbour and friend in Bognor Regis, tells
a story that illustrates his character to perfection: "Purley was
flying us back from the F2 race at Mantorp Park in 1972. We were
at 2000 feet and it was pretty bloody awful, very turbulent. I was
throwing up. We stopped to refuel and clean up, and when we'd taken
off again we were all dozing. Suddenly the plane started plunging
at a great rate of knots, leaving us all absolutely terrified. David
had decided that we needed waking up. He was bored, because nobody
was talking to him."
Field remembers: "In his twin-engined 'plane he used to say; 'Imagine
a pilot in the last war, limping back home.' And he'd turn an engine
off, then reduce die power in die odier one, so we were just skimming
the treetops on die South Downs. "Look, there s the airfield. We're
going to make it back!' He used to do these bloody simulations..."
There was talk of a land speed record attempt until the ambitious
Project Blue Star died along with its founder, David Gossling. When
Donald Campbell was killed, Leo Villa expressed the opinion that
British record-breaking would never spawn a man of similar calibre,
but Purley would have been the perfect fellow to take up Campbell's
David Purley's legacy was so much greater than the sum of the results
he left in the F1 record book. He was, Earle and Field confirm,
a better driver than he was often given credit for. "He got a bit
sidetracked by all that 'Brave Dave' Williamson stuff, and I think
he quite enjoyed the fame of'it," Earle remembers, 'but he really
was a very good driver. And he was also that rare thing: a man who
really was larger than life."
Field added: "He was an absolutely brilliant bloke and on the right
day and in the right frame of mind, he was blindingly quick. But
he didn't really have a clue about racing- If you asked him what
day Autosport came out, he wouldn't have a clue! When he raced F1
he would say:'There was a red car right up behind me, and it would
have been Lauda, but he wouldn't have known.
"There was a classic one time in 1975 when we were having reliability
problems with Chevron. Purls delivered a team talk and we just had
to laugh when he finished with the words: 'It's okay tor you, this
is only a job for you. You forget, this is my hobby. 'The fact that
racing was his hobby seemed far more important to him than the fact
that it was putting bread and butter on our tables and paying our
Field agrees that Purley wan probably fearless: "Yeah, mainly because
he didn't understand what it was about. He felt he was invincible.
He thought he'd go into a corner and sort it all out, and if he
did spin he'd just stop in the gravel. When he did break his legs,
God, he could barely walk. When he was on crutches he was grimacing.
It was a real struggle to get anywhere."
Leaving the old Onyx workshop entailed driving 30 metres to a level
crossing, getting out, phoning for clearance, opening the gates,
getting back in the car, driving across, getting out again closing
the gates, ringing up again to report you were through, then getting
back in again. Yet Purley would never let anyone, help him with
that. Field continues: "Then they were going up in a hot-air balloon
to 18 miles, higher than anyone had ever gone, and they were going
to jump out, freefall for half an hour and then parachute down to
"When he bought the Pitts we took the mickey because the container
had two of them, three pairs of wings and a spare fuselage. He said:
'Well, if we crash, we can rebuild it." And we said: 'Hang on. Be
normal. If you crash this, you're not going to be around to rebuild
it,' "He was always going to go out the way he went, wasn't he?
I said to somebody, a year after he'd died, 'you know, hardly a
week goes past when I don't think of Purls'. And I still think of
him. I don't think I've ever known anyone else like him. There was
a place in Chichester, The Otters, for disabled kids going swimming.
He was there with them, all the time. He used to go and look after
them because he loved doing that." When David Parley GM died in
that fateful' plane crash his sport mourned a mischievous, gallant
fighter with an outrageous zest for fife, a prince of a man whose
immense, moving courage set an audacious and inspiring example.
There is a saying that its better to have lived one day as a lion
than a lifetime as a lamb. But for David Purley it wasn't just a
single day, but all his 40 years.
thanks to Mr. James Elliott for his undestanding from Classic
& Sports Car.
You can order the back issue/s/ of Classic & Sports Car: Back
Too many thanks to my friend Carlos
Ghys for his support to me.