Whenever I read Letters to the editor in some magazines, people complain about the relevance of the Lamborghinis, the Enzo Ferraris and the SLR McLarens: no-one can drive these things quickly, so what’s the point of having them?
It's 40 years since The Blue Flame became the first car to achieve 1000km/h, setting a World Land Speed record that lasted 27 years. It could have gone even quicker - but it very nearly didn't make it at all.
Peter Collins introduced me to John Wyer down in Argentina in January 1954...
...when Phil Hill, Bob Said, Masten Gregory and I went there for the 1000km at Buenos Aires, and I drove an old Allard with Dale Duncan to finish tenth in my first International race. I’d known about John Wyer and he’d heard of me, and he said, ‘Why don’t you drive an Aston Martin for us at Sebring?’ Of course I said I would, and I got all ready for my first 12 Hours. Charlie Wallace, a hair-dresser who later raced D-types for Briggs Cunningham, was my co-driver at Sebring. We gave that 2.9-litre Aston a good run before the rear end broke in the fifth hour.
I really wanted to go racing abroad but I didn’t have the money to pay my way, so a West Texas oilman that I’d raced for, Guy Mabee, said he’d buy a DB3S for me to drive in England, and in May we went over to Aintree. I knew this was where the Grand National steeplechase was run, and having a sport car race on the new motor circuit next to the horse turf was a big difference from what I’d been used to, racing on old airports in the States.
The C-types were the cars to beat at Aintree, and Duncan Hamilton won it in one. I think I could have passed him, but it was my first race in England and I didn’t want to screw up the car.
I listened to John Wyer, who was 13 years older than me and probably the best team manager who ever lived in that era. Back in ’54, you didn’t dare over-rev the engines, the gearboxes weren’t strong enough and the brakes weren’t always adequate. Anyway, I felt good about finishing second in the rain behind Duncan and ahead of the rest of the Jaguars. It meant a lot to me that I had done that well in my first British race and got that recognition, and it made John happy.
After Aintree I went over to Le Mans to drive the same Aston again, the DB3S chassis number 3 that was painted for me in American racing white with blue stripes. Paul Frère, an experienced driver and fine journalist, was my co-driver for Le Mans – and he was a wonderful friend for many years after. I’m very sad that he’s gone now, living to be 91 until this past February. But in 1954 I was only 31 and Paul was 37, trying our best at Le Mans.
In the middle of the night, while chasing Briggs Cunningham’s big C4-R down the Straight into braking for Mulsanne Corner, I went deep and ran our Aston into a sandbank, but got it back into the race. I felt the front end shimmy and pitted. They jacked up the car and a front wheel fell off – the spindle was broken. All the rest of the works Astons dropped out, too. Froilan Gonzales and Maurice Trintignant won in the 4.9 Ferrari that would later go overseas to John Edgar’s stable, where I would drive.
I was disappointed with what happened to Paul’s and my Aston, but in another five years I’d win the 24 Hours with Roy Salvadori in the DBR1 and meanwhile spend many of my best racing days with John Wyer and David Brown.
Two weeks after the broken spindle at Le Mans we took the Aston over to Monza, another place I’d never been, and ran the 1000km Supercortemaggiore, named after an Italian petrol. Graham Whitehead was my co-driver and it rained, luckily, because the wet meant a slower pace and better finish for us, and we got fifth along with 2000 bucks prize money that I really needed. So I headed back to England for Silverstone and the sport car race there that shared the same weekend with the British Grand Prix.
The Astons beat all the new D-type Jaguars at Silverstone to finish 1-2-3, with Collins taking the win and me following Salvadori for third in front of Reg Parnell in a V12 Lagonda. I’d been dicing with Reg before he lost a plug, and after that he made it tough on anybody who thought they’d try to get around me. Those were times I’ll always remember, staying at the Vicarage and all the fun we had. Old Reg was a great friend who unfortunately died on the operating table during an appendectomy about ten years later. Nineteen fifty-four with the Aston Martins and being in England and Europe that spring and summer with friends and teammates was one of the best times of my life. John Wyer gave me a chance that gave me a name that led to a lot of good stuff in years later.