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Ron Flockhart: Gentleman racer who stunned the world

Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart drive to victory in the 1956 Le Mans 24 hour classic. Picture: Getty

Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart drive to victory in the 1956 Le Mans 24 hour classic. Picture: Getty

  • by JACK DAVIDSON
 

EDINBURGH motorsport hero Ron Flockhart, who died 51 years ago yesterday in a flying accident in Australia in his attempt on the Sydney to London solo record, was one of Scotland’s most accomplished racing drivers. He was 38.

His crowning glory was twice winning the gruelling Le Mans 24-hours race – in 1956 and 1957 – as part of David Murray’s Ecurie Ecosse team, the first non-works outfit to have won the race since the war.

He raced all over the world in different disciplines, from hill-climbs in Bo’ness to world sports car championships in Buenos Aires, as well as the Monte Carlo Rally and the fabled Mille Miglia in Italy. He also found time to compete in 16 grands prix.

At six feet tall, fair-haired and handsome, Flockhart fitted the profile of the dashing gentleman racing driver of the post-war era well, alongside the likes of Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. But it would be wrong to portray him as a one-dimensional playboy type.

Graham Gould, doyen of Scottish motor racing writers and a good friend of Flockhart’s, recalls him as “an open, friendly guy who enjoyed life but was very serious about his racing”.

Born in 1923 and brought up in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh, Flockhart attended Daniel Stewart’s College before obtaining an engineering degree at Edinburgh University.

Enlisting for war service, he became a captain in the Reme and saw action in North Africa and Italy. After demob, he pursued his interest in motorsports. At this time, there was a burgeoning motorsports scene in Scotland, with the country’s first organised race meeting taking place in 1949 at the West Sands, St Andrews, where Flockhart made a winning debut.

His first notable win came in the Ulster International Trophy race at Dundrod. Thereafter, he concentrated on racing his favourite ERA R4 car successfully throughout the UK. His heightening profile brought him to the attention of Edinburgh accountant and former Royal High School pupil, David Murray, who tried to recruit Flockhart for his Ecurie Ecosse team’s inaugural season in 1952, but an agreement could not be reached.

Not long after, Flockhart was signed by BRM to become their full-time test driver. Racing opportunities were restricted, but, in 1956 at Monza, he was third in the Italian Grand Prix, despite having started last on the grid.

But sports car racing was becoming his main interest and, in 1956, he finally joined up with Murray to drive a Jaguar “D” type for Ecurie Ecosse at Le Mans. The team were minnows then in the racing world and their operation was based at a couple of lock-ups in Merchiston Mews in Edinburgh. In contrast, Le Mans was the very pinnacle of endurance sports car racing, attracting huge crowds and publicity.

In winning it, Flockhart and co-driver Ninian Sanderson did not so much exceed expectations as shatter them to smithereens. In the end, their win, in which they covered 2,521 miles at an average speed of 104 mph, was, by some eight miles, ahead of Moss, cheered on by a quarter of a million people.

In Edinburgh, Esso, one of their backers, hosted a lunch at the George Hotel, where Sanderson and Flockhart received gold watches. Flockhart presented Esso with a hub cap from the winning car, mounted and inscribed. This was later given to the Scottish Motor Racing Club, which has since awarded it as a trophy to the country’s most promising young driver. Winners have included such luminaries as Allan McNish (1987), David Coulthart (1989) and Dario Franchitti (1991).

If that 1956 win came out of left field, then repeating the feat the following year verged on the superhuman. Flockhart teamed up with co-driver, Ivor Bueb, a Cheltenham garage owner, and, incredibly, Ecurie Ecosse also secured the runners-up spot with another “D” type, driven by Sanderson and Aberdeenshire’s Jack Lawrence.

The two Jaguars had destroyed a field of 54 cars and, at his final pit-stop, Flockhart commented to Murray: “It’s fantastic David, we’ve got time for a cup of tea”! Though Le Mans represented the peak of his racing achievements, Flockhart continued competing internationally and, in the 1960 French Grand Prix, he came sixth in the race where, for the only time, an all-Scottish team was entered, under the Lotus banner – Jim Clark, Flockhart and Innes Ireland.

Throughout the Fifties, flying had been a passion of Flockhart’s. He set his sights on breaking the Sydney to London single-pistoned engine solo record and began his first attempt on 28 February 1961. In interviews, when asked why he was doing it, he replied: “Because the record is there to be broken,” adding that, in any event, he had to be in London for 11 March for his wedding at St Michael’s-in-the-Field Church to Gillian Tatlow. The attempt failed, but he did make it up the aisle in time.

Fifteen months later, his memorial service was held in the same church.

In 1961-62, he again went down under and another attempt on the Sydney to London record was planned. As part of his preparation, on 12 April 1962, he was to fly from Moorabbin airport near Melbourne to Bankstown in New South Wales to enable checks to be carried out.

Photographs taken before the flight show him smiling, standing alongside the cockpit wearing the unstrapped leather flying helmet of the time, a man at ease with himself and the world.

He took off at 10.15am. Eight minutes later, he radioed control to say he was unable to proceed visually and was returning. At 10.27, he radioed: “I am having trouble, I have lost my compass, I’m at 3,000 feet and in heavy cloud.” Then contact was lost.

His Mustang crashed in the Bandenoong Hills above Kallista in Victoria. The cause was never conclusively determined, but it was thought most likely that, flying through low cloud, his engine may have stalled and he struck tree tops, causing the plane to crash.

He was cremated in Melbourne and his ashes returned to Edinburgh to be scattered over the Pentland Hills. At his memorial service on 8 May at St Michael’s, celebrities from the motor racing and aviation world attended.

In a tribute, Murray wrote: “Although we did not always see eye to eye, I admired his guts and tenacity. He was our major factor in the greatest successes we had. Everyone here admired him.”

It was ironic that, unlike a number of his motor-racing peers, having escaped death on four wheels – despite a number of serious crashes – he should perish during a routine flying trip. And it was particularly cruel that it should happen to one of motorsport’s genuinely good – and highly accomplished – guys.

 

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