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Interview: Sir Stirling Moss, ex-racing driver

Sir Stirling Moss drives the 1954 Mercedes Benz during day two of the Goodwood Festival of Speed at the Goodwood Estate. Picture: Getty

Sir Stirling Moss drives the 1954 Mercedes Benz during day two of the Goodwood Festival of Speed at the Goodwood Estate. Picture: Getty

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

The street begins with what appear to be aspic-preserved cobblers and seamstresses. Then it moves into a swanky part where you can buy hand-made Italian loafers in a shade you’d have to call piccalilli.

On I go past some macho cars with personalised plates and I’m thinking: who do you guys think you are, Stirling Moss? Finally I’m at my destination: “No parking – garage opposite,” says the sign across from the six-storey townhouse in London’s Mayfair, and if any garage deserved such privilege then surely it’s this one.

Sir Stirling, race legend, opens the door, a vision in turquoise. He asks if I found the address okay and I tell him about the piccalilli shoes. “Oh, I like the sound of them,” he says and I’m trying to imagine him sporting a pair today but decide they would make his ensemble too camp, and Moss has never been that. We walk past shelves of his scrapbooks – “green for racing life, black for private life” – and into his study with Dinky toys of most of the 84 different cars he drove in his thrilling career and where he introduces his jolly third wife Susie who then leaves us to it.

We’ll return to the cars – and the girls, mustn’t forget the girls, because in Moss’s pomp you could be a mere four days into your honeymoon when it was permissible to tell your new bride: “Darling, I have to get back to London – I’m judging Miss World” – soon enough. But I should tell you more about this place. Moss can press a button by his desk and two floors up the bath will fill to the desired temperature – “in exactly five minutes and 20 seconds.” Elsewhere, ceiling beams drop down and turn into tables, TVs operate via handsets and the “washing-up machine” quietly gurgles.

What do you mean you’ve got remote-control telly? And a dishwasher? You didn’t have them in the Swinging 60s with the Space Race at its height when boffins were speculating on our food eventually coming in pill form and jetpacks for all. This looks like a house for Steve Zodiac of Fireball XL5 or groovy, turtle-necked tunesmith Burt Bacharach or perhaps a Bond villain. In fact Moss, bald and inscrutable, rather resembles a Bond villain but I don’t think he’s got a button to activate a piranha pool.

‘In 1961 I was the best paid in the world’

“This was the last bomb site in Mayfair when I bought it,” he says. “The land cost me £5000 and the build another £30,000 – a lot of money at the time because racing drivers weren’t paid anything like what they get today. In 1961 when I was the best paid in the world I probably earned £22,000, the same as a good QC. I had great fun sourcing the gadgets and I still do a bit of that because I’ve always loved them. I get that from my father, a dentist but a frustrated engineer who was always inventing things in his garage. He invented a bomb shelter you placed over your bed at night, rather than have to rush underground. The best thing he ever made for me aged seven was an armour breastplate. I got to hold the soldering iron. Yes, I was pretty close with Dad.” And his mother? Here he chooses to relate the story of her returning early to Long White Cloud House, the family home by the Thames, and catching the 16-year-old Moss in the stables with a girl. “Mum said to Sylvia: ‘Is this any way for a young lady to behave?’ I leapt in front of Sylvia and said: ‘Kindly address all questions to me.’ But very quickly that changed to: ‘Please don’t tell Dad’.”

We don’t hear so much from Leslie Phillips anymore so Moss might just be the last man standing who refers to women as “crumpet”. He’s incorrigibly un-PC and has landed himself in bother for saying he’d rather not have a “poofter” play him in a mooted biopic and his assertion that women lacked the “mental aptitude” for Formula One. Yesterday at Silverstone, Scot Susie Wolff became the first woman for 22 years to take part in a Grand Prix weekend in her role as a test driver for the Williams team. Moss waits to be impressed. “I don’t know if Susie is going to do well. If she does it will be great for the sport. There are some excellent women drivers – my sister Pat was a bloody good rally driver – but many are not. Still, you can buy cars which park themselves nowadays!”

He’s 84, one year for every kind of car, and looking pretty good on it.

Certainly good for having fallen 50ft down the lift shaft in his home four years ago. An electrical fault had enabled him to open the lift door when the cab was in fact one floor up. Susie thought he was a goner but when their son Elliot pleaded with the emergency services “Please get here quickly – he’s old”, Moss shouted: “Elliot for goodness sake, shut up!”

The boy was panicking and Moss’s Boy Scout training taught him you should never do that. He broke both ankles. Just another “shunt”, he calls it, refusing to blame his fabulous man-pad.

‘I’d like to hang on until I’m 100’

“I’d like to hang on until I’m 100,” he affirms. “I’m certainly not ready to go yet.” He might be a bit slower on his feet but he no longer has to sprint across the track and vault into his car, as you must have seen him do in marvellous monochrome. This has always been a man of action for whom loafers just don’t sound right. He is perpetually on the move, even if it is only across London to inspect his properties in his latest model, a Twizzle electric car. He has another home in Florida, pronounces Monaco differently to you and me (“Mon-ah-co”) suggesting regular jaunts there, and soon he will be giving Singapore the benefit of his blunt views and amazing stories as long as the price is right. “I sell my time – I’m a sort of international whore,” he chuckles. He has been the face or voice in advertising for everything from toupees to 
erectile dysfunction pills. “ ‘Nothing I wouldn’t use myself’ is my rule, although I never bothered about going bald.” His epitaph, when the time comes, will read “Movement is tranquility”.

Moss raced from 1948 to 1962, winning 212 out of 529 including 16 F1 Grands Prix. Maybe his finest hour, or ten hours, was in a 1000-mile road race, Italy’s Mille Miglia of 1955. He is always described as the greatest driver never to win the world championship. Did that niggle him? “Maybe at first, just a tad, but after that I didn’t bother. The one thing I wanted more than anything was the respect of my fellow drivers. When the times for practice went up on the board I wanted them to go: ‘Oh, I wonder how Moss is doing?’ And now? Well, I just think the tag gives me terrific exclusivity!”

Dad Alfred raced sports cars and once finished 16th in the Indianapolis 500 while mum Aileen, who drove ambulances in the First World War, was ladies’ trial champ of England. “That made it difficult for my parents to stop me becoming a driver. Dad wanted me to wear a helmet; I thought they were for sissies. But I never wore a seatbelt.” After WW2 Britain needed heroes and Moss obliged.

Would he have been as heroic if he had been christened Hamish? “That’s what Mum, a proud Scot, wanted to call me but Dad, just as proud an Englishman, said: ‘Are you sure?’ No offence to your readers called Hamish but I’m glad they agreed on Stirling, which is where Mum was born.” So, half-Scots as he is, what’s his view on independence? “Well, the vote is the day after my 85th birthday so I’m wondering what I’ll be that day. I hope I’m still British. It would be a great shame if Scotland broke away. The UK is a unit and we’re lucky to be an island. We could have been part of France, don’t forget.”

Keen to prolong the Scottish interlude I ask what he remembers of the Bo’ness leg of the 1947 British Hill Climb Championship in which he finished second. “Not much, old boy,” he says, “but hang on…” He returns with one of the 190 scrapbooks but maybe the wrong volume because he is pointing to snaps of an old girlfriend. “Judy Carne, cute little thing.” What, the sole Brit in US gag-fest Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, my all-time favourite TV programme? The pair of us race to remember Carne’s catchphrase and Moss, as he usually always did, wins: “Sock it to me, sock it to me…”

Perhaps, though, he fetched the right scrapbook. For there is a period in the middle of the interview when every time I ask a question relating to cars, the answer which comes back relates to girls. For instance, what was it like driving three different cars in a day – touring cars, sports cars and Formula models? “Like dating three different women! You had to try not to get them confused.”

‘I did have a rule of no sex a week before a race.’

About the 1962 crash at Goodwood which ended his career, a famous Moss quip is that he remembered little about the accident but had perfect recall of his date the previous evening with a South African girl. He backtracks on this today, but only slightly. “I did have a rule of no sex a week before a race but then I thought, Christ, this is ridiculous and too restricting, and cut it back to two days.” Then he recounts the story of how a night of passion caused Jean Behra to be so late for an Argentinian Grand Prix that the Frenchman’s mechanic had to start the race.

I ask if cars, like horses, have their own personalities. “In my day they had enough of one that after a race you’d want to stroke them and say: ‘Well done, old thing – great job’. And cars, of course, were always feminine.” Back then, did drivers have more of a personality than seems the case now? “I don’t know, but if Lewis Hamilton wins a Grand Prix he has to go and see Vodafone or whoever, chat them up and sign autographs for hours. If I won a race I could simply chase the crumpet. The big money in the sport now has changed it, and ruined an awful lot.”

In a Britain that craved glamour, speedsters like Moss provided it. Motor racing had a playboyish image. “You’d rarely see us written up in the sports pages – mostly it was the society pages.” Women, he reckons, were attracted by the noise, the excitement and the overalls. “It was an easier way to meet girls than being a postman.” He could have a girl in every stockade. “You had to be careful that one didn’t walk in on the other but that didn’t happen very often because they’d be scattered all over the world. A year on from a fling you could post a card: ‘Darling, I’m coming back to New Zealand – how are you fixed?’ ”

Moss met his first wife, Katie Molson, at Le Mans. “It was very romantic, love at first sight. I was waiting to race, spied her across the track and thought: ‘Cor, that’s all right’. With my second wife Elaine [Barberino] it was pure sexual attraction. She was a swinger – that is, she loved nightclubs – and I didn’t so we soon had a problem.” Both marriages lasted only three years but he remains friends with his exes. “I finally got it right with Susie. We’ve been together 34 years and I couldn’t live without her. Funnily enough, we first met when she was five and I was getting a suit made in Hong Kong. I actually dated her sister first.”

A rascal, then, but a gent on the racetrack. Patriotically, he wanted to race British cars and did so for as long as possible, and returned to them when he could. When Ferrari courted him only to spurn him, he was shocked by their behaviour and vowed never to race for the Italians. A cheery wave to the crowd became his signature. “Ah, but I had an ulterior motive. If the race organisers saw the crowd wave back I hoped they’d think: ‘Popular fellow, he can have a bit more money’.” Okay, but when he spoke up for his great rival Mike Hawthorn at the steward’s inquiry during the 1958 championship, didn’t basic decency cost him the title? “Yes it probably did. I don’t think that had happened before, or since. But I’m sure Mike would have done the same for me.” Hawthorn, at Moss’s suggestion, bump-started his car against the direction of the race traffic. Our man won the race but his testimony allowed Hawthorn to retain second place and claim the grand prize.

Moss wouldn’t swap eras

The camaraderie of the drivers back then is just one the reasons Moss wouldn’t swap eras, despite the riches up for grabs now. Another is that racing has become too safe. This is a controversial area but one he has no intention of swerving to avoid. Silverstone, he says, has been ruined. “The run-off area has emasculated it. There should be a wall, and if you hit it you’re out.” On safety he disagrees with Sir Jackie Stewart, a strident campaigner for better protection for drivers. “Jackie’s a great friend and godfather to our son but we’re complete opposites about this. If there was a tree in the way, Jackie would cut it down or pad it. My view would be: just don’t hit it.

“Obviously the sport is safer now and that’s a good thing. In my time I was losing three or four friends a year. But I always liked to have danger lurking on my shoulder – it was an aphrodisiac. No-one was pushing your foot to the floor. You went as fast as you could, and the faster you went, the greater the erection and the greater the pleasure. I believe that racing should be dangerous. If you don’t like it you should do something else.”

After his crash this brilliant, brave, buccaneering driver had to do something else. He was in a coma for a month and there would be daily bulletins in the papers as fans prayed for his recovery. “I was on the front pages at last,” he laughs, “but seriously that was very humbling. To be accepted by the public is a pretty nice scene.” What next? Estate agent or politician? He ended up seriously dabbling in property, but was politics a real possibility? “No, I’d have been lousy at it. The only post that would have appealed was dictator!”

 

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