Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
This week we lost a true Goodwood great, and my family one of its closest friends. So if you will forgive the self indulgence, I’d like to tell you a little about Michael, or as he was known to the racing crowd at the time, Mike Salmon.
His achievements in racing cars will be known to many Goodwood goers. He raced here extensively in the ‘50s and ‘60s in all manner of cars from Jaguars and Astons to Fords and Ferraris, winning frequently. But he is perhaps best known for more than dozen outings at Le Mans, the first in 1962, the last in 1984. In 1963 he came fifth sharing a Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 330LMB with Jack Sears in the only such car to finish the race, in 1982 with Ray Mallock and Simon Phillips he came seventh on the mighty Aston Martin Nimrod. Little remembered now is the fact the car crossed the line with compression registering on just five of its eight cylinders yet was still the first car home behind the factory Porsches in the newly formed Group C category.
Sadly however Michael is probably best known for being burned there in 1967, a result of someone failing to do up the fuel cap on his John Wyer-entered Ford GT40. The car caught fire at close to 200mph and he stayed in the blaze until he had got it stopped, an event he would discuss as phlegmatically as he might stubbing his toe. The scars on his face and hands told a rather different story. After a lengthy spell in hospital, he was back at Le Mans the following year. In another GT40.
Make no mistake, Michael Salmon was old school, the only person I ever met who refused to race at Le Mans on principle once they’d put chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight.
Perhaps some measure of the calibre of Mike Salmon the racing driver is found in the company he kept. His team-mate at Le Mans that fateful year was one Brian Redman. Others included Innes Ireland, Richard Attwood, David Piper, Peter Sutcliffe, Lucien Bianchi, David Hobbs and the aforementioned Jack Sears. Michael raced with the best. And I truly believe the only reason his name is not similarly well known is that the only thing he did better than drive cars was sell them. He worked for Maranello Concessionaires in Egham before moving to Jersey to sell Ferraris there.
I can shed rather more light on Michael Salmon the person, growing up as I did in a car crazed family on the same small island. It was not difficult to get completely the wrong impression of the man. Spectacularly politically incorrect, he could appear arrogant and be brusque with those who did not know him. But if you were able to more than make his acquaintance, you’d discover one of the kindest, most warm people you could ever meet. As a boy I used to bicycle across the island and sit in his office where he would regale me with tales of places he’d raced, cars he’d driven and people he’d met; he always had enough time. Once I had a driving licence he’d come round for lunch and toss me the keys to whatever he’d turn up in. Once it was a Lamborghini LM002. As a teenager, you don’t forget that sort of thing.
I also remember the Salmons coming to dinner one winter’s night, and after a typically long and competitive evening (he was a demon table tennis player) stepping outside to discover a deep carpet of snow had fallen. Ignoring my parents’ protestations, he jumped into their Alfasud, leaving us laying bets about how long it would take for him to abandon their futile quest, walk back and beg a bed. They never did. The following morning I trudged along roads no longer recognisable as such, save for a single set of tyre tracks snaking into the distance. I don’t believe another person on that rock would have got through that night.
After his professional career was over, Michael became one of the most formidable racers of historic cars, unstoppable in Astons from red-hot DB4s to the priceless Project DP212. When Goodwood re-opened its doors, Michael was there and continued to race with verve at the track and elsewhere into his mid-‘70s until a minor medical issue denied him his race licence – about which he was utterly furious.
Make no mistake, Michael Salmon was old school, the only person I ever met who refused to race at Le Mans on principle once they’d put chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. Heroically brave, painfully funny (he was a gifted mimic), a great driver and an even better friend, he will be deeply missed by all those who saw him race or enjoyed his company. To his widow Jean – who as Jean Bloxam was herself a formidable racer in the 1950s – we send our most heartfelt condolences.
Photography courtesy of The GP Library