GRR

Doug Nye: Remembering Jimmy Clark – 50 years since he passed

05th April 2018
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

This Saturday marks a terribly sad 50th anniversary. On April 7th, 1968, Jim Clark was killed during a pipsqueak European Championship Formula 2 race at Hockenheim in West Germany…

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Jimmy was so much more than being ‘just’ a double Formula 1 World Champion, Indy ‘500’ winner, and absolute standard-setter of his motor racing era. He was a largely non-commercial, innately sportsmanlike, absolute ‘natural’ – demonstrably, visibly, an absolute artist behind the wheel of a racing car. With his death, so suddenly, with such appallingly irreparable finality, it has been said that top-class International motorsport lost whatever innocence it might have still embodied.

This is certainly true for relatively youthful enthusiasts involved in that era. I was working for ‘Motoring News’ and ‘Motor Sport’ magazines at that time – the weekly and monthly stable-mate publications. I had actually taken that weekend off to help my big brother who was building, of all things, a steel-hulled canal narrow boat in his back garden. It was a 36-footer whose hull he had welded together from several tons of 4-foot x 4-foot quarter-inch thick steel plate. I could contribute zero brains but plenty of muscle and we were getting on well fitting her out under a big polythene shelter he’d built to work within.  

As I recall it was an overcast, drizzly April Sunday – pretty much matching the weather in West Germany that day – and one point he went back into the house to get something, and when he returned he said “There’s just been a report on the radio. Jim Clark’s been killed in a race in Germany…”. 

It just was not believable. Not Jimmy. Too good. Couldn’t happen – there must be some mistake. Auntie Beeb did not often get it wrong, but plainly the newsroom had screwed-up this time… In fact it was not really until I went back into the office the following day, and heard the story first hand from Andy Marriott who had been there, reporting the race, that appalled disbelief was finally replaced by numbed resignation – and the thought so prevalent at the time that “I don’t have to believe it”.

In fact – incredible though it might seem today – Jimmy’s death was just one of no fewer than 127 motorsport-related fatalities which occurred during 1968. One hundred and twenty-seven people had awoken one morning looking forward to a day’s competitive motorsport… and by evening were deceased or dying.

That was the reality of the time. And it was a reality with which we all lived. 

Jimmy with his laurels - such a frequent sight in Formula 1, Formula 2, Formula Junior, touring cars, GT cars, sports cars, Indy cars… during the 1960s...

Jimmy with his laurels - such a frequent sight in Formula 1, Formula 2, Formula Junior, touring cars, GT cars, sports cars, Indy cars… during the 1960s...

Ten years later, Group Lotus head Colin Chapman pored intently over photographs spilt chaotically across his desk at Ketteringham Hall. In his cavernous office where he had been, untypically, reminiscing about 'the old days' of Team Lotus. My photographer colleague Geoff Goddard and I had provided the photographs to prime his memory, hopefully, to relax him, reining him down to the kind of intellectual speed which we mere mortals could match. He was always the most electric man I have ever known.

Small wonder some of his lads nicknamed him 'The White Tornado' Over curling shots of long-obsolescent Lotuses, he had been patiently explaining all kinds of semi-technical detail for a book I was writing. Now we knew why that particular slot had been cut there, why this folded angle had been riveted onto that surface, why — between those two races — one particular pick-up point had been moved. As the hour which he had promised us stretched into two, then three, the crisp, clipped 'media' Colin Chapman — the hyper-dynamic millionaire tycoon — was submerged beneath the lifelong motor racing enthusiast within. 

We realised we were in good shape when he commanded, 'Stop all my calls, and as the photographs sparked old memories so the anecdotes had begun to flow, and his old North London accent and phrasing had re-emerged. 

We laughed a lot there, that day. I would never claim to have known Colin really well, but that afternoon was the closest we ever came. Only one call came through, Sue his secretary leaning around the door and clearing her throat apologetically to explain, 'I thought you would like to take this one; Mr Ecclestone is on the line.

Colin gave us such an exaggerated wink it would have done credit to Fagin, and chuckled, “Ooh, 'scuse me, it's me Guv'nor”, before taking the call. Yes, he was that relaxed. 

Jimmy - thoughtful - with another friend yet rival Bruce McLaren of Cooper - in the pits at the Nurburgring - Cooper mechanics Noddy Grohman and Mike Barney plus (right) Lotus mechanic Allan McCall

Jimmy - thoughtful - with another friend yet rival Bruce McLaren of Cooper - in the pits at the Nurburgring - Cooper mechanics Noddy Grohman and Mike Barney plus (right) Lotus mechanic Allan McCall

And then he had moved another print aside and beneath it was a shot of Jim Clark lying back in the cockpit of one of their Lotuses, head tilted to one side, gazing attentively up at the man who had created those winning cars for him, Chapman himself. 

And our laughter subsided. It was over a decade since Jim had died behind the wheel of one such car. Colin gazed intently, silently, down at that picture, a half-smile on his handsome face.

A question welled within me. I sensed this was not the time to ask it. That was not the kind of silence which anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would comfortably break. After so much discussion, so much hilarity, it seemed interminable. In fact, I doubt it lasted more than ten seconds, but by the dynamic Chapman's standards that was an age…

He was the one who broke the spell. He glanced up, caught my eye, and blinked as if startled awake from a brief day-dream. Never one to betray private emotion, he spoke instantly, crisply — but quietly — his right index finger tapping on the print. His simple, soft, words spoke volumes – “He was the finest man I ever knew. As a driver, he was a complete genius.

“And, do you know, I doubt if he ever fully realised it…” 

That was Jim Clark – described by the man who perhaps knew him best. There is no doubt in my mind that for most of their long nine-year relationship, Jimmy under-sold himself, and Colin was happy to get away with paying him whatever Jim would accept. It wasn’t until Graham Hill joined Team Lotus from BRM for 1967-68 and the ever money-minded Londoner learned how much (how little?) Jimmy was being paid that he took charge and put the Scot sheep farmer right…

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By January 1967 Jimmy’s earnings were high enough for his financial advisers to suggest he should become a tax exile, and nominally at least, he became Bermuda-based, while actually sharing his friend ‘Jabby’ Crombac’s flat in Paris. ‘Jabby’, founding editor of ‘Sport Auto’ magazine, recalled how “Jimmy was beginning to become very cosmopolitan...”.

During this period Jim began to take a leaf out of his friendly rival – and pupil – Jackie Stewart’s book, buying clothes which were tailor-made instead of off-the-peg, something he would never have done before. He let his hair grow rather longer, over his collar, and one colleague recalls how in a Parisian restaurant “… he actually seemed to enjoy being recognised, he'd greet people and engage in comfortable conversation with anyone. That was new, he would never have been so open in earlier years…” 

Typical of this period was Team Lotus mechanic Leo Wybrott's experience with Jimmy in the final three of his five Tasman series, 1966-7-8: “Initially Jimmy was very relaxed on the Tasman tours — you've heard all the stuff about him liking New Zealand because of the outdoor life and the way much of it is very like Scotland; we certainly enjoyed the ‘apres-race’ if you like, and the atmosphere was a kind of glorified club racing — there were usually just us two mechanics, Jimmy and the car representing Team. 

“But it was noticeable that as he became more famous so the demands upon his time increased, and eventually, in '68, he was operating more or less in a team management role as well as driver and he had a lot to do with fighting the new Gold Leaf Team Lotus advertising through the Australian racing authorities, who really took a dim view of it, and he was less relaxed all round than the old Jim we knew. 

“In successive Tasmans, Jimmy progressively had less free time; he was in great demand for various functions, he had more responsibility on his shoulders and it was hardly surprising he seemed a little less approachable, a bit more tetchy. One time we were late and missed the start of practice and he was super-cheesed-off with that — it was the first time I had ever seen him really annoyed.

“In one quiet moment, we were talking about the future. He knew I was coming back to England to get married and I told him I didn't think I could keep going to the races, and he made noises about starting up something of his own to do with racing, and there could be a job there for me — a managerial type of thing which wouldn't entail attending all the events. It wasn't very clear — I can't clearly recall the details — but I'm pretty sure he was planning for the future; perhaps something was going to change? He was certainly changing or being made to change by the circumstances surrounding him. But he certainly seemed more pressured by commercialisation…”

Thoughtful Jim in his works Lotus-Climax 25 just before finishing second to John Surtees’s Ferrari in the 1963 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring - Jim Endruweit overalled to the left again...

Thoughtful Jim in his works Lotus-Climax 25 just before finishing second to John Surtees’s Ferrari in the 1963 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring - Jim Endruweit overalled to the left again...

Privately, his family would admit they could no longer seriously picture Jimmy simply retiring from racing and returning to run the farm. He had become a citizen of the world. He was learning to enjoy his celebrity. 

Team Lotus’s long-time racing manager Andrew Ferguson told me: “He'd have been something to do with racing had he lived, but it's almost as if racing was so much his life he would have been unequipped to do anything else….”

Back in Europe after the 1968 Tasman races, he drove the Formula 2 Lotus 48 at Barcelona, being rammed from behind by Ickx's Ferrari on only the second lap. Ford were keen for him to drive Alan Mann's new P68 prototype coupe in the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch on April 7th, but the offer was rather vaguely handled and offended Jimmy's somewhat Presbyterian sense of proper dealing. Andrew Ferguson: “Early in '68, after the Tasman, he tested the new turbine car at Indy and got very excited about it; he said he was really looking forward to racing it. I was on my way home and Jimmy tracked me down on the phone to my hotel room in New York and called about the clash of dates between the F2 race at Hockenheim and the BOAC sportscar race at Brands Hatch.

“He said he definitely wanted to go to Hockenheim in preference to the Mann ride at Brands because he'd had the F2 commitment on his programme for a long time, and he said he wasn't very interested in going to Brands because Mann's organisation didn't seem very bright: ‘They said they would send me details and confirmation but nothing's appeared at all.’” And so he had made his fatal choice. 

Team chief mechanic Jim Endruweit on the '68 F2 cars and he would hesitantly explain: 'The 48s were not good cars”. Ask him why and the answer would be flat, and simple. “They were not good cars because Jim could not win in them”. And if he could not win, there was something wrong with the car. He was always quite philosophical about racing them. He'd do the best he could, then away to the next meeting. 

Spoils of victory - Jimmy with Colin Chapman on a tour of honour at the BARC’s Whit-Monday Crystal Palace meeting in their Ford Galaxie 500 convertible after having won the 1965 Indianapolis ‘500’ Miles in the USA. The crowd went barmy...

Spoils of victory - Jimmy with Colin Chapman on a tour of honour at the BARC’s Whit-Monday Crystal Palace meeting in their Ford Galaxie 500 convertible after having won the 1965 Indianapolis ‘500’ Miles in the USA. The crowd went barmy...

Jim Endruweit again: “At Hockenheim the cars were not good. He was reasonably cheerful, it was just another weekend's racing and a rather unimportant one at that…

“Then early in the heat, he failed to come round, which in itself was unusual. There were a couple of young girls in the pits acting as interpreters, and they went away and asked race control what had happened and then came back to tell us there'd been a shunt and Jimmy had been taken away in an ambulance. I was taken to a hospital miles away. We had been told he was alive but fairly seriously injured. We sat waiting in the hospital. The Germans were very kind and brought us lots of coffee, but then someone asked if I'd like a brandy and I went queasy, you know, and thought, ‘Oh Christ, no’ — and then they told me. 

“They asked if I would go and formally identify him. And I did that. He wasn't all messed up or anything. There wasn't really a mark on him, but he had a fracture of the lower left skull... and then I made the phone calls. 

“I called the Old Man (Colin Chapman), who'd taken a rare weekend off in Switzerland — and I called Jimmy's father. 

“Jim was one of a kind in every way… He really was a pretty special person. Most of the lads would have done anything for him, and he would repay you by winning in the car you built for him. If he couldn't win with it, then there was usually something else at fault. There was never any question about his skill or his commitment. He always made the best possible use of what you provided for him. He never had an off-day, he never seemed uninterested. He was the best driver, and the best person, I've ever known...”

And 50 years ago this Saturday, the legend that was Jim Clark just ran out of luck. For all of us who knew him – he lives on still, within our heads. Immortal.

Images courtesy of The GP Library

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