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Peter Giddings Racing

Duncan Hamilton - Gentleman Driver

One of the wonderful aspects of our hobby is the crazy personalities that it attracts. Certainly my life has been considerably enriched through meeting many of these press-on-regardless, never-say-die characters, the like of which we will never see again - and we are all the poorer for this.

Duncan Hamilton is, to me, the epitome of the old school competition driver. He, and many of his contemporaries, such as Mike Hawthorne, Peter Collins and Tony Rolt, raced first and foremost for the love of the sport. True gentlemen racers, their preparation and training seemed to consist largely of wine, women and song!

Duncan has never known the meaning of fear, and has had more lives than a lucky black cat is granted. Many of Duncan’s accidents have simply been the result of sheer over-driving.

Duncan Hamilton stories abound. Quite recently, for example, on his way home from a grouse shoot, he popped into his pub for a pint of Watney’s. While downing this, at Guinness Book of Records pace, (in some circles Duncan is known, somewhat irreverently, as “Drunken Duncan,” whereas, in fact, he can consume vast quantities of alcohol with minimal personal effect) he turned to watch a horse race on television.

Duncan's interest was high as he had bet quite heavily on one of the entered horses. Unfortunately, his favorite never did 'get into gear' and, for all I know, is still running. Such was Duncan's ire at this poor display that he emptied both barrels of his shotgun straight into the set. Before the smoke and confusion had even cleared, Duncan had turned on his heels and exited to his awaiting Rolls Royce. Needless to say, he was back the next day to settle the bill and, in the meantime, another amusing story had been added to the list!

On another occasion Duncan failed to make a slow corner in his Rolls Royce, and got firmly stuck in a muddy ditch. This little (by Duncan's standards) accident was particularly unfortunate because with him as passenger was a well-known Archbishop who, to this day, is one of Duncan's very best friends. Rumor has it that Duncan's breath alone would have felled a buffalo at a hundred yards. As he moved unsteadily around the Rolls, imploring his companion to arrange for a miracle, who should appear on the scene but a fresh to the force policeman, driving his new shiny, white, 1100 cc mini van. Visions of promotion flashed before the young constable's eyes as he noted the skid marks, the disabled Rolls Royce and the two worse for wear characters. Clearly somewhat inebriated, they were arguing about what to do next. Upon the officer's gruff “Hello, hello, hello, what do we have here then?”, Duncan immediately sobered up and did some very fast thinking indeed.

Taking the young man, ticket book and pencil already poised at the ready, to one side, Duncan gravely asked whether he could keep a secret of 'national importance'. Stupefied, the policeman said of course he could and proceeded to listen to Duncan explain that while Duncan and the Archbishop were leisurely driving through the countryside, “the Rolls Royce had suddenly lurched off of the road and into the ditch of its own accord”. What had happened, Duncan explained, was that the steering had failed, and that Rolls Royce, who had never, in their entire history ever admitted to any mechanical fault, would be in dire straits should the news of this failure ever get into the press. Duncan then went on to explain that Rolls Royce exports, so valuable to the nation's prestige and income, would, as an inevitable result, also be damaged beyond belief. Minutes later, the blue uniformed bobby was sitting in the cab of his van, engine screaming, front wheels spinning, straining to the task of extracting the lopsided Rolls from the ditch, utilizing a length of rope that Duncan had so handily available in the boot. Proud that he had done his bit for England's security, the constable saluted Duncan and the Archbishop as they purred away, having extricated themselves from yet another fine mess!

Duncan is one of few race drivers around today who actually competed with GP Bugattis when they were still competitive. His pride and joy, and in fact his first real race car, was a 2.3 Type 35B. Back in 1946, Duncan cut his competition teeth with this splendid car, sprinting, racing and hill climbing it for a couple of seasons. For Shelsley he fitted twin wire-wheeled rears which helped considerably with adhesion. After an extremely quick practice run, he arrived at the gate at the top of the hill, only to find that the gap was too narrow to accommodate the special axle. Leaving the entire axle assembly behind, Duncan, with considerable embarrassment, somehow clattered to a stop.

In order to make the meet the next day, Duncan and his crew worked all that day, and then right through the night. Ashen and tired through total lack of sleep, he once again took to the hill in a series of lurid slides and near accidents. Thus, a brain faded Duncan arrived at the narrow opening and said goodbye to the whole back axle assembly once again!

All of the well-wishers, who had gathered to lend a hand through the night, were, understandably, totally astonished at this repeat performance. His mechanic, no doubt overcome by working so hard, became, in Duncan's words “grossly insubordinate” and proffered some advice, of a most unseemly kind, suggesting that Duncan do something quite impossible with the axle assembly. (This was before the time that his friend Tony Rolt gave him the sage advice that “the object is to get around as quickly as possible, not to kill yourself!”)

In 1947 Duncan decided to enter the Bugatti in the Brighton Speed Trials. This event, first inaugurated in 1906, is still held annually and I have run it myself in a variety of vehicles. Duncan fitted an A-arm tow bracket to the Bugatti and whistled down to Brighton with it, pulling the Bugatti behind his lorry. Coming down the hill into Guildford, Surrey, Duncan espied in his rear view mirror the splendid honeycomb radiator of a Bugatti. Presuming it to be a competitor also bound for the Speed Trials, he moved over and waved it through. As the car went by, he noted that it was an identical model of Bugatti to his, even down to the color. Intrigued to see who the driver was, he was horrified to discover that the driving seat was empty, and the awful truth dawned on him that he had seen his own car pass by, gathering speed! Changing down a gear rapidly, and applying right hand lock, Duncan hit the side of the tail of the Bugatti, causing it to veer left, mount the pavement and hit a tall power pole which snapped in two, the upper half falling to the ground with a frightful crash.

It was early morning and here was Duncan in the middle of an extremely snobby residential area. Doors started to open, faces appeared at windows and general consternation broke out as people rushed to the scene of the accident, and then started to hunt for the driver of the Bugatti. Doing his best to appear as nonchalant as possible, Duncan tried to explain what had happened, and wanting to clear out before the police arrived, took stock of the damage to the Bugatti. The front axle and springs were broken, but fortunately the frail radiator was intact. After a while he was able to get hold of a break down vehicle, and had the Bugatti carted away. As still no police had arrived, he was now concerned with the broken power pole from which high voltage wires were poking. Duncan, anxious to get to Brighton and effect repairs to the Bugatti, argued with his wife that they could deal with the problem of the broken power pole on the way back, and that a notice tied to the stump saying “Danger” would suffice in the meantime. Angela would hear nothing of this, insisting that they get in touch with the local power company before leaving.

While all of this was going on, Duncan noticed that a man who had watched the entire proceedings without ever offering to help, was taking a keen interest in what was being said. In fact, he was busily taking notes. Walking over to him, Duncan asked if he knew where the power company's offices were. To Duncan's surprise the man replied: “I should be able to; I am the manager!” After paying for a new power pole, a somewhat poorer Duncan went on his way.

One of my favorite Duncan Hamilton stories also involves an accident with a power pole, which was, in fact, carrying the main electricity supply to Oporto, Portugal. Duncan, by this time, was driving a C Type Jaguar with typical great abandon. On the second lap of the Grand Prix, Duncan yet again lost control and as he headed straight for an electric pylon at over 100 m.p.h., he remembered the advice Ascari had once given him “Duncan, if you are going to have a shunt, have a neat one, head on.” As a result, instead of brushing the pylon, Duncan, at the last moment, twitched the steering wheel and rammed the structure fair and square. The standard was immediately cut in half and the Jaguar cartwheeled, throwing Duncan out into a tree. He hung there for a minute or so, fourteen feet up, before falling down on to the side of the track! Barely conscious, his instinctive sense of self-preservation made him pull his legs up off the road, just as a 4.1 Ferrari whipped by and cleanly took the boot off of his left foot!

Before Duncan lost consciousness, he remembers an ambulance coming, and taking him, not to the British hospital, but to the local one in the dock area. Some time later as he came round, he found himself looking at his corpulent nude reflection in the chromium plated light above. The light, in fact, was not working as he had knocked out the electricity supply to the hospital. Squinting into the reflector he could see that his chest had been ripped open and that his face was a mess. An enormous man, with a Yul Brynner haircut, was looking down at Duncan while contentedly puffing on a cigar. To Duncan's horror, he noticed that this person was wearing a butcher's apron, and carried what appeared to be a carving knife in his left hand. The “surgeon” began to push and prod and nodded with satisfaction every time poor Duncan groaned. Duncan now noticed that he was surrealistically surrounded by candlelit nuns. (Was he, perhaps, in the next world?)

Desperately, he tried to tell them that he needed water, but their English was as lousy as his Portuguese. Fortunately someone turned up who spoke English, and after consultation with the nuns, Duncan was told that the water was contaminated, but that they could offer him a glass of port - so port it was! By this time, the doctor had decided to do some sewing, and fortified with the port, Duncan could just about stand the pain and remain conscious. However, what was now filling Duncan with horror was the fact that the ash on the end of the surgeon's cigar had fully grown to two inches and was drooping ominously towards his still open chest. Fortuitously, just before such a catastrophe could happen, the doctor tipped the ash into a surgical bowl that one of the nuns was holding! In fact the surgeon did a good job of stitching up poor Duncan and subsequently apologized to him for not administering any gas: the anesthetist had been given the afternoon off to watch the motor races.

There are lots of other Hamilton stories that I could bore you with, dear reader. However, it is time that some of you fellow enthusiasts put pen to paper, so I will close by explaining why Duncan Hamilton is my favorite character of characters - and believe me, I have met quite a few.

In early 1951, Duncan had his first drive of a 4 1/2 liter Talbot Lago GP car. He had admired these cars ever since they had first come over to England to race in the British GP. In his words, the cars “merited the description of fabulous.” Duncan remembers how conscious you were when sitting in the Talbot of the size of the rear wheels and how low one was sitting. This gave an impression of great speed, even when motoring gently - in so far as one can motor gently in a Talbot Lago! Duncan remembers the glorious bellow of the exhaust and the time when an Irish priest, who had stood in respectful silence, as if listening to an organ voluntary, remarked, after Duncan had killed the magneto switch, “Merciful Saints, I don't believe it!”

Of all the cars that Duncan has raced, the Talbot Lago is the one that holds his very special affection. It was in this car, in fact, that Duncan raced in the International Trophy Meet at Silverstone in 1951. This event had a splendid field, including Fangio and Farina in Alfa Romeo 158's, Reg Parnell in the fearsome 4.5 liter Thin-wall special, and de Graffenried in a 4CLT Maserati.

The final was run in what can only be described as a tropical downpour, and all of the cars quickly became lost in a blur of spray, smoke and steam. Cars were spinning off, left, right and center. The enormous power of the Alfa Romeos made the cars totally unmanageable, and plucky Parnell somehow shot into the lead, lapping, unbelievably, at over 60 m.p.h. Second came Duncan Hamilton in the Talbot. Two Englishmen in the lead; the rest nowhere! The Talbot, being such a heavy car, handled reasonably well in the wet. As a result, Duncan was able to tuck underneath Fangio, and then slip past Bonetto.

By this time, a lake had formed on the difficult, even when dry, Abbey Corner. Duncan slid off the road behind some straw bales, but keeping everything going, motored along the grass until he found a gap. Tucking in behind Parnell once again, he clenched his teeth and kept going. To his great surprise, the next time around a checkered flag was out and what cars were left in one piece limped back into the pits. Duncan bustled about telling his mechanics to top up the fuel tank and check everything out. However, no one seemed to be in a hurry to do anything, insisting that the race was over. This seemed so unlikely to Duncan that he bet the late Louis Giron (who until recently was the guardian of my 1924 Lyons Bugatti at the National Motor Museum) all of his second place prize money, that as soon as the rain stopped the race would continue. As a result of this, Louis Giron collected the second prize money because, indeed, the stewards had decided to award the prizes to the leaders at the time that the race was stopped. Duncan, to this day, chuckles over the thrill of passing, and staying ahead of, the great Fangio!

Peter says “I wrote this piece many years ago, since when, sadly, Duncan passed away. Duncan ‘s car sales business continues to this day in the charming and capable hands of his son Adrian.