Apart from always wanting to write, becoming Formula One World Champion was a dream, almost an obsession for me as a teenager and young man. It wasn’t the smell of the gasoline, hot tires, burning oil or the ear splitting roar of the un-silenced engines when I saw my first and only race at Brands Hatch in the 1950s that enthralled me, it was the ballet of driver and machine as the cars slid through Clearways corner at ridiculous speeds. The poetry of motion that almost seemed to slow as the cars flashed past, shedding tiny pieces of rubber and oil mist that sprinkled the faces of spectators who lined the edge of the track. I was entranced. Captivated.
So when I got the chance at 21 years old to learn to drive race cars at the Jim Russell International Racing Driver’s school in England, I took it with open arms. And in my first race (Photo Above) I put the Lotus 51C on pole and won the race. The experience was quite extraordinary and one that I will never forget. The noise of the engine, the smell, the heat inside the cockpit (because the radiator was in front and the water ran through the top tubes of the space frame chassis) was all forgotten in the experience of the “ballet” and “poetry” of driving a race car fast in competition.
Later, after leaving the Army, I went back to racing, designing and building and driving my own cars. The photograph below was taken from the exact position that as a child I watched the heros of the 1950s race. It is a photograph I treasure, because it brings back not only the experience of driving but also the experience of that young child watching, breathless, wide-eyed and excited.
I never did become World Champion, but those experiences of driving, building and racing cars I have used in my writing, particularly in COLLISIONS where the car in the story becomes a metaphor for stability, an anchor for the troubled central character of the novel. For me the touch, feel and smell of cars has always raised a smile, raised my heartbeat and I want to share with my readers the thrill of driving at high speed in competition and to bring back childhood memories to anyone that has ever own a car and had a dream. (Photo below Snetterton -My car is #5).
From COLLISIONS: “He laughed too and threw the car into the corners harder, feeling the grip, testing the oversteer. The car enjoyed it, lunging into the corners, greedy for more speed, secure in its capabilities. The engine responded instantly to every slight change on the accelerator, the 270 horsepower sending the light car hurtling down the road. The fat tyres gripped the road tenaciously leechlike, unwilling to give even the slightest, except when centrifugal force demanded. It was exhilarating stuff.”
Cars whether racing or not have held a fascination for people the world over. Not only as people carriers but as a way to celebrate our own personal identity. They are not just inanimate objects but sources of pride and joy that cross all boundaries of sex, culture, ethnicity and religion. Even the Pontiff has his PopeMobile. We give them names, even Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel who has called his Red Bull 2012 F1 car “Abbey”. Perhaps he should have been a little “racier” with the name. In 2011 he won eleven races with “Kinky Kylie”.
And cars have also been a life saver for me. In 1978 after a series of major surgeries, I built a Dune Buggy for therapy. Why a Dune Buggy? Because it represented “Life” and “Fun”. For a Captain in the Parachute Regiment it was a demonstration that I was “Alive” and although disabled, nothing was going to stop me. Cars can do that.
From Toad in the Wind in the Willows, to Herbie the VW, cars have been a staple of popular literature and entertainment. We are fascinated, frustrated, thrilled and annoyed by cars, but at the end of the day we polish them, baby them, love them and can’t wait to take that drive on the open road.