Stirling Moss – a full appreciation

Sir Stirling Moss –  former Facel Vega Car Club president

Sir Stirling Moss, former president of the Facel Vega Car Club – died on Easter Sunday this year. Here is an appreciation of his career, written a couple of years ago when we were able to visit him in his Mayfair home, before he became ill.

It was in 1997 that our then president Eric Phillpott, announced in his presidential ramblings in Faceletter  “Welcome has also to be extended to Stirling Moss who graciously accepted my invitation to join us as Honorary Vice-President.  Stirling has however made it clear that owing to pressure on his time it is unlikely he will be able to attend any of our events but wishes us well in our endeavours.”  

Most of us are aware of Stirling’s affiliation to Facel Vega but the story goes like this. Young Stirling’s career was just taking off in 1950 when he joined the HWM Formula Two team. Hersham Walton Motors had been established by John Heath and George Abecassis – but was still a very long way from taking on the importation of Facel Vegas, still a gleam in their creator’s eye.

HWM’s partners were heavily into motor sport and the motor trade, and had constructed a racing sports car on an Alta chassis in 1948. It was a success which prompted them to build three single-seater Formula Two cars. John Heath would drive one – although Abecassis was actually the better driver, according to Moss – Lance Macklin would drive another, and the young golden boy, Stirling Moss would drive a third.

They did most of the races in the championship that year. Moss would admit that “I learned an enormous amount about driving from these HWMs, almost as much about living from my older and widely experienced teammate, Lance Macklin.”

Lance Noel Macklin was the Eton-educated son of Sir Noel Macklin who established four car companies, the better known of which was Invicta but also Railton on Hudson chassis. He then went on to make the range of Fairmile inshore boats which was so instrumental in the war, for which he was knighted.

Noel Macklin was a natural if disinterested athlete, a smooth operator when it came to what Moss still describes as crumpet. “He was always slanting off,” says Moss. “We went into a bar to buy a drink and Lance was slanting off to find the best bit of crumpet. He was a real character. He would turn up with bits of stuff and all that, his collar turned up. That was Lance, very cool, he really was the first cool person I ever met.” If Noel was sufficiently interested, he would miss whole practice sessions in pursuit of the aforementioned crumpet.

Macklin made his Formula One debut a year after Moss at the Swiss Grand Prix and took part in 13 Grands Prix, the last in Moss’s own Maserati 250F at Aintree in 1955 when Moss was winning for Mercedes but he never really troubled the scorers with a  best of two eighth places. However, the notoriously unreliable Alta engines in the HWM didn’t help.

Earlier in 1955, Moss and Macklin had shared the latter’s Austin-Healey 100S at the Sebring 12 hours; Macklin had driven it down to Florida from New York. The pair finished behind a D-type, two Ferraris and two Maseratis which was pretty respectable, but Macklin was then devastated when he was involved in Pierre Levegh’s huge accident at Le Mans which claimed over 80 lives, and was later involved in another double fatal accident at Dundrod in the Tourist Trophy. He was persuaded to give up racing by his then girlfriend, Shelagh, whom he later married. “She was cracking, too,” says Moss. “Oh yes she was. Lance could pull ‘em.”

Shelagh and Noel were an interesting pair; frankly it’s unclear to this writer whether it was Noel and/or Shelagh who was instrumental in Jean Daninos meeting C B Thomas of Chrysler who was able to secure Facel Vega’s use of initially the De Soto engine, then other Chryslers. Lance’s father had negotiated the use of Hudson chassis for the Railtons with the same C B Thomas before the war. Both Lance and Shelagh went on to work for Facel, Noel, of course as export director.

“It was Lance Macklin who suggested to Jean Daninos that it would be good publicity if I drove a Facel Vega,” says Moss today. The deal was suggested in 1958 and Moss took delivery of his first HK500 at the start of the next season. “He didn’t give it to me, but he’d give it to me for a year, a great car,” says Stirling.

“In those days, don’t forget, nearly every race we went to we would drive to. Sometimes you’d fly, maybe down to Rome but otherwise we’d drive there. Yeah, every week and driving to them always, that’s the point. And not necessarily Formula One, Formula One non-championship, Formula Two. Every week we’d race against the Gordinis, the HWM etc. All these little towns would have a motor race so we’d have to drive to them. It was such fun doing it you see. We were chasing crumpet and being paid to do it! And the Facel was such a great car.”

Moss was an immensely busy driver. Take May 1958; the first weekend he was at Silverstone, then the Targa Florio in Sicily, the Monaco Grand Prix, then the Dutch Grand Prix, finally the Nurburgring 1000kms in Germany at the end of the month. Clearly a fast road car would help travelling from race to race.

Moss’s first HK500 was HK L5, automatic, left hand drive with clair lune coachwork. In publicity shots, Moss is pictured outside the Avenue George V offices of Facel in Paris, sometimes with Katie, his first wife, and George Abecassis. It’s March, 1959, I say. “I should know that by the wife!” Stirling replies. “Motoring then was so much easier, much less traffic and these dead straight roads.” What speeds would you be doing, I asked? “140,” came the reply. “Kph,” I ask? “No, miles,” says Stirling nonchalantly. Silly me, what else would a guy who averaged 95mph for a thousand miles of Italian roads to win the 1955 Mille Miglia be doing?

Stirling was 85 at the time of this interview, and while he remembers important races and race cars, road cars don’t come high on his list of priorities, however generous it was of Jean Daninos to lend him his products. He’s pretty sure that he never brought the car to England. “I used to park it at Brussels airport, because it was only five quid for as long as you liked. So I would fly over and pick it up.”

Moss was having the time of his life: a young man in a fast, comfortable car, driving all over Europe with a pretty girl by his side.  “I can remember that I was dating a girl called Sally Weston at that time. The two of us would go round, she was with me most of the time. I’m pretty bloody sure that Fangio had a piece of her when I was out racing in the car…”

Moss is pictured walking down the pit lane at Le Mans in 1957 when a Facel Vega course car passes but he actually doesn’t remember seeing another Facel, even when both teammate Maurice Trintignant and patron Rob Walker took delivery of theirs at the same time that Stirling got his second one in 1961. “To me it was a special car, a great car, very recognisable.” Did the engine overheat? “I must say that I don’t remember it overheating. My memory’s not good at all. Brakes? Brakes were bloody good, they were big discs. Mind you, it was quite a heavy car, quite a heavy car but it had power steering. I probably didn’t use the brakes much. Only in towns.

“I seem to remember the things being very reliable, a great big engine, 5.7 or whatever it was and disc brakes, power steering, a Blaupunkt radio and off you go off to the race and the next one, and doing roughly speaking the same speeds as you did at the last race. To me it was just a bloody good fast car. The fuel consumption didn’t matter… I don’t know what it did to the gallon but I presume about 22 or 23 on a trip, I should think. Petrol was quite cheap then and anyway, I think I probably had a deal with BP.”

Driving for Vanwall and Rob Walker, there were no clashes when it came to what car he raced and what he drove on the road, but Aston Martin was slightly different. “I don’t think Aston would have lent me a car,” he says. Indeed, he took his HK500 down from Brussels for Le Mans in 1959 when Aston Martin won.

He doesn’t remember having the car serviced, just taking it back to Paris at the end of the year. In March 1961, he took delivery of his second HK500, HK-1 CC2, metallic, automatic but again, there is no record that this car still exists either. Walker and Trintignant – who, like Stirling, drove for Walker – both took delivery of their new HK500s at the same time but Stirling isn’t aware that the French ace ever had a Facel, although it was his second or third.

It might have seemed obvious that once George Abecassis of HWM had become concessionaire for the cars, that Stirling would approach Intercontinental Cars for the use of a Facel, but that never happened. “I think they lent Lance and I a car to do a tour of Great Britain or something,” says Stirling. “But we were going round trying to chase the crumpet, you know, from top to bottom. It was just a fun thing.”

Stirling returned his second HK500 at the end of 1961 and according to Amicale vice-president Michel Revoy, already had his eye on a Facel 11 for the following year. But such was the state of the company at the time Moss’s request was turned down. As it happens, of course, it would not have mattered. On April 23, 1962, Moss’s BRP Lotus-Climax 18/21 V8 left the Goodwood circuit at the Fordwater corner and crashed heavily into a bank, badly injuring its driver.

It was the end of an era, the end of one career and the beginning of another: being Stirling Moss, something which Stirling has achieved with considerable success ever since, becoming Sir Stirling in 2000. He is continually busy, recently published another book written by Simon Taylor about his career, representing Mercedes and Goodwood frequently. Some details of that 14 year racing career may not spring to mind immediately, and the poor body has taken a battering from racing accidents and scooter contretemps around London, plus a fall down his lift shaft, but Stirling soldiers on regardless. It’s good to know that one of his least onerous tasks is president of the Facel Vega Car Club.

PS. In late 2016, Sir Stirling was taken ill with a chest infection in Singapore which became pneumonia. After a slow recovery in Singapore, he eventually returned to the UK early in 2017 and was expected to make a full recovery. Sadly, he never made that full recovery; but he was 90 years old when he died.


Sir Stirling Moss, brief profile

Stirling Moss is variously described as the ‘best driver never to have won the World Championship’, ‘Mr Motor Racing’ and ‘the greatest living Englishman.’ He and Mike Hawthorn were the biggest thorns in the side of Juan Manuel Fangio who went on to win five World Championships in the 1950s, but while Hawthorn won the 1958 World Championship, Moss never took the title finishing second four times.

His racing career began just after the war. His dentist father, Alfred, had raced at Brooklands and  even in the 1924 Indy 500 and Stirling’s mother, Aileen, also competed.  Stirling and his sister Pat were fierce competitors on ponies but Stirling was desperate to go motor racing and began competing in his father’s new BMW 328 in trials and sprints in 1947.

He then ‘engineered’ a visit to Cooper in Surbiton and father was persuaded to allow his son to have a proper racing car.  Stirling’s prize money in pony club gymkhanas  – about £200 – helped to go some way to paying the £575 price of his first racing car, a cream-coloured 500cc Cooper-JAP. His parents made up the deficit as a 18th birthday present. It would be towed in a stripped out horsebox behind the family Rolls Royce.

After competing at various sprints and hillclimbs in the late forties – before circuits became available – Moss won his first ever race at the 0.65 miles Brough aerodrome circuit in 1948, followed up by two more wins that day, and another in a three lapper at the first ever Goodwood meeting, a day after he turned 19-years old. He won his fifth race too, an eight lapper at Dunholme Lodge aerodrome. Moss was on his way.

He took part in 21 events the next year in 1000cc and 500cc Cooper-JAPs: races and hillclimbs at home, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and even races in France, Italy, Switzerland and Holland. The wanderlust had taken a grip.

He really diversified in 1950: Formula Two with Hersham and Walton Motors, better known as HWM as teammate to Lance Macklin; then there was still the 500cc Cooper-JAP, his first win of seven in the Tourist Trophy in a Jaguar XK120.

There was a similar mix in 1951, except the Cooper was replaced by a Keift and he also raced a C-type Jaguar which he took to a second TT win. He was now racing in Formula One races, and would have his first Grand Prix at Bremgarten in Switzerland in 1952, the same year he did the Monte Carlo Rally! This hectic schedule would continue throughout Moss’s career: 500s initially, sports cars, saloons, Formula Two, Formula One.

He would drive Connaught, Maserati, Mercedes, Vanwall, Cooper, BRM, Lotus and even Ferguson in Formula One, winning 16 Grands Prix including beating Fangio at Aintree in 1955, giant-killing in the little Cooper against the Ferraris at Monaco and his final F1 win in Germany in 1961.  Four times he would finish runner-up in the World Championship, three times third.

He would drive for HWM and Rob Walker in F2, including the Cooper-Borgward and Porsche; sports cars for Mercedes including that famous Mille Miglia win in 1955, C-type and Lister Jaguars, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Porsches and Ferraris in sports cars; DB4 GTs, Rob Walker’s 250 GT SWB and the occasional oddball such as the Bearts, a Standard 10, the JBW-Maserati, an Austin-Healey Sprite twice at Sebring, a Sunbeam Alpine. He won the Tourist Trophy seven times.

He was injured several times, notably at Spa and of course in his final F1 race at Goodwood. He kept remarkable records – there’s a whole cabinet of scrapbooks in his hall – so that we know that he took part in 501 events from 1948 to 1962, finished in 382, won 173 – one in every 2.9. One year he took part in over 60 races; in the last two years he raced in 96 races for Rob Walker in all kinds of car all over the world, and he won 46 of them.

He was due to race Walker-entered Ferraris in 1962 but that never happened. He did return to racing, notably in an Audi 80 in the 1980 British Touring Car championship, firstly as teammate to team owner Richard Lloyd and then Martin Brundle but eventually hung up his helmet at Le Mans when 81, after scaring himself in his OSCA in the Legends event. Ever since 1962, he has simply been the world-famous Stirling Moss, who became Sir Stirling in 2000.



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