British motor racing ace who, although he never won the world championship, inspired devotion in followers of the sport
He was content to be known, he often said, as the man who never won the world championship: a way of distinguishing him from those of lesser gifts but better luck who had actually succeeded in winning motor racing’s principal honour. But it was the manner in which Stirling Moss, who has died aged 90, effectively handed the trophy to one of his greatest rivals that established his name as a byword for sporting chivalry, as well as for speed and courage.
It was after the Portuguese Grand Prix on the street circuit at Oporto, the eighth round of the 1958 series, that Moss voluntarily appeared before the stewards to plead the case of Mike Hawthorn, threatened with disqualification from second place for apparently pushing his stalled Ferrari against the direction of the track after spinning on his final lap. Moss, who had won the race in his Vanwall, testified that his compatriot had, in fact, pushed the car on the pavement, and had thus not been on the circuit itself. Hawthorn was reinstated, along with his six championship points. Three months later, when the season ended in Casablanca, he won the title by the margin of a single point from Moss, who was never heard to express regret over his gesture.
Such sportsmanship had become part of his appeal, along with the devil-may-care charisma formerly associated with Battle of Britain fighter pilots. His public image was enhanced by his willingness to invite feature writers and TV cameras into his town house in Shepherd Market, the district of Mayfair in central London where he lived, even when married, in a kind of bachelor-pad splendour amid a panoply of hi-tech gadgets.
The aura continued to surround him long after an accident on the track truncated his career at the age of 32, when he was still in his prime. The sight of Moss, in his later decades, entering the paddock at a race meeting, accompanied by his third wife, the effervescent and indispensable Susie, never failed to draw shoals of fans, photographers and journalists keen to hear his opinion on the latest controversy.
Stirling Moss, right, and his team-mate Tony Brooks, after winning the British Grand Prix at Aintree, 1957. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
He loved to fight against the odds, and the greatest of his Formula One victories, at the wheel of an obsolete, underpowered Lotus-Climax, came in 1961 at Monaco and the Nürburgring, two circuits that placed the highest demands on skill and nerve. Those wins could be set alongside the epic victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia and the historic triumph in the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree, when he and Tony Brooks became the first British drivers to win a round of the world championship series in a British car, prefacing a long period of British domination.
Before his retirement as a professional driver in 1962 he had competed in 529 races, not counting rallies, hill climbs and record attempts. He won 212 of them, an extraordinary 40% success rate. Of the 66 world championship grands prix he entered between 1951 and 1961, he won 16, a ratio unfavourably distorted by early years spent in uncompetitive British cars and by a pronounced share of mechanical misfortune.
He was born to parents who had met at Brooklands, in Surrey, the great cathedral of prewar British motor racing. His father, Alfred, was a descendant of a family of Ashkenazi Jews known, until the end of the 19th century, as Moses. A successful dentist, Alfred Moss also possessed a passion for motor sport, and competed at Brooklands in the 1920s; while studying in the US, he entered the Indianapolis 500, finishing 16th. His wife, Aileen (nee Craufurd), was the great-great-niece of “Black Bob” Craufurd, a hero of the Peninsular war in the early 19th century; an equestrian, she also entered races and rallies in her own three-wheeled Morgan.
When their son was born they were living in Thames Ditton. Two years later, after the birth of a daughter, Pat, they moved to a large house in Bray, Berkshire, called Long White Cloud. Both children rode horses competitively from an early age (Pat was to become a champion horsewoman and rally driver). Stirling, educated at Clewer Manor prep school and Haileybury, Hertfordshire, neither enjoyed nor excelled at academic work. It was at Haileybury that he was subjected to antisemitic bullying for the first time.
He was nine when his father bought him an old Austin Seven, which he drove in the fields surrounding Long White Cloud. At 15 he obtained his first driving licence and, with £50 from his equestrian winnings plus the proceeds from the sale of the Austin, bought his own Morgan. It was followed by an MG (in which he was discovered by Aileen Moss while attempting, aged 17, to surrender his virginity to one of his father’s dental receptionists) and then, in the winter of 1947-48, by a prewar BMW 328. This was the car with which he entered his first competition, organised by the Harrow Car Club, winning his class.
Stirling Moss competing in the 1954 Belgian Grand Prix in a Maserati 250F. Photograph: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
Resistant to the lure of dentistry, he worked briefly as a trainee waiter at various London establishments. But motor racing was where his heart lay, and for his 18th birthday his father bought him a Cooper-JAP, powered by a 500cc motorcycle engine, with which to compete in the new Formula Three series. After a couple of good performances in hill climbs, he entered and won his first single-seater race on the Brough aerodrome circuit in east Yorkshire on 7 April 1948.
Ruled out of national service by bouts of illness, including nephritis, Moss was soon a regular winner against fierce competition and before long he was making occasional trips to races in Italy and France. In May 1950, when a race was held in support of the Monaco Grand Prix, he set the best practice time, won his heat and then won the final.
As his reputation grew, he was approached in 1951 by Enzo Ferrari, who offered him a car for a Formula Two race at Bari, as the prelude to a full contract for the following season. Moss and his father made the long journey down to Puglia, only to discover that the only Ferrari was reserved for another driver, the veteran Piero Taruffi. No explanation was offered and Moss’s fury at such treatment led to a lasting rift and a special sense of satisfaction whenever he managed to beat the Italian team, particularly in a British car.
A victory in the 1954 Sebring 12-hours, sharing the wheel of an OSCA sports car with the American driver Bill Lloyd, opened the season in which he made his international breakthrough. Deciding to take the plunge into Formula One, he and his manager, Ken Gregory, first offered his services to Mercedes-Benz, then on the brink of a return to grand prix racing. When the German team politely indicated that they thought he needed more experience, Gregory and his father negotiated the purchase of a Maserati 250F, the new model from Ferrari’s local rivals.
No racing driver can have invested £5,500 more wisely. Moss and the 250F bonded instantly, and he was soon winning the Aintree 200, his maiden Formula One victory. By the time he entered the car for the German Grand Prix, he was being supported by the official Maserati team, which had recognised his world-beating potential. At Monza that September he was leading the Italian Grand Prix and looking a certainty for his first win in a round of the world championship when an oil pipe broke with 10 laps to go.
Stirling Moss taking part in the Pescara Grand Prix in a British Vanwall car, 1957. Photograph: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
Mercedes had taken note, however, and signed him up for 1955, as No 2 to the world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio. Although neither spoke the other’s language, a warm respect grew between them. At Aintree, having won three of the season’s first four races and assured himself of a third world title, Fangio took his turn to sit in the slipstream as Moss became the first Briton to win his home grand prix.
In 1955, too, Moss won the Mille Miglia, the gruelling time trial around 1,000 miles of Italian public roads, in a Mercedes 300SLR sports car. During two reconnaissance runs his co-driver, the journalist Denis Jenkinson, prepared a set of pace notes that were inscribed on a roll of paper, held on a spindle inside a small aluminium box. As they charged from Brescia to Rome and back, Jenkinson scrolled through the notes and shouted instructions to the driver. They completed the course in 10 hours and seven minutes, at an average speed of 97.95mph – a record that stands in perpetuity, since the race was abandoned after several spectators were killed two years later.
When Mercedes bowed out of Formula One at the end of 1955, Moss returned to Maserati while Fangio went to Ferrari. Moss won at Monaco and Monza, finishing runner-up to Fangio in the championship for the second time in a row. However he had always hoped to win grands prix in a British car, and for 1957 he was happy to accept an invitation to drive a Vanwall, a Formula One car built by the industrialist Tony Vandervell at his factory in Acton, west London.
At Aintree, after a patchy start to the season, he fell out of the lead with a misfiring engine. Taking over the car of his team-mate Brooks, who was still suffering from the effects of a crash at Le Mans, he resumed in ninth place and eventually took the lead with 20 laps to go after the clutch of Jean Behra’s Maserati disintegrated and a puncture delayed Hawthorn’s Ferrari. More conclusive were the subsequent victories at Pescara and Monza, when the British car and its driver beat the Italian teams on their home ground.
Stirling Moss driving a Lotus-Climax 18 in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, 1961. Photograph: Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
After Fangio’s retirement in 1958, Moss became his undisputed heir. When Vanwall did not attend the first race of the year, in Buenos Aires, he was allowed to drive a little two-litre Cooper-Climax entered by his friend Rob Walker and, through a clever bluff involving pit stops, managed to beat the Ferraris. Back in the Vanwall, he won the Dutch, Portuguese and Moroccan grands prix, but was again condemned to second place in the final standings, this time behind Hawthorn.
Vandervell was so distressed by the death of Stuart Lewis-Evans, the team’s third driver, in Morocco at the end of the season that he withdrew his cars during the winter, leaving Moss without a drive for 1959. The solution was to form an alliance with Walker, the heir to a whisky fortune, whose Cooper-Climax would be looked after by Moss’s faithful mechanic, Alf Francis, a wartime refugee from Poland. The dark blue car suffered from unreliability until late summer, when Moss took it to victories in Portugal and Italy.
Moss and Walker remained in partnership for 1960, but a fine victory in Monaco with a new Lotus-Climax was followed at Spa by a bad crash during a practice session, the car losing a wheel at around 140mph and hitting a bank with such force that the driver suffered two broken legs, three crushed vertebrae and a broken nose. To general astonishment he was back at the wheel inside two months, winning his comeback race in a Lotus sports car.
In 1961 his virtuosity overcame the limitations of Walker’s ageing Lotus and its four-cylinder engine. Twice he outran the V6 Ferraris of Wolfgang von Trips, Phil Hill and Richie Ginther, first in a mad chase at Monaco and then, on a wet track, at the 14-mile Nürburgring. He was at the height of his powers and the only problem was to find cars good enough to match his brilliance.
Stirling Moss leaving hospital in Wimbledon, south-west London, after the crash at Goodwood in April 1962 that brought an end to his racing career. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
Before the start of the 1962 season Enzo Ferrari offered to supply his latest car, to be run in Walker’s colours. Old resentments were cast aside and Moss accepted this rare invitation. But an accident at Goodwood, at the wheel of a Lotus, meant that it was never put to the test.
No conclusive evidence has ever emerged to explain why, on that Easter Monday, his car went straight on at St Mary’s, a fast righthander, and hit an earth bank. It took 40 minutes to cut his unconscious body out of the crumpled wreckage.
The outward signs of physical damage – severe facial wounds, a crushed left cheekbone, a displaced eye socket, a broken arm, a double fracture of the leg at knee and ankle, and many bad cuts – were less significant than the deep bruising to the right side of his brain, which put him in a coma for a month and left him paralysed in the left side for six months, with his survival a matter of national concern.
After lengthy treatment, convalescence and corrective surgery, he started driving on the road again. And in May 1963, a year and a week after the accident, he returned to Goodwood, lapping in a Lotus sports car for half an hour on a damp track. When he returned to the pits, it was with bad news. The old reflexes, he believed, had been dulled, and without that sharpness he could only be an ex-racing driver. In the fullness of time, he came to regret the decision. Had he postponed it a further two or three years, he felt, his recovery would have been complete and, at 35, he might have had several seasons at the top ahead of him.
Instead he occupied himself with his property company. There was also the well remunerated business of being Stirling Moss, constantly in demand for commercial and ceremonial events. He participated in races for historic cars, taking advantage of a special dispensation that allowed him, and him alone of all the world’s racing drivers, to ignore modern safety regulations by competing in his old helmet and overalls and doing without seat-belts.
Stirling Moss waves to spectators from his 1955 Ferrari 750 Monza during the Ennstal Classic rally in Austria, 2013. Photograph: Leonhard Föger/Reuters
He celebrated his 81st birthday by racing at the Goodwood Revival; a few months earlier he had fallen 30ft down the lift shaft at his Mayfair home, breaking both his ankles. Towards the end of 2016, however, he fell ill during a trip to the far east. After several weeks in hospital in Singapore he was flown home to London and his withdrawal from public life was announced.
Always enthusiastic in his pursuit of what, refusing to abandon the vernacular of racing drivers of the 50s, he referred to as “crumpet”, he was married three times. The first marriage, in 1957, was to Katie Molson, the heir to a Canadian brewing fortune; they separated three years later. In 1964 he married Elaine Barbarino, an American public relations executive, with whom he had a daughter, Allison, in 1967, and from whom he was divorced the following year. He married Susie Paine, the daughter of an old friend, in 1980; their son, Elliot, was born later that year.
Appointed OBE in the 1959 new year’s honours list, and named BBC sports personality of the year in 1961, he was knighted in 2000.
He is survived by Susie and his children.
- Stirling Craufurd Moss, racing driver, born 17 September 1929; died 12 April 2020