This Is What It’s Like To Spend A Few Hours With Sir Stirling Moss
Photography by Tad Orlowski/Stirling Moss LTD
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Sir Stirling Moss at his London flat, and it was an exceptionally interesting visit. There was only so much time and only so much ground we could cover, but I think you’ll agree that Sir Stirling Moss is an icon we can still aspire to emulate—and not just when we’re driving.
Tad Orlowski: Did you expect to be involved in motor racing from a very early age?
Sir Stirling Moss: My father was a dentist, but he raced at Brooklands and Indianapolis. He finished 14th, by the way. My mother did trials and hill climbs, so I grow up with cars. I had my first car when I was six. It was on the farm, not on the roads. When I was sixteen, I got Morgan 3-Wheeler, and after that, I went on to four wheel MG TB coupe which was a nice-looking little car…and I said to my father that I want it to race!
Well, actually, there was no racing, but hillclimbs in UK back then. He said alright, but only if I had to wear a crash helmet! I was very upset, and told my father that it is very sissy kind of thing to wear a helmet. All the famous fast drivers from the period like (Louis) Chiron didn’t wear them. And that how it started, really.
TO: Which emotions triggered the most when you started racing? Was it need for a battle, danger, or just raw passion?
SSM: When you are 17 years old, you want to do something that involves danger—that was exciting. One of the main reasons I went in to motorsport—against riding horses which I was quite good at—was because of the danger. Of course in my career right up to 1962 it was still dangerous sport. I mean now it’s very safe, but then it wasn’t because very few cars were made for racing. You had to use production parts, and cars didn’t have specially made things other then brakes and wheels. In my career, safety didn’t involve me.
It was after me when the safety really came into motorsport. It was very early beginning in 1962 when it started coming in. The main people into safety were Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. I already retired back then, so it didn’t concern me. In the times when I raced, if there were trees, marshals put a straw bale in front of it. And, of course, because of possible fires I never raced with a seatbelt.
TO: Was patriotism the only reason why you have raced only in British cars at the beginning of your career?
SSM: When I started, I was very patriotic; the war was just over and I was very pro-English. Obviously, I wanted to drive British cars. I drove for John Heath with his car called HWM (Hersham and Walton Motors), which was just a garage-built car. We went around Europe because there was no racing in England, and we were not allowed to race on the roads—there were only hill climbs. So to race on the proper race track and circuit I had to go abroad.
In 1953, I was considering buying and racing non-English car, a Maserati. I thought it was a good idea since I had a support of the local British press as well. They thought it’s better to have foreign car with the British driver winning, then not. With the Maserati, good things happened to me at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bern. First day practice was wet but I managed to qualify on pole abobe Fangio, Farina… all the Ferraris and Maseratis. Obviously, the next day it was dry, so therefore I was much quicker. That gave me non-trade back to Maserati, who ultimately asked me to drive for them officially. Then, in 1955, I joined Mercedes, and after that I drove for Rob Walker.
TO: What was it like to be a teammate with Juan Manuel Fangio?
SSM: He was the most humble, quiet person. I could never talk to him. I could speak a bit of Italian, he could speak Italian a bit, and I couldn’t have a discussion with him. We couldn’t just sit and talk. I have a very great respect for him, because in my mind he was one of the greatest drivers in the world.
I knew him, I raced against him quite early on, and in 1955 we joined Mercedes. Therefore, I had opportunity to drive very close behind him—about a meter, meter and a half. We were known as a “train”—I was learning so much back then!
I remember Alfred Neubauer said to me: “I am worried about you following Fangio. What if he goes off the road?” I said that Fangio doesn’t go off! It was very interesting relationship. Almost like father and son. He cared for me even though we couldn’t discuss things. He knew I would always race there behind him, and it didn’t worry him. Other drivers were very concerned—he wasn’t.
He never went over the edge and throw the dirt at me. He was just a gentleman and fantastic driver. In Formula 1 he was certainly faster than me. I could beat him in sports cars, though. I asked him why he didn’t like sports cars. He said, “I like to see my front wheels,” which I can’t understand ’cause you don’t look at your wheels, you look 200 meters down the road while racing! He was absolutely wonderful man.
TO: You were pioneer in turning racing into private business. How did it all start ?
SSM: In the old days, you were not allowed any adverts on cars. The only advert I carried back then was in 1955 when we went to Argentina and we had to carry one small sign of the local fuel company, YPF. On my overalls, all I had was Dunlop or Pirelli-depending from the race. That was only advertising anybody had. All the extras were coming from the other sides.
If you won a race and you were running on Esso or BP fuel, they would pay a bonus. That was the only extra money. You got paid starting money, and that’s it. There was very little free stuff back then. However I had a very good contract with Shell at the beginning of my career. Then I moved over to BP. That became a problem. Very often companies like Aston Martin, for example, were under contract to an oil company. They were under contract to Esso, and I was under to BP. I had to negotiate my contract. Whenever I was racing for the team I could run on their fuel but under my own I had to use BP.
TO: What were you thoughts about the future after recovering from your massive crash back in 1962?
SSM: After the crash I was unconscious for a month and paralyzed down one side for six months. It took me a long time to get back to the racing car. Normally, if I would have crashed I would be back racing very quickly. But with the 1962 crash it was much more difficult because I had a brain injury. That slowed me down a lot. On top of that, the press started to push me and asked me when I will be racing again. I put it off as long as I could, but I think it wasn’t long enough.
Eventually, I went down to Goodwood for the test run. My times were quite good enough, but my concentration was gone and I can realize that everything before the accident I was doing automatically. I now had conscious thoughts. I knew it wouldn’t work. I could see, “That’s going to be dangerous…” and I didn’t want to get killed. So I gave up. I think I have made the decision two years too early, mainly because of the pressure coming from the press that forced me to do it.
TO: What kept you going in those difficult times after retiring in 1962? I suppose it must have been very difficult and frustrating seeing yourself out of the business that you were dedicated to for such a long time.
SSM: I found myself at the age of 32 having never worked for a living. I had no work, I just paid to play. I had no experience in anything apart from racing, which I couldn’t sell. It was obviously pretty bad, because if you know nothing about anything there are two things you can be.
One is that you can be an estate agent, and the other one is you be a member of the Parliament, and I didn’t want to be that either. [laughs] So I decided to go into property, and this is what I am still doing today. In 1962, my father was beginning to retire. He had 16 different dentist shops with partners all over London. Instead of letting this business be sold, I took them over and would rent out dental business on the ground floor, and flats above it.
TO: You have a famous love for gadgets. Was it something you’ve always liked since the early days?
SM: Me and my father, we were always interested in technology. My father invented a thing called the “Morrison Shelter”. That was during the war. It was kind of a protection sleeping cage against possible debris coming down after the bombings at night. Of course it wouldn’t stand the direct hit, but if the bomb was close by, we felt safe in our home and own beds. It was my father’s patent but because it was a time of war, Herbert Morrison, who was Ministry of Home Security, put his name on it quite incorrectly in my mind.
My father also had another invention during the war. Barrage balloons, which protected some areas to be bombed, were popular back then. Unfortunately, sometimes they would slip off and wouldn’t take the plane down. My father designed a system that would launch the rocket instantly if a plane hit the balloon. A rocket went, shot up, and exploded at the top, and blew the plane up. He just enjoyed inventing things, and that is why I love and have gadgets around the house. When I was six years old, my father made me a suit of armor. He just bought a sheets of metal and sawed it up. He was just very handy with his hands.
TO: As a famous racing driver, you must have some great taste in cars. What is your daily driver?
SM: I don’t own a road car at all. My wife has an Aston Martin Cygnet. I used to have a Honda scooter but I sold it and now I drive a Renault Twizy. It is an electric car so costs nothing in fuel, road tax, city congestion charging, or parking. It has a radius of 50 miles on one charge and can get up to 50 mph. It is the perfect transport for driving in London. I also have a very unusual OSCA FS372. It is the only one like it in the world because it has desmodromic valves, which means positive operation of the valves.
TO: How would you summarize your fame and appearances these days as a very busy and active man?
SM: After you retire, there is only one thing you can do, and it’s die. I don’t want to die, so I have no intention of retiring. The thought for me of getting up and opening my diary, and there is nothing to do…is terrible. So I am still connected. Connected with the properties and buildings, I am changing a few things at my home. I still do a lot of travel in connection with racing. I work quite a lot for car companies like Mercedes or Aston Martin, and I hope to be doing that as long as I can.
Special thanks to Sir Stirling Moss for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this photo shoot and interview. To follow photographer Tad Orlowski’s work, please visit his website.