‘Who do you think you are — Stirling Moss?’ a genially menacing traffic cop would ask a hapless motorway transgressor. At the peak of his popularity as the most successful English motor-racing driver, Moss personified the glamorous daredevilry of racing at top speed.
Richard Williams, the author of this sympathetic, exhaustive anatomy of an international sporting hero, part-time playboy (‘chasing crumpet’) and ultimate family man, is a veteran sportswriter for national broadsheets. He has also written critically acclaimed books, including one with the wonderfully comprehensive title A Race with Love and Death. This new portrait of Moss is based on close acquaintance with all sorts of people involved in motor racing, and on research enriched by access to Moss’s diaries, notebooks and scrapbooks.
Between 1947 and 1962, as a professional racing driver, in cars of 108 different marques, Moss achieved 212 victories in 529 races (a fortune in prize money) and kept records of the dates, tracks, cars and most important rival competitors, which Williams now passes on. Obsessive fans of Formula 1 will no doubt be enthralled by this statistical account.
Moss was born in London in 1929. ‘It was thanks to a grandfather’s decision in the 19th century,’ says Williams, ‘that his branch of the Moses family of Ashkenazi Jews, transplanted from Germany to London, became known as Moss.’ Moss’s Scottish mother named him Stirling in commemoration of William Wallace’s victory against England at the Battle of Stirling in 1297. In Williams’s public-relations-savvy opinion:
‘Stirling Moss’ was perfect, a crisp dot-dot-dash cadence, distinctive, resonant, memorable. Easy on the tongue and with a headline-friendly surname in the bold type of tabloid newspapers.
His improved name did not protect Moss from anti-Semitism when he was a pupil at Haileybury College. As a three-quarter, he sprinted up the wing of the rugby field, and his more bigoted schoolmates would shout ‘Catch the Yid!’ Ostracism, no matter how adolescently jocular, must have been acutely distressing. In spite of Moss’s intelligence and ambition — or perhaps because of them — he was evidently put off public-school education. He failed his exams and dropped out of Haileybury at the age of 16. His father, a dentist and founder of a prosperous chain of dental surgeries, was disappointed that his son was obviously unfit to follow suit, yet generously encouraged his passion for cars. Stirling was only 17 when he first raced, in a minor contest, and attracted enough attention to be nicknamed ‘The Boy’.
Winning motor races demands the of enthusiasm, stamina, nerves and skill of a toreador. Moss learned from his friend Juan Fangio, the Argentinian motor-racing ace, whose fortitude in middle age seemed superhuman, that high morale and long-lasting strength could be sustained by taking pills containing amphetamines. Williams does not mention cocaine chewing-gum, but that too can be useful. Moss had exercised regularly as a boy on the family farm in Berkshire, and he must have been endowed with a powerful supply of adrenaline. As Williams shows, he was courageous (or reckless) from the very start. Nor was his style of driving inhibited by his growing knowledge of his car’s mechanical capacity. He risked racing beyond that safe potential, slithering around dangerous corners at 70 m.p.h. and thundering down straights at 140 m.p.h., causing the gearbox and brake system to collapse and even the special tyres to explode.
The biography’s epigraph, composed by Alfred Wright in Sporting Life in 1959, makes an excellent summary of Moss’s way of gambling on his machine and himself: ‘An automobile race in which Stirling Moss drives a car can have one of two endings. Either Moss wins, or Moss breaks down and someone else wins.’ In spite of being injured in two catastrophic crashes, there were great net gains. As a national hero, he was exempt from national service and was later honoured with a knighthood. He designed and built a holiday house in the Bahamas, enjoyed living on expense accounts and as a shrewd investor of his own money, was able to leave most of his £22 million estate to his devoted third wife and two children.
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