New Zealand Classic Car
LUNCH WITH BILL GAVIN
WHEN MAKING FRIENDS WITH RACING DRIVERS WAS A MENTALHEALTH RISK
“THE MAN WITH THE INTERESTING LIFE”
When my wife refers to Bill Gavin, she invariably adds, for context: “The man with the interesting life”. In his 82 years so far, he has trained to be a doctor (this was first), then planned to be a car stylist, spent the ’60s following motor racing across the planet, lived in the Playboy mansion, married a fashion model, and managed a works Ferrari campaign. The ’60s was a fun-filled decade. Then we get to the ’70s, and Bill’s involvement in the world of pop music, as manager of groups at opposite ends of the spectrum. After that came his motion-picture career. I think my wife sums Bill Gavin up perfectly — and that’s before we even mention Bill writing a best-selling book on one of the world’s most popular drivers of all time, who happened to be one of his closest friends. Of course, it was a time when becoming friendly with racing drivers meant the prospect of pain and sadness, as fatalities were not uncommon, and Bill had more than his fair share of that pain too.
We meet for lunch straight after Bill has been to see his doctor. He reports: “I’m feeling better than I have for two to three years.”
To begin, I ask how his life in motor sport started.
“I was building boats with my friend John Draffin; his brother Roy held the waterspeed record at the time and was contacted by the Grand Prix [GP] people when they discovered that Stirling Moss had taken up waterskiing,” Bill explains. “Some tickets to the 1956 race were part of the arrangement, so I went along. It was a life-changing moment. I was 19 and doing medical intermediate papers at [the University of] Otago, but, after going to Ardmore, I spent all my time buying magazines and books to learn everything I could about motor racing; I quickly became obsessed. Previously, my interests were predominantly beer and girls — but I found that motor racing was easy to combine with those other hobbies.”
In November 1958, shortly after his 22nd birthday, Bill had another life-changing moment: “So often in my life, interesting things have happened to me while drinking in bars; I was having a beer in the City Hotel in Dunedin and got chatting to the sports editor of
The Evening Star, who wanted to know if I was going Teretonga the next weekend. ‘Yes,’ I lied, only to be asked, ‘Could you cover it for us?’.”
Even better now
Bill was subsequently engaged to cover all the races in the upcoming summer series, starting with the 1959 GP back at Ardmore.
“It was fantastic,” he enthuses, “70,000 people; amazing times.”
By this time, Bill had pretty much made the decision that medicine was not for him: “I left Otago; I had about half a science degree, so decided to cross-credit what I had into an engineering degree and become a car stylist in either the UK or America — and then I met another bloke in a bar …”
Just before Easter in 1959, Bill met
Des Mahoney in Hotel Debrett in Auckland. Des wrote about motor racing, among many other topics, and achieved everlasting stardom in the motor racing fraternity of New Zealand, for not only writing Trio at the Top but also, with that title, giving us a collective term with which to refer to Bruce Mclaren, Denny Hulme, and Chris Amon. “Des asked if I was still writing about motor racing. After I confirmed that I was, he asked if I was going to the next meeting at Levin. ‘Yes,’ I lied — and, once again, ‘Could you cover it for us?’ About that time, I started to think that this wasn’t a bad way of making a living, but, to optimize my earning ability, [I thought that] I’d better do it properly.”
During the 1960 summer series, Bill started thinking seriously about heading to Europe.
“I’d become friendly with a number of the local drivers — Bruce, of course, was already an international driver by then, and I’d got to know him reasonably well, but also George Lawton and Denny.”
In 1958, Mclaren had been the first recipient of the Driver to Europe scheme; after no driver was selected for 1959, two were chosen for 1960, because their performances were considered equally meritorious.
“When George and Denny were announced as the joint winners, I decided I was going with them. I had accumulated a huge collection of motor racing books and sold them to Johnny Mansel — that gave me about half my fare. Believe it or not, those books ended up with a collector in Karaka; he insisted on giving them back to me — so they’ve gone full circle.
They [George and Denny] left earlier than me, along with their manager Feo Stanton. I arrived in late May — straight off the boat at Southampton and then onto a train to Waterloo, where the three of them were waiting to collect me in a MKVII Jag. I slept on a fold-out sofa in their house in Surrey and went with them to Snetterton, my first car race meeting outside of New Zealand.”
Shortly afterwards, Bill was on his way to his first Formula 1 race (F1).
“I’d met an Australian guy on the boat whose plan was to buy an Anglia and drive it to Monaco for the Grand Prix; that was too good an opportunity to turn down,” he recalls. “Stirling [Moss] won and Bruce was second; and I was friends with both of them, so it was a good start.”
Starting to lose friends
The Dutch GP was next.
“I caught a ride with Bruce from Monaco, and shortly afterwards returned with
Jack Brabham from the Belgian [GP],” Bill says. “It never really occurred to me that
I was being chauffeured by the current world champion; I’d got to know him in New Zealand — it sort of just happened, as a result of relationships I’d built up. Most of the other journalists were much older, and most didn’t have the same sort of access. It was about that time that Stirling introduced me to Chris Bristow, a young driver from the East End who was about my age and who was very fast. The three of us went out at Zandvoort, and Chris and I became instant best friends; I thought, I’ve got a friend for life here — and then, of course, that terrible weekend.”
There is not another race in F1 history as tragic as the 1960 Belgian GP. Moss was terribly injured, but, even worse, Alan Stacey (driving a Lotus, like Moss) and Bristow were both killed in separate accidents.
“My friendship with Bristow lasted all of two weeks,” Bill says.
I wonder aloud how drivers like
Bruce Mclaren dealt with a weekend like that.
He tells me, “Jack had won and Bruce was second — so, a Cooper 1-2. I was at
the Cooper table at dinner but there was nothing to celebrate. The Lotus team were at an adjacent table. Because Stacey was one of their drivers, the mood was absolutely sombre. Poor Innes (Ireland, the Lotus number one) was so despondent that Jack took a bottle of champagne from the Cooper table over to the Lotus lads and poured them all a glass. Thinking back, that could [have been] … seen as being insensitive, but it was the best thing — it was a gesture to say, ‘We’re all a part of this’.”
… and again
Lawton and Hulme had taken their Formula 2 Coopers with them and were also to share a new Formula Junior Cooper T52.
“In August, Denny was taking the Junior to Italy for four races and I went along — I think he knew I wasn’t a mechanic, but that didn’t matter, because there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix; I was the supervisor!” Bill says. “The big race was at Pescara, which was a road circuit over 16 miles [26km] around — even longer than the Nürburgring. Denny won — he was brilliant — and the trophy was presented to him by none other than Juan-manuel Fangio. Denny handed him his autograph book, in which Fangio wrote some nice words that roughly translate to ‘To the very clever winner of the Grand Prix of Pescara’. We left straight after prize-giving, heading back to England; I was driving when we both woke up doing about 70 miles an hour in a ditch.”
Shortly after returning from the ditch, Denny, George, and manager Feo Stanton headed for Scandinavia. Bill didn’t go, as he was continuing his quest to break into the world of motor racing journalism. Even six decades on, he recalls the emotion of learning of George’s death in Denmark: “It was devastating. Feo asked me to phone George’s father in Whangarei — gosh, that was hard.”
Editor in chief
It was in late 1960 that Bill formed two of his closest friendships among the F1 fraternity: “Bruce introduced me to Jo Bonnier, and we became very tight, and then there was Jimmy [Clark], who came and stayed with me when he got back from the trip to New Zealand in early ’61 — he was really quite cross that I hadn’t gone there with him.”
In fact, Bill didn’t return to New Zealand until the ’70s.
“I’d always intended coming home for the Tasman Series, but, for one reason or another, it never happened.”
Unsurprisingly, it was meeting a bloke in a bar that gave Bill his next big break.
“I was in the Steering Wheel Club and got chatting to Ted Eves, who was then the editor of Autocourse, which was a quarterly at that time. He told me he was leaving and that I should see about replacing him,” Bill says.
An interview was arranged in London, but first Bill had to get Feo Stanton’s MKVII Jag to Liverpool, where it was to be shipped back to New Zealand.
“The car burnt so much fuel that I’d drained all my money,” Bill remembers. “I arrived at Liverpool Station, and, realizing I was short, I explained my predicament to the ticket collector, who told me I couldn’t pay
by cheque. He took pity on me. He couldn’t just give me a ticket, so he opened his wallet and gave me enough money for the fare. I got his address and posted him the money the following day. I ran to the train and then turned up for the interview without having had time to shave — I was in the clothes I’d slept in.”
Bill had taken along clippings of race reports that he’d done in New Zealand and, despite his scruffy appearance, impressed sufficiently to be given the job — but on one condition: “They didn’t like ‘Bill Gavin’, for some reason, and insisted I go with my initials”, and so the international writing career of ‘WD Gavin’ was launched.
“I often think back on that ticket guy in Liverpool,” he says. “Who knows where I might have ended up if I’d missed that interview?”
Bill’s new job meant that he would attend all the F1 and World Sportscar Championship races in 1961.
“I told them where I was going, and it never seemed to be a problem,” he says. “There was a non-championship race at Pau in south-western France, and I thought that sounded like some fun — which it was, because Jimmy [Clark] won and Jo [Bonnier] was second.
“I look back, you know, and think how extraordinary it all was. I’d absolutely fallen on my feet with these wonderfully generous owners of the magazine. People like Eoin [Young] and I had a major advantage in not being British; we hadn’t grown up in their class system with inbuilt limitations because of what school we went to or what we sounded like. I doubt a 24-year-old English motor racing enthusiast would have turned up to an interview unshaven and not in a suit. Being colonials was a major benefit, because they had no idea how to judge you.”
… and Jack of all trades
This gig opened up new avenues for Bill. “One of my first events was the RAC Rally; I’d never seen a rally before, let alone covered one,” he says.
Bill also found himself doing road tests, and his reputation had developed to the extent that, by the end of 1963, he left Autocourse and freelanced.
“I figured out there was money to be made by selling my stories to magazines in different countries: Italy, Germany, France, Argentina.”
In fact, it was Bill’s newest Gp-driving friend who had been pushing the idea of freelancing: “Carel Godin de Beaufort was a huge Dutchman and a lovely man. He was a member of the aristocracy and typically eccentric; we just seemed to hit it off.”
Bill wasn’t just taking notes during the races; “I was also doing my own photography. At the end of a race, I’d stay in the ‘Press Box’ — such as they were in those days — write the race report, process the film back in the hotel, ‘washing’ them in the bidet, and then get it in the post.”
Multiple magazines meant multiple copies, and my head starts hurting as Bill
explains the process prior to carbon paper being available.
Life as a freelancer
Bill then casually mentions that he lived in Modena for a bit in ’63.
“It was a good central location for going to European races, and it meant people thought I was well connected at Ferrari,” he explains.
As is seemingly his way, Bill soon made friends with well-connected people. In Modena, that meant moving into the palace, where he “lived like a prince”. He was still often getting rides to races with drivers: “Jimmy and I travelled so much together — especially in America. There had been a number of proposals for an authorized Jim Clark biography. Jimmy was getting offers, and eventually a publisher approached me. I’d never written a book before — come to think of it, I’ve never written one since — but Jimmy was happy that it was me doing it, and that’s how The Jim Clark Story came about.”
I mention to Bill that, of all the books on one of motor racing’s most universally loved drivers, his is often cited as the best, but his modesty is such that his only response is: “I suppose I was fortunate enough to know him the best; he read the manuscript, you know, but it didn’t stop him telling me, ‘I wish you’d been beside me when I was reading it’. He told me that at Hockenheim; it was the first time I’d seen him since it had been published.”
That sad day
We’re slightly out of sequence, but I ask about Clark’s last fateful race.
“I knew something was weird when he didn’t come around, so I went to the control tower and barged my way in. I must have blanked out my reaction, because, years later, Chris [Amon] told me that he’d found me at the bottom of the tower crying my eyes out.”
That was April 1968, and, in the eight years since Bill had arrived in Europe, he’d lost close friends, including Chris Bristow, George Lawton, and Carel de Beaufort, who was killed in 1964, but nothing hit him like the loss of Clark.
“He really was special,” Bill says.
Next month, we learn more about
“the interesting life” of New Zealander Bill Gavin, including his close involvement in the movie Grand Prix.