Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

Porridge!

Piers Courage

Piers Courage

Some drivers are only interested in driving a fit car as fast as their right foot can make it go. Others have a more technical approach and spend most of the time examining the nuts and bolts. Others do it for the bird pulling power that a suit of Nomex and a gaudily painted helmet installs. Graham Hill managed to combine all three. Jackie Stewart managed two and Peter Gethin one. In his own right, each driver, in those days, was a colourful character of some hue or another.

Then there was Piers Courage.

I knew Piers reasonably well. In those days I had a restaurant in Brentwood in Essex. At times various members of the racing fraternity dropped in for a meal and a chat. Kenny Baker was an ex-Battle of Britain pilot who was now managing director of a industrial ventilation construction company and owned and raced a team called Buckmaster Racing. One of his fellow directors was Fred Oliver, father of Jack Oliver. Kenny was a frequent diner in the restaurant and allowed me to use his workshops to fiddle with my eternally sick car and even allowed me to enter it in races under his team’s banner at times. Later he offered me a directorship in his company so that another company, in which I held a directorship, could take on demolition and construction work under his banner of DR Construction. Kenny also provided a vehicle for Jack to go racing in.

Piers I met when I was racing in the decidedly dodgy F500 category. He was in a bit of a quandary. When he had first expressed a desire to go racing his father, the head of the Courage brewing family, had indulge him. It gave him a break from studying to be an accountant. When Courage decided to chuck in the studies and have a go at racing for real, his family were far from pleased and refused to support him further. If he wanted to race he had to find the cash in other bottles. Piers family lived a few miles from my restaurant and would drop in occasionally for a meal and natter. Piers was a firm favourite of the waitresses and charmed many of the men who were dining there. Horse riding was the thing at the time and Jack and a number of the others used to spend any morning we weren’t otherwise engage charging around South Weald on horseback. Unfortunately the stable became a victim of the Brentwood Bypass and most of us had to find something less fun to pay for the twirly bits. Piers was a gallant rider, between worrying about the safety of his mount and soaring over any convenient log, he protested that he wasn’t keen on riding. It was hard to believe. But then, Piers was a man of many contradictions.

When the YPF announced that they were going to hold a four week Temporada for Formula Two cars at the end of the 1968 European Season there was a bit of a scramble to get aboard the plane that would take us to the land of the Gaucho, and, more importantly, some of the most beautiful women in the world. Lotus was represented by Jack Oliver and I was named as Team Manager. (I’ve probably mentioned this all before but.....). Most of the other top teams were in the line-up and there were a few cars flown out for a gaggle of Argentine drivers to jockey.

The YPF were generous hosts and one of their amenities, of which we were happy to take advantage, was the sports and social club. And it wasn’t because they were picking up the bill for whatever food or drink we wanted. A big enticement was the dozens of beautiful, bikini clad, women that were also disporting their wares there. I was sitting on a lounger beside the pool, trying not to look too lecherous, next to Piers, when he dragged me away from the ogling with a surprising question.

“Can you dive?”

I quickly studied the erotic elements of the question but had to admit that I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about.

Piers nodded to the high-diving board at the end of the pool.

“Have you ever dived off the top board?” he asked.

I tore my eyes off the slender, raven haired brunette I had been exercising my fantasy on, and looked where he was pointing. The top board seemed to be out of focus.

I had to admit that I had never ’dived’ from anything that high but added, to preserve the overtones of machismo, that I had jumped.

Piers sat there for a few minutes gazing at the high platform. Without a word he stood up and walked toward the steps. He had my attention.

As he rose, step by step, he gained the attention of most of the other sunbathers.

Piers Courage and wife Sally at Thruxton

Piers Courage and wife Sally at Thruxton

Piers reach the high diving board, walked to the edge and looked over, hesitated, backed off a little and then in one movement, walked forward and launched himself off into space. In his mind he had obviously been committed to an elegant Swan Dive. For a moment it looked good. Unfortunately it was a lot further down than he had ever attempted that particular dive before. He over rotated and by the time he hit the water was falling back first.

Conversation dried up on the loungers as everyone leant forward expecting to see Piers lifeless body float to the surface. As I was with him I felt called upon to do something, so I jumped up and ran to the end of the pool as Piers came to the surface and gave a reassuring wave.

Instead of coming back to the lounger he made for the changing rooms so I followed. He wasn’t happy. His back was a livid red and he said that his head felt like it had been whacked with a cricket bat.

I drove Piers back to the hotel. He didn’t complain but said he was going to bed. Bed at 5.30pm in the Ciudad de la Noche? He had to be in a bad way.

When I went down to breakfast the next morning Piers was already there. He didn’t look too hot. When I asked after his health he confessed that he wasn’t in tennis and horse riding mode. When he got up to leave he walked like a geriatric on valium.

Later I got a look at his back. I was amazed that he was walking at all. It looked like something Henri Matisse might have knocked up on a boring Monday with a palette confined to black, blue and red.

Another example of the way Piers’ mind worked was when we were flying somewhere in an old WW2 Fokker aircraft.

I was sitting next to Piers and trying to get some sleep when out of the blue he asked me if I thought I could fly the aircraft if the pilot drop dead. That got my attention. Did he know something I didn’t? No, it was just one of his unusual little musings on current situations.

I told him I thought I could. After all, a plane is a plane is a plane.

He then wanted to know if I thought he would be able to fly it.

I asked him if he had any experience of flying an aircraft and he said he had occasionally had the chance to pole light aircraft that he had been flying in. I couldn’t see where the conversation was going so I assured him that it would be no problem and settled down to sleep again.

I felt him get up and followed his progress down the aisle of the plane through half closed eyes. I saw him stop one of the stewardesses and say something to her. She nodded and led him through the curtain at he front of the plane. The idea that Piers was pulling the stewardess did flit through my mind but didn’t lodge. A few minutes later the plane gave a bit of a lurch and I remembered Piers interest in flying the plane.

Everything went smoothly after that. Piers came back to his seat. I asked him where he had been. He said he had been flying the plane. Evidently he had gone to the cockpit, told the pilot his problem and the pilot had allowed him to take control.

I was glad he hadn’t been doing anything dangerous.

Although in a car Piers was a decisive and talented driver, out of the car he was very nervous. I once saw a mechanic drop a spanner behind him and he spun round as if the Zulus were on the attack. He died in an horrific accident, at Zandvoort in Holland, trapped in a magnesium fire when his car went off the track in a Formula Two race. (See Ingrid Pitt’s Motor Racing Is Dangerous PT.1) He was a great bloke, completely different from any of the other drivers but very popular.

Posted 26/4/2011

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing