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A Perfect Day - Visit to the Mike Hawthorn Museum - Sunday 31 August 2014

A Perfect Day On a perfect Sunday, 31st August, 2014, a small group of motor enthusiasts largely dominated by Alfisti from Sussex and Kent gathered in Newdigate, Surrey. This was the occasion of a specially arranged visit to Nigel Webb’s private museum dedicated to John Michael (Mike) Hawthorn. The weather for the visit was glorious and so were the cars, both those in the museum and the examples brought by enthusiasts.

In current times our grand prix drivers, dressed in multi layered fire retardant fabric racing suits, fireproof balaclavas, socks and underwear together with their padded hand laid carbon fibre helmets, are buckled and belted into moulded Kevlar seats. Their cars are monitored by computer, refreshment is supplied by a “drinks system” no more complicated than a screen wash and they are surrounded by highly professional engineers, technicians, consultants and advisers of all types supported by a factory full of employees. The task is extremely demanding, the expectations are sky high and, in the high octane atmosphere, they are required to entertain.

However, the treat laid out on an August Sunday was to be transported back to a time when triumph and tragedy went hand in hand around the racing circuit. These were the days when cars were cars, men were men and pansies were quite definitely flowers. You can get a taste of this by watching the Pathe newsclip of the French Grand Prix at Rheims in 1953 on YouTube at This was a race won by a young upstart called Mike Hawthorn who had been invited that season to drive for Scuderia Ferrari.

The race was widely acclaimed as “the Grand Prix of the century” and, throughout, Mike Hawthorne and Juan Fangio were engaged in an utterly enthralling wheel to wheel battle. In the very final stages of the last lap, Hawthorne, driving a Ferrari 500, managed to get a “tow” down the finishing straight which allowed him to pass Fangio’s Maserati A6GCM to claim victory in the last few hundred metres of the 300 mile race around the French countryside. Just a few seconds later the line was crossed by Froilan Gonzales (Maserati), Alberto Ascari (Ferrari) and a short time after that by Giuseppe Farina (Ferrari). Ascari had started from pole and Hawthorn from row three. Such was the domination of Ferrari and Maserati that they occupied the top nine positions across the line and the first finisher in a car of a different marque was Jean Behra in a Gordini T16.

The film shows Hawthorn wrestling the wheel of the Ferrari 500 2 litre dressed in a zip fastened jacket over a cotton shirt and bow tie. He sat in an open cockpit without a harness with his leather driving gloves and a composite and shellac peaked helmet on his head. Reims was a very smooth, very fast circuit and it suited Hawthorn well and was where he won two of his three Grand Prix. The second win was in 1958 but the race was marred by a crash in which Ferrari driver Luigi Musso was thrown out of his Ferrari and suffered fatal injuries. That was the way of things on those days, triumph was never very far away from tragedy.

The Rheims win in 1953 was notable not just for Hawthorn’s epic race against Fangio but also for the fact that he was probably the No. 3 if not the No. 4 of the Ferrari drivers. Alberto Ascari was the world champion from 1952 and he went on to win the 1953 title as well. There were no team orders, no wings, no sulking in the cockpit. It was all go as the Pathe film demonstrates.

Mike Hawthorn had been signed by Enzo Ferrari after a rather indifferent showing at a trial race towards the end of the 1952 season. He was nevertheless considered good enough for the works team and in 1953 made a spectacular start with a 4th place in his first race at the Argentine Grand Prix, 3rd place in the Buenos Aires Grand Place two weeks later, a crash at the Syracuse Grand Prix after that, then 2nd place at Pau, a DNF on the Milli Miglia followed by three consecutive 1st places, variously, at Silverstone (International Trophy and Sports car races) and a week later in the Ulster Trophy. In those days wins were hard to come by because car reliability and avoiding crashes were a real challenge.

As well as driving for Enzo Ferrari, Hawthorn was also a works Jaguar driver and he raced the D type at Le Mans. In those days the top drivers would alternate between the Grand Prix F1 and F2 races and Sports car races. A special and most intimate picture of the times is that available on another YouTube at . This is a lap of Le Mans in 1956 in a D type driven by Mike Hawthorn with a live commentary from the man himself.

When you watch this wonderful archive footage you will see a technician with a knotted handkerchief attending to Mike’s wiring for sound. Compare this to the sponsors logo head gear of nowadays. Hawthorn provides a brilliant commentary and you will be struck by the speed of the Jag on this exhibition lap of a racing circuit which, at the time, was open to the public and populated by cyclists, mopeds and cars driven all over the place by the French. Look out for Hawthorn avoiding a cyclist just before starting down the Mulsanne straight.

He tells us the racing speed of these cars on Mulsanne would be between 175 and 185 mph. There is no Armco, just the odd bale of hay standing before the trees! However, what the experienced eye will pick out is the very precise and stable handling of the D type Jaguar.

Mike Hawthorn’s win at Le Mans in 1955 was a very sad affair. A crash early in the race caused the death of more than eighty spectators. The event had a profound effect upon motor racing circuits and many races that year were cancelled until improvements were made to provide more safety.

The World Championship success came in 1958 and, as these things do, it went down to the wire in a contest between Mike Hawthorn driving the Ferrari 246 and Stirling Moss in the Vanwall. The country was divided and Hawthorn won by a single point by driving to second place in the Moroccan Grand Prix at Casablanca. As happened in those days, victory that season came with tragedy with the death of Peter Collins, a very good friend of Mike Hawthorn, at Nurburgring in August. Collins had won the British Grand Prix earlier that summer and he was a favourite of Enzo Ferrari.

History shows that Stirling Moss won more races but Mike Hawthorn was there when it counted at the end of the season and claimed the 1958 title. The season was probably Stirling’s best chance of winning the championship but even he recognised that Hawthorn was an exceptional talent. Indeed, early in the season Stirling played a very honourable and distinguished part in assisting Hawthorn overturn a disqualification in the Portuguese Grand Prix.

One cannot begin to imagine how today’s press would react and deal with the gentlemen drivers of the 1950’s. What made them so special was their ability to confront danger with supreme skill and confidence.

Mike Hawthrorn Museum 1

881 VDU, Mike Hawthorn’s 3.4 Mk.1 Jaguar used for saloon car racing and Mike’s daily driver.
This car has been completely rebuilt and restored following the fatal crash.


Mike Hawthorn Museum 2

The cockpit of a Jaguar D type which carries the names of
Mike Hawthorn, Ivor Bueband Win Percy.


Mike Hawthorn Museum 3

Nigel Webb’s Jaguar Mk VII which finished 8th in the 1998 Peking to Paris rally.
It is now used to tow historic Jags to racing circuits.

John Third


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