David Purley – Home Town Hero

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David Purley always looked calm and comfortable behind the wheel of a race carJust a few yards from my garden gate the tides of the English Channel lap against the shoreline, it was here just a short distance out to sea that the bright light of David Purley’s life was extinguished in 2nd July 1985; at just 40 years old.

Early Days

David was the Son of Charles Purley, founder of LEC refrigeration based in Bognor Regis, a company that performed very well with a huge export market after the war; it even had its own airfield alongside the factory. At just 17, David was the youngest holder of a UK flight licence and was officially employed as the company’s pilot and locals tell of young David often buzzing the beaches of Bognor. He would fly extensively for the firm, all over Europe and down to Africa but after a family dispute David decided to join the Coldstream Guards and found his way to Sandhurst Military Academy where he endured officer training. Details from his active service in Aden reveal his armoured car hit a land mine and the explosion took six lives; Second Lieutenant Purley was the only one to survive. Having qualified as a paratrooper David again cheated certain death when his shoot failed to open after exiting an RAF Hercules; he managed to manoeuvre onto the top of his Platoon Sergeants canopy below and survived the 10,000 Total desperation as Purley looks to circuit officials and help releasing Roger Williamson from the burning wreckagefoot drop.

Racing & Tragedy

Leaving the army in 1968 Purley took up motor racing, first with an AC Cobra then moving to single seat Formula 3 with a Brabham BT28. It was this car that took him to victory in 1970 at The Grand Prix des Frontiers in Belgium ahead of another rising star James Hunt. Purley would return to this event in 71 and 72 winning both times to secure a hat trick; the last race in a British built Ensign.  The line-up for the 1973 Formula 1 season included some legends of the race track including Hill, Hailwood, Stewart and Peterson with future stars the likes of Hunt, Williamson and Purley. David and Roger Williamson were good friends and both showed real promise as they reached their Formula 1 target. For Purley this was only his third F1 race and for Williamson his 2nd  and after getting caught up in Jody Scheckter’s early accident at Silverstone just a fortnight before he was lucky to make the grid. The tragedy that unfolded at the Zandvoort track in the Dutch GP of 1973 would lead many to question the whole safety aspect of F1 and also their roles in the sport. With similar machinery, both driving March 731G’s, the two friends were running together on track when Williamson’s car hit trouble ( many suspect tyre failure), he lost control and hit the barrier causing the March to flip over and fuel to leak from its tank. Williamson’s car came to a halt; Purley pulled over and dashed across the track to help his friend whilst the race continued around them.

The CRP1 chassis no2 crushed by the impact at Silverstone it was truly a miracle Purley survivedThe poorly trained marshals watched on and the fire truck refused to move whilst the race continued. Purley alone fought in vain to get Williamsons car back onto its wheels and extract his friend from the car as flames grew bigger around him. He could hear Williamson pleading for help but alone he could not turn the car over and in desperation snatched an extinguisher from an on looking marshal and attacked the flames himself. The fire had unfortunately taken hold and Roger Williamson died of asphyxiation whilst still in his March; he was aged just 25. This event was to haunt David Purley for the rest of his life. The fire truck eventually arrived and the trackside marshals were stung into action by the crowd venting their anger towards officials but it was all too late. This one moment was without doubt one of the lowest in motorsport history and for the rest of the 1973 season Purley struggled achieving a highest placing of just 9th in the Italian GP.   He was awarded the George Cross for valour in recognition of his selfless attempt to save his friend.

Quit or Continue?

Brian Smith first built chassis no2 at LEC in Bognor alongside the man who rebuilt it Chris Davies of WDK motorsportUnderstandably Purley avoided motor racing the following season but in 1975 he won F5000 races at Brands Hatch and the Gold Cup at Oulton Park but it would be in 1976 before he took the Shellsport Group 8 Championship in his F5000 Chevron B30. He secured the championship with a ‘lights to flag’ win at Brands Hatch ahead of Derek Bell, the final race of the season and hosted as a tribute to the new F1 World Champion James Hunt. In 1977 David was back with his own team at LEC with their car the CRP1 powered by the famous Ford Cosworth DFV V8, the engine favoured by most teams apart from Ferrari, Alfa, Matra and BRM. Working all hours the team constructed the Mike Pilbeam design utilising machinery in the Bognor factory including metal benders used for shaping fridge doors and panels. Purley briefly led the race at the Belgium circuit in Zolder being caught by the much faster Ferrari of ‘champion in waiting’ Niki Lauda who was desperate to get past but the Englishman asked for and gave no quarter. Eventually Lauda got through and went on to finish 2nd, Purley dropped down the field to 13th.

After a ‘spat’ with Niki Lauda a rabbit image adorned Purley’s carAfter the race Lauda marched into the LEC garage with the whole press pack in tow and insisted that Purley should have moved over but he received the answer ‘if you wanted the lead you should have taken it’. Lauda called Purley a ‘rabbit’ and in response he was labelled a ‘rat’ and from then on the Austrian raced with a rat painted on his car and Purley adopted the image of a rabbit on the CRP1. Just two weeks later at Silverstone Purley endured one of the heaviest impacts ever recorded in F1 when his throttle jammed open and the CRP1 hit the barrier head on going from over 108mph to a complete stop in just 26 inches. The fact David Purley survived (the highest G-force accident recorded at the time) was a miracle and it took 90 minutes just to extract him from the wreckage and get him to hospital. Both legs were shattered and his pelvis broken in three places; after surgery to repair the damage he had lost two inches of length in his left leg and a series of further deliberate break operations were needed to get the left leg to match the right. Purley raced a CRP1 again in 1979 in the Aurora Championship round at Snetterton finishing a creditable 4th but he had to be lifted from the car after crossing the line, totally exhausted; he retired from racing soon after.

On the Edge

David Purley had always lived life on the edge and so it was no surprise when he took on the world of competition aerobatics and it was whilst practicing in his Pitts Special Biplane that engine failure caused him to crash into the Channel. On 2nd July 1985 just off the coast of Bognor Regis his body was recovered still strapped into the seat.

The Car Returns

CRP1 at the Festival of Speed running for the first time in 35 years finishes 6th fastest overallFast forward 29 years to the Goodwood Festival of Speed 2014; running for the first time in 35 years was the CRP1 that was involved in Purley’s horrific Silverstone crash. An amazing and fully detailed restoration of chassis no2 had been undertaken by WDK Motorsport in Hampshire. I met up with Chris Davies from WDK who oversaw the rebuild of the LEC F1 machine and we were joined by Brian Smith the original builder and Chief Mechanic for David Purley. David’s daughter Claudia sat in the car for the first time ever and then to complete an amazing weekend for all Joe Twyman fired up the car and launched it up Goodwood’s famous hill. The Festival of Speed is all about the fastest accent to the top and the CRP1 completed its run in 49.81 seconds, incredibly the sixth fastest time of the weekend.

Brian Smith first built chassis no2 at LEC in Bognor alongside the man who rebuilt it Chris Davies of WDK motorsportIn 1975 David Purley made a short film with John ‘Go With Noakes’ of Blue Peter fame about an F5000 race at Oulton Park which includes his thoughts on the tragedy involving Williamson. It also follows his Bank Holiday weekend where snow had to be cleared from the Cheshire circuit before the cars were allowed out on track. It can be enjoyed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FQ_wBHfEzg

For me the definition of hero doesn’t get much clearer than when it is associated with David Purley, he not only did the small seaside town of Bognor proud, he did the same thing for the nation.