A look back in time on the day that changed GP racing's views on safety
David Purley: death-defying paratrooper, bloody hero
- Mattijs Diepraam
- September 9, 2004
- 1973 Dutch GP - A look back in time on the day that changed GP racing's views on safety, by Mattijs Diepraam
- March - Customer care, by Mattijs Diepraam
- David Purley - Army heroics to car heroics, by Marc Ceulemans
- Roger Williamson - Unnecessary casualty, by Mattijs Diepraam/Raimon Durán
- Zandvoort - The quintessential GP track in the dunes, by Mattijs Diepraam
Lec March-Cosworth 731
XXI Dutch GP (July 29, 1973)
David Purley was born on January 26, 1945, in the Sussex seaside town of Bognor Regis, as the son of a wealthy refrigerator manufacturer. He wasn't born to follow in his father's footsteps, though, working 9 to 5 behind a desk at the Lec headquarters. That would have been a life without thrills. There would be no heart-stopping moments, no quenching of a constant thirst for adrenalin rushing through the veins. In other words, David wanted to feel alive - and to do that, death should be around the corner.
And so, as soon as official adulthood had started, the Bognorite enlisted in the Royal Army to become an officer in the elite parachute regiment. In his years of service he was in the heat of things in Aden and once survived a partial failure of his parachute during a training jump.
At 22 years of age, he was expected to have outgrown his need for sensation. Instead, he swapped his vertical speed thrill for horizontal kicks, and started car racing. Derek Bell, also hailing from the South of England, had just made his mark in F2 and was about make a sensational Ferrari Grand Prix debut - for Purley, that was the right type of inspiration. Borrowing into the family wealth David acquired an AC Cobra and started racing it in the 1968 season. After he totalled it in a big crash from which he emerged unscathed, he switched to a 2-litre Chevron sportscar and ran it into 1969.
Eager to progress he bought himself a Brabham BT28 to race in Formula 3 for 1970, naming his team Lec Refrigeration Racing. Indeed, Lec would be supportive throughout his career. Quickly he proved that there was life for him in single-seaters, as he took his first win in the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay in Belgium, beating James Hunt and Claude Bourgoignie. He repeated the feat in 1971 before switching to an Ensign LNF3/71 chassis and winning two British late-season events.
Still supported by Lec he got himself a March 722 for his 1972 graduation to F2. His best result was a third at Pau, but his best memories of the season will undoubtedly have been his third straight win at Chimay, stepping down into the '71 Ensign car and beating the crop of British talents - Hunt, Brise, Evans - in a hard-fought race. He made his F1 debut in October, taking part in the John Player Challenge Trophy - otherwise known as the World Championship Victory Race - at Brands. For this David and Brands owner John Webb agreed to hire the Connew PC1 to allow its DIY creators Peter Connew and Barry Boor to pay their final bills. David had the car repainted in Lec colours, but its actual performance was blighted by a comedy of errors. First, David's practice was disturbed by a screwdriver rolling around in the cockpit, resulting in the car being ten seconds off the pace. Then, having taken his place on the grid, David accidentally pushed the kill button to have his engine die on him.
David two-timed between Formula Atlantic and Formula 1 in 1973, as he went his own way once again by entering a private Lec March 731 for his Grand Prix debut at Monaco. He qualified 23rd but retired in the race. Having skipped the British GP, the race at Zandvoort was just his second race - incidentally, the same applied to his fellow Brit and March 731 driver Roger Williamson. The two were racing in each other's vicinity when on lap 8 tragedy struck.
Despite this, David continued his part-season in F1. Just one week later, he took part in the German GP and finished 15th. At Monza he even managed a 9th. But apart from a single Token drive which failed to produce a result, he turned his back to F1 in 1974, choosing to step down to F2 and drive for Peter Harper's team. In his Chevron-BMW B27 he featured strongly in several races, with second places at the Salzburgring, Rouen and Enna his best results. This brought him fifth in the final European Championship standings.
David switched to European F5000 in 1975, the category now in its final year of running and about to be usurped by the hybrid Shellsport Group 8 (F1/F5000) championship. He won the 1975 Gold Cup at Oulton Park before a hugely successful campaign, resulting in six victories, saw him take the inaugural British Shellsport title by storm in 1976.
This wetted his appetite for a return to F1, and Purley approached designer Mike Pilbeam during the winter of 1976-’77 with the request to draw him a pukka Lec Grand Prix car. With the help of later Onyx boss Mike Earle it was fielded in the 1977 Race of Champions, where David managed a creditable 6th. He then went on to shine at Zolder, briefly running second in a rain-soaked Belgian GP before finishing a lowly 13th. The Swedish GP was the only other event in which he managed a finish (14th) before a monumental qualifying crash during the British GP weekend ended his season. David was extremely lucky to survive. His throttle had stuck open at Becketts, resulting in a 179.8 G smash into the barriers. He suffered multiple fractures of the legs, pelvis and ribs, and pierced lungs, and it was only through the excellent work of the rescue crew present that he got the chance to recover from his injuries. Ten times his heart stopped beating but each time a nurse from the crowd practiced heart massage to get it going again.
Following two critical weeks in intensive care, recovery took many months, with the decision to amputate his legs only staved off at the last gasp. While he wheelchaired himself through the corridors of the clinic anyone raising the subject of motor racing would get a damn good verbal thrashing. No way that he was getting into a cockpit again.
1978 was spent behind a desk at Lec Refrigeration, working for his father as Head of Personnel, but he was already escaping his day-time job as much as he could working as a chairman to twelve charities. It wouldn’t last for long. “It was an existential need”, he said in 1979. “I had spoken to Stirling Moss about it and he said I had to go through with it, before consulting anybody else. I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t scared of coming back. And I was right – I wasn’t scared, I was scared to death preparing myself for my first practice lap. I have never been so scared in all of my life.” Yet within ten laps of Silverstone he was bang on the pace.
He eventually returned to competition in a couple of hillclimbs before racing in the 1979 British Aurora F1 series, racing his rebuilt Lec and a Shadow DN9B in several events. The damage had been done, though. David had lost his competitiveness, and making up the numbers wasn’t what he had recovered for.
So after a couple of failed attempts at saloon racing in 1980 he quit racing to go back to running the family business – and to begin a new career in aerobatics. Here, he had no need for his damaged legs but could still feel the blood rush through his veins. David Purley had survived a bruising career in motor racing in a time it was among the most dangerous of activities one could think of, and yet he was to die at an early age. Swooping and diving off the coast near his home town of Bognor Regis on July 2, 1985, he crashed his Pitts Special stunt bi-plane and was killed instantly. Sadly, not quite the hero’s ending to a heroic life.
Other David Purley pages
- David Purley Bio, by Anton Sukup