Duncan Hamilton lived a larger-than-life life

Remembering the British racer on the centennial of his birth

1
1855
hamilton
Duncan Hamilton on the track | Duncan Hamilton ROFGO photos

Someone should have recognized something was different about this child when Duncan Hamilton, age 2, knocked himself unconscious when he crashed after maneuvering his baby buggy down a flight of 38 stairs.

If not then, certainly when he was a college student and drove a professor’s car through a wall.

And Hamilton wasn’t alone in such stunts. 

“His dog delayed a critical wartime convoy for four days by eating top secret naval documents,” according to a news release from Duncan Hamilton ROFGO, a classic and competition car dealership he founded.  

April 30 marks the 100th anniversary of Hamilton’s birth, and despite crashing “numerous cars and aeroplanes,” Hamilton became one of Europe’s premier post-war racers, as well as one of its larger-than-life characters.

Duncan Hamilton in the D-type Jaguar at the limit at Goodwood in 1956

James Duncan Hamilton was born April 30, 1920, in Cork, Ireland. Looking for a way to become involved in motorsport, he discovered that he could gain access to the pits at the Brooklands circuit by putting on a pair of overall and carrying a bucket of water to get past any guards.

Once in the pits, Hamilton started working on cars as though he was a real mechanic. 

World War II arrived and Hamilton became a pilot, flying Supermarine Seafire aircraft, the Naval version of the British Spitfire fighter plane.

It was after the war that “the motor racing bug really bit,” the release says. 

RELATED:  Has Bentley bottled that new-car smell?
Hamilton and Rolt celebrate their victory at Le Mans

“Works Ferrari driver Froilán González described him as ‘the world’s fastest wet-weather driver.’. However, he was no slouch in the dry either, and his many achievements behind the wheel included: outright victory with Tony Rolt (of Colditz fame) in the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours, and the 1956 Reims 12 Hours with Ivor Bueb – both of which results were achieved aboard works Jaguars.”

Hamilton and Rolt almost won Le Mans again in 1954, losing only to Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant in a more-powerful Ferrari in the closest finish in 23 years in the round-the-clock endurance race. The winning Ferrari averaged 169.215 km/h and the Jaguar 169.044. After 24 hours, they were separated by 4 kilometers, less than 2½ miles.

“In 11 seasons of top-class motorsport, Duncan: competed against such all-time greats as Fangio, Ascari, Villoresi, Castellotti, Moss and close personal friends Collins and Hawthorn; drove Grand Prix cars from Lago-Talbot, Maserati, HWM and ERA; and works team sports cars for Jaguar, Ferrari and Healey.

“He also contested Le Mans, the world’s most arduous of all motor races, on no less than nine consecutive occasions.”

Hamilton and his Lago-Talbot at Goodwood in 1951

But Hamilton was perhaps more famous for foibles as for his on-track victories. 

“The countless incidents that befell him are equally legendary,” the release adds. 

RELATED:  Has Bentley bottled that new-car smell?

“When transporting his ex-Malcolm Campbell R-Type MG to the Brighton Speed Trials, he spotted a Bugatti in the mirror, so moved over and waved it by. It was only when it drew level he realized it was driverless, and in fact his own car that he’d been towing behind the MG!”

In 1953, while competing in the Oporto (Portugal) Grand Prix, Hamilton was forced off the course by another driver while dicing for the lead and crashed into a pole and cut off the city’s electric supply while also breaking 9 ribs, his neck, jaw and collarbone.

“Even his famous Le Mans win was not achieved without pain, as he suffered a bird strike on the Mulsanne Straight that smashed both his Jaguar’s aero-screen and his nose.”

Hawthorne and Hamilton enjoying visit to Miami

But wait, there’s more: “Arguably only Duncan Hamilton could have got himself fired for winning the Reims 12 hours (he was deemed to have breached Jaguar team orders), only to promptly join Ferrari as a teammate to none other than Juan Manuel Fangio.”

Once, Hamilton was stopped for speeding while on his way to a television program about safe and responsible driving.

Hamilton was so respected by Jaguar that he was the first privateer to be granted first a C- and then a D-type racing car. 

RELATED:  Has Bentley bottled that new-car smell?

At one point, Hamilton hid his favorite racing car, a Lago-Talbot Grand Prix machine, in what he called a “coal hole” at a home in Dieppe, France. Years later he agreed to sell the car, but couldn’t remember the address. Eventually, he did find the car, “buried but unharmed under a ton of domestic coke.”

Hamilton was close friends with racer Mike Hawthorne and retired from racing soon after Hawthorne was killed in 1959. Hamilton turned to sailing and to his growing car dealership, which still operates as Duncan Hamilton ROFGO, which specializes in classic and competition cars and has been run for 45 years by Hamilton’s son, Adrian.

Duncan Hamilton died May 13, 1994, at age 74.

Hamilton in the C-type on his way to Le Mans victory in 1953

“My dad was one of the last of that extraordinary band of post-war drivers who, hardened by the hostilities, feared nothing and were determined to enjoy every minute of their lives to the maximum,” Adrian Hamilton is quoted in the centennial news release.

“Their enthusiasm for racing was only matched by that for partying afterwards, and we’ll never see their like again. I am fiercely proud of all he achieved and am sure I won’t be alone in raising a glass to him on April 30, the centenary of his birth.”

Advertisement
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

1 COMMENT

  1. I called mr hamilton shortly before his death, just to try and hear some of his stories. His accent was so thick, I only understood one out of every 10 words. His book, touch wood is a great read for anyone interested in the glory days of racing. He was one of a kind.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here