The word ‘hero’ is, I think we can all agree, bandied around far too readily nowadays. It’s used to describe pop stars, footballers and, god forbid, those who’ve managed to turn their 5 minutes of reality TV fame into 6 months of low-level tabloid notoriety. This does both the term itself an injustice and, far more importantly, those actually worthy of being given the accolade. Today’s Retropower Hero could only ever be termed as such, though there’s every chance you’ll never have heard his name unless you’re a long-time fan of Formula One – David Purley.
Purley’s F1 career wasn’t exactly glittering and, being frank, he was never destined to stand alongside the greats of his generation, men like Fittipaldi, Scheckter or Lauda. That’s not to say he wasn’t talented – quite the opposite, he’d shown a blinding turn of pace in Formula Three and was more than able to wrestle the unruly AC Cobra to some highly respectable positions.
But it wasn’t talent that marked Purley out as something special, it was good old, honest to goodness bravery. The heir to the LEC Refrigeration empire and therefore blessed with a privileged upbringing, Purley could perhaps have been expected to take after his father and help run the business, but his desire for adventure and adrenaline ensured that a life spent in boardrooms hawking the benefits of frozen peas wasn’t for him, and he instead (and apparently on something of a whim) signed up with the Coldstream Guards.
A desire to see action as soon as possible prompted him to take a commission to Sandhurst, and within a couple of years he’d been posted to Aden with the First Parachute Battalion – ‘the Paras.’ The late ‘60s were not a good spell for anyone seeking a quiet life in Aden, and by all accounts Purley survived any number of near misses involving firefights, grenades and even a botched jump. The latter saw him plummeting to earth sitting atop his jump buddy’s parachute for a full minute and a half. He’d later dismiss the bone-jarring impact as nothing more than ‘a heavy landing.’
Purely’s active service meant that motor racing, even motor racing at its most dangerous, was nothing to worry about. It gave him a sense of perspective which was to serve him well, though he would later admit to falling back on an old para trick in order to psych himself up to brake later and later – screaming into his race helmet as loud and violently as possible.
By 1968 he was out of the army and onto the track, first with the aforementioned Cobra (written off at Brands Hatch), then with an equally hairy-chested Chevron B8. Purley’s undeniable speed was mixed with a distinct lack of mechanical sympathy, which perhaps isn’t so surprising given his formative years spent dodging AK47 rounds and RPGs!
Progression to Formula Three and Formula Two duly followed, and while he was only partially successful in the latter, his desire to set personal challenges and to overcome nerves and danger (not to mention some financial assistance from his father’s firm) meant he made his F1 debut in 1973 at the wheel of a March 73B.
That season was to prove a pivotal one both in terms of Purley’s motorsport career and his life. Managing to qualify at Monaco was impressive given the number of grid spots available and how many cars were jostling for them, but to say Purley had marked himself out as a potential World Champion would be overselling things by several orders of magnitude.
His mid-grid talent meant that, were it not for the events of the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort (his third F1 race), he’d likely have been forgotten to history. As it was, Purley committed one of the bravest acts in the history of motorsport, and thanks to the newly televised nature of F1 at the time, his selfless act was broadcast live to households around the globe.
The March 731 of fellow Brit Roger Williamson had crashed on the eighth lap due to a tyre failure, and rather than drive around the upturned car and carrying on with his own race Purley pulled over to help. Williamson was trapped within the upside-down March, but was conscious, lucid and talking. Things rapidly became far more serious when the March burst into flames and began licking around Williamson, who within seconds was being effectively cooked alive.
TV viewers around the world were forced to watch as Purley at first attempted (unsuccessfully) to right the March alone, then with the inept help of a trio of poorly trained and equipped marshals. Their lack of fire-retardant clothing, foam and training meant that by the time the fire was finally extinguished and the car righted, Williamson was dead. Purley would later recount that he’d heard his friend’s anguished screams in his final moments.
A furious, despondent Purely was duly awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery in civilian life, but it was clear that for an ex-military man it didn’t mean a great deal. It certainly didn’t counter the horror of seeing a fellow racer perish in such horrific circumstances.
Almost anyone else would’ve been put off F1 for life, but not Purley. He was back a few week later for races in Germany and Italy, and while he was later to step back down to F5000 for a couple of seasons it was clear that the desire for speed remained. He’d re-join the F1 grid in 1977, this time at the wheel of his own LEC chassis powered by a Cosworth DFV. It was a basic but strong design, or as Purley himself put it: “a simple, straightforward car for simple straightforward people.”
Results that year were nothing to write home about, with an incident (and some choice words afterwards) with Nikki Lauda at Zolder being the most obvious highlight. Then came the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a circuit made for Purley’s mix of skill and insane levels of bravery.
The weekend started badly but was to get oh so much worse. An electrical fire in practice saw the LEC coast to the side of the track whereupon the blaze was extinguished. This gave the team less than an hour to prepare for the next session, which in turn meant that a small glob of extinguisher foam remained on the throttle slides and that it was missed by those tasked with inspecting the car.
The somewhat inevitable happened at one of the worst places, and of course on one of the fastest tracks in the world: the throttle stuck wide open as Purley braked for Becketts, and the LEC went straight into the concrete barrier at near unabated speed. He went from 110mph to 0mph in a mere 26in and suffered 178g, the highest measured G-force survived by a human until Kenny Brack’s 214g shunt some 25 years later.
The crash shattered Purley legs, pelvis, feet and ribs, and left him in chronic pain. Despite this he was conscious when cut out the car and remained so for the duration of the ambulance drive to hospital, a trip he was not expected to survive. He recovered, somehow, though he’d never run again, and one leg was 2in shorter than other. Sporadic single seater appearances followed in the years which followed, but it was clear that Purley’s heart was no longer in it.
He would later agree to undergo pioneering surgery to stretch his legs back to their original length, a painstakingly incremental process that was expected to see him gain a millimetre a day. It failed, and he was never able to walk unaided or pain free ever again.
The desire to experience the thrill of pumping adrenaline remained undiminished though, and from the early ‘80s he could be found stunt flying above the Southern English coast. The same bravery over finesse approach that had marked his early motorsport career was again in evidence, and so it was to no one’s real surprise when his luck ran out: his Pitts Special plunged into the sea off his native Bognor Regis in 1985, and he was killed instantly.
So no, he was never destined to be champion an F1 race winner of even a podium finisher, but there can be no doubting David Purley’s skill and bravery, nor his humanity. There can be nobody more suited to the Retropower treatment, and no one more worthy of being described as a hero. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.