To mark the arrival of the latest Retropower build, the carefully named ‘Project Utah,’ we thought we’d take a look back at this wonderfully evocative car. This being Retropower, however, a look at ranks of carefully maintained, cherished and fastidiously waxed standard examples was never really going to ‘cut the Castrol,’ and as such we thought it much better to come at the Mk2 from a somewhat left field perspective, that of Roy James.

You won’t find clearer evidence of just how much motorsport, indeed the world, has changed than Roy James, a man who managed to lead something of a double life for the best part of a decade. Born in 1935 and therefore part of that generation who spent a good portion of their formative years dodging German bombs and poking around wrecked Heinkels, James effectively came of age in a post-war London riddled with blitz damage and destruction.

Such a harsh environment clearly had an impact on the young Londoner, and it wasn’t long before he was supplementing his legal income through more nefarious activities, including cat burglary and petty theft. It was all low level stuff, at least at this point, and helped the young James fund a passion that was rapidly becoming an all consuming part of his life – motor racing.

Roy James in in his Brabham BT6 at Brands Hatch

Roy James was fast, of that there’s no doubt. He was also brave, more so than most of his contemporaries (one of whom was a little known Scot called Jackie Stewart), and thanks to the aforementioned illicit ‘night work,’ relatively well funded. Competitive spells in Formula Junior and Formula Libra followed and allowed James to showcase his undeniable pace, something made that bit easier through his 1963 acquisition of a Brabham BT6 Formula Junior built by the two time World Champion of the same name.

Exactly how James acquired the funds for such a well built and competitive car isn’t exactly known, but it’s a safe bet that at least some of the money was netted through his involvement in the Heathrow raid of the same year. The ambitious raid saw James and the South West Gang break into one of Comet’s buildings to steal money, lots of money, from BOAC airlines. The gang was able to make its escape successfully thanks to the efforts of James, now nicknamed ‘The Weasel,’ and his expert driving.

James was very particular when it came to his choice of getaway car with one kind in particular being sought after, the Mk1 (and later the Mk2) Jag. The 3.4 and 3.8L versions were especially popular, as not only could they seat 5 adults (with bags of swag and shotguns, naturally) in complete comfort, they could easily crack the ton thanks to its 210bhp output. Top speed was about 125mph, comfortably more than any of the ‘Z-cars’ favoured by ‘plod’ at the time, and a speed now eminently reachable thanks to the UK’s newly created motorway network.

Your average cop car circa 1959 – hardly the most sprightly of machines, and no match for a Jag

What really set James apart – other than his skills behind the wheel of course – was his willingness to re-engineer the Jaguar he happened to be driving to better suit his nefarious deeds. Pretty much anything was fair game, with everything from lowered suspension and better brakes (purloined from Girling, supposedly), to revised engines with plenty of headwork.

It might’ve been small beer in comparison to what was to come in later decades, but the motorsport world of the early ’60s was still an expensive place to inhabit, especially if you happened to be a budding F1 driver. The need to keep financing his motoring aspirations would convince James to partake in his most ambitious theft to date, one which would go onto define his life and place him at the centre of what was become one of the UK’s most infamous crimes – The Great Train Robbery of 1963.

The raid itself involved both daring and guile, and actually pulling it off involved a full 16 members of London’s criminal underworld. The gang settled on the mail train running between Glasgow and London, specifically one transporting millions of pounds. The potential haul was rumoured to be as much as £2.6 million, a considerable sum in 2019 but an astronomical, barely conceivable amount half a century ago.

The scene of crime, hours after James and co had made their (temporary) escape

The South West Gang made their move in rural Buckinghamshire, halting the train just south of Leighton Buzzard with a rigged signal system. They then decoupled the cars with the loot in (something James had been brushing up on in the weeks leading up to the event), knocked out the staff and set about transferring the loot to a pair of Land Rovers and an Austin Loadstar truck.

Within half an hour, it was all over: the gang had pulled off one of the most audacious raids in British history and were now rich beyond their wildest dreams, having escaped with approximately £2.5 million in total. They then dispersed, taking separate routes to a recently purchased farmhouse near Biescter where they planned to go to ground.

Things began to go awry, at least for James, when the budding racer travelled to Goodwood a few days later. There he took part in practice, and by all accounts looked to be well and truly on the pace, but as the day wore on it became increasingly apparent that the police suspected James’s involvement, not least as they’d found his fingerprints on a number of items from the farmhouse. Within a few short hours wanted posters with his face had been circulated around the track, and James went to ground.

The South West Gang’s mugshot, with Ronnie Biggs and, dead centre, Roy James

He was captured in St John’s Wood some months later after a dramatic rooftop chase, and was then sentenced to 30 years in the Spring of 1964. He was released 11 years later and attempted to resurrect his racing career, but his best day were very much behind him.

That was the end of James’s motorsport aspirations (though he was commissioned to design a trophy by Bernie Ecclestone) but not his criminal career, and he’d spend the remainder of his life skating very close to the letter of the law, before dying of heart failure in 1997.

It is of course impossible to say how far up the motorsport ladder Roy James could have progressed had fate, and the law, dealt him a better hand. There can be no doubting his raw talent nor his commitment, while his exploits in big Jags meant he could surely have been a champion touring car driver given half a chance. Alas we’ll never know, and as such it’s best to remember him as a stunningly gifted ‘wheelman’ from a more innocent age.

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