One of the privileges of this job is that you do get to meet your heroes - both the four-wheeled type and the living, breathing variety. But with that privilege comes the very real risk of disappointment. Will that skimpy roadster turn out to be a dog when finally you slip behind the wheel? Will the fire-breathing supercar you once had on your bedroom wall leave you utterly underwhelmed? Will the Grand Prix ace you admired from afar live up to your expectations when you come face to face?
On occasion, the reality is far from what you’d imagined but sometimes the opposite can be true and you find yourself in the company of true greatness. In the case of motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss, I’m very glad to say that the latter applies. Here is a man who achieved such success during his career that you could almost forgive him if he did have a massive chip on his shoulder, and yet you’d be hard pressed to meet a more friendly, open and welcoming individual.
Thanks to the people at Credit Suisse, sponsors of the forthcoming Goodwood Revival, I recently had the opportunity to spend a morning with Stirling and his equally charming wife Susie at their Mayfair home. It was a real pleasure.
Much has been said over the years about Moss’ love of gadgets, not to mention his appreciation of the fairer sex, so I’d conjured up a mental image of the house that was part bachelor-pad, part Bond villain’s lair. To a certain extent it is: the central spiral staircase that takes you from basement to rooftop (six floors in total), the cleverly concealed doors (I defy anyone to find the downstairs toilet without assistance) and the living room light switches (labelled ‘piano’, ‘spot’ and - my favourite - ‘girl’) are an endearing mix somewhere between Dr No and Brett Sinclair. But my first impression is one of being surrounded by some amazingly evocative memorabilia.
The hall is lined with models and paintings (signed by the likes of Fangio and Senna), plus the famous scrapbooks, of course. From the outset of his career, Moss had an agency collect cuttings in which he was mentioned, and today they form an encyclopaedic record of his life, each volume devoted to a particular year. There are two sets, one bound in green covers (those cover his racing, obviously), the other in black (for everything else). Two additional books catch my eye: one entitled Girls, the other Crash 1962.
To this day Moss recalls little of that fateful race at Goodwood, despite a permanent reminder hanging from the wall of the study. It is, of course, the buckled steering wheel of the Lotus he was driving when things went so horribly wrong that Easter Monday, and it’s a poignant testament to the knife-edge upon which drivers balanced their lives back in those heady but dangerous days. Alongside hangs another, this one twisted from a big crash at Spa in 1960. “That was a hair-raising place,” he tells me. “A wheel came off at 140mph, and luckily I was thrown out. Of course we never wore seatbelts in those days, the risk of fire was too great.” Was he ever scared? “The only race that made me nervous beforehand was the Mille Miglia,” he says. “But once I was in the car, that went away.”
His victory in Italy in 1955 was surely one of his greatest achievements, and as we make our way upstairs he shows me the third steering wheel in his collection of memorabilia, the vast and heavy three-spoker from ‘722’ - a far cry from the spindly Lotus item. “I used that on every car that I raced for Mercedes,” he tells me. “The 300SLR and the W196. It was a wonderful team to drive for. Having Fangio as a teammate was an honour, and the 300SLR was quite simply the best sports car ever built. It was beautifully prepared and could do 180mph, which is still quite fast today.” I’d concur with that.
That wheel is, of course, unique - the other Mercedes works cars were fitted with four-spokers - and it’s indelibly linked with Moss’ record-breaking 1955 season, so it must hold huge sentimental value. “It does,” he replies when I pose the question, “but the one thing I treasure more than anything is my set of BRDC gold stars.” Moss was presented no fewer than 10 of the stars (an award decided by a points tally covering all types of racing) during his career, plus a coveted BRDC gold medal in 2000 - the first driver ever to have received such an honour, and I sense his pride as he shows me them.
We retire to the kitchen for coffee, and the racing memorabilia is replaced with the quiet normality of a family home. “This is where we live,” Moss tells me. The picture that the room portrays is of owners with a sharp sense of humour. From the wine glasses (etched in ascending order with the words ‘Stirl’s measure’, ‘normal measure’ and ‘Susie’s measure’) to a note stuck to the lift door (‘Please, please look first’), to a sign announcing ‘I’d rather be an old fart than a young dickhead’ there is a definite sense of fun present.
Further evidence of that is revealed when Moss’ PA announces that Australia are out for 60. Stirling is delighted and quickly reduced to tears of laughter. Once he recovers, he explains that he finds cricket as dull as watching paint dry (although his grandson Oliver is a big fan), but finds the result hilarious: his PA, Mandy, is a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Australian team.
The one thing which does appear to be absent - both here and downstairs - is artwork depicting Moss himself. “He never wanted to have pictures of himself in the house,” says Susie. “But I have my own little shrine to him.” She leads me to the top floor, explaining that Stirling never goes up there. The walls of the guest bedroom are covered from floor to ceiling with paintings and photographs, as well as books. Lots of books. Susie is quite clearly her husband’s biggest fan.
Before I know it, it’s time to leave but before I part I’m curious to know what an octogenarian motorsport legend uses to get around town. “I’ve got a Renault Twizzy, and Susie’s got an Aston Martin Cygnet.” Moss tells me. “I had the Twizzy’s suspension modified by Bilstein. It’s much better to drive than the standard car.” Has he ever had it sideways? “Not yet, he says with a grin.”
Thanks to Credit Suisse.