John Surtees CBE, 1934-2017
It is with great sadness that I am writing this tribute to a friend and motor racing legend John Surtees CBE, the only person to become world champion on two wheels and four.
I am not sure when I first met John, but I was a trainee journalist working for the Sevenoaks Chronicle and got to attend the race meetings at Brands Hatch, because it was just about on our patch, and I got free press passes.
I well remember how he spent time helping a trainee journalist get a story right, time that he could have spent elsewhere.
Over the years we became friends although there would be long periods when we didn’t see each other. We had a mutual friend in Dion Pears, the famous motoring artist. Dion was a great friend of John’s and I kept in touch with John and his exploits through Dion.
Years later, I was to write a piece about John for a series that Octane magazine was running at the time called ‘my favourite things’. There were various items that John had kept including an MV Augusta, his Formula 2 Team Surtees chassis No. 2 car, a Vincent Black Lightening that he had built in 1952 while serving an apprenticeship with Geoff Duke, and one of Dion’s paintings.
It was of John’s last Grand Prix race for Ferrari at Spa in Belgium in 1966. It was hanging on the wall and John commented: “I have always thought that this painting of me ahead of Jochan Rindt’s Cooper Maserati was one of Dion’s finest paintings. Track conditions were treacherous but I went on by and on to win.”
We went on to look at the rest of his prized possessions, from the BMW 507, which is the only vehicle that John had owned from new and kept and which he split the £6,000 cost between himself and Count Augusta in 1957, to his most prized possession, an old hand coloured photograph of his father coming up Paddock Hill at Brands hatch in 1952 when the circuit was anti-clockwise, with John hanging out of the sidecar. “We got disqualified because I was under age,” said John.
As we left the house he turned to me and said ”Have you got any of Dion’s paintings?” I confessed that over the years I had given them away to enthusiasts except one which Dion had painted for my wife Jenny.
With that infectious smile which endeared him to everyone he disappeared into the house and came back with a painting of him on an MV Augusta. “Dion gave that to me when I won the World Championship and I would like you to have it.” It is now one of my prized possessions.
John was always up for a challenge and I asked him to get involved with the Beaujolais run in 2009. We discovered that it was also the 15th anniversary of the building of the Channel Tunnel and he asked what I was going to come up with.
The initial request to run a sports car through the service tunnel between Folkstone and Calais was turned down point blank. Health and safety officials at Eurotunnel implied that it was a crazy idea and that we both should have known better!
John insisted that there had to be a way round it. A phone call to ask if we could borrow an electric sports car from Ginetta enabled us to go back to Eurotunnel, who in the end agreed.
The power cables that fed the trains nearly fried the car and there were times when the car nearly stopped but John made it through, signing his name on the tunnel wall at the half way mark beneath the channel.
When we emerged in France John was presented with a laurel leaf garland, he turned and said: “That was great, it must be a world first!”
There were lots of other fun times with John ringing up and asking if I would run the safety car at his annual event in Edenbridge when the town’s streets would be closed and John would run his Surtees and F1 cars.
There were strict rules. You could only go down the high street at 40 and could only get up to 70 on the dual carriageway past the local supermarket. So we set off with John pushing hard behind me just as he had always done in Formula 1. I didn’t want a rear end shunt so I complied. At the end of the high street we were doing nearly seventy. At the end of the dual carriageway over a 100. I remonstrated with him, he smiled and said, “I was only keeping up with the safety car.”
During this time I started to look after the PR and marketing for CMC, where I now have the privilege of being Chairman of the Board.
We made plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the E-Type. John, who was one of the very first owners and who features in some famous movie footage being welcomed by Sir William Lyons, and Norman Dewis agreed to help.
We put one of the early cars owned by Peter Neumark, the then Chairman of the Board, and now Chairman of the CMC Employees Ownership Trust, on display in the glass cube at the Design Museum on the South bank. John talked about buying his first E-Type and then he and Norman Dewis sped round the streets in 77 RW, owned by the Jaguar Heritage Trust.
As part of the anniversary commemorations we asked students at Coventry University to design a sculpture to mark the anniversary.
21-year-old Claudio Barbato was the winning student and Peter Neumark who funded the production of 10 of the sculptures in a limited edition, agreed that three should be sold on behalf of the Henry Surtees Foundation, raising in excess of £15,000.
John unveiled the sculpture at the RAC Club, which he was only too happy to do and as usual like he had done with me years before, spent time talking to Claudio about his future career ambitions in car design.
It therefore seemed fitting that when we launched the Jaguar Mk 2 that we built for Ian callum and which Ian had redesigned, which also coincided with us moving into purpose built workshops that we asked John to come and open the building.
As ever he said he would be delighted and joined Ian callum and Norman Dewis on a day that Peter Neumark, the staff and I will always remember. John was in top form walking round the workshops and expressing how different it had been when he had been an apprentice.
He was a phenomenal driver, who transferred his skills from two wheels to four, but above all he was one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet and we will all miss him terribly.
I got to know John through David Barzilay, so it was quite a surprise when l attended a dinner at St James Palace in May 2013 for Outward Bound supporters to meet John there.
I had the honour of being a trustee and deputy chairman of the charity that currently changes the lives of about 30,000 young people a year through teaching them what they are capable of achieving through outdoor activity.
This particular annual event attended by the chairman HRH Duke of York is given to thank all our generous supporters for their help over the last year.
Even better John was on my table and we had a most enjoyable evening. Then came the speeches, first HRH and then John was introduced.
I thought he was going to give a keynote speech. No, he was there to present to me an award for my contribution to the charity over the last 12 years.
I was lost for words, being presented in that special place by one of my heroes. It doesn't get much better.
John was a truly lovely man and l consider it a great privilege that l got to know him a little bit.
He came up to CMC to officially open our new facility. Typical of the man l had to force a cheque on him for his Henry Foundation as a small token of thanks.
We will miss him.
Peter Neumark LVO