The Sussex Downs have only just finished reverberating to the exuberant sound of racing cars and motorcycles at Goodwood Festival of Speed. Racing cars delight the senses with a cacophony of sound, the smell of racing oil and tyres and the spectacle of speed and colour. This week I am with my great friend John Young, a man whose life has been closely bound up with the fortunes of motor racing and automobiles. A works driver for the Connaught team in the 1950s, with drives at many of the great motor racing circuits and races, John Young is part of that glamorous and courageous cohort of racing drivers in the years after the Second World War.
When he left Dulwich College, John joined the R.A.F. “I wanted to fly a Spitfire,” he says, “but there were too many pilots just after the war for me to get a look in, so I left and joined the family firm, Rose and Young. We were agents for Mercedes-Benz.” He continues, “My father always wanted to race but my mother would never have let him. I was mad keen on cars when I was young and so he encouraged me.” John has always had a passion for glamour and speed and he is still mad keen about cars, having collected and owned some of the world’s most iconic automobiles. John’s enthusiasm has not diminished over the years. “I’ve still got my 1955 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing,” he says excitedly. The silver Gullwing is particularly special, the world’s first true supercar and in beautiful, original condition.
His first experience of speed came when he was taken to an airfield where Roy Salvadori was testing a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica. John explains, “Roy came tearing to a halt beside where we were standing, asking for a passenger to balance the car and I volunteered!” This marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Roy Salvadori was an exceptional driver, winning at Le Mans in 1959 for Aston Martin and driving in more than fifty Formula One races. I ask John if he ever raced at Le Mans; he replies, “My mate Maurice Charles asked me to drive with him in his Jaguar D-type at Le Mans but he turned it over before I’d had a turn.”
John Young raced at Goodwood, Silverstone and many of the famous circuits of his era. “We raced everything in those days,” he remarks. “I entered the Monte Carlo Rally with John Coombs and Roy Salvadori in a Ford Anglia and did the rally again with Graham Hill in a Riley 1.5. Even in my day, motor racing was becoming much more commercialized, but I started in an MG TC that my father bought me, which I raced at Goodwood. I then drove a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica, which Coombs prepared for me.” Always the gentleman racer, in 1955 John was taken on as the works driver to the Connaught team. In 1956 he raced for them at Aintree alongside Mike Hawthorn, Roy Salvadori, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss, who won the B.A.R.C. Grand Prix event in a privately entered 250F Maserati. “I owned a 250F Maserati Grand Prix car,” John says nonchalantly, a grin crossing his face. “I used it in the Brighton Speed Trials in the 1960s before I sold it to Fangio for his South American museum. Fangio was an extraordinary driver.”
In 1955 John raced in the Goodwood Nine Hours Endurance Race in a Lotus-Connaught, seen here. His co-driver was John Coombs, who, like John Young, also had a successful garage business and was instrumental in developing and persuading Jaguar to build a lightweight E-type to compete with the 250GTO Ferrari. “We were going well in the Connaught and racing into the evening,” John explains, “until Coombs came in saying his hands were cold and borrowed my gloves. Shortly after that he turned it over but, thank God, he was alright!”
John Young was offered a drive in a Connaught at the 1955 Dundrod TT in Ireland with a talented young driver Bill Smith. John recounts the story of the race. “We tossed-up to decide who would drive first. He won the toss but was killed at Deer’s Leap during that first stint.” John is still clearly affected by the memory of this loss. Two other drivers lost their lives at Dundrod in 1955. With such high safety standards in modern motor racing, it is hard to reflect on how dangerous the sport was in those post-war years. Philosophically John remarks, “You have no fear when you’re young and we had a good time in those days. It was exciting – the racing, the camaraderie, the travelling and the pretty girls!”
I ask John if he has raced since and he answers, “I gave up motor racing in the 1950s and took up boats – did a few things like the Fastnet Race – but I have done some classic car events like the 1988 Mille Miglia Revival in an Alfa Romeo 2.6, which I drove with John Coombs.”
As I leave, I ask him why he doesn’t live in Monaco with his peers and he gestures towards the South Downs and replies, “Oh, I’ve had yachts down there but I love England. Look at that view – why would you want to be anywhere else!” His delight in sharing a story and his enthusiasm are balanced by his self-effacing modesty. A generous man, John Young epitomises the best of his era: a gentleman racer, a collector and an enthusiast with a deep love of life, cars and the Sussex countryside.