Stirling Moss: A speed demon addicted to living on the edge
London - Who do you think you are, sir? Stirling Moss? It was the wryly disapproving question asked time and again over the years - until traffic police pulling over speeding motorists grew too young to remember one of Britain’s greatest ever racing drivers.
The sheepish answer was invariably in the negative - except on one occasion, when the man at the wheel of a souped-up Mini explained to the enquiring officer that, yes, he was.
"A policeman did once ask me," Sir Stirling recalled years later. "But I couldn’t work out if he was taking the mick."
Last weekend, the world of motorsport was in mourning for Sir Stirling Moss, who died aged 90 after a long illness. "It was one lap too many; he just closed his eyes," said his wife Susie, 66.
Much of the devil-may-care spirit of the post-war racing generation has died with him. Moss, who had two children, was cut from different cloth to that which adorns the bossy, risk-averse, painfully thin-skinned society of today.
Risk was in his blood. It had to be in the grand prix racing of his era. Between 1948 and Moss’s enforced retirement following a serious accident 14 years later, some 180 drivers died in competitions, about 50 of whom he knew personally.
This was the late 1950s, when style was everything. In his white-peaked helmet and goggles, behind the wheel of some impossibly beautiful beast, Moss typified all that was glamorous, dangerous - and British.
Understatement and unbridled sexism were the order of the day. Near-death, high-speed crashes were "shunts"; drinking partners were greeted in the cocktail bar with "old boy"; and attractive females were "crumpet". If the young star wasn’t chasing laurels, he was chasing women - lots of them - around the world.
The drivers were deadly rivals on the track and best friends off it.
"My quality of life was far higher than Jenson Button’s or Lewis Hamilton’s," said the thrice-married Moss. "All I had to do was turn up to drive the car and then go off and chase crumpet.
"Racing was bloody dangerous, but the danger was one of the things that attracted me."
A good horseman in his youth, who turned to cars because they were "easier to steer", Moss exemplified the sportsmen who were in it more for the fun and the thrill than the money.
As a teenager at boarding school, his inspiration was Prince Bira, grandson of a 19th century king of Siam (now Thailand), a legendary driver who raced before and after the war. "I thought it sounded like a fabulous life," waxed Moss.
"Travelling round the world, meeting girls, going to parties."
His prowess earned him entry into the most glamorous circles. Grace Kelly and Steve McQueen were among his dining partners, and when he suffered the accident that would ultimately end his driving career, one of those badgering the hospital for news of his condition was Frank Sinatra.
Dapper and debonair, Moss was a beacon of glamour in a Britain still recovering from World War II. He never won a Formula 1 world championship, but that didn’t matter: points were not his thing. The race - that day’s race - was everything.
Ultra-competitive, he preferred to take risks and lose stylishly than win boringly.
When possible, he preferred a British car - which did him no favours in an era when Italian and German products were faster and more reliable.
An unabashed patriot, he thought the Queen "fantastic".
"We’re very lucky to have the royalty we have, in my opinion," he said. "It really does tee me off - republicanism. Sod that." Her Majesty repaid the compliment with a knighthood in 2000.
Almost inevitably, his first two marriages did not last. His first, in 1957, to Katie Molson, a Canadian brewery heiress, was over quickly; his second, in 1964, to glamorous PR executive Elaine Barberino, an American, lasted only four years.
But his unreconstructed side also included an English gentleman’s sense of fair play. In racing circles, Sir Stirling will be remembered for the world championship he could have won in 1958 but didn’t - and all because he argued against the disqualification of a rival, Mike Hawthorn, from the Portuguese Grand Prix. Hawthorn went on to beat him to the title by just one point.
"My feelings about the incident have never changed," Moss said in 2009. "It’s irrelevant that I didn’t subsequently take the title. The fact I was runner-up [for the world championship] four times gives me a certain kind of exclusivity."
The choice of his name was also a close-run thing.
Moss’s father was a successful dentist of European Jewish descent (Moss was an Anglicised contraction of Moses) and his mother was Scottish. She wanted to call him Hamish, but his father, Alfred, vetoed the name, suggesting her home city of Stirling.
The young Stirling was subjected to anti-Semitic taunting at the private Haileybury Imperial Service College, near Hertford, and so toughened himself up with rugby and boxing.
Later, his father, a keen amateur racing driver, insisted that every penny of a loan for his first racing car was paid back by work - which left Stirling with a keen sense of the importance of money.
Motor racing was not a formula for a long life in the Fifties. In his 14 years on the track, Moss secured 212 wins from 529 starts - and this figure is still more impressive when the number of breakdowns is considered - breakdowns being very common in that time. Moss suffered six brake failures and seven detached wheels, any one of them a potentially fatal event.
While there were plenty of highlights in his career, one stands out: his victory in the spectacularly dangerous Mille Miglia, a 1000-mile (1600km) race through Italy using public roads.
Sir Stirling’s racing career would come to a sudden halt on a grass bank at Goodwood in 1962. Attempting to overtake Graham Hill, he crashed heavily, shattering his eye socket and breaking his left arm and leg. It took 45 minutes to free him from the wreckage and he lay in a coma for 38 days, before finally leaving hospital after three months - typically with the 11 nurses who had cared for him.
After testing a car the following year, Moss realised he was no longer up to it. Retirement at 32 was not viable, so he applied himself to finding a new job.
He considered becoming an MP because it did not demand any real talent, but found his milieu in motor sports commentary and promotion, and later as a successful property developer.
There was another, much more important, success - his marriage to his third wife, Susie, in 1980. Devoted, vivacious, organised and half his age at the wedding, she was his rock. The couple shared Sir Stirling’s gadget-infested house in Mayfair with its pop-up televisions and other boys’ toys.
Looking back on his high-octane life, Stirling Craufurd Moss, once remarked: "In my time, I was losing three or four friends a year, but I always liked to have danger lurking on my shoulder.
"It was an aphrodisiac. No one was pushing your foot to the floor. You went as fast as you could, and the faster you went, the greater the pleasure. I believe that racing should be dangerous. And if you don’t like it, do something else."
Farewell to a man who lived in the fast lane — in every sense of the word.Daily Mail