Duncan Hamilton was one of the Greatest British racing drivers of all time. Although his name stands below the likes of his contemporaries such as Moss and Hawthorn this has less to do with his driving ability and more to do with his chosen form of four wheel racing.
Duncan Hamilton epitomised the sort of carefree, wealthy, amateur racing driver of the 1950s who treated motor racing as a well paid sideline to the more serious business of high living, hard drinking and chasing girls.
While much of this is true, a glance at his racing curriculum vitae, with victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours the zenith of his career, tells you that he was deadly serious when behind the wheel. However, read his autobiography Touch Wood - by far the funniest sporting book ever - and you’ll understand that Duncan ought not to have survived beyond his teenage years, his life a cross between that of a boy’s own hero and that of a devil-may-care stuntman.
Hamilton flew Lysanders in the RAF during the war. After which he proved he was a more than useful racer, shining in Formula 2 single-seaters and peaking with seventh place in the 1952 Dutch Grand Prix. However it was in sportscars that he shone. Sadly, the prelude to his greatest success is now so enshrined in motor racing legend that it obscures the fact that he won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1953. Driving a works Jaguar C-Type, he and co-driver Tony Rolt believed that they had failed to gain entry for the race. So, after qualifying, they headed into town for a monster session. Only once they’d drowned their sorrows several times over were they found by a team member who told them that they would be starting the race after all. Never has so much black coffee been drunk in an attempt to sober up. No two drivers will ever have found the day-and-night enduro so trying or victory so sweet.
Later that year, Duncan made even more of an impact when he crashed into a pylon when racing in Oporto and cut off the power supply to the Portuguese city for several hours.
More sportscar wins followed, but the death of close friend Mike Hawthorn in a road accident in 1959 convinced an already injured Duncan to retire from racing. He then gained further worldwide recognition as a market-leading dealer of thoroughbred historic competition cars.
Hamilton was a larger than life character whose immense spirit, vigour and sense of purpose is graphically illustrated in his autobiography ‘Touch Wood!’, recently edited and extended by celebrated motor racing historian, Doug Nye.