David Purley

26/1/1945 - 2/7/1985

Record updated 17-Jun-06

No shortage or heart in David Purley, a man so well remembered for courage and audacity that people forget he could actually drive.

David Purley
David Purley was born in Bognor Regis, Sussex during the last days of World War II. The son of an enterpreneur who started Lec Refrigeration. he joined the Army and became an officer in the Parachute Regiment and saw action durning the Aden Emergency in the mid 1960's.

He left the army after six years and started racing in 1968 with an AC Cobra which he proceeded to write off at Brands Hatch after taking a win and 2nd at Lydden. His next car was a Chevron sports car in which he took a win at Castle Coombe.

In 1970 he switched to single seaters and started Lec Refrigeration Racing. He bought a Brabham BT28 to race in F3 taking his first F3 victory early in the season at the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium, beating James Hunt by a tenth of a second. His next win came a year later back at Chimay. In mid 1971 he switched to an Ensign, winning two races in Britain at the end of the year.

In 1972 he moved up to Formula 2 with a March 722, finishing third at Pau but he returned to F3 at Chimay to win his third consecutive Grand Prix des Frontieres.

In 1973 he switched to Formula Atlantic. He also made his F1 debut in a March 731 at Monaco. Later in the year at the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, on the 8th lap David and Roger Williamson were running their similar March 731Gs in close company when the left front tyre on Roger's car exploded at the section of the track where Piers Courage had crashed three years earlier.

They had just negotiated the left-right flick called Hondenvlak and were in the first of two fast fifth-gear right-handers when the incident occurred. The March struck the outer guardrail, the supports of which, incredibly, had only been set in the soft sand that is such a feature of the seaside track. It bent back with the weight of the car, before flipping it back on to the track, where it landed upside-down, right on the apex of the second right-hander. The left-hand fuel tank had been damaged, and a small fire started.

Purley immediately stopped his car and abandoned his own race in a selfless act of heroism harrowingly captured on BBC television. Only yards away stood a fire tender, but no order was given to stop the race and its driver refused, perhaps rightly, to drive against the direction of the traffic. Worse, marshals with fire extinguishers merely watched as Purley fought a lone battle to right the upturned March. He could hear Williamson inside it. Roger pleaded with him to get him out. Time and again Purley tried to lift the car, but each time he failed. For two laps - at least 2m 47s -the fire was minimal, but then it grew dramatically in intensity. David tried to fight it after grabbing an extinguisher from one marshal, but by then the fire had too strong a hold.

As the marshals still remained immobile, appalled spectators began to try and help, unable to believe what they were seeing. Only then were marshals with police dogs galvanized into action, to keep them back. Finally, in the most callous act of cowardice ever seen in motor racing, they moved at last and tried to drag the desolate Purley away. He shrugged them off angrily.

Roger was uninjured in the cockpit, but they left him to die of asphyxiation. When help finally arrived, the fire trucks were far, far too late. Roger Williamson's incident was one of the most disgracefully stupid and negligent events in Formula 1 history.

Later that year Purley won the George Medal for his efforts to save Roger from his burning car.

He turned his back on F1 in 1974, although he did try to qualify a Token at the British GP, and concentrated on winning in Formula 5000. He won the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in 1975 and the following year took six wins in 13 races to take the Shellsport British Formula 5000 title.

In the winter of 1976-77 Purley commissioned designer Mike Pilbeam to build a Lec F1 car and with the help of Mike Earle this was ready to race in 1977. He finished 6th in the Race of Champions and after failing to qualify at the Spanish Grand Prix, he briefly led the Belgian before finishing 13th. In Sweden he was 14th, but crashed at the French Grand Prix after his brakes failed. Then came the British Grand Prix where his throttle stuck wide open at Becketts during pre-qualifying. He survived a deceleration rate 173 to 0 km/h in 660 mm. This is equal to 179.8 G. He suffered 29 fractures, 3 dislocations and  heart stopped six times.

In 1978 he return to the track with two outings in a Porsche 924, followed by 2nd in the Brighton Speed Trials with his LEC F1 car.

In 1979 after further operations on his damaged legs he had a few races in the Aurora F1 Series, retiring at Brands Hatch and finishing 10th at Thruxton with his LEC, followed by 4th at Snetterton and 9th at Silverstone in a Shadow DN9B. He also took a class win at a Loton Park Hillclimb in a Porsche 924 and began competing in aerobatic events with a Pitts Special. He quit racing at the end of the year to concentrate on running the family business and flying.

He had been a pilot since the early 1960s but while flying off the south coast of England in the summer of 1985 he died when his Pitts Special crashed into the sea.