Shortly before he passed away in 2017 I recorded an interview with Sir John Whitmore in his Surrey, England, apartment. The subject: his friendship with Steve McQueen. Now, with Alex Rodger’s superb documentary, “Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie” being screened on Sky TV (UK) and Now TV (on-line app), I felt it was the right time to post the interview on YouTube. I initially divided it into segments so that it could be enjoyed on and around the days of Alex’s film but now here they all are, on one page, so to speak. Enjoy.
The portrait of Sir John above was painted by another close friend of Sir John’s – Brian Caldersmith. He created it without Sir John’s knowledge but then invited him along to an art gallery where it was on display. Sir John, for once, was lost for words.
A very talented Aussie, Brian also owns a period Lotus Elite – and offered the Elite for Sir John to drive at the Tasman Revival in Sydney a few years back. He also managed to re-unite Sir John with Chis Barber, of Jazz Band fame. Chris was a massive motor racing fan in the 1960s, co-owning a race team for which Sir John raced and even providing the title and background music for that epic film of the 1964 British and European GP – “Brands Hatch Beat”. Here is a pic of Brian (foreground, left), Warren King (ex-Team Lotus accountant and brother of my local vicar in Manly, Sydney, where I grew up!), Sir John and Chris. Chris isn’t too well at present, so we wish him all the best. They all met one day at Potter’s Bar in between flights/gigs/meetings/train trips.
Finally, the image below is not only my favourite of Sir John at work but also one of the most atmospheric motor racing photographs I’ve ever seen. It’s a shot of Sir John testing an Alan Mann Ford GT40 at Goodwood in early 1965. The corner is Fordwater – the very quick right-hander – and the attitude is pure, unadulterated, DSJ-spec, cold-early-morning, mist-in-the-air, four-wheel-drift. The photographer, kneeling down on the apex grass? None other than Alan Mann himself.
In both apartments in which I frequently met Sir John, chatting about racing and life, this photo hung in glory. Although he had luckily escaped uninjured from a massive GT40 testing shunt at Monza in 1964, when the throttle stuck open going into the Curva Grande, Sir John always said that “Fordwater Drift” summed-up everything he loved about driving nice racing cars on crisp, West Sussex days and balancing them on the most delicate of razor-sharp edges. About these emotions, he even composed the following poem:
Long winter shadows, afternoon chill;
Life in the meadows is dormant or still.
The cuckoo has flown, the crowd is long gone;
The driver’s alone, but still he drives on.
And so it goes on, the search for the Grail;
The circuit he’s on, it but a trail.
There’s always a race that keeps us from grace.
If only we knew, if only he knew, the quest never ends for it never begins;
The straight is all bends and nobody wins.
An astonishingly good man, Sir John Whitmore.