Tony Marsh, who has died at the age of 77, was one of Britain's best all-round motor racing drivers, a "privateer" who took on the mighty works teams of his era, including Maserati and Ferrari.
He may be best remembered by enthusiasts as an unmatched six-time winner of the British Hill Climb Championships, but he also raced in a handful of Formula One Grands Prix – against such greats as Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Graham Hill – and once in the 24-hour race at Le Mans, finishing 14th overall in a Lotus Elite, but memorably winning his class.
He was still competing in hill-climb events until late last year, already having turned 77, and was entered for several events this season before he was suddenly hospitalised with breathing difficulties. As a septuagenarian, he also remained highly active in numerous other sports – notably ocean sailing, windsurfing, hydroplane racing, shooting and ski-bobbing (or ski-biking). He was a driving force behind ski-bobbing in the UK, a European champion and world championship bronze medallist in the sport and a long-time chairman of the Ski-bob Association of Great Britain (SAGB).
While winning the seniors' trophy at the ski-bob British nationals 13 times from 1975-91, he was often fastest on the course. He declined, however, to claim the title of overall British National Champion, preferring to encourage the younger competitors. He was also a keen pilot. Marsh, who was often confused by non-enthusiasts with his friend, the late, great Formula One track commentator Anthony Marsh, was the antithesis of the Grand Prix driver of today. He was hands-on, a mechanic at heart, a tinkerer, a fixer, and a swashbuckler behind the wheel.
After taking the British Hill Climb Championship in his Cooper-Jap Mk 8 in 1955 – ending Ken Wharton's run of four successive victories – Marsh went on to complete a hat-trick of championships over the next two years. After a break in which he concentrated on track racing and other sports, he came back a decade later – his friends called it his "Second Coming" – to take a further three national hill-climb championships in a row, from 1965-67. This time he drove his self-built Marsh-Buick V-8 special, with a self-developed system of four-wheel drive.
His spell away from hill-climbing brought Marsh less fame, but no lack of success, drama or indelible memories of dicing with the greatest names of the times. He won the 1957 British Formula Two championship in his privately entered Cooper-Climax T-43, then entered the car in the 1957 German Grand Prix at the famous Nürburgring circuit. He would later describe it as the most memorable race of his life, although his far less powerful F2 car finished only fourth in the F2 class and 15th overall behind the great Argentinian Fangio in his F1 Maserati. With a shortage of F1 entries outside of the major manufacturers, the international racing authorities had decided to pad out the grid with F2 racers to give the spectators their money's worth.
Fangio's victory that day – on the 4 August 1957 – is widely considered to be the best of his illustrious career. He made up a gap of nearly a minute to overhaul the Lancia-Ferraris of the British pair Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins to snatch the race and win his fifth world drivers' title, a record that would stand for 46 years until it was beaten by Michael Schumacher.
Marsh entered an updated Cooper Climax T45 in the following year's joint F1/F2 German Grand Prix, also at the treacherous Nürburgring, this time finishing a creditable eighth overall behind the winner, Tony Brooks, in a Vanwall. But the race was marred by the death of his good friend, the dashing Englishman Peter Collins, who had won the British GP at Silverstone in a Ferrari only two weeks earlier.
Marsh raced the F1 big boys twice more, latterly in the 1961 German Grand Prix, when, after changes in Formula rules, his car, a Lotus Climax, met F1 standards. He finished 15th behind the winner Stirling Moss, with Scotland's Jim Clark in fourth, both men also in Lotus Climaxes.
One of Marsh's proudest achievements was to race at Le Mans in 1960, driving a 750cc Lotus Elite along with John Wagstaff. Although they finished 14th overall, they came away with the coveted "Index of Thermal Efficiency" trophy to the delight of Lotus founder Colin Chapman. Chapman had built the car specifically to out-do the French marques, who had been boasting of their energy efficiency. Using a "softly, softly" approach, Marsh and Wagstaff remarkably completed the famous 24-hour race without changing tyres or brake pads.
Anthony Ernest Marsh was born in Stourbridge, now part of the West Midlands, on 20 July 1931, son of the wealthy businessman Edward Marsh, owner of the Marsh & Baxter ham and bacon-curing company of Brierley Hill, Dudley, which was famed around the Black Country for its pork pies and sausages. Young Tony was brought up in relative luxury and privilege in Dunsley Hall, near Stourbridge, now a romantic getaway hotel. The family wealth allowed him to get into cars at an early age and friends recall him transporting his hill-climb racers to some events strapped to the deck of his father's yacht.
In 1962, at the height of his career, he moved south from Dudley in to run Soal Farm in a Hampshire village whose name was apt for a hill-climb champion – Steep – and where he remained based for the rest of his life, surrounded by a collection of his old racers and other classic cars. He was chairman of a local engineering firm, Tews Engineering, and ran a popular BMW, Citroen and Mitsubishi car dealership at Froxfield Service Station near his home.
Long before the days of miniature cameras, he recalled driving his own Marsh Special at Goodwood for an orange squash commercial in 1967 with a terrified cameraman strapped to the bonnet.
For the last 20 years or so, he divided his time between his water or snow sports and his beloved hill-climbing, driving everything from an ex-works F1 BRM or his so-called Rovercraft (a March F2 chassis powered by a Rover SD1 engine) to his most recent Gould GR55-Cosworth 2.5 litre V6, with which he was due to tackle several climbs this year. Despite his age, he was renowned for packing in a hectic schedule, often driving in more than one event around the country, and in more than one car, on the same weekend.
In 2007, Marsh published his colourful autobiography, Tony Marsh, the Great All-rounder: In and Out of Motorsport.
Anthony Edward Marsh, racing driver, ski-bob champion, businessman and all-round sportsman: born Stourbridge, West Midlands 20 July 1931; married 1959 Hermione "Diana" Scott (three sons), 2001 Liza Montenegro; died Portsmouth 7 May 2009.