DUNCAN HAMILTON epitomised men who merit the description 'larger than life', for he was one who not only went out to meet it, but who embraced it heartily at every opportunity. His driving style was equally extrovert, with lots of speed, tail sliding and frequent spins.
He was fortunate to be at his most active in racing in one of motorsport's greatest eras. He was born in Ireland in 1920 and after racing Austins Sevens at Brooklands and spending the war in the Fleet Air Arm, he graduated to sprints and hillclimbs before racing a Maserati 6C in 1948.
Though he was a dedicated bon viveur, Hamilton's ample girth was matched by incredible stamina which made him the perfect sportscar driver. He was best- known for his successes in the Le Mans 24-Hour endurance race in France, in conjunction with his partner and close friend Tony Rolt. They were fourth on their first drive there in 1950 in a Healey, and sixth the following year. But their greatest hour came in the 1953, which they won in a works Jaguar C-type. They came within two miles of victory in a D- type the following year, Hamilton driving a storming race in the closing stages to halve the lead of the works Ferrari of Froilan Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant as the track was awash following a cloudburst. When it began to dry out, however, the Argentinian and the Frenchman in the Italian car hung on for a narrow triumph.
In the wet Hamilton had few peers. In his Grand Prix Lago Talbot he eclipsed even the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio at the soaking International Trophy race at Silverstone in 1951, when he finished second to Reg Parnell but a long way ahead of the Argentinian who would go on to clinch that year's World Championship.
Later Hamilton would literally lose that car. Financial shortages obliged him to leave it in a Belgian cellar rather than ship it home from Continental races. When he returned on one occasion to pick it up, he eventually discovered that the cellar's former owner had moved without telling the new one of the car's existence. By the time Hamilton arrived, it had been buried under tons of coal.
Hamilton's autobiography Touch Wood (1960) is a classic of the genre, and he recalls an occasion when, following a bad crash aboard, he needed surgery. The medical facilities did not extend to anaesthetic, and as the surgeon leant over him, Hamilton was mesmerised by the increasing length of ash from a cigarette as it hovered above the wound to which its owner was attending.
He sustained unpleasant injuries in an accident at Le Mans in 1958, while contesting the lead in a Jaguar, and then he was shattered by the death of his friend the newly crowned World Champion Mike Hawthorn, in early 1959. That tragedy finally prompted him to hang up his helmet and gloves in 1959 and to concentrate on his garage business. He none the less always remained close to the sport.