“In battle it is the cowards who run the most risk; bravery is a rampart of defense.” Sallust
David Purley packed many professions into his relatively short life: the West Sussex native was a Formula One driver, army officer and aerobatics competitor to name only three, one of which would suffice for most people. What’s more Purley was the sort of swashbuckler motor racing no longer produces: unfussed about testing, perhaps not even that mindful of results, simply in love with the thrill, danger and speed of the sport. He entered just 11 Grands Prix, of which he started only seven, but today he is remembered as one of the heros of 1970s Formula One for his actions one tragic day at Zandvoort in 1973.
Purley was born in Bognor Regis – the same place he would lose his life – on January 26th 1945, just a few months before the conclusion of World War Two. His father owned a prosperous refrigerator company, LEC Refrigeration, who would later back his efforts in Formula One.
Educated in West Sussex and Devon (and expelled from school on at least one occasion), he joined the army on a whim and soon became an officer in the parachute regiment. He saw action during a six month spell in Yemen, suffered a broken ankle when his ‘chute failed to properly deploy during a training drop (and he floated down atop his platoon sergeant) and eventually bought himself out of the service. By the late 1960s he had taken to motorsport, but there can be little doubt that his time in the army greatly affected his actions at the Dutch Grand Prix of ’73.
Purley raced in Formula Three between 1970 and ’72, beating the likes of James Hunt on occasion but never standing out to the same degree the 1976 world champion or fellow contemporaries Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce. He was however a dab hand at French circuit Chimay, where he scored a hat-trick of F3 wins between 1970 and 1972, beating Hunt in the first two. At the old school circuit Purley was right at home.
Despite not being the best of his generation Purley married decent enough results and unquestionable bravery with healthy financial backing, and made his F1 debut at the Monaco Grand Prix of 1973. Driving a privately entered March-Cosworth, run under the LEC Refrigeration moniker, he qualified 23rd on the 25-car grid and retired after 31 laps with a fuel leak.
But it would be at his second Grand Prix that Purley – along with fellow newcomer Williamson – would find fame for reasons he would never have wanted. Williamson was also contesting his second Grand Prix at the Zandvoort circuit, having made his debut at the British Grand Prix two weeks earlier. Whilst Purley was just another British peddler having a stab at F1 Williamson was seen as something altogether more special: he’d won Formula Three titles in Britain in 1971 and ’72, and his ascension to F1 in ’73 was seen as the beginning of a great career at the top of the sport.
But it was not to be. On lap 8 Williamson’s March crashed heavily as he approached Hondenvlak, flipping upside down and sliding along the circuit. The Englishman was alive, but the car was soon engulfed in flames.
As the field streamed past Purley stopped on the opposite side of the track, sprinted across to where Williamson’s machine had come to rest and began a desperate attempt to free his fellow racer. Hurling himself in to the flames he tried to overturn the March; unable to do so alone, and without help from the marshals, he found a fire extinguisher and tried to douse the inferno.
But it wasn’t enough to beat back the flames, and Purley once again began a vain attempt to overturn the car, waving frantically to the marshals for help but receiving none (in their defence the marshal’s clothing would have offered them no protection against the flames; they would have been terribly burnt and no help had they attempted to get their hands on the car). Purley was eventually dragged away, furious, heartbroken and in little doubt that his friend had perished in the flames.
He was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his heroism. Three years later Purley would tell Autosport magazine that his actions were the natural reaction of a man who’d spent time in the armed forces.
“What happened was purely a reflex action,” he explained. “In [the service], if one saw a burning tank or something, one tried to help the people inside. With Roger’s accident it was exactly the same. It was a case of a man needing help.”
Purley contested two more Grands Prix that season – scoring a ninth place finish at Monza – before focussing on the lower categories. After winning the British Formula 5000 title in 1976 he decided to give F1 another crack, funding the design of a new chassis for the LEC team. After a failed attempt to qualify in Spain he took the chequered flag in Belgium and Sweden before dropping out in France. Next up was his home race; it would prove to be his last in Formula One.
During pre-qualifying the car’s throttle stuck open at the fast Becketts corner, leaving Purley no more than a passenger in an almighty shunt. He suffered a multitude of broken bones and various other injuries, as he explains to Murray Walker in the video below.
Remarkably he returned to compete in the Aurora British Formula One championship, nearly netting a podium at Snetterton in 1979. It was an incredible feat for a man who’d been so badly injured; he had to be lifted from the car afterwards, but Purley had beaten the odds to make a return at all. He called it quits after that, reasoning that he had proven all he needed to.
After quitting racing Purley did not simply settle in to a life of quiet domesticity. Whilst running the family business he also moved in to competitive aerobatics, no surprise from the man who had at one time been Britain’s youngest pilot. It was in this endeavour that he lost his life: on July 2nd 1985 a technical fault on his aircraft sent him in to the sea off the West Sussex coast.
Today he is remembered largely for his actions at Zandvoort in ’73; for the look of desperate hopelessness on his face as he walked away from Williamson’s burning car; for his heroic attempts to save the life of a fellow competitor.
For more on Purley and Williamson Badger recommends David Tremayne’s excellent The Lost Generation – a brilliant and emotional read.