Who was the greatest passenger of all time?
I don’t know about you, but I have shameful memories of my motoring youth. The worst was the time when a mother walking her two young children on a country road flung them into a ditch at the sight of me executing what I imagined was a most elegant four wheel drift through a long corner. Her action wasn’t necessary, I wasn’t actually intruding into their space, but she wasn’t to know that and I had a chastening lesson that day. Not that I’d pretend that quelled my driving style entirely, but I became more thoughtful of what other road, and pavement, users might think. I tried to keep a comfort area between them and me.
However, it took longer before I applied that qualified thoughtfulness to my passengers. In my late teens I’d happily practice my driving technique with a car full of passengers though, in mitigation, a few of them did the same to me. Through good fortune, we all survived and, gradually, I became better behaved and, today, although I still drive on the fastish side, I try to judge my passengers and adapt accordingly so that they feel at ease – though maybe Eoin, being the only current contributor to these pages who has actually experienced my driving, would beg to differ.
On the other side, I have been a passenger with some really bad drivers, particularly in my time spent delivering cars. You’d imagine if you were taking a job, you’d choose something you had aptitude for but, as anyone who has ever been in a taxi or minicab knows, that’s not often the case with ‘professional’ drivers. My own attitude has always been fatalistic. – I just sit there, enjoy the view and think of all the good deeds I wish I’d done in my life. I don’t grab at handles or stab at ghost brakes. I’m also good at reading maps and knowing shortcuts that TomTom has missed.
So, I’d say I was a pretty good passenger, but all that pales in comparison with the contender for the ultimate passenger, the writer Denis Jenkinson. He’s certainly not the only person who has committed his safety in a dangerous sport to the skill of another person. In the early days of motor racing a riding mechanic was a necessity, someone to fiddle around with things on the move and fix things when not. This was a dangerous job, often fulfilled by someone of a perceived lower social order from the driver. Sitting on top, rather than in, a car it was very easy to get flung out and, in some cases, the titled toff at the wheel was not there because of his sublime skill. Nasty injuries and fatalities were commonplace and, if not known only to God, posterity remembers very few of those early heroes of the passenger seat.
Jim Clark, that very fast, yet wonderfully smooth and unflustered driver was, by Graham Hill’s account at least, a highly nervous passenger, unable to put his faith in another driver’s skill, even someone he’d happily trust driving wheel to wheel with on a racetrack. Jenkinson was a fast and skilled road driver, but he made no pretence to being top competition class. As a journalist however, he knew an awful lot about motor sport and the way cars and drivers behaved. As such, he would have had no illusions at all about the risks of being a passenger on the Mille Miglia. In one of the fastest cars in a race where cars started at timed intervals, in addition to brick walls, potholes, ditches, spectators and the possibility of wayward farmers straying onto the course, there was the prospect of a multitude of slower competing cars to pass.
The driver throughout was Stirling Moss, but Jenkinson’s job was far from passive. His safety was literally in his own hands, in the shape of the elaborate course notes he’d written on a continuous roll. Their accuracy and his ability to communicate them meant that the mutual trust went both ways, and Moss was committing his life just as much to Jenkinson. Battered and dirty, they won, in what was one of the great drives of motor sport history averaging 158 kph on what were ordinary public roads, albeit theoretically devoid of non competing traffic.
Was he brave? At 35, he would have been old enough not to have the blind recklessness of youth, but possibly the thought of fear never entered Jenkinson’s head. Intellectually, he might have reasoned that with all the elaborate preparation, and Moss’s undeniable skill, the odds were in their favour. Also, he seemed to be happy to be in the passenger seat. In the late 1940s, he competed frequently as passenger in sidecar racing to World Championship level, another case where the passenger is far from sedentary, but one that still requires a huge degree of belief in the rider’s skill.
As an influential journalist, Jenkinson is sometimes criticised for his outspoken, even offensively aggressive, opposition in the early 1970s to those, like Jackie Stewart, who fought to improve safety standards in motor racing. He felt that motor sport was nothing without danger and, viewed from his perspective, that the then level of danger was acceptable. I’d side with Mr Stewart every time, but that is an argument for another place. However, passenger though he might have been, DSJ had at least proven that he was no safe armchair critic.
My only ignominious thought is that, had he been seated next to me on that shameful day I mentioned at the start, he’d have reached for a grab handle, covered his eyes and screamed “Who do you bloody well think you are – Stirling Moss?”