6th October 1937: Racing driver Richard Seaman test driving his Mercedes during preparations for Britain's first international car race at Crystal Palace. (Photo by David Savill/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Richard Seaman test drives his Mercedes ahead of Britain’s first international car race at Crystal Palace in 1937 © Getty

Those of a certain age will remember when the news hit. The Formula Two race had gone ahead after rain. Germany’s Hockenheimring racetrack was still wet and a green Lotus had spun off the track and collided with trees. Jim Clark, the sheep farmer from the Border Country and the most successful British racing car driver of the 1960s, was dead at the age of 32.

Clark’s death came roughly halfway between the death, at the age of 34, of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian driver whose steering wheel column collapsed in the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 and that of Richard Seaman, who died in 1939, aged 26, in the rain while leading the Belgian Grand Prix.

For young devotees of Formula One, Senna’s reputation lingers, but for many of us postwar babies who tracked the triumphs of Jim Clark, the life of Seaman, the finest British race car driver of the 1930s, is but a blank. He was gone before our time. A Race with Love and Death, Richard Williams’ charming account of Seaman’s life, will help put this to rights and remind others of a time in Grand Prix racing when with grievous regularity, before the enhanced safety standards championed by Jackie Stewart and others, the fast died young and died often.

Seaman, the product of a union between a wealthy widower and heir to a whiskey fortune and his far younger wife, herself a widow, was raised breathing the final fumes of the Edwardian generation: country houses; ranks of servants; summers cruising the Mediterranean; with an education consisting of a journey through the nursery, prep school, Rugby and, eventually Trinity College, Cambridge.

His was the speed generation. Engineers and daredevils spent day and night squeezing every ounce of power from internal combustion engines to mount on aeroplanes, bolt to boats and install beneath bonnets. This was the time of the Blue Riband, awarded to the passenger ship that crossed the Atlantic in the shortest time; of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the same ocean; of Malcolm Campbell’s attempts to capture speed records on the sands of Bonneville and the waters of Windermere in the Lake District; and of Marion Carstairs, who became the best-known female powerboat racer although, heavily tattooed and invariably dressed as a man, she preferred to be known as Joe.

Front cover of 'A Race with Love and Death', by Richard Williams

Seaman was besotted with cars from the time he first encountered his father’s Daimlers. On his 19th birthday, in 1931, he was given his first car, a Riley nine speed, in which he immediately departed for the continent for races in the Dolomites and French Alps. At Trinity, his fellow students included Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, who as Soviet spies would go on to betray their country, and more pertinently for Seaman, another with the means to indulge his yearning for speed — Whitney Straight. The scion of a wealthy American family, Straight, who kept an 8-litre Bentley coupe and chauffeur garaged across town, had become the youngest licensed pilot in Britain and after lectures finished would fly to race at Brooklands. Seaman joined the university’s Automobile Club and entered the Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb race (the Pathé News footage is on YouTube).

As a student Seaman achieved what was expected of him — not much — and left Cambridge refusing to countenance any future not devoted to racing. Using guile and charm he wheedled money from his mother and sponsors to finance his path on to the voiturette circuit, a car classification one rung beneath the Grand Prix machines. The account of Seaman’s early career, headquartered in his family’s Knightsbridge house and mews garage, reads as if Downton Abbey had started a racing outfit.

Seaman’s progress captured the attention of Mercedes and, frustrated by the relative indifference to Grand Prix racing in Britain, he decamped for the continent. As a correspondent for Motor Sport noted: “One is forced to the dismal conclusion that the limit of our countrymen’s intelligence is to hit a ball about.”

Seaman spent less than three seasons in the top ranks of motor racing, which placed him in the uncomfortable position of competing in a car emblazoned with swastikas. After he won the German Grand Prix in 1938 he was photographed garlanded with an oak wreath giving a limp salute with one British headline reading, “Heil Seaman! Heil Mercedes!” Within a month of Kristallnacht, he married — to his mother’s dismay — a daughter of the head of BMW.

Seaman was far younger than either Clark or Senna when, three months before war broke out, his car broadsided a tree, a fuel line burst loose and flames engulfed his cotton clothing and thin leather head gear. At the time of his death, a nine-year-old British boy who had tracked all Seaman’s exploits had just started to drive his first car — an Austin 7 — on the fields outside his parents’ home. His name was Stirling Moss.

A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Britain’s First Great Grand Prix Driver Richard Seaman, by Richard Williams, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 400 pages

Michael Moritz is a partner at Sequoia Capital

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