Just after Christmas, I had the opportunity to spend several hours in the company of Hugh Chamberlain. Hugh and I go back a long way, to before the days when he won the FIA World Endurance Championship for Group C2 cars with his Spice, through the early nineties, which included a rather sordid evening in the Shark Lounge at Daytona Beach, to his more recent appearances at Le Mans in various ‘consultancy’ roles.
I hope Hugh needs no further introduction here, and I hope that one day his book will appear… it will make fascinating reading. I visited him at his house in rural Hertfordshire, and as it was the first time that I had been, I was first given “the tour”. As we wandered the spacious grounds of the grade II listed cottage, Hugh told me how he bought the place.
“It was on a handshake,” he began, and I could feel one of Chamberlain’s stories about to start. “I’d been in the pub all night, and this chap, who I knew quite well, from the pub, was telling me that he wanted to sell, and he particularly wanted to sell it to me. ‘I want you to have it,’ he told me,” Hugh said, pointing his finger and looking me in the eye. “Well, the following morning I had a call from him, telling me that he would be contacting his solicitor later on to get the process started. … it was all news to me! I got on the phone to my solicitor and told him to stall, under no circumstances was he to do anything. After a few weeks, we had managed to agree on a price, and Small (Hugh’s wife) and I have been here ever since.”
As I already mentioned, the location is extremely rural, but there are three pubs close by. Hugh continues his tale: “Well, I asked the landlord of my pub what he knew about the chap, and he just told me that I didn’t want to buy his place because of the drains. ‘The drains?’ I said, ‘how can you possibly know about the drains?’”
“So then he told me how the chap had a bit of an alcohol problem, but that his wife didn’t know about it, so he and the landlords of the two other pubs nearby had an arrangement to leave bottles of scotch for him in the hedge over there,” Hugh indicated the hedge which ran alongside the road that I had used a few minutes earlier. “Anyway, the landlord had said to him ‘how do you stop your wife from finding the empty bottles?’ This chap, the chap I bought the place from, had said, ‘oh I just throw them in the septic tank!’”
Hugh continues: “So when we moved in, one of the first things I did was to drain the septic tank, I’d never lived in a place without proper drains before, so I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I thought that it would be a good thing to do. And when it got down low, all there was to be seen were empty whisky bottles. I don’t know how deep it went, but I do know that the whole of the bottom portion of the tank has just got bottles in there. So I just left them!”
In the garage are Jaguar XK120, a Triumph TR3 and a Mallock U2, formerly raced by Creighton Brown. Hugh’s regular transport, a Jaguar, sits outside. “They are all runners, but I have to confess that the XK120 hasn’t been out for a while. It is taxed, though; I want to give it a run later this year.” There is also another garage (“a shed,” according to Hugh), which houses various historic motorbikes (“black and white motorbikes,” he says).
Inside the cottage is a veritable treasure trove of racing paraphernalia, memorabilia and other stuff. The walls have various pictures of importance or significance to Hugh – I spot the FIA prizegiving at which he received the 1989 C2 Championship award.
“Yes, Nick Adams was there as well, of course, very pleased with himself. And afterwards, we went to the pub (as you do), and Nick has had a few, and his French, you know, it got better the more booze he’d had. Anyway, he wasn’t quite sure of the French for ‘Champion’, so like most well-educated Englishmen, he just spoke English with a French accent. So there he is, dancing on the table, shouting out to anyone who cared to listen that he was the “Champignon du Monde… je suis un champignon du monde!” We didn’t have the heart to tell him that champignon meant ‘mushroom’!”
There is also an autograph on the wall, which I recognise as that of Fangio. Clearly, a source of some pride for Hugh. “We were at Spa, and we’d just won the World Championship – for the team, we hadn’t won the driver’s title at that point, and he was walking along behind the pits. Well I said to him, “you’ve won all those world championships, and we’ve just won this one, would you mind signing something for me?” Of course he didn’t speak a word of English, but he had a translator who went nearly everywhere with him, so he agreed. And I went back to the truck and the only piece of paper I could find was the back of one of our publicity brochures. So that’s what he signed. A great man.”
An awful lot of time was spent discussing Hugh’s most recent project, which involves a prospective LMP1 entry in the World Endurance Championship. This is a tale that will have to wait to be told until more water has passed under the bridge, and at the time of writing, it is still unclear where it will finish up. But like all of Hugh’s experiences, you live through it merely by listening to the man talk about.
The final story relates again to that World Championship, as Hugh removes the trophy from its cabinet to show me. It is best described as a typical FIA trophy from it era. Lots of artistic shiny metal on a fine presentation stand. “So we got it back and were showing it round to all the boys (at the factory)”, Hugh is giggling as he speaks. “And one of the blokes looks at it points at the metal swirls which adorn the bottom part of the trophy and says: “Cor, who did the welding on that!”
A great enthusiast, a great raconteur, and, yes, a great man in his own right.