Today is the anniversary of the passing of a giant of British motorsport, the only thing taller than this man are the tales he inspired. Gerry Marshall won a record 625 races between 1964 and 2004 becoming a near-mythic racing character long before he left us for the great racetrack in the sky while at the wheel of an IROC Camaro at Silverstone on April 21st 2005. Ordinarily you would describe his passing from natural causes as peaceful, but I imagine that the cockpit of a V8 muscle car is anything but serene, although it would be accurate to say he went doing what he loved best, so he was certainly at peace in that regard.
My folks have always been partial to sport of the automotive variety, they recently shared this timely little glimpse into another era with me. Back when Gerry was hauling Vauxhalls around the great circuits of Britain my parents were fortunate enough to enjoy his company and his insights into top level saloon and sportscar racing. The year was 1976, but even in the time of Sheens and Hunts Gerry Marshall was unique. A man who was as big and burly as the cars he tamed, you could say that in the mid-1970s he was at his peak, but truth be told he was at his peak for 40 years. When I watched him race TVRs and Aston Martins in the 1990s it was the same supreme talent that my parents had witnessed in Vauxhalls and Minis when I was merely an apple in their eyes. The cars still danced to his tune and Gerry still looked and behaved like the antithesis of the modern sportsman, something he was loved for.
Gerry Marshall drove more cars than even he could care to remember, but the image that most readily comes to mind is of him manning the controls of a beastly Vauxhall such as the fire-breathing Firenza. My Mum was working for a Vauxhall dealership at the time and this consummate ambassador for the sport was very much the face of the marque during the 1970s. While visiting the garage he regaled them with stories from the pits and paddocks of the country, all delivered in his booming voice that always commanded attention. They cared to ask how he was beating all the young whipper-snappers coming up through the ranks, the answer was certainly not the full story, but it was as good an illustration of the times as it gets.
Before a race Gerry said he would invite some of the youngsters out for a drink with him so he could impart a little knowledge and get to know his soon to be vanquished competition. He got the rounds in while insisting that he always drinks a bit on race weekend and it never slows him down. The learner drivers presumably went against their instincts and thought that if Gerry did it, they all could. Come race day all the youngsters were nursing hangovers while Gerry was rested, well and prepared for a spot of opposite locking. Gerry Marshall was not your average racer; unlike all the other jockeys he was as big and burly as the cars he wrestled around the track and he could take his ale. It certainly seems as wise a strategy as anything Ross Brawn could come up with!
At the top of the page you can watch some magic footage from the custodians of British racing history at Duke Video. It’s a taster of what Gerry Marshall was all about as he takes you for a ride with him around Oulton Park. The man himself is your guide, sounding laid back on the commentary but driving with aplomb. The Vauxhall Firenza bucks and leans on its soft suspension, gliding high over the crests and dips of Cheshire’s mini-Nurburgring, every slide is caught by his outstretched arms almost before they’ve happened. This is Marshall at his best – there is no corner on the British motorsport calendar that he didn’t know as well as his own driveway and he wasn’t afraid to push on every lap. Seeing him behind the wheel of his beloved ‘Baby Bertha’, the car that came to define him, is an evocative and sorely missed sight for any British petrol-head.
If you want to read an awful lot more about this legendary character then take a look at Only Here For The Beer, his biography from 1978, available here on Amazon. The Marshall family also keep a very informative website running in the big man’s memory, the least you should do today is stop by www.gerrymarshall.com to read a little about his astounding career.