For many motorsport enthusiasts, a driver by the name of David Purley will be forever associated with a remarkable act of bravery that, in some ways, overshadows his racing achievements. He was born to a self-made businessman who created a large company, LEC Refrigeration, based in the small Sussex town of Bognor Regis.
David was born in 1942 and was expected to join the family business but he had a spirit of advnture that, having been expelled from his boarding school, saw him join the Coldstream Guards. A transfer to the Parachute Regiment led to him being sent into action during troubles in Aden and this led to a reputation for him being indestructible; during a parachute jump he became tangled with another parachutist; he survived a ‘heavy landing’ by sitting on top of his intstructors parachute. Whilst avoiding bullets and grenades during combat, his armoured personnel car was blown up and only David walked away. Whilst still in the army in 1968, Bognor-based driver Derek Bell introduced him to motorsport. David purchased an AC Cobra that he raced until the final race of the season at Brands Hatch when he rolled the car comprehensively at Paddock Bend. He walked away from the wreck but photos of the crash were published in the national press. After leaving the army in 1970 he set up his own Formula 3 team and progressed through to Formula 1 over the next few years, renting a March to race in selected grand prix. Lacking the funds for a full season, the small team struggled to qualify for some races. In 1973, he made headlines around the world when, in front of the TV cameras, he single-handedly attempted to pull his friend Roger Williamson from his burning car during the Dutch grand prix while the marshals stood and watched. It was typical of his bravery and he was awarded the George Medal which meant little to him. He decided to continue racing but once again, fate dealt a serious blow when the throttle slides of his LEC F1 car stuck open at Silverstone and the car slammed at speed into an earth bank; the impact stopped his heart due to the massive deceleration which is thought to be the highest g-force load anyone has survived. The medical team saved his life but he was left with badly damaged legs, one of which was now 4cm shorter than the other. Even though he managed to drive his F1 car again, he knew his racing days were over so he took up Enduro motocycle racing and purchased a Pitts Special bi-plane designed to compete in aerobatic events. He mostly flew for fun until finally, in 1985, his luck ran out and his aircraft crashed into the sea off the south coast.
The photograph above shows the AC Cobra of David Purley at an early club meeting at Brands Hatch in 1968. His team are en route to the scrutineering bay but decided to push the car uphill rather than drive it. Maybe David had walked off with the key. The Cobra was assigned the chassis number COB6006, painted bright blue with a black interior and was delivered to a Sussex-based dealer K. N. Rudd of Worthing on March 4th 1964. It was sold to Dr. M. Dawes of Birmingham and briefly exported to South Africa, returning to England in 1967 when David Purley acquired it. Now painted a darker shade of blue, he added a set of Pearce alloy wheels, a roll bar and a hardtop. Following its infamous crash at Brands Hatch, David decided it was not worth the considerable cost of rebuilding it. When I paid him a visit at LEC Refrigeration in 1981 he told me he had “personally cut up the remains and threw them in the skip over there”. Thus any car claiming to be COB6006 is not as it lies buried in a landfill site in Sussex.
From ‘Moments in Motorsport’ by Trevor Legate.