Glory Boys

Part heroes, part stars of the jet set. Definitely champions. They were the racing drivers of the early years of motorsport, who put courage first. And who often paid with their lives for their obsession with speed.

Glory Boys

Felice Bonetto lights his pipe before beginning the 1953 Carrera Panamericana 5-day race in Mexico, during which the 50-year-old Italian racer met his death

Nineteen fifty, at the heart of the century. The century of the engine. The birth of a legend, with a driving licence: the Formula One World Championship. Photographs captured the dynamism of the cars. Terrifying beasts never before seen, the glossy sheen of their bodywork only imagined in black and white images. Symbols of a fast approaching future, their sound only imagined through the photographs, before finally providing a glimpse at Monza, long the temple of collective exhilaration.

An adrenaline-filled ‘happening’ – a term not then in use. One that brought echoes of the 1930s, of Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi working up new passions, before hearing other frightening roars. Those of cannons and bombs, a war as a collective wound.

Glory Boys

Above: Alberto Ascari (car no. 4), Juan Manuel Fangio (car no. 50), and Guiseppe ‘Nino’ Farina (car no. 6), line up at Monza in 1953

Now, post-war, life, a frenetic re-birth, with the blood of the piloti – racing drivers – an ingredient that is more essential than tragic, because this is the cost of it all. Drivers as heroes to be followed, to where and when no-one can say, because here you make history and you die.

‘Piloti, che gente’ (‘Drivers, A Certain Kind of People’). The perfect title. Chosen by Enzo Ferrari for the book that told the story of his band of men. Tormented men, ideal partners for a visionary who had designed a strategy for glory.

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Above: British racer Peter Collins with his wife, American actress Louise (née King) at the British GP at Aintree, in July 1957. The couple was one of the most glamorous of their times

Working in pairs: a pairing of functional synergy with Tazio Nuvolari during the roaring unrefined early years; coupled with Alberto Ascari in a boom period that would be amplified by the Formula One World Championship. Ascari remains a pivotal figure. Two titles, 1952 and ’53; his Ferrari 500 so iconic that it’s still in circulation today, in miniature form. Alberto, the racer who no-one could ever afford to let take the lead, and with that surname that brought to mind dramatic memories of his dad, Antonio, and his deep ties to Ferrari.

Alberto, who met his end in a Ferrari, albeit having left the team to join Lancia, and whose death remains to this day shrouded in mystery. A mystery centred upon the young racer Eugenio Castellotti who let Ascari try out his Ferrari racing car during practise at Monza in a gesture of simple deference to the master pilota.

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Left: Eugenio Castellotti (left) chats with Fangio at 1956’s 12 Hours of Sebring, which they won aboard an 860 Monza. Right: Mike Hawthorn (left) and Umberto Maglioli celebrate their Supercortemaggiore GP win at Monza in June 1954

The Ferrari driver remained motionless in the pits as Ascari sped away, not wearing the ‘lucky’ Ascari helmet but someone else’s, and without his usual blue jersey. The famously superstitious Ascari crashed and died in the Ferrari.

It was a bloody handing over of the reins. One that opened the door to a new generation of drivers, one more photographed, making them more exposed. Who are we talking of? Of Mike Hawthorn, for example. The popular Yorkshireman who raced with a polka dot bow tie around his neck, an affable young man with a zest for life. Just as Felice Bonetto drove with a lit cigarette in his mouth, going around the bends, Hawthorn seemingly always with a drink to hand. Accompanied, in life, in the races, and in photos, byPeter Collins, who looked like a dashing Hollywood actor.

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Jacky Ickx during testing at the 1969 6-Hours at Watkins Glen in the United States. The Belgian driver was only 22 when he first joined Scuderia Ferrari, where he had two stints between 1968 and 1973

Taken under his wing by the elderly Enzo, Collins conceded his own Lancia-Ferrari to Fangio in 1956, again at Monza, relinquishing the title and gifting it to the experienced Argentinian gentleman. “I have time,” he said. “I have other time ahead for me.” Unfortunately, he had very little. He died at the Nürburgring on 3rd August 1958, just a few months before the death of his friend Mike, newly-crowned world champion, on the roads back home in England. The sequence of death included Castellotti, testing at Modena on 14 March 1957, and Alfonso de Portago at Cavriana, 12 May 1957, a disaster of an accident that sealed for ever the fate of the Mille Miglia.

The roll call of the fallen is interminable. Only a handful of the illustrious survivors talk, uneasily, of it. Fangio, who in 1958 had had enough; Stirling Moss, saved by some guardian angel as he risked his life twice with every mile; Jacky Ickx and Jackie Stewart, who in the following decades emerged unscathed, without even knowing how.

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Above: Juan Manuel Fangio leads Stirling Moss, on course to winning the 1956 World Championship for Ferrari at Monza

Things are better now, of course. Cars and circuits are safer. But if today we are still able to follow our passion for motor racing, to hell with the rhetoric and good manners, we owe it all to those who faced those risks, who lost their lives.

In cars that were so far removed from everyday life, so very much faster than those that mere mortals could lay their hands on, or buy or drive. In a mix of unique pleasure and extreme courage; the wonderful madness of those who, in their cars, confronted their own personal demons.

Report by Giorgio Terruzzi for


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