Monday, March 1, 2010

Mike Hawthorne Retires Only to Die Three Months Later in a Road Accident

The first months of retirement followed Mike Hawthorne’s plans: He and Jean Howarth were engaged and planned to marry the following year. For Christmas he gave her a boxer dog named Ferrari.

On January 22nd, 1959, he was to drive up to London to attend to some garage business and meet Louise Collins, who had had just completed a run in a traveling production of “Romanoff and Juliet,” a Cold War version of the Shakespeare play written by Peter Ustinov. A few days later he was supposed to go to Paris to meet with lawyers to provide for an illegitimate son he had fathered in France. It was a difficulty that he had resolve before finalizing his marriage plans.

He left Farnham in his Jaguar on a wet winter morning with squalling winds, heading northeast through the rolling Surrey countryside. As he drove along a ridge known as Hog’s Back he caught up to a Mercedes driven by Rob Walker, a Johnnie Walker heir who had manufactured some of England’s feistiest Formula 1 cars.

Hawthorne pulled alongside and waved. For all his thoughts of retirement and marriage, Hawthorne could not resist a tussle—especially with a Mercedes.

The two cars plunged neck-and-neck down a long hill slick with rain. They went flat out, each driver working his way up the gears to a speed of about 100 mph. Easing into a right-hand turn at the bottom Hawthorne slid and smacked the curb. The impact spun his Jaguar 180 degrees; now he was going backwards at 100 mph. The drivers were still traveling side-by-side, but facing opposite directions. Their eyes met for an instant before Hawthorn nipped the median and bounced into the rear of an oncoming truck. The collision bounced him onto the shoulder where the Jaguar wrapped itself around a tree. Walker reached him in time to see his eyes glaze over and go still. Hawthorne had escaped death on the Ferrari circuit only to find it on Hog’s Back three months into retirement.

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