Legends usually accumulate over time. Achievements build up as an undeniable body of great work that can’t be overlooked. But Stirling Moss earned his legend quickly. And it was secured one day during one race when he was only 25 years old. Through the rest of his life, that legend never faded or diminished. To many, he will always be the greatest driver who never won a world championship.
“The Mercédès-Benz was giving all it had, and Moss was driving hard but taking no risks, letting the car slide just so far on the corners and no more,” wrote journalist Denis Jenkinson, his co-pilot during the 1955 Mille Miglia. “Entering the main street of Padova at 150 m.p.h. we braked for the right-angle bend at the end, and suddenly I realized that Moss was beginning to work furiously on the steering wheel, for we were arriving at the corner much too fast and it seemed doubtful whether we could stop in time. I sat fascinated, watching Moss working away to keep control, and I was so intrigued to follow his every action and live every inch of the way with him, that I completely forgot to be scared.”
It was Jenkinson’s vivid account of that ride in a factory 300SLR during that Mille Miglia that fully burst open the Moss legend. “The last six miles into the Rome control were an absolute nightmare; there were no corners that needed signals, and we would normally have done 150-160 m.p.h., but the crowds of spectators were so thick that we just could not see the road and the surface being bumpy Moss dared not drive much over 130 m.p.h. for there was barely room for two cars abreast,” Jenkinson wrote in his classic piece for Britain’s MotorSport.
“Our total time for the course was 10 hr. 07 min. 48 sec., an average of more than 157 k.p.h. (nearly 98 m.p.h.) and our average for the miles from Cremona to Brescia had been 123 m.p.h. As we were driven back to our hotel, tired, filthy, oily and covered in dust and dirt, we grinned happily at each other’s black face and Stirling said ‘I’m so happy that we’ve proved that a Britisher can win the Mille Miglia, and that the legend ‘he who leads at Rome never leads at Brescia’ is untrue—also, I feel we have made up for the two cars we wrote off in practice,’ then he gave a chuckle and said ‘We’ve rather made a mess of the record, haven’t we—sort of spoilt it for anyone else, for there probably won’t be another completely dry Mille Miglia for 20 years.’ ”
Actually, the truly insane Mille Miglia thousand-mile race along Italy’s length would only be run twice more before being abandoned as ludicrously dangerous. And the record set by Moss and Jenkinson during their 1955 win will likely stand forever.
Prematurely balding and compactly built, Moss never had the easy charisma of a Jim Clark or the barrel-chested machismo of Juan-Manuel Fangio. Instead he was a racing craftsman; a man who always knew how to get the most from the tools handed him. “Well, you see, I’m a racer. I’m not a driver,” he told Road & Track in 2015. “And to me, driving around is very nice, but when you’re really dicing with somebody, and you can corner in a certain way and close up on the man ahead of you a car length, it feels really exhilarating. If you drop back a car length, then you feel pretty pissed off!”
Born September 17, 1929 in London, Moss was a bit too young to fight in World War II, but the perfect age to participate in the post-war renaissance of the British sports car and racing. “My father, Alfred, loved racing cars as a hobby. He competed himself, and was placed 14th at the 1924 Indianapolis 500,” Moss told The Daily Mail in 2009. “My mother, Aileen, a keen horsewoman, didn’t really share his interest. She’d been an ambulance driver with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I and, in later years, she and my father used to enter what were then called Trials, or Mud-Plugging—climbing muddy hills in cross-country driving trials. Not a big deal, but great fun.”
Moss, whose mother was Scottish but whose father was (apparently) part Jewish and whose last name was at least inferentially Jewish (a 2002 biography said his grandfather had changed the name from Moses), was bullied in school and that made him pugnacious. “It was quite nasty verbal bullying, but I never told my parents,” Moss continued in his Daily Mail interview. “I coped, and I was an insolent little sod anyway.”
His father Alfred’s career as a dentist had the family financially well-grounded and able to subsidize young Stirling’s ambitions. On weekends he drove his father’s BMW 328 sports car in any competition that was available. And then in 1948 he bought one of the first open-wheel, mid-engine Cooper 500s. He began barnstorming across Europe racing where he could with the Formula Three car. He entered 15 races that first year and won 12 of them.
So in 1949 he moved up to the H.W.M. factory Formula Two team. And his success at the next level was instantaneous—he took the British Formula 2 championships in both 1949 and 1950. Keenly aware of the opportunities that were coming with that success, he became one of the first drivers to hire a manager to coordinate his business interests and guide his progress.
In the early 1950s racing wasn’t so much a technical challenge as it was one of instinct and daring. “In the 1950s if tires were round and had tread on them,” Moss wrote in a 1969 essay for The New York Times, “they were good! We took the equipment we were given and did our best. This left us with far more scope, not only as a driver, but also as a tactician.”
Moss was never a specialist. While his success in open-wheel cars on track was accumulating, he was also running in rallies and open-road races in sedans and sports cars. His first major race win came in 1950, at the RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in Northern Ireland while driving a Jaguar XK120 in a torrential rainstorm. “The irrepressible Moss, who was flying back to Brand’s Hatch the following day and celebrating his 21st birthday that evening, having been signaled by his father to slow, was suddenly speeded up,” reported Motor Sport about the race, “because his pit were not at all sure that [Bob] Gerard [driving a 2.0-liter Frazer-Nash] had not caught him on formula.” So the fastest lap Moss ran that day was the last one.
By 1954 Moss was ready for Formula One. “I bought a Maserati 250F, but the first I knew about it was coming back on the Queen Mary,” Moss told Top Gear’s Jason Barlow. “I spoke on the phone [to manager Ken Gregory]. We used my winnings to buy it. Now the chips were down. I’d only been driving moderate cars up until then. I hadn’t been in a car capable of winning. And now I had one.”
As a privateer up against factory-backed drivers like Mercedes’ Juan Manuel Fangio, Moss’ success was only relative that first year. He consistently qualified well and found himself battling Fangio and Alberto Ascari in several races, but the Maserati wasn’t reliable. So he didn’t win a race.
However, he did make it over to Florida for the 1954 (and fourth) running of the 12 Hours of Sebring. And, co-driving a 1.5-liter Osca with Bill Lloyd, outlasted bigger, faster Ferraris, Lancias and Aston Martins to take the overall win. Moss became the first non-American to win that endurance race.
Mercedes signed Moss as a works driver for 1955 and put him behind the wheel of the magnificent W196 R for 17 Formula One races and the 300SLR sports car for open road and endurance races. His debut for the team came at the Grand Prix of Argentina that January and he finished fourth. It was, appropriately, at the sixth race of the season (including the Indianapolis 500), the British Grand Prix, that Moss first won a Formula One race, heading a Mercedes 1-2-3-4 sweep. Add that atop the victory in the Mille Miglia, and winning the Targa Florio across Sicily and the Tourist Trophy and Moss was suddenly among the most popular people in Great Britain.
But despite his amazing talent and success, circumstances seemed to always conspire against Moss winning a world championship. In 1955 the awful slaughter of 80 spectators during the 24 Hours of Le Mans led to the cancellation of four Grand Prix races. That shortened the season to just one more race after Moss’ British Grand Prix win and essentially handed the championship to his teammate, Fangio.
Mercedes pulled out of racing after the Le Mans disaster and Moss would bounce from team to team for the next few seasons. He did a lot of winning and it didn’t seem to matter what he drove—Vanwall, Porsche, Lotus, BRM—Moss was able to get the most from the equipment. But he finished second behind Fangio in the Formula One championship again in 1956 and 1957. Then despite winning four races during 1958, he finished second to Mike Hawthorn who only took one. He won two Grand Prix races in 1959, and finished third in the points. Then finished third again in 1960 and 1961. It was a combination of astonishing success and frustration; for seven straight seasons he finished second or third, but never first.
At a time when race drivers often peaked in their thirties or forties (Fangio won his last world championship in 1957 when he was 46 years old), the 1960s promised to be Moss’ decade of dominance. A heinous crash at Spa in 1960 practically killed him, but he was soon back and competitive. But on April 23, 1962, while racing in the Glover Trophy at Goodwood, that promise ended.
“About halfway through the race I came into the pits with gearbox trouble,” Moss recalled for the Daily Mail in 2012. “They sent me back out and I’d just broken the lap record and was a lap behind Graham Hill who was leading. I was about to pass him so I’d then be un-lapped. We were approaching a very fast corner and Graham always used to take a wide line whereas I took a narrow one, so I saw my opportunity to pass him.
“But then he came and took the bit of road I needed, which forced me onto the wet grass, so I went straight into this earth bank at 100 mph without a seat belt on, as they weren’t compulsory in those days, and that’s the last thing I can remember.”
It took most of an hour to cut the driver out of the wrecked Lotus, and when they did they found a comatose Moss. He would stay unconscious for the next four weeks and was paralyzed on his right side for six months. He recovered eventually; keeping the Lotus’ steering wheel, bent where his head hit it, as a souvenir.
“But when I returned a year later at Goodwood it was obvious the level of concentration needed to compete had gone,” Moss rued in his 2012 Daily Mail article. “I knew that if I didn’t get out I’d kill myself and maybe somebody else. So, at 32, my plans of continuing to race until my late 40s like my hero Fangio were over.”
In all, Moss won 16 Grand Prix races with his last coming in the German Grand Prix of 1961. Overall, he entered 527 races of all sorts, finished 375 of them and won an astonishing 212. Champion or not, that makes him one of the greatest racing drivers ever.
After his accident Moss became a race commentator, enthusiastic presence at racing events, mainstay of the vintage racing world, and general media presence. His early business acumen and continued celebrity kept him in demand as an endorser of various automotive products, including fuel and tires, while his opinions and insight remained sought after well into his 80s. Sometimes he was too outspoken for his own good, and occasionally politically incorrect in ways that reflected his generation. “They are not going to make a film about me in any case but if they did,” he impolitically remarked in 2013. “I think someone who’s masculine would be better than someone who’s effeminate, because I’ve spent my whole life chasing crumpet and racing cars.”
Moss married three times, the last time in 1980 to Susie in 1980 who, along with Stirling and their son Elliot, managed family properties around Europe and North America.
He became Sir Stirling Moss in 2000 when he was the first Briton to earn that honor for motorsports achievements and not land speed records, though he had some of those, too, set in an MG experimental car at Bonneville in 1957.
And even in his dotage he was still tough. In 2010, when he was 80, he fell down an elevator shaft in his Mayfair home and broke both ankles, four bones in his feet and chipped four vertebrae. He recovered and drove in vintage events again. It wasn’t until early 2018 when, at the age of 88 and suffering a prolonged illness, that Moss retired from public life.
“When I think of being, say, Lewis Hamilton—he wins a race, and he has to spend the following hours speaking to the media, to his telephone-company sponsors,” he told C/D in 2012. “When I won a race, I could just leave and go chase girls. Isn’t that a far better deal than he’s got? I didn’t get paid the kind of money Lewis does, but I suspect my quality of life was far higher than his is now.”