January 22nd. 1939
It may have been near freezing temperatures, but that didn’t deter Mike, or ‘Mikey’, so named by his street-racing pals. Mikey, at ten years of age, was legendary on the streets of Mexborough, North Yorkshire, for making superfast carts, using the wheels from a Silver Cross pram, in its day the best baby carriage made, but on this particular day found on a rubbish tip near the common.
The Silver Cross was an elegant piece of machinery, two large rear wheels, with smaller ones at the front, all of which were still intact on the discarded carriage. Mikey had an unnatural talent for taking apart anything mechanical, and then assembling it in a different format; this time those wheels were attached to a half inch thick axle rod, and assembled onto a foot-wide, four-foot long plank of wood.
Mikey hammered in nails, screwed in screws, tightened up bolts, greased rods, and oiled bearings. He drilled holes, and conjured up shims for the steering pinion. A rope was then attached to either side of the front axle as a steering aid, but the bogey would mostly be guided by Mikey’s feet.
Last assembled was the wooden box, the cockpit, sanded and painted. There was no jigging, no reinforced gussets, no brakes, and the only power governing its speed downhill was Mikey’s daring.
It was the morning of Thursday, January 22nd 1939. Charlie the sweep had just got off his bike to walk up the hill toward Chippenham Close, brushes jutting from a sack over his shoulder, and whistling cheerily as he made his way to the Harrison household at number 48; who earlier that morning suffered a small chimney fire.
Well, that’s when it happened.
The kids on the street stopped playing their games: some with whip and top, others with marbles in the gutter, two girls played hop-scotch, and two skipped a rope on the side of the street — which was not heavily used by traffic and quite safe — safe, that is, until Mikey came round the corner at great speed in the opposite direction, goggles on, leaning forward in the newly constructed bogey, and even though he used all the rubber on the soles of his shoes, was unable to stop his machine before an almighty crunch.
Charlie, along with his brushes, went flying. His bike lay on the pavement, a grotesque sculpture of metal. The only resemblance to it ever being a bicycle was its front wheel, buckled, but still spinning freely.
Charlie got up, rubbed his elbow, and looked at his mangled bike. Mikey, legs straddled across the bogey, looked at his broken front axle.
Hawthorn, Charlie yelled, in a thick Yorkshire accent, I’ll be tellin’ yer father, fer sure lad. You’re a menace, always racing them damn carts. Why can’t you take yer damn love of speed and find yerself a race track. Kill yer bloody self, and leave everyone else safe!
The irony is that Mike did just that. On January 22nd 1959, Mike Hawthorn died, he was just thirty-years of age, and just weeks after winning the Formula 1 Grand Prix Championship. They say he was racing his Jaguar against a friend’s Mercedes when he crashed. Mike never was a natural loser, ask such names as Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, or a young Graham Hill, all of whom would grudgingly attest to his winning spirit.
Mikey’s life was one lived on the edge, and his language was made up of names like BRM, Van Wall, Ferrari, Lotus and Cooper. I remember being at home that fateful day, twenty-years from the day when he bowled over Charlie the sweep Bryant. And to complete the irony, it was Charlie who brought us the news, his face darkened with years of ingrained soot, down which tears now tracked.
Yet, Charlie the sweep Bryant, is my unsung hero in this story, for he was the man who first ventured the notion to a ten year old, handsome, blond kid, named Mike Hawthorn, that he should take his bloody love of speed to a racetrack.
Thank you, Charlie, for the many times you cleaned our chimney, but mostly for being the aggravated, miserable bastard, and unwitting inspiration behind one of our country’s greatest ever motor racing legends.