If only IMM Stewart had not retired after barely two years, he might have made the grade ahead of Jim Clark or Jackie Stewart. After winning 25 motor races he gave up aged only 24. Fourth at Le Mans for Jaguar, second overall and first in cars eligible for world championship at the Nürburgring 1,000km, he won the Jersey International Road Race in 1952, having "run in" his new C-type driving from Coventry.
Following Ian Stewart’s death last month aged 87, the Glasgow Herald obituarist almost overlooked a key fragment of motor racing history, which showed who had the talent to be first Scottish world champion driver.
In 1952 there was no doubt Stirling Craufurd Moss was the best in the land. Since 1948 he had won in sports cars and single seaters and that October at Charterhall, a former airfield in the Scottish Borders, was up against Stewart in a near-identical C-type Jaguar. Both drivers were the same age. Moss was more experienced and his car had the advantage of the latest disc brakes. Stewart had had a busy season in his drum-braked Ecurie Ecosse C-type, setting fastest lap in Jersey, winning two races at Charterhall, then crashing at Boreham before winning at Crimond in Aberdeenshire. He won a heat but finished third in the final at Turnberry behind Moss and Duncan Hamilton.
By October Charterhall Moss was at the top of his form. Any advantage Stewart might have gained through familiarity with the track was inconsequential. It was a plain old airfield circuit and Moss’s disc brakes would cancel any benefit. Yet Bill Boddy (WB) veteran editor of Motor Sport had to report, “Try as Moss did in (Tommy Wisdom’s) XK120C Ian won – a popular win – by 15.6sec, setting fastest lap. Clearly Wilky Wilkinson has given the Scottish car something others haven’t got.”
Wilkinson was in charge of the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars’ preparation so, Boddy concluded, he had “laid an expert hand on Ian Stewart’s Ecurie Ecosse XK120C.” It was not the first time WB had been over-impressed by Wilkie. A skilful North London mechanic, Wilkie had gained a reputation as wizard engine tuner since the 1930s at Boddy’s beloved Brooklands. Bellevue Garage’s MGs, Billy Cotton’s ERA had been successful under him, which had great resonance for Boddy. It seemed only logical to suppose that Stewart’s Jaguar must be somehow faster than Moss’s.
Stewart had been able to overtake on the long right-handed badly cambered Paddock Bend and remain in front. It was the reverse of racing in England, where the Scottish team was often at a disadvantage, yet it was no flash in the pan. Duncan Hamilton’s 2.7 Ferrari was consigned to third place.
Walter Ernest “Wilkie” Wilkinson (Boddy calls him Wilky) had lost none of the public relations persona he had learned at Brooklands. Abetted adroitly by patron of Ecurie Ecosse David Murray, Wilkie prepared cars carefully and competently but as his subsequent career at BRM painfully demonstrated he was more showman than engineer. He could convince backers – he convinced Bill Boddy – but technology was outpacing him. In the 1930s it was possible to improve racing engines by polishing and balancing their internals. By the 1950s you had to be cleverer.
A letter to Motor Sport in January 1953 made the point: “Sir: I feel very strongly that Ian Stewart has not been given the credit he deserves for winning the sports car race at Charterhall. Every account I have read glosses over Ian’s superb driving and infers that he won only by having the fastest car. This is not true. I have the greatest respect for Wilkie and no knock at him is dreamt of. That Stirling Moss is one of the truly great is beyond all doubt but so also is Ian Stewart. With only a fraction of Stirling’s experience Ian is his equal in ice-cold, meticulously accurate and devastatingly fast cornering. Ian Stewart will in time reach high enough to stand comparison with even the great Richard Seaman.”
The writer was Fred Mort who had lent Stewart his own XK120 for the race at Turnberry. Bill Dobson agreed wholeheartedly with Mort, even though Dobson had won at the Ecurie Ecosse debut at Charterhall on 6 April in the Formule Libre race. Yet the reason why Stewart was so fast continued to elude Dobson: “I never found out what made him so good because he was always so far in front of me. Merchiston Mews was next to my family haulage business, and if I had nothing much to do, I would wander round to see what was going on, have a chat to Wilkie, or just stand and look. I knew Ian was niggled at this. He thought my car was getting preferential treatment. I once caught up with him on a couple of corners at Goodwood, and when I got back to the pits he was complaining to Wilkie that his car was somehow slower. I had to tell him that the only reason I closed up on him was because I’d completely run out of brakes. Ian Stewart was a bit ahead of the rest of us because he was a bloody good driver. Nobody could come anywhere near him. He had the same car as everybody else. He was just very good. He always knew what to do.”
Ian Stewart was a loyal member of Ecurie Ecosse although he had reservations over Wilkie’s work. The XK’s brakes were never up to serious racing. Sometimes they faded within a few laps, so to try and provide a flow of cooling air round the drums, Wilkie drilled holes in the steel disc wheels. Mechanic Ranald McIntyre recalled how each hole was then carefully made into a miniature air scoop, by bending the edge outwards with a crowbar, so it was no surprise that the wheels cracked and had to be scrapped.
The experiment was never repeated. It was one of the initiatives that created doubts about Wilkie with engineers at Jaguar. Over-imaginative mechanics were not supposed to interfere with wheels. Had there been an effective way of cooling the brakes by creating a draught round them Jaguar would have found it. It was well aware of the XK 120’s shortcomings and special linings were specified for racing.
Matt Vallance wrote in The Herald: Ian Stewart Racing Driver, farmer, hotelier and publican Born: 15 July, 1929 Died: 19th March, 2017
Stewart was not a gentleman racer, he was a full-time, professional driver, and during his career was elected to full membership of the exclusive British Racing Drivers Club. However, his career was to end after he was injured when competing in a long-distance road race in Argentina in 1954.
Stewart's father was also in Argentina on cattle business, leaving before the race and receiving a message that Ian had been killed in his accident. So, when he got back to Millhills, he was given the ultimatum - racing or farming. With his father's health declining, Stewart made the only possible choice and hung up his crash helmet.
His father died two years later and Stewart was left, aged 26, to run the family farms and the public houses. The bank forced him to break up the famous Shorthorn herd to meet death duties but, uncomplaining, he did this, and started afresh. He retrenched at the family's hill farm at Glen Lochay, where he added Luing cattle to the existing sheep operation there.
He became a director of the Luing Breed Society, serving as chairman in 1976-77, while he rebuilt the family’s farming operation, adding a couple of properties before, in 1984, he consolidated the farming operation at Woodburn Farm, near Crieff.
He never gave up on his fast cars though. His father stymied his attempts to persuade him a Porsche 365 was a good farm car. But he was driving a Mercedes 300 gullwing when he courted and married the love of his life, Mary Alexandra Kent. In the 1970s, he became the first Ferrari dealer in Scotland, enjoying driving the demonstrators and, while the venture was successful, he decided he could not spare the time from his other interests and allowed others to take it over. He continued to drive exotic cars, but had to hand over day-to-day management of the businesses to his sons, retaining the chairmanship, while he cared for Mary Alexandra during her lengthy battle with heart disease, which eventually claimed her in 2010 - he never really got over this blow.
Ian Stewart was an old-fashioned gentleman. The word "grace" sums him up perfectly. Smoothness and elegance of movement, stylishness, poise, finesse and charm, courteous good will, politeness, good manners, civility, decency, propriety and respect - that was Ian Stewart. He is survived by sons David and Christian, and grandchildren Rosie, Constance, Robert and Daniel.
I can endorse Vallance’s summing-up. When I was researching my book Ecurie Ecosse David Murray and the Scottish motor racing team PJ Publishing 2007 he was generous with his time and reminiscences along with Bill Dobson, Wendy Jones David Murray’s secretary, and many others.