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Scotland salutes Ecurie Ecosse
by Sandra Dicks from the Scotsman Newspaper 30th November 2002


It was long ago, in a golden age of motorsport, when gentlemen drivers roared around snaking S-bends with breathtaking precision wearing their sensible sweaters and leather trimmed goggles, relentlessly pushing their cars to speeds never achieved before.

Tucked behind the wheel of some of the most elegant and exciting sports cars ever made, these pioneers of motor sport pressed hard on the accelerator and paved a trail for legendary names to come; drivers and theft teams who have gone down in the pages of racing history.

Names like Ferrari and Maserati, Jaguar and Aston Martin and, the most rarefied of them all, Ecurie Ecosse.

Its headquarters, a pokey garage tucked away in a cobbled mews in the heart of Edinburgh, is a million miles away from the glitz, glamour and financial excesses we may have come to expect from the modem world of motor sport. Yet it was from that very back street exactly 50 years ago that a racing enthusiast with more romantic spirit than money lived out his remarkable dream— and created a racing team whose star burned briefly but brightly, and become legendary despite its undignified demise.

Today, the name of the team founded by the charismatic and enigmatic David Murray, Ecurie Ecosse - a title much more glamorous and exotic than Team Scotland could ever have been - justifiably lives on in motor sport history. Indeed, its very mention still fills fans with a nostalgic yearning for an era when the glamorous, dangerous and thrilling sport was still in its infancy; when the sleek lines of the D-type Jaguar graced the race track and those drivers celebrated astonishing victories with a cup of tea and a nap.

Who could fail to be intrigued by the roller coaster story of how a racing team run on a shoestring budget from a Scottish back-street garage could possibly take on - and emphatically trounce - some of the biggest names in the world of motor racing, twice winning one of the most prestigious and gruelling of races: the Le Mans 24-hour endurance classic.

These were sensational victories: who could have suspected that a tiny team of such limited resources could accumulate such an astonishing combination of talent to beat the best in the world, not once, but twice?

None of it might never have happened had Mr Murray, a chartered accountant, wine merchant, pub owner and motor sport enthusiast, not dramatically crashed out of a practice run at the Nurburgring just before he was due to race in the 1950 German Grand Prix.

His own driving ambitions shattered, he decided to concentrate his efforts - and spare cash - on joining forces with a Cockney mechanic; Wilkie Wilkonson, who would provide the technical wizzardry which would enable Ecurie Ecosse to beat the best, despite not even having any cars of their own to race.

Murray’s humble car repair business in Merchiston Mews became the team’s unlikely headquarters. Merchiston Motors was just like any other motor garage business, unremarkable apart from the fact that somehow it managed to gather together the best mechanics and most talented drivers the country has every produced, at exactly the right time.

Wendy Jones, Mr Murray’s secretary at the time, clearly remembers the excitement. "It was impossible not to be caught up in it all," she says.

From garage owner’s secretary, she found herself helping to drive the distinctive D-type Jaguars from race to race, cooking up snacks for the team and running errands - often jumping behind the wheel herself to nip into the villages around Le Mans for urgent supplies.

"It’s remarkable to think that such a small team could achieve what it did," she reflects. "They took on the greats and beat them because of incredible teamwork and talent."

In just ten seasons, Ecurie Ecosse notched up some 68 victories, the most amazing of which were the two Le Mans titles which sent shockwaves through the world of sport even though, initially, the team did not even have any its own cars on show.

Mechanics from Merchiston Motors
Left to Right: Billy Wells (foreman Merchiston Motors), Sandy Arthur, local boy, George (mechanic Merchiston Motors), Ron (Ranald) McIntyre (mechanic Merchiston Motors). Pre Ecurie Ecosse formation. Vehicle is a Maserati 4CLT.

"In those days, the drivers would come with their own cars," explains Stan Sproat, now 78, who served as Ecurie Ecosse’s chief mechanic along with a host of other mechanics such as Sandy Arthur, Archie Chalmers, Bob Saunders and Ron (Ranald) McIntyre during those glory years.

"It was, I suppose, a sport for the better off - put it this way, I couldn’t afford to buy a racing car — but these guys were still brilliant drivers. They had to be."

Ecurie Ecosse first secured the talents of three private owners of XK120 Jaguars - Bill Dobson, Sir James Scott Douglas and Ian Stewart.

Test outing at Drem Airport at Trennent. First time three cars in Scottish colours.
Test outing at Drem Airport at Trennent. First time three cars in Scottish colours.
Left to Right: Sir James Scott Douglas, Bill Dobson, Ian Stewart.

The Merchiston team's first race at Charterhall — their local track — resulted in victory for Dobson and a second place for Stewart. It was to set the pattern for more Ecurie Ecosse success which reached its remarkable peak in 1956.

Edinburgh-born driver Ron Flockhart, who lived in Green-hill Gardens, had joined the team, a "dashing gentleman —quite a heart-throb", recalls Ms Jones - who couldn’t have been any less like his fellow driver, the earthy, straight-talking Glaswegian, Ninian Sanderson. "They were like chalk and cheese — complete opposites," Ms Jones asserts.

By now, Ecurie Ecosse had struck a fortuitous deal with Jaguar to race their brand new D-type vehicles, sleek and elegant cars which have gone on to become design classics. A late entry to the 24-hour Le Mans classic saw Flockhart and Sanderson paired up to drive the D-Type Jaguar XKDS01, resplendent in its distinctive Flag Blue Metallic livery that had become Ecurie Ecosse’s team colours.

"I remember asking David how well he thought they might do before the race," remembers Wendy, whose Edinburgh New Town home is just a stone’s throw from Merchiston Mews. "He said he hoped they might get fifth or sixth place. That they went on to win surprised even him.

The privately-run team’s ex-works D-type Jaguars outperformed some of the biggest names in the world of racing; the Scots showed heavily financed works teams such as Ferrari and Maserati the road home and made headline news around the world.

Wendy listened to the final moments of the race on her car radio, gripping her steering wheel and cheering when Flockhart crossed the line.

Meanwhile, in France, there followed the kind of celebrations that couldn’t be less like the champagne-drenched Formula One excesses we see today. "I think we all went off for a sleep," chuckles Mr Sproat. While today’s top racing mechanics may command hefty wages and enjoy a glamour-filled lifestyle, Mr Sproat needed to get home to finish building the house in Edinburgh’s Bartongate in which he still lives.

But there was to come further cause for celebration for the Scottish stable. Slightly stung by sneers and envious suggestions that their stunning victory was a fluke, Ecurie Ecosse returned the following year to prove their critics wrong in style.

The 1957 Le Mans saw Flockhart share the winning car with team-mate Ivor Bueb. And to underline their achievement, the other Ecosse D-type Jaguar, driven by Ninian Sanderson and Jock Lawrence, crossed the line in second place.

Of course, it would eventually prove impossible for a privately-run race team on a shoestring budget to continue to achieve such remarkable success.

Mechanical advances meant the D-type Jaguars which Wilkinson, Sproat and their team of mechanics had honed into reliable, fast and enduring race winners were quickly becoming obsolete. Murray poured what he could into buying new cars mainly, Ms Jones claims, because he didn’t want to disappoint a growing legion of fans.

"The Ecurie Ecosse Association had been formed, there was a News from the Mews magazine and everyone wanted the team to do well. I think David would rather have stopped it and gone out on a high, but he felt he would be letting too many people down," she said.

Ecurie Ecosse cars continued to race but struggled to match the firepower of more heavily-financed teams. And while they did achieve a number of successes, their two historic Le Mans victories remain a part of Scottish history.

The beginning pf the end came in 1968 when Murray was summoned to appear at an Inland Revenue tribunal. Terrified of bankruptcy, he fled to the Canary Islands, leaving his Ecurie Ecosse team in the hands of their part-time manager, Harry Ballantine.

It was a less than glittering end to his links with the Scottish star of motor racing. A shadow of its past glory, Ecurie Ecosse eventually folded in 1971, beaten by the financial clout of its famous rivals.

Tragically — and ironically for a man whose life revolved around the racetrack - Murray died four years later, the victim of a massive heart attack following what had seemed to be a minor road crash involving a Mini and a camper van.

But the Ecurie Ecosse legend he helped create continues to live on.

"There was just something about such a small Scottish team going on to achieve such success that captured people’s imagination,’ said Alistair Dodds, a transport specialist and curator of the Museum of Scotland Ecurie Ecosse display.

"Ecurie Ecosse had everything - beautiful cars, brilliant drivers, outstanding mechanics - there were amazing highs and a degree of tragedy.

"What they achieved was simply remarkable."

Note: Thanks to Ranald McIntyre (mechanic with Ecurie Ecosse) for the top two pictures.