9 March 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 97 - An extraordinary individual

Charles and Frank Purley sold fish before taking over a small electrical repair business which they turned into the Longford Engineering Company Ltd manufacturing munitions at a facility on Longford Road in the seaside resort of Bognor Regis on the south coast of England, not far from Chichester.

It was a profitable but rather short-term business because when the war ended in 1945, the company needed to find something else to do, so they began experimenting with refrigerators and manufactured their first fridge in 1946. They were soon doing so well that they bought a new site on the Shrimpney Road, where they built a mass production facility in 1947. Today the factory site has been turned into a large supermarket and car park, but there is a nod to history with the access road, known as Fridge Way.

They changed the name of the company to LEC Refrigeration at the end of 1954 and this expanded quickly, becoming a public company in 1964, generating millions every year. They were making so much money that they bought 50 acres of land and built their own landing strip, known as Lec Airfield. Charles son David was born at the end of the war. He attended a couple of boarding schools, being expelled from one before becoming the Lec company pilot for a few months before falling out with his father and going to work as a member of a demolition gang, working on tall buildings. He then decided that he join the army and signed up at a recruiting office. He spent two years at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst before being commissioned in December 1966, and joining the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment early in 1967 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He survived a close call during training when his parachute became entangled with that of his instructor and he rode his way to the ground on the top of the other instructor’s parachute. Later that year he was sent to Aden where he spent several months in action against rebel forces. While still in he army he was introduced to racing by a neighbour Derek Bell and bought a powerful AC Cobra  sports car, which he would soon write-off at Brands Hatch. He then bought a Chevron sportscar and decided that racing was more exciting than soldiering and resigned his commissioned at the end of 1969 and set up his own Formula 3 team with a Brabham BT28. The team was funded by the family and called Lec Refrigeration Racing. He won his first F3 victory after just a few weeks, beating James Hunt by a tenth of a second in the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium. He would not win again until he returned to Chimay a year later.

In mid 1971 he switched to an Ensign and his results improved and he won two races in Britain at the end of the year. For 1972 he concentrated on Formula 2 with a March 722 and finished third at Pau, but he returned to Chimay to win his third consecutive Grand Prix des Frontieres.

He switched to Formula Atlantic in 1973 but made his F1 debut that year at Monaco in a March 731. Later that his efforts to save Roger Williamson from a burning car at the Dutch GP led to the award of a George Medal for bravery. He left Formula 1 and spent 1974 racing in Formula 5000 and became increasingly successful and won the British title in 1976.

That winter he commissioned designer Mike Pilbeam to build a Lec F1 car nd in 1977 qualified for several Formula 1 races. In practice at Silverstone he suffered a stuck throttle and crashed with incredible violence.  His life was saved by rescue crews at the scene of the crash but it took many months for him to recover from multiple fractures to his legs, pelvis and ribs. He did eventually have a second Lec F1 car built and did one or two events and then raced a Shadow in the 1979 British F1 series but then he quit racing. He underwent a series of painful operations to try to repair his damaged legs and then settled down to run the family business - and to do aerobatics in his spare time. In the years that followed he survived two crash landings, but in the summer of 1985 his Pitts Special stunt plane went down in the sea, off the coast. It was an accident that even David Purley could not survive.

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