By Darren Banks
2023 review by James Loveridge
“GERRY BIRRELL – Lost Before His Time” by Darren Banks is a detailed, and very affectionate, story of the motor racing life of a very talented, and clearly charming, racing driver. Sadly, he, like far too many drivers of the 60s and 70s, did not live long enough to fulfil his promise.
The Birrells, Gerry, born in 1944, and his older brothers Graham and Iain were much involved in Scottish motor sport in the footsteps of the likes of Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart, Innes Ireland and Ninian Sanderson to name but a few who cut their teeth north of the border. From a happy, but not wealthy, middle class family, Gerry, no academic, couldn’t wait to leave school to take up an apprenticeship with a Glasgow garage. This was the perfect opportunity for him as it was there he learnt and honed his considerable engineering skills. This was of inestimable benefit as, when he became involved in motor sport, he was able to fettle brother Graham’s cars and, when he got his licence, his own car. This both saved money and ensured the cars were in the best possible state for competition, amply shown by their numerous early successes.
There are two ways to get into motor sport, assuming of course you are an above-average driver. The first is to have access to lots of money and to buy yourself in; the other is by dedication and sheer graft. The latter was Gerry’s route. The book tells in considerable detail his career from his first race in an Austin A40 in 1961 through other increasingly potent cars including a self-prepared Singer Chamois (a Hillman Imp in a party frock). Competing as often as possible and taking in hill climbs and the odd rally, the 1966 RAC included, he established himself as a rising star. During his all-too-brief career Gerry competed at most circuits in the UK as well as many in Europe, such as Monaco and the Nürburgring. In 1972 he drove as part of the Chevron team in the Springbok Series in South Africa.
It seems every event in which Gerry competed is recorded, along with generous inputs from those he encountered, so the full story is told here of his progression through Formula Vee, Formula Ford, Formula 3 and Formula 2 as well as sports car and saloon races. Gerry’s undoubted ability quite soon secured him employment with Ford where he not only drove competitively for them but was also much involved in development and testing. This gave him much-wanted security, enabling him and his wife Margaret to get a mortgage to buy a house in which to bring up their two children. Amongst the significant achievements with Ford was a co-drive with Claude Bourgoignie in a works Capri in the Le Mans 24 Hours, securing a class win.
Many in the motor racing were sure Gerry was destined for higher things. Talk of a Formula 1 seat was common, with Tyrrell thought to be the likely destination, but this was never to happen. In 1974 whilst practising for a Formula 2 race at Rouen a tyre burst, the car crashed into the inadequately installed Armco barrier which was ripped out of the ground and Gerry was killed. Ironically Tyrrell had gone to Rouen to watch Gerry race.
It would appear, probably for reasons of cost, a paperback format has been chosen and, to fit in everything Mr Banks quite rightly has to say, a rather small, cramped, typeface has been used which makes this a rather tiring book to read. Apart from that this is an excellent book telling so much about motor sport in the period.
Publisher: Performance Publishing Ltd. Unit 3 Site 4, Alma Park Road, Grantham, Lincolnshire, NG31 9SE https://www.performancepublishing.co.uk/
Price: £29.00 plus postage.
Description: 152 pages, softback. 270mm x 210mm. Profusely illustrated.