The Great Train Robbery of 1963 has become so legendary that it practically spawned its own genre of audacious heist films — but the event has surprising ties to Formula 1.
Growing up in postwar London, future racing driver Roy James excelled in countless forms of sport that prioritized his small, nimble build, which came to include go-karting in the early 1960s.
He quickly progressed through the ranks to take part in Formula Libre and Formula Junior events, but having grown up in a fairly poor family, finding the money to race at higher levels was going to be a problem.
But James had already found a solution to that problem. His small size and athleticism had long since kicked off a lucrative criminal career; James could easily scale buildings and sneak through windows, making a name for himself in the underworld as a handy cat burglar.
Plus, because he had found legitimate work as a skilled silversmith, James had the ability to melt down the metals of any jewelry he stole, which could be sold more easily. Among his more audacious crimes, James had also stolen Mike Hawthorn’s daily driving Jaguar.
Traveling for his racing career, James was able to commit theft in swanky Monte Carlo hotels and also meet up with all kinds of burgeoning criminals — which led him right into the clutches of the South-West Gang, a notorious criminal enterprise that had broken into Heathrow Airport to steal BOAC Airlines’ payroll.
James met gang leader Bruce Reynolds at a race meeting at Goodwood, and Reynolds quickly enlisted James as part of the gang.
Looking to outdo the airport heist, James, Reynolds, and other members of the South-West Gang quickly dreamed up a new idea: they would rob the overnight Glasgow-to-London Royal Mail train.
This train would be carrying a large number of small bills that had been taken out of circulation and were on their way to be destroyed — unless some enterprising criminals were able to stop them, perhaps in a remote area of Buckinghamshire.
Obviously, James was enthralled. If the theft was pulled off, he would become indescribably rich — rich enough to work his way up into the ranks of Formula 1.
He signed on as a getaway driver, tracing remote paths between the railroad where the robbery would take place and a safe house that the South-West Gang had purchased to stash cash and cars until the heat died down.
James was one of 15 people who stopped the Glasgow-to-London train; ten of the rear cars were unhitched before the front two “high value” cars were stopped further up the tracks.
Things quickly went awry when a member of the gang, a former train driver, failed to recognize the controls of the train in question, forcing the men to bludgeon the hijacked train driver to help them carry out their plan. In sum, about £2.6 million was stolen — which translates to about £51 million today. James was one of several drivers to ship the cash back to the gang’s farmhouse base.
Unfortunately for the criminals, several things quickly went wrong. One member warned the postal workers on the train not to seek help until an hour passed after the robbery — which immediately clued the police into the fact that the gang was likely hiding somewhere within an hour’s drive of the robbery site.
A neighbor at the farmhouse tipped off police that the once-abandoned property had been full of activity; the gang heard word that the police were coming via radio transmission and quickly fled, failing to adequately clean up in the process. Fingerprints and other evidence, like wayward mail bags and paint used in the crime, were quickly discovered, and the police began to chase down their leads.
For a while, though, the South-West Gang roamed free, and 10 days after the robbery, Roy James won both the Formula Libre and Formula Junior events that took place at Cadwell Park.
His public profile as a racer made it easy for police to discover James’ whereabouts; he was pinpointed as a person of interest, and police published his name in the newspaper — where James’ name had already been printed as a prospective competitor at a Goodwood event.
Knowing the noose was closing in on him, James skipped the race and hid out for almost four months before police discovered his hideout. Using his skills as a former cat burglar, James stuffed money into his underwear and tried to flee over the rooftops of local buildings upon realizing he was caught. As it was December, the flight didn’t last long, and James was apprehended. There, he learned that his prints had been discovered in the farmhouse on a Pyrex dish he had filled with milk for a farm cat.
James was handed down a prison sentence of 25 years for his crimes but was freed in 1975 for good behavior. He was still keen on hitting the track as much as he could, even if Formula 1 was out of the picture. However, time away from the track had resulted in a loss of his skillset, and he never quite returned to competitive form.
But what about his F1 ties? Well, James’ skills as a silversmith and his place in the racing world caught the attention of Bernie Ecclestone; when James was released from prison, Graham Hill intervened to ask Ecclestone to hire James in some capacity.
Ecclestone, who then owned the Brabham team, refused to hire James as a driver, but decided there could still be a role for the former criminal.
“I gave him a trophy to make,” Ecclestone said, as reported by Autosport. “He’d been a silversmith and a goldsmith. That’s still the trophy we give to the promoters every year. He made it. The recipients don’t realize it.”
That’s right: Roy James, getaway driver for the Great Train Robbery, designed the Race Promoters’ Trophy, handed out to the best Formula 1 race promoter each year at the FIA Prize Giving Gala. A small world indeed!