At every FIA Prizegiving Gala, the Formula One Constructors’ Association Award is given to the best race promoter of the year. It is a little known fact that this was designed and made by one of Great Train Robbers.
Known in the criminal world as “The Weasel”, Roy James was a villain, best known as a getaway driver, but he had many other skills as well.
Born in Fulham in 1935, James grew up keen on sports. He excelled in waterskiing and was a top British contender in the late 1950s, while he also had a trial for the QPR football team. From quite early on, however, he used his athletic prowess as a cat burglar, who would scale buildings and break into apartments to steal jewellery and other valuable items. He was also a car thief and at one point nicked a Jaguar belonging to Mike Hawthorn. He used the car for a robbery and then left it parked near a celebrated racing club so that it would be returned to Hawthorn.
He had learned to be a silversmith, which was a useful talent for a cat burglar as he didnt need to pass on stolen goods and could simply melt down precious metals and create new products to sell, without fear of the object being recognised. Some of his work was sold by Harrods and he settled down to work, ostensibly, as an antique dealer, living in the chic Nell Gwynn House on Sloane Avenue in Chelsea.
He began racing karts in 1960 and quickly became a top star in the relatively new sport. On one occasion he discharged himself from hospital after a car crash to race for Britain against the French at Carpiquet, near Caen. He was then 25 and had dreams of being a Formula 1 driver. He used crime to fund his racing, notably with a couple of profitable robberies on the Cote d’Azur. He then began an association with a group known as the South West Gang, led by Bruce Reynolds, a talented heist organiser. In 1962 the gang stole the BOAC airline payroll in dramatic fashion at Comet House in Heathrow Airport. It was a violent attack with several security men being clubbed unconscious by the gang and then the money being put into a Jaguar driven by Micky Ball, with a second car, driven by James, running interference if they were chased. At one point a car tried to block a gateway and James used his Jaguar to knock it out of the way. Similarly, he blocked a junction when faced with a red light, allowing Ball to motor through. The police would later arrest both men but James got away with it as he was not picked out in an identity parade. Ball got five years.
James used his share of the money from that robbery to buy a Brabham BT6 Formula Junior, paying for the car with cash, and he raced in 1963 against the likes of Denny Hulme, Peter Arundell, Brian Hart, Frank Gardner and Alan Rees. He won one round of the national championship and a string of other events.
In August the South West gang, in league with another gang from the Brighton area, hit the Aberdeen-London mail train, using a rigged signal at Ledburn, south of Leighton Buzzard. James uncoupled the back carriages of the train, where mail sorters were working, and the front section of the train left them behind and stopped a few miles further down the line at a bridge over a country road near Cheddington. The gang smashed their way into the High Value Mail coach and, with military precision, transferred 20 mail bags to a truck and two Land Rovers. These were then driven to Leatherslade Farm, near Brill, not far from Bicester. The robbery netted an astonishing £2.6 million, about £38 million at modern prices.
The plan was to stay at the farm for two weeks, but the police guessed that the gang must have a hideaway and began searching the region. The gang dispersed rapidly, each robber taking £85,000, which is about £1.2 million at today’s value. James gave £12,500 of his share to Ball’s wife, and then returned to his normal activities in Chelsea.
The police went over the farm carefully and found James’s fingerprints on a Pyrex plate, a St Johns Ambulance first aid kit and on a page of an American movie magazine. He turned up at Goodwood, for the next race and completed practice but then failed to appear for the race itself because the police had issued wanted posters for some of the gang members.
For two months he disappeared but in December a woman informant told the police that James was hiding out in St John’s Wood and even gave them details of a planned escape route he had. The police raided the flat and James was arrested, after a chase across the rooftops. In April 1964 he was sentenced to 30 years in prison at Aylesbury Crown Court.
He served 11 years, being released in 1975. He was then 40 and the money from the robbery was gone, used it seems by his criminal friends. He went to see the new boss of Brabham, Bernie Ecclestone, who told him it was too late for a serious racing career, but gave him the job of creating a new trophy. Others helped him to get a Formula Ford car and he did well and was looking to move up to Formula Atlantic in 1976. That summer he was testing a Lola at Silverstone when he put a wheel on the grass and crashed heavily, breaking a leg.
That was the end of his racing dreams. He went back to making trophies and probably some less-than-legal activities. In 1984, at the age of 48, he married an 18-year-old, Anthea Wadlow, ironically the daughter of a bank manager, but soon afterwards he was arrested for allegedly importing gold, without paying duty. He was acquitted on that occasion, but in the years that followed his marriage broke down. He won custody of their two children but he failed to pay a £150,000 settlement to Anthea. This resulted in a confrontation between James and her father David Wadlow, and ended up with James shooting him several times and injuring his ex-wife as well. He turned himself in and was sent to jail for six years in 1994 for attempted murder.
He soon began to have heart problems which led to a triple bypass operation and early release from prison in 1997, but he died of a heart attack later that year, at the age of 62.
One wonders where he got the silver for the trophy…