Before Andretti, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney, American F1 drivers who raced in Europe tended to be wealthy young amateurs. They were adventurers who were often New England types, educated at Harvard, Princeton or Yale, or the kids of wealthy folk who lived in France. Most made little impression.
Herbert Mackay-Fraser was a little the same, but at the same time quite different.
He was a slightly mysterious figure. You can find different dates and places of birth for him and his name is odd because his father was simply Fraser and his mother was not a Mackay. So his name was not really his name. Government records are government records, so one can say with certainty that Herbert Fraser was born in Recife in Brazil in 1922 – not in Connecticut in 1927.
His father is often said to have been the owner of a coffee plantation, but in truth he was a bank manager – although he did acquire a plantation, which boosted the family coffers considerably. Herbert Cecil Fitzroy Fraser had been born a British citizen, on the island of Saint Vincent in the British West Indies. As the name suggests, he was the son of a Scottish emigrant. He moved to New York in 1904 and joined the National City Bank on Wall Street as a teller. He became a U.S. citizen in 1917 and after the war he married an American, seven years his junior. Soon afterwards the couple went to live in Buenos Aires, where the bank wanted him to go to manage its local interests. After that it was on to Recife, where Herbert Jr was born in 1922. Four years later, Herbert Sr switched to become the manager of the Royal Bank of Canada in Rio de Janeiro.
With the bank salary and a coffee plantation, money was not a problem, but Herbert Sr did not live to enjoy it. He died unexpectedly, at the age of just 46, in the middle of 1933. His widow Grace liked Brazil and stayed on, but Herbert Jr, who was then 11, was soon sent off to boarding school in New Hampshire. When the war came, he enlisted, but it was too late for him to see any active service. When peace returned, he tried his hand at ranching in Wyoming, spent a lot of time skiing in Idaho and then drifted into real estate.
He did not discover car racing until he was 31, when the West Coast sports car craze was just kicking off. He made his racing debut at the end of 1953, in a race in Reno, at the wheel of a Jaguar XK120. The following year he raced in both California and in Brazil, and by the summer of 1955 he had relocated to London, where he drove around in a Ferrari (a rare thing in those days) and hung out with Jo Bonnier.
He shared a Lotus at Le Mans with Colin Chapman and built a reputation as an able racer. He then moved to a small Italian village called Bonassola on the coast between Genoa and La Spezia, where he lived with his new wife Marga and their baby daughter. He had two other children, living in Idaho.
In the summer of 1957, BRM offered him a chance in F1 for the French GP at Rouen. Roy Salvadori had moved to Vanwall because Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks were both out of action: Moss with a sinus infection and Brooks as a result of a crash at Le Mans. Mackay-Fraser did a good job, running sixth behind the Maseratis and the Lancia-Ferraris until his transmission failed. It was a promising F1 debut and it seemed he was bound for a future in Grand Prix racing.
A week later he was entered for the Grand Prix de Reims in a Maserati, and qualified well. He was also entered for the Coupe Internationale de Vitesse Formula 2 race in a factory Lotus 11 sports car, which had been stripped down for F2. He was going well until, for reasons unknown, he arrived far too fast in the first corner. The car ran out of road and went on to the grass for about 60 metres before it ran over a low earth bank and rolled. Drivers then preferred not to wear seat belts and so Mackay-Fraser was thrown out and suffered serious injuries on landing. A helicopter was on hand to fly him to hospital in Reims, but it was too late. He died during the flight. We will never know how good he might have been. He was buried a week later in the local cemetery at Bezannes.
Although soon forgotten by the F1 world, he was the first Lotus driver to die in one of the factory cars. No great epitaph.