Sell a Classic Car – Phil Hill Biography
Phil Hill, one of the greatest of American auto racers, an introspective and cerebral champion whose celebrated driving career began when he took a neighbour’s new Oldsmobile for a spin as a 9-year-old, died in Monterey, Calif.
He was 81 and lived in Santa Monica, Calif., in the same house in which he grew up.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Vanessa Hill Rogers. Hill suffered from Parkinson’s disease and another degenerative neurological disorder, multiple systems atrophy, she said.
A classical music aficionado with an expertise in Italian opera, a collector of antique musical instruments, a master mechanic and a restorer of classic cars, Hill had a wide range of achievements even without his driving fame.
But along with his slightly younger contemporaries, A. J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, Hill was a racing legend. If his name is lesser known than theirs, it is because at the height of his career he was more often racing in Europe and Latin America than at home, and because he never competed in the most famous American race of all, the Indianapolis 500.
He did win the Sebring 12-hour race in Florida three times, in 1958, 1959 and 1961, but his other major triumphs were abroad.
In 1958, he was the first American to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans, a victory he repeated in 1961 and 1962. He won the Argentine 1000-kilometer race three times; the Grand Prix of Italy twice and the Belgian Grand Prix.
Remarkably, in an era when cars were far faster than they were safe, he made it through two decades of racing without a significant injury. In 1953, 10 drivers died during the gruelling Pan-American road race in Mexico; Hill’s car overturned, but he escaped unharmed. Hill’s friend Peter Collins, with whom he shared the driving in a Sebring victory in 1958, was killed shortly thereafter in the German Grand Prix.
In one of racing’s grimmest calamities, Hill’s teammate and rival, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash that also killed 13 spectators during the 1961 Grand Prix of Italy. Hill won that race, and with it the championship of Formula One, the highest class of open-wheel racing. He remains the only American-born driver to do so. (Mario Andretti, a naturalized American, won the title in 1978.)
“The most amazing thing was that he raced at a time when people were dying left and right,” said John Lamm, a friend and the editor at large of Road & Track magazine, where Hill was a contributor of articles and photographs after his racing career. “And the only injury he ever suffered was in the Pan-American race. He was getting out of the car and cut his hand.”
Not that Hill was oblivious to the dangers. In fact, he was known as a ruminative man, and he dropped out of racing more than once after questioning his reasons for competing at high speed.
“He never quite trusted why he did it,” Mr. Lamm said. “He knew it was crazy, but he did it, anyway.”
After the tragedy in Italy in 1961, Robert Daley, a correspondent for The New York Times, asked him if he was going to quit.
“I don’t know,” Hill said. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Mr. Daley recounted the conversation in an article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Why Men Race With Death.” Hill was then 34.
“A little later he came over and sat down,” Mr. Daley wrote. “He began to talk. ‘There are more don’ts than dos in the business,’ he said. ‘Trips violated a don’t by trying to occupy a space already partially occupied by Clark’s Lotus. It’s horrible in a way. But in another way it’s not so horrible. After all, everybody dies. Isn’t it a fine thing that von Trips died doing something he loved, without any suffering, without any warning? I think Trips would rather be dead than not race, don’t you?’
“What are you going to do, Phil?’
“He thought a moment and then said: ‘When I love motor racing less, my own life will become worth more to me, and I will be less willing to risk it.’ ”
Phil Hill, who has died aged 81 following a long battle against Parkinsonism (a variant of Parkinson’s disease), was the first of only two US drivers to win the world championship, achieving that distinction in 1961 driving for Ferrari, some 17 years before the Italian-born Mario Andretti won at the wheel of a Lotus.
No driver before or since can have clinched the title in such traumatic circumstances. Hill did so by winning the Italian grand prix at Monza after a race in which his Ferrari team-mate Wolfgang von Trips, his only rival for the crown, was killed, along with more than a dozen spectators, following a horrifying collision with Jim Clark’s Lotus.
It was a profoundly shocking moment for Hill, who would come to be widely regarded as one of the most intelligent and deep-thinking drivers of his generation, and he subsequently seemed to wrestle within himself as to whether or not winning the world championship had been quite worth the effort in such emotionally fraught conditions.
Hill was born in Miami, Florida, but brought up in Santa Monica, a leafy enclave of Los Angeles on the edge of the Pacific ocean. His father was a postmaster. He began racing in the late 1940s at the wheel of his own MG TC and, having dropped out of the University of Southern California business administration course, went to Coventry in 1949 as a trainee with the Jaguar company.
He returned to California with one of Jaguar’s sleek new XK120 sports cars, at the wheel of which he quickly gained a reputation as a man to watch in west coast national level races.
His results caught the eye of wealthy Ferrari owner Allan Guiberson, who entered him in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana road race through Mexico. It was a wild and woolly affair in which he co-drove into sixth place. The following year he returned at the wheel of a 4.1-litre Ferrari, sharing with his friend and future formula one team-mate, Richie Ginther, but this outing ended spectacularly when they skidded (unhurt) off a cliff.
Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari’s importer for the US and owner of the North American Racing Team, then offered Hill several drives in his own cars before advising Enzo Ferrari that he should invite the Californian to drive at Le Mans for his factory team in 1956. Hill would enjoy considerable success in international sports car events and won Le Mans in 1958, 1961 and 1962, on all three occasions sharing the driving with the Belgian Olivier Gendebien. In his homeland, he won the Sebring 12-hour race in 1958, 1959 and 1961.
Hill’s formula one debut finally came in the 1958 French grand prix at Reims, where he drove a Maserati 250F hired from Swedish private entrant Jo Bonnier to finish seventh. Ferrari had been vacillating over whether or not to promote Hill to their grand prix squad, but this result in the French race had the effect of hurrying them up. He drove a formula two Ferrari in this “second division” class of the German grand prix, then moved up to formula one with the Maranello squad for the Italian and Moroccan races, helping team-mate Mike Hawthorn become the sport’s first British world champion driver by waving him through to finish second behind Stirling Moss’s race-winning Vanwall.
In 1959 Hill remained a member of the Ferrari team, but it was not until the 1960 Italian grand prix that he scored the first of his three formula one victories, driving the Dino 246 to an easy win at Monza in a race boycotted by the British teams over the continued use of the bumpy banked section of the circuit.
For 1961, Ferrari were well prepared for the new 1.5-litre formula one regulations which came into force at the start of the season. However, Ferrari’s wilful reluctance to nominate a team leader meant that Hill, von Trips and Ginther spent much of the time racing each other, a draining experience for all concerned. Hill won the Belgian race at Spa-Francorchamps before experiencing that emotional roller coaster at Monza.
“When they told me the news that [von] Trips was dead, and more than a dozen spectators with him, I was stunned, deeply shocked,” he said. “The papers reported that I broke down and sobbed, but that was not true. When you’ve lived as close to death and danger as long as I have, then your emotional defences are equal to almost anything.”
Hill stayed with Ferrari in 1962, but the team was eclipsed by a new generation of challengers from the British Lotus and BRM teams. As far as formula one was concerned his career was in decline, and spells with the disastrously uncompetitive ATS and fading Cooper teams, in 1963 and 1964 respectively, heralded the twilight of this sensitive man’s frontline racing career.
He continued racing sports cars and rounded off the 1967 season with a fine win in the BOAC 1000km race at Brands Hatch, sharing the Chaparral 2K with Englishman Mike Spence. At the start of 1968, he suddenly realised that he had forgotten to renew his international competition licence. In his own words, he found that he “had become a retired racing driver”.
Hill returned to Santa Monica to a life of contentment, still living in the richly furnished Moorish-style house willed to him by his aunt in 1959. He married late, at the age of 44 in 1971, finding great happiness with divorcee Alma Varanowski, who had a young daughter, Jennifer. They had a daughter, Vanessa, and a son, Derek, who also tried his hand at motor racing in the 1990s.
He was survived by Alma, his son and daughter, his stepdaughter and four grandchildren.
Philip Toll Hill Jr. was born in Miami on April 20, 1927, but grew up across the country, in Santa Monica, where his father was the postmaster. It was during a party at their house in 1936 that he first drove a car, slipping behind the wheel of a guest’s new roadster and guiding it around the block.
When he was 12, an aunt helped him buy a Ford Model T, and thus began a lifelong passion for cars. His sensitivity to the inner workings of the automobile he was driving was especially helpful in the endurance races that became his forte, contests in which drivers less attuned to mechanics were prone to push a car beyond its capability.
“When it came to the automobile he was a purist,” Hill’s son, Derek, an auto racer himself, said. “He was a mechanic by trade.”
Hill dropped out of the University of Southern California to work on cars and occasionally to drive them. In 1949, a Jaguar dealership he was working for sent him to England to study maintenance in Coventry. His career as a racer began in earnest when he returned; he drove privately owned cars, including several of his own, in sports car competitions.
In the 1954 Pan-American race, he and a partner, driving Hill’s Ferrari, finished second, and the company invited him to drive a factory car in the grueling marathon at Le Mans. Four years later, he and a partner won it, in a drenching rain.
Hill was the first American driver to win at Le Mans. (His co-driver, Oliver Gendebien, was Belgian.) Later that year, the death of Peter Collins created an opening on the Ferrari Formula One team, and Hill was asked to fill it. He drove for the Ferrari team through the 1962 season, finishing his career in sports car competitions for Ford and Chapparal factory teams and retiring in 1967. In 1991, he was among the second class of inductees at the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
In addition to his daughter, of Phoenix, and his son, of Culver City, Calif., Hill is survived by his wife of 37 years, Alma Baran Hill; a sister, Helen Kellogg, of Essex, N.Y.; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Svendsen Delaney, of Niwot, Colo., and four grandchildren.
In 1962, the year after his Formula One championship, Hill had a near disastrous accident during a practice run for a race in Sicily. His success and survival might well be explained by his reaction.
“The race organizers suggested today,” The Associated Press reported at the time, that Hill “sit this race out after the jolt he received when his Ferrari left a curve yesterday and shot 164 feet through the air.
“Hill agreed with the suggestion.”