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An officer and a true gentleman

DAVID PURLEY was born in Bognor Regis on January 26, 1945, and enlisted in the Royal Army to become an officer in the elite parachute regiment.


Son to the wealthy Lec refrigerator manufacturer, Charlie Purley, David served in Aden and once even survived a partial failure of his parachute during a training jump.


At the tender age of 22, David started car racing, having been inspired by Derek Bell’s sensational Ferrari Grand Prix debut.


Funded by his father, David acquired an AC Cobra and started racing it in the 1968 season. After he totalled it in a big crash from which he emerged unscathed, he switched to a 2-litre Chevron sports-car and ran it into 1969.


After he wrote it off in a big crash from which he emerged unscathed, he switched to a 2-litre Chevron sports-car and ran it into 1969.


Eager to progress, he bought himself a Brabham BT28 to race in Formula 3 for 1970, naming his team Lec Refrigeration Racing, after his father’s Bognor Regis company.


David two-timed between Formula Atlantic and Formula 1 in 1973, as he went his own way once again by entering a private Lec March 731 for his Grand Prix debut at Monaco.


One of David Purley’s most memorable moments possibly comes from the tragic death of fellow Brit, Roger Williamson.


At the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Roger, who was also competing in his second grand prix, hit tragedy on lap eight.


Roger’s March crashed heavily after a suspected tyre failure, flipping upside down and sliding along the circuit. The Englishman was alive, but the car was soon engulfed in flames.


As the other drivers sped past, David stopped on the opposite side of the track, sacrificing his own race and sprinted across to where Roger’s car had come to rest and began a desperate attempt to free his fellow racer.


Hurling himself into the flames, David tried to overturn the March. Unable to do so alone, and without help from the marshals, he then found a fire extinguisher and tried to douse the inferno.


Unfortunately, David’s attempts to stop the flames failed and he once again began a vain attempt to overturn the car, waving frantically to the marshals for help but receiving none.


It later emerged that the marshals’ clothing would have offered them no protection against the flames and they could have been terribly burnt.


Eventually, David was dragged away, furious, heartbroken and in little doubt that his friend had perished in the flames.


He was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his heroism. Three years later, Purley would tell Autosport magazine that his actions were the natural reaction of a man who had spent time in the armed forces.


He said: “What happened was purely a reflex action. In the service, if one saw a burning tank or something, one tried to help the people inside. With Roger’s accident it was exactly the same. It was a case of a man needing help.”


The tragic accident also prompted changes to safety regulations.


David contested two more grand prix that season and then competed in his home race which would prove to be his last in Formula One.


During pre-qualifying, the car’s throttle stuck open, which left David as no more than a passenger in an almighty shunt. He suffered a multitude of broken bones and various other injuries.


David returned to compete in the Aurora British Formula One championship. It was an incredible feat for a man who had been so badly injured.


He had to be lifted from the car afterwards, but Purley had beaten the odds to make a return at all. He called it quits after that, reasoning that he had proven all he needed to.


After quitting racing, David ran the family business and he also moved in to competitive aerobatics.


David Purley tragically lost his life on July 2, 1985, when a technical fault on his aircraft sent him into the sea off the West Sussex coast.

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