David Charles Purley was born on this day, the 26th of January, in the West Sussex seaside town of Bognor Regis. Whilst Purley only took part in eleven Formula One Grands Prix in his career, his time in the sport was anything but a footnote, with Purley winning a medal for bravery and suffering an accident that, at the time, experienced the highest ever g-force survived by a human.
With the financial backing of his father, who was the founder and owner of the LEC Refrigeration Company, Purley embarked on a career in motorsport after serving time as an officer in the British Army. He rose through the ranks of open wheeled competition finding greater success in Formula Three, where he scored a number of victories between 1970 and 1972. A greater thrill beckoned, with Purley setting his sights firmly on the Formula One grid.
The first chance came in 1972, when Purley was one of only two drivers to attempt to race the Connew Grand Prix car in its original Formula One configuration at the end of season World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch. The Connew had experienced a difficult journey into the sport, with a number of technical, mechanical and financial setbacks. However, this was a chance for Purley – and Connew – to shine. Sadly, Purley didn’t make the start of the race. He had asked for an electrical “kill” switch to be fitted to the steering wheel, but this malfunctioned on the warm up lap, the engine stopped, and the car was retired.
Knowing that his talents would be best displayed in a car of better technical expertise, Purley took his father’s cash and hired a March F1 Car for the 1973 season, making his debut at the Monaco Grand Prix. He qualified twenty-third for the race and was competitive in the mid filed until his March sprung a fuel leak and he duly retired on lap 31.
At the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, upon witnessing a crash which left fellow British driver Roger Williamson trapped in his overturned and burning car, Purley abandoned his own race and attempted to save Williamson, who was participating in only his second Formula One race. Purley later recalled that upon arriving at the scene, he heard Williamson crying for help as the fire began to take hold. Purley’s efforts to right the car and extinguish the flames were in vain as he received no help from nearby track marshals or emergency workers, in spite of attempts to encourage them, and other passing drivers, to come to his aid; Williamson died from asphyxiation. The marshals were not wearing fire resistant clothing and the passing drivers assumed that Purley was attempting to extinguish his own car, having escaped a fiery crash unharmed.
For this remarkable act of bravery, Purley was awarded the George Medal for his courage in trying to save Williamson.
Purley spent the next few years competing mostly in Formula Two, driving Chevrons and Marches for the Hong Kong based millionaire Bob Harper, as well as the Formula 5000 Championship, where he won the British title in 1976 in a Chevron powered by the Cosworth GA 3.4-litre V6 engine. In 1974 Purley won the Brighton Speed Trials driving a Trojan-Chevrolet T101, winning again the following year in a Chevron-GA B30.
In 1977 the call to Formula One beckoned again, this time he could compete in his very own LEC chassis that had been designed by Mike Pilbeam and run by Mike Earle. His first outing in the car was the Spanish Grand Prix, where he failed to qualify, followed by the Belgian (thirteenth placed finish) and Swedish (fourteenth placed finish) Grands Prix.
During practice for the British Grand Prix, Purley suffered an horrific accident which was caused when the throttle became stuck wide open on his LEC CRP1. Unable to slow down Purley was nothing more than a passenger, as the chassis speared into the concrete wall in excess of 105 mph. It was estimated that the g-force sustained in the accident was in the region of 179g – 179 times the effect of gravity – as the deceleration zone was a mere sixty-six centimeters. Incredibly, Purley survived the accident but suffered multiple fractures to his legs, pelvis and ribs. It was the highest level of g-force that a human had sustained in an accident and survived.
It took Purley some time to recover from his extensive injuries – but recover he did – and he returned to competitive racing, however his days at the top level were behind him. He mainly participated in the Aurora AFX Series in Britain, whilst running the family business. That need for speed never left Purley and so in a quest to satiate that inner desire, he dabbled in his new love, competition aerobatics.
Tragically, this heroic racer would be claimed on 2 July 1985, when his Pitts Special Acrobatic Biplane suffered a mechanical fault, crashing into the English Channel off the coast of his beloved hometown, Bognor Regis.
He was 40 years old.