Farewell Noel Cunningham-Reid
There’s an Aston Martin flavour to this newsletter as we remember former Works driver Noel Cunningham-Reid and introduce three landmark models you might enjoy in your stable.
One of the last surviving members of David Brown’s Aston Martin racing team, Noel Cunningham-Reid has died aged 86. He’s best known for his stunning win, sharing DBR1/2 with Tony Brooks at the Nürburgring in 1957. Later that year he retired from motor racing.
The Cambridgeshire man was one of two brothers born into considerable wealth, their parents – Ruth Mary Clarisse Ashley and Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid DFC – described by the Cincinnati Enquirer as “England’s wealthiest girl and handsomest man”.
Brother Michael emigrated to forge a new life in Kenya, following a well-trodden path of horse riding, big-game hunting and hard living, eventually farming his own 6,000-acre ranch. Noel, meanwhile, stayed in the UK and in 1954 bought an Aston Martin DB2/4.
With his purchase came a year’s subscription to the Aston Martin Owners Club and he entered a Club regularity trial at nearby Snetterton circuit. The bug bit and the following year he bought a new Lister-Bristol from Cambridge-based Brian Lister. The new car was run under the aegis of the Six-Mile Stable, named after Six Mile Bottom, his local village. The 1955 season proved successful, earning Noel a works HWM-Jaguar drive.
In 1956 Cunningham-Reid was a regular in the HWM team, usually at the wheel of ‘XPE 2’. The powerful car suited his press-on style, and the ability to look after himself at the Reims 12 Hours sharing with experienced Les Leston proved his talent. In October 1956, he beat a high-quality field to win the 15-lap Redex Trophy at Snetterton, and Aston Martin team manager John Wyer signed him up for 1957.
Cunningham-Reid raced a now-outdated DB3S at the beginning of the year, but in May 1957 he was at the Nürburgring for the annual 1,000-kilometre race sharing a DBR1 with Tony Brooks. Cunningham-Reid had never even seen the circuit, yet in two laps of practice he posted a time one minute faster than Les Leston. The story of the race, Aston Martin’s greatest triumph to date, was one of a peerless Brooks matched almost to the second by the inexperienced ‘new boy’ Cunningham-Reid.
The race lasted seven and a half hours, Cunningham-Reid taking the middle stint, at which point the car was in the lead by three and a half minutes. When he returned to the pits he’d added another 20 seconds to that – with some effort. Wyer later recalled that Cunningham-Reid “just sat on the pit counter with his head in his hands and was unable to talk to us for quite some time”.
Tony Brooks remembers the DBR1 drives at the ’Ring and Le Mans. “Noel, my co-driver, was very good — just how good we’ll never really know, because he too was forced to give up due to family pressure.”
Cunningham-Reid also drove a DBR1 at Le Mans, practiced (and crashed) the DBR2 at Spa and, lastly, raced a DBR2 again at the Daily Express International Trophy, Silverstone.
“After my success at the ’Ring with Tony (and a few other drives), several teams wanted to sign me for 1958,” he recalled later. “I had a long think about it and decided that – at the age of 27 – there were many things I wanted to do outside racing. It was not a great passion for me (I had got into it by accident) and I didn’t honestly believe that I could become World Champion.
“I wasn’t prepared to push myself to the 10-tenths and 11-tenths that Champions have to do. Also, I had been racing since 1955 and I counted up the number of people I had known who had been killed, and there were 16. I decided it was time to get out.”
In later life, he spent his time farming, working in the motor trade (becoming the UK Facel Vega importer) and in the film business. He directed the 1961 feature The Right Line and was a talented musician. A superb sporting gun, The Field magazine placed Noel Cunningham-Reid 17th in its listing of the top shots of all time, which I witnessed first-hand…even when sitting!
Photograph by John Ross, Copyright JARROTTS.com