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RACING’S ORIGINAL ROCK STAR | Columns

51 years after Bill Ivy met his end, a unique cache of documents reveals a fascinatingly morbid account of exactly what happened on that fateful day

Former 125cc world champion Bill Ivy was a tough little geezer from Kent who wore his hair long, drove flash motor cars and once turned up at a race meeting dressed as a hippy, with his mate Mike Hailwood.

Ivy started racing on a 50cc Itom, he rode for Barry Sheene’s dad Frank and won the 1964 125cc British championship. Later that year, Phil Read told Yamaha that it ought to sign the youngster, who then went on to win the 1967 125cc world title for the Japanese factory.

The following year Ivy had a bitter falling-out with Read and quit bikes to focus on cars. He bought a Brabham-Ford to contest national and international F2 races. At the first round of the 1969 European F2 series at Thruxton his speed stunned Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Graham Hill, Clay Reggazoni and others.

“Billy had more natural ability than anyone I’ve seen coming into motor racing,” said Stewart. “Although John Surtees clearly made his mark, even Hailwood, they didn’t make the adjustment as obviously as Billy.”

But Ivy didn’t have the money to go car racing, so he needed an alternative income, which is why he accepted an offer from Jawa to ride its notoriously unreliable disc-valve 350cc V4, the latest creation from the Czech marque that started life as a First World War armaments manufacturer.

Ivy rode the bike for the first time at a pre-season race in Italy, where it was up to its usual tricks and seized. The engine’s weaknesses were low-grade East European metals and thermosyphon water-cooling. However, when the bike ran well it was quick: 70 horsepower at 13,000rpm, good for 275km/h.

Ivy had his first Grand Prix outing on the bike at Hockenheim in May 1969, when he chased home Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta triple. Next time out at Assen he led Ago until the engine oiled a plug, probably because it was running rich to prevent piston seizures. So when he arrived at Sachsenring for the East German GP, he must’ve had hopes of beating Ago…

What’s it worth

W.D. (William David) Ivy posted his request for a race entry to the Sachsenring organisers on 28 May, asking for start money of £275 plus 2500 Ostmarks (East German Marks), making a total of around £525, about £8000 ($14,500) today. This contradicts the usual story that riders rode GPs for next to nothing, because they needed world-class success to earn good money at non-championship events. He then left his apartment in Heston, three kilometres west of Heathrow airport, and drove his Maserati Ghibli onto the Continent, contesting an F2 race at Zolder, where he finished fifth behind 1970 F1 world champ Rindt, then the Dutch TT and the Belgian GP. He also travelled to Monza for an F2 race, but didn’t start the event, following a punch-up with officials!

Conditional entry

This telegram, dated 1 July, was sent to the Sachsenring organisers from Kent, so was most likely sent by Ivy’s mother, Nell, because he was between Assen and Spa-Francorchamps, venue for the Belgian GP. Presumably, Ivy hadn’t had a reply to his initial letter, which might be why he has reduced his demand to 2000 Deutschemarks (West German Marks), about £3500. The scribbled note is the organisers’ reply, requesting Ivy to talk to Alfred Hartmann, the East German Communist Party’s sportskommissar, at Spa.

Mister Maserati

Ivy arrived at the Sachsenring in his Maserati Ghibli (reg plate EE 2676, engine number AM115598/18427365) on Thursday 11 July, the day before Sachsenring practice got underway. The wild-driving 26-year-old and his Italian supercar must have made quite a stir on the roads of communist East Germany.

Let’s do this

Ivy looks suitably concerned, with two fingers resting on the clutch lever, as he tackles the tight Badberg Kurve in the town of Hohenstein-Ernstthal. At that time several sections of the Sachsenring were still surfaced with cobblestones. Ivy completed four laps of the five-mile street circuit during the first day of practice on Friday 11 July. He was second fastest at 3m16.6ssec, 8.1sec behind Agostini’s MV and 2.3sec ahead of MZ’s Heinz Rosner.

Ivy’s last ride

On Saturday morning Ivy and a Jawa mechanic took the V4 for final practice in damp, gloomy weather. At around 9.45am, Ivy completed his first lap of the day, riding past the pits and through the series of high-speed sweepers that took riders into the town of Hohenstein-Ernstthal. As he approached a fast left-hander he lost control and crashed. Travelling at 145km/h, he was not in control of his destiny. He skidded along the road, his pudding-basin helmet came adrift and he slammed into the roadside fence, coming to a halt by the gate of number 87 Friedrich Engels Strabe, named in honour of the man who developed Marxism with Karl Marx.

First response

The marshals at post eight, just a few metres away from the crash, wrote two reports at 9:45am: “number 61, crash”, then “number 61, crashed heavily and is being treated”. Then another at 9.46am, “number 61 is taken away on a stretcher”.

medical report

The first medical report, made at 10.00am, after Ivy was stretchered to an ambulance. The report describes grievous injuries: Ivy was unconscious, but gasping for air. The medics could find no pulse, his pupils didn’t react to light and he had major bleeds from his nose and mouth. He had suffered cardiac arrest and fractured a bone in the base of his skull. The medics performed tracheal intubation to keep his windpipe open, gave him oxygen, undertook CPR (artificial respiration and cardiac massage) and extracted liquid from his nose and throat. At the same time Ivy was driven to Lichtenstein hospital, eight km away.

The accident report

Later that day marshal Dieter Knorr wrote his report of the accident. “The machine number 61 came past as normal. Before the corner, the front of the machine went down. I thought he used the hand [front] brake. After that, the rear wheel veered towards the right. He crashed and skidded with his machine on the road, hit a garden-fence post and back from there. The rider was lying on the road. His helmet flew across the street. Two rescuers of the DRK (German Red Cross) were on the scene with a stretcher right away. I showed the yellow flag immediately and the cleaning of the spilt fuel was started by the marshals at post eight. The DRK took the rider away on the stretcher.”

Sketch it out

This sketch of the crash site shows where Ivy and the Jawa ended up: Ivy half on the pavement, his bike against the gate of number 87 Friedrich Engels Strabe, after climbing the pavement by marshal post eight. His helmet was found on the inside of the corner. For many years, people speculated that Ivy’s helmet came off because he hadn’t fitted it properly, but this seems unlikely since he had already completed a full lap at speed. Although his head injuries were fatal, so too were his chest injuries, so he wouldn’t have survived even if his helmet had stayed in place.

The hospital report

The hospital report by Drs Ebert and Heinrich details post-accident treatment at Lichtenstein hospital, which had been warned in advance of the incoming ambulance. However, on arrival Ivy was already clinically dead. Repeated efforts were made to resuscitate him, but without success. Causes of death were a basilar skull fracture, fracture of the cranium, ruptured right lung and irreversible trauma and bleeding.

The death certificate

Ivy’s death certificate, with time of death at 10.30am, 45 minutes after the accident. This document records the results of the autopsy undertaken two days after the accident. It confirms the hospital report, citing causes of death as basilar skull fracture and a massive rupture of the right lung. After Ivy’s death, Jawa withdrew from the meeting but were soon looking for a replacement rider. Aussie Jack Findlay bravely agreed to ride the bike, commencing at the following weekend’s Czech GP. During the first practice, coolant leaked onto the rear tyre which caused Findlay to crash, fracturing his collarbone. That same weekend another Jawa 350 killed Czech rider Frantisek Bocek. Two months later the bike finally proved its potential when Italian Silvio Grassetti won the Adriatic GP at Opatija. However, that was the V4’s only success and the bike slowly faded from the scene.

Under scrutiny

After the accident the Jawa’s engine was stripped for inspection by Sachsenring scrutineers and FIM steward Franticek Smauss. Jawa mechanics Jaroslav Seda and Karel Pischa worked the spanners.

“A considerable amount of aluminium flakes was found in the intake system for the bottom-left cylinder, which had marked the disc-valve casing,” stated the report. “Further examination showed the flakes came from the destroyed crank bearing. The destruction of the crank bearing resulted in a sudden locking of the engine, which caused the crash of the rider. All other parts, apart from the crash damage, were in a faultless condition.”

It is significant that the engine suffered a crank-bearing failure, because riders usually got a fraction of a second’s warning when a piston seized, so they could be ready with the clutch. But a big-end seizure gave no warning.

His last luggage

According to standard procedure, a ‘criminal complaint of unnatural death’ was lodged by the authorities after Ivy’s crash. This came to nothing. However, Ivy’s room at the Moskau Interhotel in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) was searched and every item documented. The list of his belongings offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a 1960s Grand Prix racer and rock-and-roll dandy: one brown leather suitcase, one black leather bag, one pair of cloth trousers, one pair of hardwearing corduroy trousers, 13 different coloured shirts, nine pairs of underpants, one pair of swimming trunks, two pairs of socks, three pairs of black leather gloves, six wool pullovers, one suede leather jacket, one brown leather waistcoat, one leather belt, one green-blue patterned scarf, one razor, one tube of shaving soap, one toothbrush, one hairbrush, one travel alarm clock, one gilded Omega watch, one pair of black shoes, one pair of brown shoes, one pair of red sneakers, one brown leather belt, one electric hairdryer, plus a quantity of German, British, Swiss and Spanish currency.

How he rolled

Personal effects found in Ivy’s Maserati Ghibli: six trophies, 12 audio cassettes (sadly not individually identified), one can of wax car polish, one pack of Dunhill filter cigarettes, three magazines, one Yamaha operator’s manual, one driver’s bag from the Grand Prix of Limbourg [the Zolder F2 race), two anoraks, one car-racing suit, one pair of car-racing shoes, one car-racing helmet, one travel bag, one road atlas of Europe, one Dutch TT commemorative tile, one set of Dutch TT rider’s documents, one London street atlas, one pair of sunglasses, one set of documents for August’s Finnish GP, various Barclays Bank documents, one lighter, one screwdriver, one briefcase, containing a British passport, a GDR customs declaration, one Maserati customer service card, one car registration document, various insurance documents, one driving licence, one international driving licence, one fountain pen, one gold wristband, six keys, one pair of nail scissors, one razor blade, currency in West German marks, pounds sterling, Dutch guilders, Italian lira, Finnish marks, East German Marks, Swiss Francs, Belgian francs, US dollars, and French francs. The car was driven to the Jawa factory in Prague by Seda, Ivy’s mechanic. It’s not known what became of it.

Prophetic champ

Racing was a very dangerous business in the 1960s and 1970s because seize-prone two-strokes and street circuits were a terrible mix. Ivy was the last but one of 25 riders to die at world championship events during the 1960s. The others lost their lives at the Isle of Man TT, Assen, Solitude, Dundrod, Imatra, Brno and Spa Francorchamps. Like all riders, Ivy knew his number could be up at any time. Bizarrely, the chills gripped him just before his final outing.

“He said to me the day before he left for East Germany, ‘I really don’t want to go this weekend, I really don’t’,” he told friend Lady Sarah Marguerite Curzon, the wife of racing driver Piers Courage, who was killed during the 1970 Dutch Formula 1 GP.

“I said, ‘then don’t go, Billy! If you really feel that you’re not happy about going, just don’t go.’ He told me he had to. ‘It’s my bread and butter’. I tried to persuade him… but it was no good.”

The premonitions must’ve been pretty strong, because before leaving his flat near Heathrow, Ivy put all his affairs in order and left money with a friend. “This is to pay for a booze-up for the boys if anything should ever happen to me,” he said.

“Because I’ve got a feeling that one of these days I shan’t be coming back.” (Rohrlapper photo)

The show goes on

The East German Grand Prix went ahead the next day, with the 350cc race getting underway after a bouquet of red carnations had been laid in Ivy’s grid slot and 200,000 fans had held a minute’s silence. Agostini won the 350 and 500 races, Renzo Pasolini (Benelli) took the 250 and Dave Simmonds (Kawasaki) the 125. Ivy’s death did have an immediate effect on circuit safety at the part-cobbled Sachsenring and was an important turning point in the push for safer circuits. On news of his death, the survivors lobbied the event organisers to put out more straw-bales before the following day’s racing. Jack Findlay, Rod Gould and Santiago Herrero advised where the bales were needed. Herrero had less than a year to live – the Spanish star died following an accident at the 13th Milestone during the 1970 Lightweight TT. He was one of five racing deaths at that year’s TT. Finally, the FIM seemed to get the message: something had to be done to reduce the death toll. They announced that all grand prix events should be preceded by a meeting with riders. As always, it had taken the death of a famous rider to wake people up.

Taken home

Letter from the Sachsenring organisers detailing the return of Ivy’s body to his mother, in Ditton, near Maidstone. Because the body had to be transported across borders it was laid to rest in a zinc coffin, welded up by a local plumber. The coffin was held at the Karl-Marx-Stadt cemetery, driven to Berlin and flown to London. Ivy’s funeral took place at St Peter’s church, Ditton, with Read, Mike Hailwood and other bike racers in attendance, as well as important figures from car racing, including Ken Tyrrell and Frank Williams. Ivy’s body was cremated and his ashes scattered at an unknown location.

Words Mat Oxley

Photography and documentation Motorrennsport archiv.de