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Thursday 1st November 2012

John Fitch - RIP

Fighter pilot, racing driver, safety campaigner and all-round good-guy John Fitch dies aged 95



Sad news from our colleagues on Classic & Sports Car with the announcement that American racing driver John Fitch has passed away at the ripe old age of 95.

Fitch crossing the line in the 1955 Mille Miglia
Fitch crossing the line in the 1955 Mille Miglia
Lanky, quietly spoken and one of the true gentlemen of the sport Fitch led a life that reads more like an adventure story than the likes of us mollycoddled types could ever dream up.

Born in 1917 in Indiana, Fitch's stepdad worked for Stutz so cars were there from the start. Between the wars he attended the Indy 500 and the last race at Brooklands before World War Two broke out, later returning to the UK as a fighter pilot flying P-51 Mustangs where he was credited as one of the first to shoot down one of the Messerschmitt Me262 fighter jets before he himself was shot down and finished the war as a POW.

And yet just seven years later he was a factory Mercedes driver, taking part in the Carrera Panamericana before winning the GT class in a bog standard 300SL Gullwing in the 1955 Mille Miglia (see lead picture). Such was his pace he actually ended up fifth overall, behind four full blown racing cars. The legendary pace notes system - the route was on a roll of paper, wound on manually past a 'window' in a metal case - employed by Moss and co-driver Denis Jenkinson was actually something devised by Fitch and 'Jenks' before the race when the two were scheduled to drive together. In the end Jenks rode with Moss and took the idea with him. "Fitch sportingly agreed it would be a good thing to try out our plans for beating the Italians with Moss as a driver," Jenks wrote in his famous MotorSport feature.

Fitch, Moss, Hans Herrmann and Peter Collins
Fitch, Moss, Hans Herrmann and Peter Collins
Realising that pace notes were going to be essential to compete with the local knowledge of the Italian drivers, Fitch recruited an unsuspecting German journalist called Kurt Gesell and used a different system grading dangers from X-1 for 'careful' to X-4 for a hazard that could write off the Gullwing. Gesell also embellished the system with his own commentary, apparently ranging from "Caution!" to "Very dangerous!" and, finally, "Mein Gott!" if things really looked dicey.

Despite a misfire they finished the race at an overall average of 83.3mph, an impressive effort in a factory standard road car given that Moss's SLR did it at 97.9mph. A special mention at this point must go to fellow Mercedes drivers and winners in the diesel class Helmut Retter and Wolfgang Larcher, averaging 58.7mph in a car whose official 0-62mph time was 39 seconds and could only achieve 68mph flat out!

Fitch's designs for safety barriers live on
Fitch's designs for safety barriers live on
1955 wasn't all about celebration though and when the car Fitch was sharing at Le Mans with Pierre Levegh crashed into the crowd with the latter at the wheel the carnage that ensued killed 84. Following this sobering experience Fitch went on to design impact absorbing safety barriers used to this day on American highways and race circuits.

The Classic & Sports Car obituary has more about his later life as a car designer and single-seat racer with the Briggs Cunningham team. A Goodwood regular until very recently, Fitch was a true hero and will be sadly missed.

Pictures: Mercedes-Benz archive

 

 

 

Dan Trent
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Author Discussion

DonkeyApple

Original Poster:

17,433 posts

56 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
A true great from a generation of greats. All sadly missed.

2012 has seen the loss of many icons who created, defined, excelled at and moved forward not just motorsport but in their own way, society.

paulrussell

1,257 posts

48 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Sad to hear. Alot of well known people in the automotive industry have died this year. I wonder if we look back on this year in several years time, it will be remembered for the loss of automotive greats?

carinaman

8,444 posts

59 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
frown Top chap who seems over looked here, with Mosley often being cited for Safety or Sir JYS.

L100NYY

30,117 posts

130 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
A true legend and one of the 'boys-own' heroes that I have always held in the highest esteem.

RIP John smile

DJRC

22,269 posts

123 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Farewell my friend frown
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dandarez

5,857 posts

170 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Twenty years ago I was approached by an American author as to whether I would be interested in publishing a book on a guy called John Fitch as the author couldn't get anyone that side of the pond to take it on.
I jumped at the chance!

Fitch has to be among one of the most amazing of Yanks. I thought he would easily achieve the goal of reaching 100 years of age - he achieved almost everything else in his life. There was so much in his story even then, he did so much in a long life which others could only think about achieving.
Very, very sad loss of one extremely talented man.

It is said that John Fitch is not an unsung hero - his story simply hasn't been sung loud enough.

There is lots about this man that is not widely known. One little snippet among masses, he was the technical adviser and stunt man in the film 'The Racers', starring Kirk Douglas in the 1950s.

RIP.

Fitch sat on the yellow inertia barrier barrels he was the brains behind, which saved countless drivers lives.

GadgeS3C

3,471 posts

51 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Another sad loss - what a bad year for losing the greats.

Luca Brasi

842 posts

61 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
What a hero he was, RIP Mr Fitch.

T1CHS

95 posts

64 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Meet him a couple of times at Goodwood and Le Mans. A thoroughly decent, intelligent and approachable Gentleman. The world has lost a true Great!

trixyD

54 posts

26 months

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Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
RIP John. I'm sure you'll be missed by many.

LotusOmega375D

2,614 posts

40 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
He seemed to have been around for ever. 95's a good innings, especially for a racing driver from his era.

Twincam16

27,646 posts

145 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
He was one hell of an engineer too. Turned the Chevrolet Corvair from a near-total embarassment into a credible sports car by studying the way the Porsche 911's suspension and aerodynamics made the best of the rear-engined flat-six configuration, and came up with the Fitch Sprint:


Aqubanc

3 posts

117 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Three years ago I started working with John Fitch to bring 3 of his cars to life as limited edition, hand-built scale models. When I was first referred to John, I must admit to not knowing who he was - it didn't take long to fill this abyss.

While John and I talked many times during development of the Fitch Phoenix, we had not met. Instead one of Automodello's advisors shot the Phoenix so we could create the model. Then John hand-signed all the Certificates.

I finally had the first opportunity to meet John at the Simeone Museum in Philladelphia which was honoring his racing career. Then about 6 months later I had visited John at his home near Lime Rock racing course. What struck me most about John is given all he had done in his career, he still had the enthusiasm to continue to invent and talk about so much to do in the future. He was a complete gentleman, who didn't boost upon his accomplishments but talked to you one-to-one.

This Summer as Automodello was releasing the Fitch Sprint, I was invited to his 95th birthday party. Amongst all the racing greats in attendence, there was John still taking time with each person. I had with me the recent book Colin Chapman - the Innovator and asked John if he knew Chapman. John said Chapman was another genius and proceeded to sign the book along with the Fitch Sprint.

Rest in peace John,
Jim


Edited by Automodello on Thursday 1st November 15:44

ikarl

1,683 posts

86 months

[news] 
Thursday 1st November 2012 quote quote all
Aqubanc said:
Three years ago I started working with John Fitch to bring 3 of his cars to life as limited edition, hand-built scale models. When I was first referred to John, I must admit to not knowing who he was - it didn't take long to fill this abyss.

While John and I talked many times during development of the Fitch Phoenix, we had not met. Instead one of Automodello's advisors shot the Phoenix so we could create the model. Then John hand-signed all the Certificates.

I finally had the first opportunity to meet John at the Simeone Museum in Philladelphia which was honoring his racing career. Then about 6 months later I had visited John at his home near Lime Rock racing course. What struck me most about John is given all he had done in his career, he still had the enthusiasm to continue to invent and talk about so much to do in the future. He was a complete gentleman, who didn't boost upon his accomplishments but talked to you one-to-one.

This Summer as Automodello was releasing the Fitch Sprint, I was invited to his 95th birthday party. Amongst all the racing greats in attendence, there was John still taking time with each person. I had with me the recent book Colin Chapman - the Innovator and asked John if he knew Chapman. John said Chapman was another genius and proceeded to sign the book along with the Fitch Sprint.

Rest in peace John,
Jim


Edited by Automodello on Thursday 1st November 15:44
Surely this post has to be classed as the longest anyone has waited before posting on this site. Worth the wait in my opinion.

carinaman

8,444 posts

59 months

billzeebub

3,163 posts

86 months

[news] 
Friday 2nd November 2012 quote quote all
a fantastic innings by a special man. RIP a driving colossus

Ryan9078

17 posts

29 months

[news] 
Friday 2nd November 2012 quote quote all
Not a bad life at all.

drchris

306 posts

67 months

[news] 
Friday 2nd November 2012 quote quote all
ikarl said:
Aqubanc said:
Three years ago I started working with John Fitch to bring 3 of his cars to life as limited edition, hand-built scale models. When I was first referred to John, I must admit to not knowing who he was - it didn't take long to fill this abyss.

While John and I talked many times during development of the Fitch Phoenix, we had not met. Instead one of Automodello's advisors shot the Phoenix so we could create the model. Then John hand-signed all the Certificates.

I finally had the first opportunity to meet John at the Simeone Museum in Philladelphia which was honoring his racing career. Then about 6 months later I had visited John at his home near Lime Rock racing course. What struck me most about John is given all he had done in his career, he still had the enthusiasm to continue to invent and talk about so much to do in the future. He was a complete gentleman, who didn't boost upon his accomplishments but talked to you one-to-one.

This Summer as Automodello was releasing the Fitch Sprint, I was invited to his 95th birthday party. Amongst all the racing greats in attendence, there was John still taking time with each person. I had with me the recent book Colin Chapman - the Innovator and asked John if he knew Chapman. John said Chapman was another genius and proceeded to sign the book along with the Fitch Sprint.

Rest in peace John,
Jim


Edited by Automodello on Thursday 1st November 15:44
Surely this post has to be classed as the longest anyone has waited before posting on this site. Worth the wait in my opinion.
Yes indeed. Top lurking. Great first effort!


P2BS

264 posts

30 months

[news] 
Friday 2nd November 2012 quote quote all
Did I see John Fitch on Grand Prix - The Killer Years recently? A documentary that really moved me, featuring a man who was truly inspirational.

legalknievel

215 posts

84 months

[news] 
Friday 2nd November 2012 quote quote all
ikarl said:
Aqubanc said:
Three years ago I started working with John Fitch to bring 3 of his cars to life as limited edition, hand-built scale models. When I was first referred to John, I must admit to not knowing who he was - it didn't take long to fill this abyss.

While John and I talked many times during development of the Fitch Phoenix, we had not met. Instead one of Automodello's advisors shot the Phoenix so we could create the model. Then John hand-signed all the Certificates.

I finally had the first opportunity to meet John at the Simeone Museum in Philladelphia which was honoring his racing career. Then about 6 months later I had visited John at his home near Lime Rock racing course. What struck me most about John is given all he had done in his career, he still had the enthusiasm to continue to invent and talk about so much to do in the future. He was a complete gentleman, who didn't boost upon his accomplishments but talked to you one-to-one.

This Summer as Automodello was releasing the Fitch Sprint, I was invited to his 95th birthday party. Amongst all the racing greats in attendence, there was John still taking time with each person. I had with me the recent book Colin Chapman - the Innovator and asked John if he knew Chapman. John said Chapman was another genius and proceeded to sign the book along with the Fitch Sprint.

Rest in peace John,
Jim


Edited by Automodello on Thursday 1st November 15:44
Surely this post has to be classed as the longest anyone has waited before posting on this site. Worth the wait in my opinion.
Absolutely. In a time when everyone has two pennies worth and will share it without a thought about taste or grammar, it's cool when someone breaks a silence to say something which really contributes. Hear, hear, Mr Aqubanc.
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