Australian Motor Heritage Foundation Limited

Go to content

Main menu:

Robbo's Archive
Denis Jenkinson

Upon discovering Denis Jenkinson – DSJ to the readers – in Motor Sport magazine (you know, the British magazine with the green-cover, edited by WB, William Boddy) in the late 1950s, he instantly became my hero. As Continental Correspondent, DSJ’s Letter From Europe was essential reading. Jenks, wandering around Europe from race circuit to race circuit in his 356 Porsche (and later E-Type Jaguar), lived a fantasy life beyond our wildest dreams in Australia, seemingly a world away.
I first meet DSJ at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix and the bloke was all I hoped: enthusiastic, knowledgeable and encouraging to a young Australian journalist attending his first Grand Prix. Along with a few other motoring racing journalists (Eoin S. Young and Allan Henry among others) we got drunk together a couple of nights before the race.
In the late 1980s I moved to Italy to work as European editor of Autocar and Wheels magazines. My Autocar boss Mel Nichols (former editor of Car and Sports Car World magazines) suggested I write a once-every-four-weeks column, he called Heroes. Jenks topped my list of potential subjects. Initially he resisted all my attempt at contact, but eventually I wore him down and he agreed to be interviewed.

We meet at Jenkinson’s wonderfully tiny, ramshackle home in Hampshire, England. Old bikes and cars, spare parts and work benches shared the living space. In his kitchen an alloy con-rod hang on one wall, a tribute from Mercedes-Benz, a very mechanical part from the engine of the 300SLR that won the 1955 Mille Miglia. A massive, almost metre-long, Duesenberg crankshaft stood in a corner. There was one chair for a visitor, Jenks sat on the seat of one of the motor bikes. Two small caravans outside were literally overflowing with magazines and books. An old Mercedes sedan and a 2CV Citroen sat under trees.

One question from me set Jenks off on a series of priceless anecdotes and marvellous historic stories. One of my favourites concerned, who else but, Stirling Moss. Moss, attending the 1954 non-world championship F1 race (remember them?) on the 27.4km Pescara, Italy, road course, felt he needed to learn the circuit. So before official practice began he drove out in a Maserati A6G sports car to gain a better understanding of a magnificent if massively challenging track.

A small man, almost certainly dressed in his characteristic cords, with tiny spectacles and a long wispy beard, noticed the empty passenger seat and, summoning up all his courage, asked Moss if he might accompany him. Moss, slightly startled by the audacity of the near stranger, acceded to his wish and the two men set off with a flourish. One lap completed, the passenger, Jenks of course, his bright passionate eyes alight, asked, “Aren’t you going around again?”

Years later Moss admitted he’d been shocked by the outsider’s brashness and had thought, “I’ll frighten the shit out of him, the cheeky sod. Instead, I frightened myself, and bugger me if he didn’t want to do it again. He had to be mad. He actually enjoyed it.”

After some stirring performances that year (he set pole in Pescara, but retired the 250F Maser), Moss was chosen to join the mighty Mercedes-Benz team for the following season. Among the races in its program was the Mille Miglia, the 1000mile (1600km) road race for sports cars. Moss believed the only way to beat the Italians was to carry a co-driver who could act as navigator and who wouldn’t easily be frightened by racing speeds. He remembered the wildly enthusiastic little man who ridden beside him around Pescara. Who better to act as his partner?

On Christmas Day, 1954 Moss rang Jenkinson and asked if he would accompany him in the 300SLR on the 1955 Mille Miglia. Jenks, however, was already committed. On the Monday after the 1954 Italian Grand Prix he had discovered Mercedes testing something new. Snooping around the Monza circuit, he saw the American driver John Finch eyeing the first 3000SLR, the sports car version of Mercedes’ successful W196 Grand Prix racer and there for testing. Fitch knew Jenkinson had won the 1949 500cc world sidecar championship as a passenger for Eric Oliver and told him he was hoping to drive the Mercedes in the Mille Miglia. He also claimed to have devised a plan to beat the Italian drivers’ familiarity with the 1000-mile course.
“Would you be interested in logging every corner, every piece of road,” asked Fitch, “and devising a method of transmitting this knowledge to me?”

Jenkinson, enthralled by the idea, promised Fitch he would be his co-driver. But when the Mercedes team was announced, Fitch’s name wasn’t included. After Moss’s offer, Jenkinson rang the American and asked if he could take the idea and use it with Moss.

It’s history now that Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a time that can never be beaten, 20 minutes faster than any other car ever covered the distance from Brescia to Rome and back in perhaps the greatest virtuoso driving display in motor racing history. Jenkinson’s 4.7-metre long roll of paper instructions, mounted in a small alloy box with a small window, and delivered via hand signals, became Moss’s second set of eyes (Jenks let me hold the box with the paper roll. Silly isn’t it, but that gesture remains a magic moment in my career).
“I was always a kilometre ahead of Moss,” explained Jenkinson. “I could tell him what was coming before it came into view, so that there was nothing unexpected.”

“You always drove the Mille Miglia at eight-and-a-half tenths,” says DSJ, “with half a tenth in hand, half a tenth for emergencies and half a tenth for panic. Sitting with Moss, I was the first two halves, so he could drive at nine-and-a-half tenths. At one stage Castellotti’s Ferrari went past us at about 270km/h over a series of humps. I kept my hand straight ahead so Stirling kept his foot right down on the floor and we caught the Ferrari as it braked over the final hump, unsure of which was the last.”

Three months of practice went into producing the route notes that were to negate the Italian advantage. Before the race began, Jenks knew them word perfect for the first 350-miles. “I used to say it like a poem every night,” he remembered, “but I always fell asleep when I came to Pescara.”

When it was over and Moss had won Fitch - who’d ended up driving a 300SL in the race – came up to Jenkinson and said, “It worked, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” replied Jenks, “It worked perfectly.”

Jenkinson’s epic report of the Mille Miglia (Motor Sport, June 1955) is still as fresh and vivid today as it ever was. It exudes the enthusiasm of a man who never lost his love of the internal combustion engine, nor the excitement of watching firsthand the Golden Boy in his finest hour.

Jenkinson’s adventures as DSJ – he told me then the S was a fiction, but a few years later his nephew, designer Peter Stevens (McLaren F1) told me it was for Sargent - in Motor Sport in the 1950s and 1960s inspired a generation of motor racing enthusiasts. His published letters to WB captured the essence of motor racing and motoring and created a world for the reader in which there was little else but cars and racing. Jenkinson’s 356, in which he covered 560,000kms, was his home and his office as he followed the Grand Prix circus around Europe and sent his hand-written reports back to the magazine in London.

In the 1980s, with increased traffic and speed limits, Jenks eventually was forced to fly to the races. But the fervour remained in his writing and his life. “I’m not old enough for nostalgia”, he told me and I knew what he meant.
Jenks had his own heroes – the gods of grand prix racing as he calls them – intensely proclaimed after a lifetime spent watching the supreme form of motor racing. There were just five names: Moss, of course, Alberto Ascari, Jimmy Clark, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayton Senna. No Fangio? “Useless in sports cars,” was his verdict.

Jenks told me he merely wanted, “a cushy way to get to the races,” and said he stopped working in 1946. “Work’s something you do to get the money to spend on your hobby. That’s a dead loss. Why not work on your hobby?”
“If your work is organised by other people, you’re not your own master. I’ll do anything for my personal freedom. You know, ambition destroys your life. I wouldn’t like to be like that. I never set out to do anything but enjoy myself.”

I still wonder if this inspiring, often dogmatic man with the encyclopaedic brain, ever knew how much pleasure and enthusiasm his words conveyed to so many people through almost 50 years of writing. Sadly, Jenkinson suffered a series of strokes in 1996 and died on 29 November 1996. He was 75.

Protecting the future of our past

Back to content | Back to main menu