Profile: Leslie Marr

Nationality British
Date of Birth 14th August 1922
Car Connaught (1954-55)
Races Entered 2
Races Started 2
Best Result 13th (GB 1954)

Driving is an art form. At least that’s what the common metaphor claims. Graham Hill claimed to be an artist, the track serving as his canvas. Garth Stein’s 2008 best-selling novel ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ cemented this turn of phrase in public consciousness, and it has become something of a cliché in motor racing circles. However, nestled within the obscure corners of the pantheons of gentleman drivers from the 1950s, there was a man who did not just dabble in the ‘art’ of racing. For Leslie Marr, art – specifically painting – was a full-time passion. All allegories aside, there is little in common between the fine arts and motor racing, so how did Marr end up connecting the two?

Early life

Born to a wealthy shipbuilding family in Durham on August 14th 1922, Sir Leslie Lynn Marr had the privileged upbringing one would expect from such a sentence opener. Leslie was raised in Aykley Heads House surrounded by staff reminiscent of an episode of Downton Abbey. His grandfather had been granted a baronetcy for his shipbuilding empire. Leslie’s father John died unexpectedly of pneumonia when Leslie was nine years old, so when Leslie’s grandfather passed away a year later, Leslie inherited the baronetcy.

Leslie was given exemption while at university, but joined the RAF upon graduation.

Leslie was given exemption while at university, but joined the RAF upon graduation.

Groomed from a young age to take over the family business, he was educated away from home, first in Cumbria, then at Shrewsbury School. Encouraged by his uncle, he studied engineering, first at Durham University, then graduating from Pembroke College, Cambridge at the age of 20. Immediately upon graduating, Leslie joined the Royal Air Force as a radar operator, putting his engineering degree to good use. Leslie shared his time in World War II between naval and air bases in Britain and the Middle East, where he spent his off time building sports fields and a bar area for particularly thirsty soldiers.

It was while serving that Leslie discovered an affinity and a talent for fine arts. Picking up paint and brushes in Alexandria, he began to paint self-portraits using a small shaving mirror. Upon the War’s conclusion, he established himself in London and was introduced to the bohemian lifestyle of Soho. He soon met his future wife Dinora Mendelson, the stepdaughter of painter David Bomberg. Inspired by the meeting and keen to develop his painting skills, Leslie joined Borough Polytechnic to study painting under Bomberg.

One of Leslie's earliest self portraits, dated to 1946.

One of Leslie’s earliest self portraits, dated to 1946.

Bomberg’s controversial ideas were the foundation of the Borough Group, of which Leslie was a founding member. Leslie had bought a bookshop in Soho and used it to exhibit the Group’s paintings, while he used his inheritance to finance Bomberg’s personal projects. After a 1948 family trip to Cyprus with Bomberg, relations became tense over Bomberg’s arrogance and unconventional methods as well as his growing financial dependence on Leslie. In 1949, Leslie had had enough, and he left the Group, divorcing Dinora soon thereafter.

While he had a financial safety net in case he fell upon hard times, Leslie remained in London, living in a run-down studio in Hampstead. Without the framework of the Borough Group around him, Leslie painted in his spare time, living off the profits of his Soho bookshop. He now owned an Aston Martin International, and while living the single life, Leslie discovered that he rather liked to drive it fast.

Before Formula 1

Falling out of love with painting, Leslie began to explore his affinity for fast cars. In 1950, he joined the Aston Martin Owners’ Club, soon entering local club events in his International. Recruiting his usual mechanic Derrick Edwards, the pair set up Écurie Oppidans, mostly competing in small meetings around London. In 1951, the Aston Martin Owners’ Club awarded Leslie the President’s Cup, given to the best season-long performance for engines under 1.5 litres.

Leslie (left) battling Ken Wharton in one of his first outings with the Connaught A-Type.

Leslie (left) battling Ken Wharton in one of his first outings with the Connaught A-Type.

By 1952, Leslie was taking racing more seriously. Attending a club meeting at Boreham Wood, he took note of a Formula 2 race and was impressed by the engineering prowess behind the Connaught A-Type. The Connaught management was equally impressed with Leslie’s driving skills and told him that Mike Hawthorn’s father was selling his A-Type to switch to a Cooper. Leslie purchased chassis A5 for the low price of £1800 – roughly £50,000 in 2017 money. Leslie also threw in an extra £300 to convert a single-deck London bus into a transporter, earning extra cash by plastering a Dunlop advertisement along the side.

Leslie’s first outing with the Connaught was at Snetterton, but his first practice attempt ended in the grass at the end of a long straight, knocking down a small tree in the process. Progress was difficult, but he nonetheless finished third in the invitational Formula Libre race, encouraging him to enter more prestigious events.

A week later, he competed in the Madgwick Cup in Goodwood. Leslie started the 7-lap race from 18th position and finished 10th. In October, Leslie retired from the Joe Fry Memorial Trophy, before ending his season with a collision with John Webb at Silverstone.

Leslie (right) leads John Barber at Crystal Palace in 1953. Later that day, Leslie had the heaviest accident of his career.

Leslie (right) leads John Barber at Crystal Palace in 1953. Later that day, Leslie had the heaviest accident of his career.

Repairing the car over the winter, Leslie geared up for a more ambitious 1953 season, mostly consisting of Formula Libre races around Southern England. On May 25th, he competed in the Coronation Trophy, the first post-War race held at Crystal Palace. With BBC cameras watching, Leslie’s mother watched the race from home, and saw her son experience the biggest accident of his career. On the second lap, Leslie hit a small barrier on the inside of the track and was sent spinning into some nearby woods.

Leslie and Derrick Edwards worked tirelessly to fix the car for the next race in Snetterton just five days later. The long repair sessions paid off, and Leslie properly started his season with fourth place.

Getting used to the faster machinery, he recorded several podium finishes at Snetterton throughout the summer including the Formula 2 US Air Force Trophy. He also won three Formula Libre races – his first career victories against serious opposition – first in Snetterton, then in Silverstone where he faced off rather spiritedly with Rodney Nuckey.

To these successes, he added encouraging results in more important races, finishing seventh in the Madgwick Cup and fourth in the Fry Trophy. At the Wakefield Trophy around the tricky Curragh circuit, Leslie scored pole position, almost beating Stirling Moss’ absolute track record. Leslie had established himself as a reputable hand on the British scene.

Formula 1

It can be construed as ironic that while Leslie Marr owned a Formula 2 car for most of the period when the World Championship was run to F2 regulations, he never entered a championship race in 1952 or 1953. This didn’t stop him from entering the same events in 1954, most of which now included Formula 1 entries.

Leslie’s season started with a good showing at Goodwood, including third place in the Formula Libre Glover Trophy and fifth in the Lavant Cup. At the prestigious International Trophy in Silverstone, he finished a respectable 11th out of 17 finishers.

Results-wise, Leslie’s season highlight came at the first event held at Davidstow, a small, decrepit and foggy RAF base in Cornwall. Two races were held, one to F1 rules, the other to F2 rules. Because the event required going all the way to, well, Cornwall, no Formula 1 cars appeared, but the organisers maintained both races as distinct events. Both had the same length and the same field. So much for British common sense! Both races were won by John Riseley-Prichard, with Leslie finishing second in the designated Formula 2 event.

Leslie gets lapped by the Maserati of Onofre Marimón on his way to his only championship finish.

Leslie gets lapped by the Maserati of Onofre Marimón on his way to his only championship finish.

The following month, Leslie made his World Championship début. One of 32 entrants present at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, Leslie had no hope of troubling the F1 entries with his F2 car. Even the top F2 driver in qualifying, Don Beauman, was two seconds slower than Harry Schell in the slowest F1 car. Leslie qualified 22nd, sixth of the F2 cars.

The 90-lap race was tough on the British contingent. Leslie set about simply finishing the race, and managed to spend most of it ahead of Leslie Thorne, Bill Whitehouse and Horace Gould. Leslie reached the finish in 13th place, eight laps down on José Froilán González, but four laps ahead of Thorne and 38 ahead of the ailing Gould. Leslie was third of the F2 entries, behind Beauman and Bob Gerard.

Several weeks later, Leslie finished seventh in the Gold Cup at Oulton Park, also coming home third in the Formula Libre event held the same weekend. Leslie was establishing a reputation as a fast qualifier, with top-five performances at the Gold Cup and the season-ending Madgwick Cup.

Leslie follows Peter Hughes during the Woodcote Cup, a Formula Libre race in Goodwood.

Leslie follows Peter Hughes during the Woodcote Cup, a Formula Libre race in Goodwood.

In 1954, Leslie turned his hand to acting, appearing in the feature film ‘Mask of Dust’, about a racing driver caught in a stereotypical love triangle between his wife and his love of racing. Showing off his acting chops, Leslie had a brief cameo as himself, alongside luminaries such as Stirling Moss, Reg Parnell, John Cooper, Alan Brown and Geoffrey Taylor.

By 1955, the A-Type was showing its age, and Leslie decided to buy a new car. Smitten by Connaught’s engineering, he purchased a brand-new B-Type. Convinced by designer Rodney Clarke, he paid £4000 for the streamliner version. Leslie soon found that being unable to see the wheels made him uncomfortable with the car’s handling, but it was too late, and he soldiered on.

Construction and delivery were delayed, but Leslie finally received the car in time for another meeting at Davidstow. The meeting was supposedly a Formula 1 race, but only six cars appeared, and Leslie’s B-Type was the only F1 car. He easily trampled the opposition, giving the streamlined car victory at its first race. The win gave Connaught the boost in morale to continue producing it.

Leslie’s racing calendar was less full than in previous years, largely because of the safety scare provoked by the Le Mans disaster. Many events were canceled, with the notable exception of the British Grand Prix, held for the first time at Aintree.

Leslie drives the Connaught B-Type around Aintree during the British Grand Prix.

Leslie drives the Connaught B-Type around Aintree during the British Grand Prix.

Leslie qualified in 19th position out of 25 participants, 11.2 seconds behind Moss, and 5 seconds behind Tony Rolt in the fastest Connaught. Leslie’s start was decidedly suboptimal, stalling the Alta engine on the grid, but soon he had passed Kenneth McAlpine and Mike Sparken. After 15 laps, Leslie was running in a solid 13th position, but a faulty brake duct sent him into a spin on the 19th lap. The engine stalled again, and Leslie’s race was over. This would be his last World Championship appearance.

After Formula 1

With a dearth of events to enter and decreasing motivation, Leslie’s schedule became markedly less crowded. He finished fifth and last in the Daily Record Trophy in Charterhall in August, then retired from the Gold Cup at Oulton Park where he outpaced the works Ferraris of Peter Collins and Alfonso de Portago in qualifying.

The B-Type was a rare example of a closed-wheel F1 car.

The B-Type was a rare example of a closed-wheel F1 car.

Leslie then entered some time trial events, such as Tempsford, Brighton and Shelsley Walsh, but while he enjoyed these experiences, he did not choose to pursue them further.

On the lookout for new opportunities, Leslie was intrigued by the opportunity to race in New Zealand. Late in the year, Leslie received an offer to compete in local Kiwi events with the streamlined B-Type, with all travel expenses paid by the organisers. Leslie immediately accepted the offer to race outside Britain for the first time, and Connaught removed the Alta engine to replace it with a more powerful and reliable Jaguar D-Type 3.4-litre engine.

Leslie’s first New Zealand escapade nearly didn’t happen, as the British cars were shipped to Wellington instead of Auckland, near where the race would be taking place. Derrick Edwards was sent to retrieve the car which was held up by a dock workers’ strike, and after bribing the workers and threatening to throw the foreman into the harbour, he and Leslie were able to fly the Connaught to Ardmore for the race.

The organisers offered to pay for the emergency shipping to Auckland, but they got cold feet once the car arrived. Leslie attempted to confront them at a later meeting, but made the rookie mistake of notifying them first. This gave them the opportunity to secretly reschedule the meeting, and Leslie never got his money back.

The car only reached the paddock for the New Zealand Grand Prix the evening before the race, leaving Leslie 20th on the grid without practice or a prepared car. Nonetheless, he was racing against shoddy locally-built cars and finished the race in fourth place. Leslie followed this with a convincing third place at the Lady Wigram Trophy near Christchurch.

Leslie, now powered by a Jaguar engine, drives to third place at the 1956 Wigram Trophy.

Leslie, now powered by a Jaguar engine, drives to third place at the 1956 Wigram Trophy.

The second half of Leslie’s New Zealand trip was markedly worse. The Dunedin Road Race was his third event, but to his horror, he found that a portion of the circuit wasn’t paved. Unwilling to go through all the maintenance associated with dirt roads, Leslie phoned in a qualifying time then withdrew from the race after a single lap.

The Southland Road Race, held at Ryal Bush near Invercargill, went rather better. Leslie qualified in second place between Peter Whitehead and Tony Gaze, though Leslie maintains he was on pole position. On the first lap, he was hit in the face by a stone kicked up by Whitehead’s Ferrari. Incensed by this, he made an impetuous attempt for the lead at the following corner, but only succeeded in reversing the Connaught into a ditch. Left to watch the race holding a beer from the bucket of a mechanical digger, Leslie decided to call a day on his antipodean escapades.

Returning to Britain, Connaught told him that he would have to pay £1000 for a new engine. Faced with the prospects of sinking more money into a hobby that he now realised could kill him, Leslie instead decided to sell the B-Type back to Connaught for the original £4000.

“I’m pleased I didn’t [win that race],” said Marr in a 2009 interview with Motorsport Magazine. “I was serious about racing, but the idea was to have fun. I’d wanted to see how far I could go, and realised after New Zealand that I wasn’t going to get any better. I still had some money left; I was still in one piece…”

After motorsport

Retiring from racing at the age of 33, Leslie returned to London and turned to a new hobby: filmmaking. He began recording local racing events, such as an Aston Martin Owners’ Club meeting, then went on to produce an amateur documentary on traditional life in Lapland.

Worldwide Pictures were impressed by the film, and asked Leslie to produce a documentary on behalf of Unilever on the gripping topic of detergents. The resulting film didn’t quite clean house at the Yugoslav Documentary and Short Film Festival in Belgrade, but nonetheless won the award for Best Documentary  much to Leslie’s amusement. He later wrote in the Shropshire Star: “I could only think that it must have been the only entry.”

Leslie (left) exhibits a painting.

Leslie (left) exhibits a painting.

Offered a contract to produce equally-thrilling documentaries on essential oils, fats, soap and ground nuts, Leslie was told he had a future as a scientific documentary filmmaker. Leslie himself had a different opinion. Having renewed his interest in painting, Leslie left his job and devoted himself to his first love.

Leslie sold his bookshop and embarked upon various journeys over the following years. In the early 1960s, he moved back to London, and in 1962 he remarried. He then moved to Devon – where he taught at Barnstaple Polytechnic – before settling in Norfolk with his wife Lynn and two daughters, Joanne and Rebecca and teaching at the University of East Anglia.

He then moved to the Isle of Arran in the 1980s, but returned to Norfolk again, splitting with his second wife. Leslie remained a professional artist well into his nineties, recognised for his intense style combining a forceful technique and striking colours. Leslie Marr now resides in Norfolk with his third wife, Maureen, whom he married in 2002. Aged 95, he is the second-oldest living Grand Prix driver behind Kenneth McAlpine.

Leslie still paints today, including this landscape of Corndon in Shropshire, dated to 2016.

Leslie still paints today, including this landscape of Corndon in Shropshire, dated to 2016.

Leslie himself considers himself above all an artist. Interviewed by the British Library a few years ago, he explored his life’s achievements for several hours. His racing career was only discussed for 15 minutes. An apt metaphor for a brief foray into motorsport nestled within a long and rich life as a painter.