Former Team Lotus driver John Miles has passed away Sunday morning aged 74.
The son of character actor Sir Bernard Miles, John Miles was a student of engineering who began his racing career in 1963. Nicknamed ‘Diva’, after the Ford-engined sportscar in which he achieved his early successes, Miles deceived his bespectacled and soft-spoken character by proving a formidable opponent on the British GT racing scene, where he won a number of championships driving the aforementioned Diva and later on a Lotus Elan. The latter machine in particular proved to be an iron boot with which Miles stomped on the opposition in the 1966 Autosport Championship, taking fifteen wins in a total of seventeen starts.
The level of success Miles achieved in the Elan would inevitably bring the attention of Colin Chapman, leading the then-23-year-old Miles into a more intimate relationship with the Lotus marque and to his becoming one of the first drivers to race in the now iconic Gold Leaf colours. More winner’s trophies would come in Miles’ possession behind the wheel of a works Lotus 41 in Formula Three and a Europa in GTs.
Although due a season of Formula Two racing with the semi-works Roy Winkelmann team as part of Lotus’ efforts in that category, Miles was fast-tracked to Formula One in 1969 as the main test driver for the four-wheel-drive Lotus 63, regular drivers Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt raising strong objections to the car’s handling and outright refusing to drive it. They were proven correct: in racing conditions, the 63 was uncompetitive in Miles’ hands – and in those of Mario Andretti on two occasions when the Italian-American legend drove it – and the erstwhile stubborn Chapman finally shelved the project. In spite of this, however, Miles found himself promoted to the position of number two driver alongside Rindt after Hill’s leg-breaking accident at Watkins Glen.
Miles began 1970 in an updated Lotus 49 and finished a rather modest fifth in the season-opening South African Grand Prix. Unfortunately, this would be the high point of his Grand Prix career: while Rindt proceeded to dominate in the revolutionary new Lotus 72, Miles managed no better than seventh in the remaining races. Things ultimately came to a head at the fateful Italian Grand Prix weekend, where Miles had a rather heated disagreement with Chapman regarding the latter’s decision to remove the wings from Miles’ car in an effort to reduce drag. Miles found the handling of the 72 to be very unstable in this condition but Chapman overruled him, and the wings stayed off. Miles ultimately didn’t race due to Rindt’s fatal accident and the Lotus team’s subsequent withdrawal.
That was the last time Miles drove for Lotus; like much of the rest of the team at the time, he was shaken by the death of the champion-in-waiting. Two weeks later he received a phone call from Lotus team manager Peter Warr, informing him that his place was to be taken from that point forward by Reine Wisell. “I was heartbroken at the time, but, in retrospect, Colin was probably right. The team needed fresh faces, not somebody whose confidence was at a low”, he later reflected.
Miles later found employment at BRM in 1971, though in the reduced role of test driver, with race outings in non-championship meetings at Brands Hatch and Hockenheim. He also returned to the local sportscar scene, where he returned to winning ways at the wheel of a Chevron B19.
Miles hung up the helmet and goggles in 1973 to take up a job writing for Autocar, where he put his driving knowledge to good use as a road tester, before returning to Lotus – this time in the road car division – where he contributed his engineering know-how for nearly two decades, even doing part-time work for the ailing F1 team in the early 1990s. Following his departure from Lotus, Miles did a three-year spell at Aston Martin, before he decided to wind things down. Among the designs Miles was involved with as an engineer were the Ford Focus, the Lotus Elan M100 and the Aston Martin Vanquish. Miles’ last job was as a consultant for Multimatic, where he spent much of the last fifteen years or so. Outside the automotive world, he was also the head of ‘Miles Music’, a jazz record label.
John Miles died as a result of complications following a minor stroke on April 8, the day after the 50th anniversary of fellow Lotus driver Jim Clark’s fatal F2 accident. Modest in all the ways one would never come to expect from a Grand Prix driver, Miles was a man of great intelligence with enviable talents as a sportscar racing driver, test driver and engineer.