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Getaway Car of the 1963 Great Train Robbery in the UK Stolen

Posted on October 30, 2017

On August 8, 1963, a crew of 15 men attacked a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London to steal over NZ$4.8 million (equivalent to NZ$91 million today) in what remains to this day the most famous theft ever in the UK. A very sophisticated plan involving inside help, tampering with track signals and perfect timing, the thieves forced the train to stop and proceeded to transfer 120 sacks full of money to their truck in less than 20 minutes by forming a human chain. They got away with Land Rovers and a car which acquired instant notoriety, a 1962 Brabham BT2.

Although the most difficult part of the plan was executed flawlessly, the gang members became careless in following through, which led to them being arrested and serving lengthy sentences in prison. The money, which consisted of £1 and £5 notes en route to London for destruction by the Bank of England, was largely untraceable and very little of it was ever recovered so, when the Brabham arrived in New Zealand and Customs officials realised they were in presence of the infamous car, they insisted on it being completely stripped and having the ends of the chassis tubes cut off in case there were bank notes hidden inside! Sadly, there weren't, and what happened to the bulk of the money remains a mystery.

This daring raid fired imagination as vividly as Bonnie and Clyde had, and inspired books, movies, a number of enduring myths and lent the Brabham and its driver, Roy James, legendary status.

Also known as ‘The Weasel’, James had been fascinated by racing sports and cars from a very young age. He was involved in petty crimes and stealing cars and funded his entries to races by illegal means, landing him in prison for short spells.

In 1962, he bought the Formula Junior Brabham BT2, his first racing car, from New Zealander Dennis Hulme who had not only won the Brands Hatch meeting on Boxing day with it that year but also set a lap record. Formula Junior cars were the equivalent of today's F3s and were basically scaled down F1 cars from 1958 to 1963. They were called 'Junior' as opposed to F1 cars which were 'Senior'. It is interesting to note that James paid for it with suitcases full of cash - hardy suspicious..!

Although James crashed in his first two races, he very clearly had natural talent as, despite competing against semi-professionals, he won 8 out of the 14 races he took part in in 1963. He even won a final race 10 days after the robbery.

He was arrested in winter a few months after the train attack, attempting to flee on a rooftop wearing only his underwear in freezing temperatures, a suitcase full of cash in hand. His lawyer tried to argue that there was a perfectly innocent explanation for it but the jury, unsurprisingly, didn't buy it and Roy James was sentenced to 30 years in prison, although he was actually released in 1976. He then tried to return to the racing world but, sadly, he seemed to have lost his fire as he never regained his former glory.

The Brabham made its way back to our part of the world through supremely succcessful Formula 5000 driver Graham McRae, and was later acquired by its current owner, John Rapley, in the 1980s who has also been competed in races with it regularly since then.

It is now a sad day for Mr Rapley as his car was stolen from his property in Paraparaumu Beach, north of Wellington. He had been storing it in a modified caravan, which thieves stole probably not knowing what was inside it. He didn't immediately realise the disparition of the caravan as it wasn't visible from his house, and all he found when he did was a cut chain hanging from the fence and tyre marks on the ground.

The racing community has been feeling the loss too, as the value of this car comes from its interesting background story as much as its monetary worth. Its owner estimates it to be around $100,000, but given that there are only a handful of Brabhams in New Zealand, and his may be the only Brabham BT2, it would be impossible for thieves to resell it as it would immediately be identified as his stolen car.

This theft is all the more frustrating as it is likely that the perpetrators were after the caravan in the first place, not realising that the Brabham was inside and not understanding its historic value. Mr Rapley's greatest worry is that the thieves would take the Brabham apart to sell it as spare parts and thus destroy it. He has appealed to them to drop the car 'somewhere' anonymously, no questions asked.

The police investigation is still ongoing, but the rarity of these classic cars can protect them as they are indeed difficult to sell on. In 2014, for example, a Rennmax racing car was stolen from Melbourne's suburb. Driven by Australian F1 champion Jack Brabham in 1967, it was worth NZ$350,000 but was priceless to its owner. On Christmas day, a passer-by saw it in Belgrave South and called the police. It was clear that some of the bodywork had been removed and it looked like the thieves were in the process of removing the engine but the owner was confident that the damage could be repaired and the car made as good as new.

Since the Brabham was stolen, many websites and organisations have circulated the news in New Zealand and overseas, including the Australian Historic Motoring Federation and MSN, hoping that such publicity will make it imposible for the thieves to sell the car and force them to abandon it.

If you are looking for a trustworthy, experienced shipping company to transport your car, contact us on 64 9 309 163 or request a quote online.

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