It was November 1962, at London’s Heathrow airport. To the casual observer, the stern-eyed men loitering in the lounge were typical businessmen. They wore dark suits and bowler hats, were suitably mustachioed, and all carried tightly furled umbrellas and briefcases.
As the story goes, the security van pulled up to transfer over the sacks of payroll cash, and the businessmen suddenly revealed themselves to be members of a very different sort of firm. Lead coshes appeared from under the umbrellas. The men barked orders, made threats. The crew moved fast, they swept the loot into the boots of two Jaguars, and then they were gone in a flash.
At the wheel of one of the two Jags was perhaps the most notorious wheelman in history, Roy “The Weasel” James. This infamous getaway driver was also hot shoe on the race circuit, and he had exquisite taste—his weapons of choice were the Jaguar Mark I and Mark II.
In the early 1960s, traffic was considerably slower, and so were the police. Equipped with Hillmans and Zephyrs, the “plod” (as thieves often derisively called them) were often slow to catch up. When skilled hands were on the wheel of something like a MK II Jaguar, they often didn't catch up at all.
Probably the first proper sporting saloon, the Jaguar MK I was introduced in 1955, providing grace, space, and pace to all manner of toffs. Yes, it was a luxury car foremost, but the MK I and especially the later 3.8-liter-powered MK IIs were genuine performers. Even now, the later 210-horsepower straight-six, unibody construction, independent suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes provide performance capable of keeping up with modern traffic.
For choice, James preferred the MK I’s trickier to handle, nimbler chassis, and the revvy 3.4-liter straight-six. The rumor is that he lifted British F1 champion Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar from right outside The Steering Wheel Club, a favored haunt of racing drivers. Whether or not such is true, it is known that the Weasel would often tune up a stolen car for added power and handling—the better to evade the long arm of the law.
James hated the nickname he eventually earned, but it was an apt one. Born in 1935 in London, he survived the Blitz and had some success as a young athlete. However, like many of his compatriots, James began his criminal life with a little petty crime on the side. Blame black-and-white mob Hollywood movies, blame the poverty of post-war Britain, blame a natural youthful exuberance.
Regardless, James eventually appeared to put his nefarious ways behind him, venturing into silversmithing, where his nimble fingers found purpose. Being light-fingered around silver wasn't merely his outward profession. Somewhere along the line, the Weasel added mechanical proficiency to his resume. Boosting cars was all too easy, and his compact, wiry frame lent itself to occasional cat burglary.
The Weasel was a racing driver in his own right, too. He had a great deal of early success in karting, and built on it by moving into single-seaters. Some time not long after the Heathrow heist, he walked into Jack Brabham's office and arranged for the purchase of a BT6. As a two-time F1 champion, Brabham charged top dollar for his racing machines, but James was suspiciously flush with cash.
The stories that swirl around the Weasel during this point are legendary, and perhaps too good to be true. To support his racing habit, he is rumored to have broken into the garage of John Cooper (of Mini Cooper fame), stolen Cooper’s silver trophies and melted them down. He's also supposed to have swanned off to Monaco, and lifted a wealthy woman's jewelry after scaling a building.
What is known is that he had an excellent racing season in 1963, winning a total of 16 Formula Junior and Formula Libre races and posting 11 fastest laps. He even managed to beat F1 legend Jackie Stewart.
Sadly, his shadowy sideline derailed his promising racing career. Hired as a getaway driver for the infamous Great Train Robbery, James was eventually swept up by a wide-reaching investigation that collared some of the most notorious thieves in British history. The robbery of some £2.5 million remains the largest heist in the world, as the money was all taken in cash—any stolen art or valuable goods would have to pass through a fence for pennies on the dollar.
Eventually, a punitively long criminal sentence would be James' undoing. It is worth noting that he was ultimately identified through fingerprints on a saucer that he used to set out milk for the cats on the farm where the gang was hiding. Perhaps the Weasel wasn't all hardened criminal. And he continued racing during the investigation. Police showed up at one race with sirens blaring, only to discover that James had given them the slip, pulling out just ahead of the raid with his racecar still in tow.
After serving time, James raced again after F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone came knocking. Turning to his silversmithing skills, James created the F1 Promoter's Trophy, which was first presented in 1975. But trouble arrived once more, and James landed back in jail again in the 1990s. Eventually, he suffered heart trouble, and he died in 1997 at the age of 61 following heart surgery.
How much of the Roy James legend is true, and how much is juicy, criminal oral tradition? Hard to say. But it's easy to be lured in by the romance of it all: a hedge-lined back road in the south of the UK, coppers in hot pursuit, the song of a big-throated Jaguar straight-six at full chat. And a Weasel at the wheel.