He was a driver, a designer, a doer and a dreamer but most of all Morris Nunn was one of those delightful characters who went down his own path and left a legacy in auto racing the likes of which that may never be seen again.
Nunn, who died Wednesday morning in his home in Tucson at age 79 from Parkinson’s Disease, became a mainstay in Formula 1 as a privateer and then headed to America to engineer Indy 500 winners and CART champions before starting his own IndyCar team.
“Morris was a quiet genius with no formal training except what he learned behind the wheel as a racing driver,” said Derek Daly, who drove for Nunn’s F1 team in 1978-79 before coming to America himself in 1982. “And I doubt anybody ever went as far as he did with no formal training and gained so much respect from so many people. He was one of a kind.”
Nunn was one of the most pragmatic and think-on-your-feet racers of any generation and he yet never even thought about race cars until his was 24 years old.
“I saw a Cooper Climax in the window one day,” recalled Nunn in a feature interview we did in RACER in 2000. “I had never been to a race and had never thought about racing until I saw that car and I bought it for 850 pounds and joined the British Racing and Sports Car Club.
“I got lapped three times in my first race at Mallory Park but you could rent Silverstone for $17 a day back then, so I practiced and practiced and started getting the hang of it.
“I won some Formula Libre races and then I bought a Formula 3 car – winning the prestigious Daily Express race in front of the F1 crowd. Colin Chapman signed me to drive his Lotus F3 car in 1969 and I figured I was on my way.”
Even though the native of Walsall, England (130 miles north of London) captured the final race of 1969 for Chapman and beat James Hunt, Francois Cevert and Piers Courage in the process, there was no F1 seat for him.
“I was 32 and Colin had this 22-year-old Brazilian named (Emerson) Fittipaldi lined up for 1970,” he said. “I set track records everywhere I went but I was too far down the road so I decided maybe I should start building cars.”
They were no computers, aerodynamicists, wind tunnels or 7-post shaker rigs back then and Nunn drew out his first Formula 3 car with a piece of chalk on the floor of his garage. He named it “Ensign” for the British naval flag and it broke the track record in its Brands Hatch debut before winning going away in its second outing.
“My phone started ringing off the hook and we built 33 cars in 1971 with only four people,” continued Nunn. “Then I got hooked up with Ricky Von Opel and we decided to go F1 racing in 1973.”
During the next eight years he had Daly, Chris Amon, Clay Regazzoni and Roberto Guerrero driving his homemade Ensigns and gave future F1 champ Nelson Piquet his first ride but his shoestring operation was constantly in financial peril.
“He was called ‘No Munn’ because he never had any money and instead of paying me a salary he just gave me the grand prix car I’d raced that year,” recalls Daly with a chuckle. “I left it in his shop and when I went back to get it the next year, he’d sold it so he could afford to go to Monaco.
“I couldn’t get mad — he was a racer and he gave me my chance in F1. And the best thing I ever did for him was finish sixth in the Canadian Grand Prix in 1978. That point made him eligible for all the traveling money the next year and kept him going. We had a helluva party that night.”