Out from the shadows: Max Mosley’s rocky career thanks to fascist parents

It wasn’t the greatest start in life, being born in Britain during World War II with the surname Mosley.

As a child of Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana, Lady Mosley – two of the country’s most reviled fascists – Max Mosley was never able to fulfil his political ambitions later in life. But he didn’t let his background stop him wielding power in other fields.

He became one of the most powerful men in motorsport, lauded for his mission to improve safety not only on the track but also on the road. He was also credited with helping tighten the UK’s privacy laws, thanks to his own experience of making salacious tabloid headlines.

Mosley, who died last month aged 81, was a man of contradictions as well as many achievements. He garnered both respect and loathing and was often described as charming and intimidating in the same breath.

BBC chief Formula One correspondent Andrew Benson’s obituary described Mosley as having a “brilliant intellect and a devious, sometimes malicious mind” and suggested he would have been better suited to a career in politics.

In fact, Mosley had tried to become a Conservative Party candidate in the early 1980s, but found his surname counted against him. The war might have ended nearly four decades before, but his parents’ actions had not faded from people’s memories.

His father, a baronet, was a Conservative MP who switched to Labour. Eventually, in a complete about-face, he founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932. His extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic views aligned with those being expressed in Germany and Italy, and he set up a corps of paramilitary stewards, nicknamed Blackshirts because of their distinctive uniforms, who were frequently involved in violent confrontations at rallies and marches.

After his first wife’s death, Oswald wed his mistress, Diana Guinness, née Mitford. An aristocratic beauty, Diana was one of the six notorious Mitford sisters, who were the society darlings of their generation and the subjects of many headlines, thanks to their political leanings and well-connected men friends. A fervent fascist like her lover, Diana married Oswald at the Berlin home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler the guest of honour.

Within months of World War II breaking out, Oswald was imprisoned without trial for being a national security threat. Eleven weeks after giving birth to youngest son Max in April 1940, Diana was also locked up under the same emergency regulations. She allegedly stuffed a photo of Hitler under the mattress of her newborn son’s cot as the police arrived to arrest her.

The pair were jailed for three years, during which time Max and his brother Alexander lived mostly with an aunt, seeing their parents only a handful of times. Thanks to the intervention of family friend Winston Churchill, the Mosleys were allowed to live together at Holloway Prison for much of their internment. After being released, they were placed under house arrest until the end of the war. They moved to Ireland and later France.

Nazi links

Refused entrance to several UK schools because of his parents, Max spent two years at a German boarding school with Nazi links, learning to speak flawless German. He got a degree in physics from Oxford University, then switched direction and trained as a barrister.

In the late 1940s, his father had started another political party, the Union Movement, which was essentially a reimagining of the British Union of Fascists minus the black uniforms. This time, Caribbean immigrants were the main targets of his vitriol; he called for them to be forcibly sent home and for mixed marriages to be banned.

Mosley supported his father’s politics, debating the merits of fascism at the Oxford Union. He attended a neo-Nazism conference with his father in 1962 and was arrested for punching an anti-fascist demonstrator who had knocked Oswald over. The judge let him off after he argued that it was every son’s right to defend his father.

Mosley never condemned Oswald, who died in 1980. Instead, he praised him for caring about social injustice and extreme poverty. “He was, I think, very courageous,” he said in 2015.

Close friendship

By the mid-60s, Mosley was married to policeman’s daughter Jean Taylor, working as a barrister and indulging in an expensive hobby, motor racing. He got as far as Formula Two before accepting he wasn’t cut out for the big league.

“I didn’t have the talent to get to the very top,” he later admitted. “I was big enough to understand what racing was about and I’m very glad I did it, but there would have been no point going on.”

Instead, he moved to making racing cars. In 1969, he and three partners set up March Engineering in Oxfordshire, building F1 cars for the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart and Kiwi Chris Amon. The firm later diversified into other forms of motorsport, but by 1977 Mosley had departed, drawn to the executive side of the industry.

By then, he had developed a close friendship with Bernie Ecclestone, a former motorcycle spare-parts salesman from South London, who would go on to become chief executive of the Formula One Group, which manages F1 racing and controls the lucrative commercial rights to the sport.

After they were introduced at a meeting of F1 team owners, Mosley realised he had found a kindred spirit in Ecclestone, owner of the Brabham team (whose drivers included Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet). “After about half an hour, he moved around the table to sit next to me, and from then on, he and I started operating as a team,” Mosley would later recall.

Together, the fisherman’s son and the aristocratic former barrister would dominate motorsport for three decades and make Formula One the most wealthy and glamorous sporting franchise in the world.

Mosley joined Ecclestone and other team owners to form the Formula One Constructors’ Association (Foca), and after leaving March, became Foca’s legal adviser. One of his triumphs was helping Foca fight a bitter battle with the governing body, Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (Fisa), for control of Formula One. Eventually, an agreement masterminded by Mosley determined that Foca, later renamed F1, would hold the commercial rights with Fisa in charge of the rules.

Mosley went on to become the president of Fisa in 1991 and then its parent body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), two years later, giving him far-reaching powers. He was not only in charge of overseeing all worldwide motor sports but also general motoring issues such as road safety and environmental impact.

In 1994, he faced his biggest challenge after Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna was killed in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix. Broadcast live around the world, the accident came just 24 hours after Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger died in another smash while attempting to qualify for the race.

Mosley was harangued by just about every­one who had an interest in F1 – including world leaders – about the safety of the sport, and rose to the occasion by introducing a series of changes to cars, such as limiting engine sizes. He established a new approach that focused on making the safety of drivers, as well as spectators, paramount. Backed by Ecclestone and other senior FIA officials, Mosley made ongoing efforts to constantly improve safety standards, which changed the face of the sport.

Then he switched his attention from the track to the road. He pushed for the introduction of a car-crash testing programme that required vehicle manufacturers to meet minimum safety standards. Over the years, his European New Car Assessment Programme has helped reduce the number of deaths in road accidents.

Saving lives on the road

Trying to get the road toll down was a no-brainer, said Mosley at the time. “Motor­sport is important, particularly from the safety point of view, but you can work all you like in F1 and rallies and so on, and maybe you will save one life every year.

“On the roads, 3000 people are dying worldwide. Every day. The FIA president is in a better position to do something about that than anyone. If you could make even a tenth of 1 per cent difference, three people every day – not one person a year – that should be the least you do.”

But while he was saving lives on the road, he was also getting backs up among the F1 teams with what they saw as his authoritarian approach. He used what were described in some quarters as “Machiavellian techniques” to instigate changes that the racing teams disagreed with. They were livid when he used his position to take the TV rights to the sport away from Foca and lease them for 100 years to his friend Ecclestone, who paid what was considered to be a paltry sum of $515 million (US$360m) for them.

Under Ecclestone, the sport gained a huge global audience, generating billions of dollars. Mosley denied he had conspired with Ecclestone to share the spoils from the deal, saying, “I’ve never worked for Bernie and I’m not in any sense under his influence.”

But McLaren team owner Ron Dennis saw the transfer of the commercial rights to Ecclestone as tantamount to theft and became involved in a bitter court battle over it with Mosley. The FIA boss won, and served up his revenge against Dennis and McLaren over a decade later after McLaren’s chief designer was found with confidential Ferrari technical information in his possession.

The FIA, led by Mosley, penalised McLaren for “illicitly collecting and holding information” from Ferrari, imposing a record fine of $145m (US$100m), one of the largest in sporting history. Mosley was apparently heard to say, “Five million dollars for the offence, $135 (US$95m) for Ron being a twat.”

The years did not soften Mosley and throughout the 2000s, his management style was seen as increasingly antagonistic and ruthless. The final straw came when he tried to introduce a budget cap to the sport in 2009. The major teams and car manufacturers had had enough; he was told not to seek another term as president when his expired that year, or they’d join forces to set up a rival championship. It brought an epic career to an end, but by then, the 69-year-old had more pressing matters to deal with.

Sex shame

The year before, the tabloid News of the World had run a story about him headlined “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with hookers”. The subhead proclaimed, “Son of Hitler-loving fascist in sex shame”.

The newspaper had obtained secret footage, filmed by one of the women, of him engaging in sadomasochistic sex with five prostitutes in a London flat, and claimed Mosley dressed as a Nazi guard, with the sex workers pretending to be concentration-camp victims.

Despite an outcry from motoring manufacturers and racing teams, who were quick to express their disgust, he held on to his FIA job. But rather than hoping the scandal would blow over and that people would forget about his fondness for being spanked by a German-speaking dominatrix, a furious Mosley came out swinging and successfully sued the News of the World for invasion of privacy. He had taken part in a “perfectly harmless activity”, he argued, that “no grown-up person gives the slightest damn about”.
“So long as it is adults, it is consensual, it is private and, as they say, you don’t frighten the horses, then nobody cares.”

And there were no Nazi connotations, he insisted. “All my life I have had hanging over me my antecedents, my parents, and the last thing I want to do in some sexual context is be reminded of it,” he told the court.

He was awarded $170,000 (US$$120,000) damages and $1.3m (US$900,000) in legal costs, but was not placated.

Mosley then brought a case against the UK’s privacy laws in the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to force news­papers to warn people before exposing their private lives, so the subjects of the stories had time to seek an injunction. The case was rejected, with the judge saying that would undermine investigative journalism. Mosley also took Google in France and Germany to court to prevent searches from linking to images from the sex-party video. This time, the courts ruled in his favour.

When it was revealed the News of the World had been obtaining stories by hacking people’s phones, Mosley threw his support and a large chunk of money behind the Hacked Off campaign – also championed by the likes of Hugh Grant – to help out those who considered themselves victims of newspaper intrusion. And in the wake of the official Leveson Inquiry into hacking, he used more of his fortune to fund Impress, a media regulator.

Apologies pointless

But he wasn’t done. In 2018, Mosley threatened to sue Britain’s three biggest newspaper groups for continuing to refer to the orgy, claiming they were in breach of the Data Protection Act. The private event was not in the public interest, he maintained. (He would later tell a journalist that he had been attending similar “private events” for 45 years, unbeknown to his wife.)

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, had dug into his past and unearthed a 1961 election leaflet distributed on behalf of a candidate for his father’s Union Movement political party. Listing Max Mosley as the publisher, the leaflet claimed migrants were responsible for spreading venereal disease, tuberculosis and leprosy, and that “coloured immigration threatens your children’s health”.

Mosley’s first reaction was to deny in a TV interview that it was real; then he wouldn’t agree the contents were racist. He told the Guardian he was surprised he’d had anything to do with the leaflet, but then admitted he supported repatriation because he believed it was “perfectly legitimate to offer immigrants financial inducements to go home”.

When asked if it was appropriate to apologise for his past, his response was, “Who do you apologise to? If there was a West Indian immigrant here in this room who said to me, ‘That really upset me’, I would apologise to them profusely. Because that is the individual. But apologising to the world at large seems to be kind of pointless.”

Relentless crusade

In recent years, Mosley had been assisting film-maker Michael Shevloff with a documentary about his life. Simply titled Mosley, it screened at the Manchester Film Festival in March 2020, but the cinematic release has been held back until next month.

Originally intended to focus on the safety changes introduced after the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger, the film morphed into “something more about me”, said Mosley last year. He seemed untroubled that it includes the News of the World story, considering his relentless crusade to get newspapers to stop mentioning the orgy. He also didn’t seem to mind the focus on his family background.

“Someone asked, ‘Does it include Hitler being a guest at his parents’ wedding?’ The answer is, yes, it does. It is a warts-and-all-thing, and that probably makes it more interesting to third parties. There are one or two elements in it that, if I were in charge, I would cut out. But then it would take away the whole point of it – it needs to be independent.”

Mosley had been ill with cancer for some time before he died on May 23, according to Ecclestone. His longtime friend said he felt like he had lost a brother and the world had lost a man who had done a lot of good things.

Ecclestone had previously said it was a shame Mosley never got to use his intellect and drive as an elected government official. Not long after the News of the World scandal broke, he said his pal would have made a great prime minister.

“Max would do a super job. He’s a good leader,” said Ecclestone, adding, “I don’t think his background would be a problem.”

But Mosley begged to differ. He once said, “If I had a completely open choice in my life, I would have chosen party politics, but because of my name, that’s impossible.”

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