A Brief History
On July 29, 1973, British race car driver Roger Williamson met his death when his Formula 1 race car crashed at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Circuit in the Netherlands. The 25 year old 2 time British Formula 3 champion was trapped under his flipped car, not seriously hurt from the crash, but was burned to death as the car was engulfed in flames. We wrote about that crash in our July 29 article, “10 Famous Car Wrecks” and followed that article with “5 More Famous Car Wrecks.” Today we look at another 5 famous/infamous car crashes that you may find interesting.
1. Metallica tour bus, September 27, 1986.
While on tour in Europe in 1986, the iconic heavy metal rock band Metallica was riding in their tour bus in the evening, band members laying in their sleeping bunk. Bassist Cliff Burton, age 24, had won a card draw, pulling the Ace of Spades, to earn the coveted top bunk position while the bus wended its way through the Southern Swedish countryside in Kronoberg County. At 7 am the following morning while the band still lay in their bunks, the bus slid or ran off the road and flipped when it hit the grass, launching Burton from his bed and through a bus window. Unfortunately, the rolling over bus landed on Burton, killing him. The bus driver claimed he lost control on “black ice,” but this excuse was contested by band members who accused the driver of having fallen asleep at the wheel. No black ice was found anywhere on the roadway leading up to the accident site. Burton had been only 24 years old and was considered one of the great bass guitar players in rock and roll at the time. Despite the lack of ice and the fact that the temperature was above the freezing point, the driver was never charged criminally. Burton has been posthumously inducted into he Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
2. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, April 25, 2002.
Lopes, a pretty 30 year old singer with the girl group TLC, was on a mission of mercy in Honduras, a volunteer trip that she had taken before to help the poor people. Only a couple weeks before her fateful accident, Lopes was a passenger in a car involved in an accident that resulted in the death of a 10 year old Honduran boy who had stepped into the path of the van Lopes was riding in. Lisa personally cradled the dying child as they drove him to the closest hospital, and when the boy died Lisa paid his hospital bill and funeral expense. The fatal accident that took the life of Lopes came when the Mitsubishi Montero she was riding in swerved to avoid a suddenly stopped truck, and then had to immediately swerve back to avoid an oncoming car. The Montero rolled over, throwing Lopes from the car and killing her immediately when she landed on her head. Lopes was a 4 time Grammy winner and although she was not the lead singer for TLC, she was the creative leader and penned most of their songs, designed their costumes and was the only band member to record a solo album.
3. Jackson Pollock, August 11, 1956.
Famous for his bizarre paintings in the abstract expressionist “drip painting” style, Jackson Pollock was infamous for his volatile and reclusive personality, coupled with a long history of alcoholism. Considered a famous painter during his life, he has become even more famous and influential since his untimely death at the age of 44. On August 11, 1956, Pollock was driving near Springs, New York at the helm of his Oldsmobile with his friend Edith Metzger and his mistress, Ruth Kligman. The drunken Pollock ran off the road, killing himself and Metzger, though Kligman survived the wreck. Pollock’s widow, despite his infidelity, carefully nurtured his professional reputation after his death and kept his artistic legacy strong. The biographical film, Pollock, 2000, starring Ed Harris as Pollock, was a major success and earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Marcia Harden portraying Pollock’s wife and an Academy Award Nomination (for Best Actor) for Ed Harris who also directed the film. The book the film was based on, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
4. 24 hours of Le Mans Disaster, June 11, 1955.
The worst racing crash in the history of motor vehicle racing, this colossal wreck claimed the lives of a staggering 84 people (one driver and 83 spectators) and injured another 180. The terrible and gruesome accident unfolded when a Jaguar driven by Mike Hawthorn (of the United Kingdom) suddenly cut off an Austin-Healey driven by Lance Macklin (another British driver) when Hawthorne wanted to make a pit stop. Macklin had to swerve to avoid running into the Jaguar, unfortunately right into the path of an Elektron magnesium-alloy bodied Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh (a Frenchman, the last name pronounced Le Veck). The Mercedes ran right up and over the Austin-Healy, launching the Mercedes into the air and striking a dirt berm, ejecting Levegh from the car and sending large pieces of flaming car chunks into the stands. Levegh died instantly of a crushed skull when his head hit the ground, and his Mercedes Elektron rolled over repeatedly while it burst into flames and disintegrated. The race car had been traveling an estimated 125 mph at the time of impact. The largest pieces of the Mercedes, including the engine, plowed a path of carnage through the crowd for an awful 100 meters, the hood (bonnet to you British types) sliced through the crowd, neatly decapitating spectators! The magnesium metal used in the construction of the Elektron to lighten its weight became a liability when the lightweight metal ignited and burned fiercely. (You may know that magnesium is used to make flares.) Macklin’s car was heavily damaged and also wrecked, but only after it had run down a couple race officials, a photographer and a police officer. (Those persons lived, though seriously injured.) Macklin was not seriously injured. Analysis of the wreck concluded that Hawthorne had properly signaled his intent to make a pit stop, but that his car’s superior disc brakes allowed him to slow down much faster than Macklin’s race car. Mercedes-Benz ceased participating in auto racing after this terrible tragedy.
5. Massive Pile Ups, 2002, 2009, 2011.
Among the largest pile ups of large numbers of motor vehicles in the history of motor driving, these 3 incidents, each involving over 200 vehicles, resulted in an amazingly low death toll of only 1 person between all 3 wrecks! The first, on December 1, 2002 happened due to dense fog and heavily traveled highway on Interstate 710 in Los Angeles County, California. Despite the chain reaction pile up in the impenetrable fog of 216 cars, trucks and buses, no persons were killed and “only” 41 were reported injured. On July 19, 2009, perhaps the most famous of the enormous car smash ups of all time occurred on the German Autobahn A2 near Braunschweig in Lower Saxony when an astounding 259 vehicles were involved in a massive pile up, resulting, thankfully, in no deaths, although dozens were injured, including 10 victims injured critically. A driving, heavy rain was the culprit this time, reducing visibility and traction. The motor vehicle accident with the largest number of vehicles involved in automotive history was the wreck of 300 motor vehicles at Rodovia dos Imigrantes at São Paulo, Brazil on September 15, 2011. This incredible cluster gaggle of a wreck did result in one person being killed and another 49 victims injured. Caused by heavy fog in the densely populated (over 12 million people) city, we are astounded only one victim was claimed by the biggest wreck in history.
Question for students (and subscribers): As there is apparently no shortage of spectacular or infamous car wrecks, feel free to tell us which other car wrecks you would include on this list in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see.
Doeden, Matt. NASCAR’s Wildest Wrecks (NASCAR Racing). Capstone Press, 2005.
Gunnell, John. Crash!: Twisted Steel, Mangled Bumpers and Shattered Windshields from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Krause Publishing, 2006.
Herlocher, Rusty. Vintage Car Wrecks: Motoring Mishaps 1950-1979. Krause Pubns Inc, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, and Spaarnestad Photo of the scene of Williamson’s fatal accident as Gijs van Lennep passes, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.