Tiff Needell is clad in a purple cashmere sweater, tall and slim, he takes his coffee black and is delightfully very chatty. Born in Havant he grew up in Weybridge, Surrey near the Brooklands race track but moved back to Hampshire thirty years ago and for the past fifteen years has lived in a big Victorian house near Stockbridge.
“My home is my favourite place here, it has 6000sq. feet more than our previous house along with a twelve-acre garden and was a bargain thanks to a main line railway link going through it – I have my own railway crossing!”
Also running through the land is a stretch of the abandoned Southampton to Salisbury canal. “I’ve worked hard on restoring it and I think it’s now the best-preserved section.”
The more we talk the more I realise that Tiff’s home could well be a metaphor for his life – the gently flowing steady water of the canal will certainly get you where you want to go eventually juxtaposed with the dynamic speed of the train rushing headlong to its destination. It’s a train Tiff still wants to be on.
‘I feel like I’m the ‘nearly made it man’, that will be on my head stone” Although he laughs there is dissatisfaction and frustration behind the smile.
There shouldn’t be dissatisfaction as Tiff has had a successful career dating back to the 1970’s when he regularly raced at Thruxton. He also had a long and successful career as a British racing car driver competing in a wide range of events across the spectrum of the sport, including Formula One and the gruelling Le Mans 24-hour race in which he finished third in1990. Tiff now works in the world of television and motor journalism and writes regular motoring columns for Modern Classics and Drive Tribe.
He first came to our screens in 1987 co-presenting the original Top Gear, then co-presenting Fifth Gear for Channel 5 from 2002. He is now presenting Lovecars on YouTube that is proving to have an ever increasing number of views. Tiff is a very popular personality on the after dinner speaking circuit and regularly plays golf at pro-am and charity events.
At Thruxton you can enjoy three high speed laps in a BMW driven by Tiff for £150. He is also a member of the Grand Prix Drivers Club exclusive to those who have raced at that level – Tiff qualified for the Belgium Grand Prix in 1980. It’s enough to keep most people busy but then Tiff is not most people.
“I don’t know why, I mean I never won a Grand Prix. but I’m always happy to play the stooge I suppose – the butt of people’s jokes on those occasions. I would like people to think I’ve achieved enough, I really want what they have – the money and the respect”.
It’s a conundrum that seems to weigh heavy on his mind and one that perhaps may not be solved. Does he take issue with the amount of money in Formula One?
“No not at all. Just think of the amount of Premiership footballers sitting on the bench all earning fantastic amounts then compare that to the Grand Prix grid – there’s very few drivers earning the big money.”
Talking of football, Tiff has a passion for the game.
“I love it. I’m a season ticket holder at Southampton FC, have been for years. I’m always in the stands with all the fans I just love the atmosphere and the banter- love a bit of banter! It’s great that my sons still come back for matches it’s a way to keep the family together.”
What was the best drive of his life?
“Without doubt the Le Mans 24 Hours, both the drivers and their cars have to be at the peak of their performance and it’s an event so steeped in history. But the Macau track near Hong Kong is pretty special and of course I love Thruxton”
What does Tiff drive at the moment?
“I’m an ambassador for BMW at some of their events and have a 540i Touring on loan while our family car that we own is a twelve-year-old BMW X5 – so my wife and I both drive BMWs! As is the way these days, they’re both automatics even though I actually prefer manuals – I like to be able to drive through the gears that’s the point of driving isn’t it.”
“The only other car I own is the Formula Ford Lotus 69F racing car that started my career and which I bought back five years ago some forty years after I sold it! I race it a couple of times a year in the Historic Championship and actually won a round at Thruxton where I had my very first race win in the same car way back in 1972!”
What next for Tiff Needell?
“I’m trying to develop plans for a short motor magazine television program, just a half hour slot once a week, but it’s a slow process!”
Slow maybe, but no doubt it will happen.
See Tiff on Lovecars – YouTube.