Denny Hulme was born on June 18, 1936 in Motueka, on the South Island of New Zealand. His father Clive was a World War II hero who won the Victoria Cross for bravery as a sniper during the bloody battle on the island of Crete. His family had a tobacco farm as well as trucking business. Denny learned to drive a truck while hauling sand and sitting on his father's lap. By the age of six was driving solo around the farm. As a youngster he preferred trout fishing, hunting or working on his father's trucks, learning the intricacies of diesel motors. At 17 he left school when his father became temporarily incapacitated due to a workplace injury and Hulme became a full-time driver and mechanic, hauling sheep and other cargo over long distances on New Zealand's winding roads. If that wasn't enough, Hulme also started working in a local garage repairing both road and farm vehicles. Hulme would never forget the value of hard work.
Hulme's first competitions were in driving skill tests and local races, in an MGTF and later in a MGA bought in partnership with his father. In 1959 his father helped his son purchase a F2 Cooper, which Denny prepared and raced - in his bare feet, because he thought it gave him a better feel for the pedals. He did well enough to become joint winner, with George Lawton, of New Zealand's Driver To Europe scholarship in 1960 that was supposed to fund a season racing abroad but according to some little more than a one way ticket to the continent. Hulme and Lawton based themselves in London, where fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren, then making a name for himself in Formula One racing, helped them get settled.
Their European debut year ended in disaster. In Denmark, Lawton crashed in a race at Roskilde and died. Denny was devastated but stoically pressed on, just as he would in 1970 when tragedy struck again.
Before Lawton was killed he had been offered a ride in one of Ken Gregory's Yeoman Coopers for a non-championship race at Snetterton which was now offered to Hulme. He would finish 5th in a race won by Innes Ireland. His Formula 1 debut coming seven days after the death of his friend. Hulme would continue on racing, towing his car around Europe in company with his New Zealand girlfriend Greeta, a nurse who would later become his wife and the mother of their two children.
Money was always short and to finance his racing Denny got a job first at Cooper and then later as a mechanic with Jack Brabham, who also gave him drives in his Brabham sportscars and single seaters. In 1963 Denny won seven Formula Junior races and the next year ably backed up his boss as Brabham dominated the F2 series. Their Formula One partnership began in 1965 and when Brabham won the 1966 driving title his New Zealand team mate made it to the podium four times and finished fourth overall.
The 1967 Brabham-Repcos were not the fastest cars, but they were reliable and consistent, as were their drivers.
The Down Under duo also shared a serious work ethic and a tendency not to waste words, as was noted by fellow New Zealander, Chris Amon. "Jack and Denny didn't talk much at the best of times," said Amon (then driving for Ferrari). "But in 1967 what used to be extraordinarily limited conversation became almost non-existent!"
Denny silenced his critics who had dismissed him as little more than a journeyman driver with an excellent win in Monaco, though his first Formula One victory was marred by the appalling accident that claimed the life of Lorenzo Bandini, whose Ferrari was running second to Denny at the time. Denny's second win of the season, at Germany's mighty Nurburgring, proved his versatility on any type of track. He finished on the podium in six other races and by the end of the season had accumulated five more points than Brabham to become the 1967 World Champion. Any thoughts that he didn't deserve it were not shared by Jim Clark, who had four race wins to Denny's two. On the podium at the season finale in Mexico, where Clark won and Denny was third, the great Scot invited the embarrassed Kiwi to share the victor's laurel wreath.
Later that year Hulme would join fellow Kiwi, Bruce Mclaren driving in both F1 and Can-Am. In Can-Am he became the winningest drive with two Championships to his name. McLaren would be the last team he ever raced for.
Denny can come in and tell you what's wrong with a car and he's almost invariably right. But Bruce spoiled us, because he would come in and not only know what was wrong but have a solution already worked out! With Denny we sit down and talk it over.
Gordon Coppuck - As told to Doug Nye, Autosport
Much has been made of Hulme's shy and retiring, sometimes stand-offish nature as well as his nickname "the Bear".
“When I retire I will head for New Zealand. It’s where my parents are, it’s my home. It’s quiet there and I would like to get away from the hurly-burly of life in England. Although living in St Georges Hill is like living in the country.
“The plot was bought and the house built so I can get away from people. I have this terrible urge to get away from the hustle and bustle and be alone to do what I want to do. If I want to lay around and sunbathe – that’s what I want to do. I don’t think I am anti-social. It’s just that I can’t come with the everlasting call on my time. The telephone going, Press and people ringing me up and wanting to know this and that. It’s not in my make-up. I hate public intrusion into my private life. Funnily enough, I have built a house of glass and people can come and see in.” With glass houses and a job which attracts millions all over the world Denny might seem to be a case of a square peg in the proverbial round hole. He agrees.
“That’s why I may appear anti-social at race tracks. Except to certain people. Certain people can be around as much as they like and it doesn't bother me. I just have a few friends I don’t mind being around.”
Although he has tried to control the way he feels about people he still finds himself unable to cope on many occasions. “The general screaming mob makes me just want to get away. Something inside of me just boils up and boils up 'til eventually someone’s just got to touch me on the shoulder and I explode, whomph, that’s it. Wilson Fittipaldi is the same way, though he’s got a shorter fuse than I have. Yet other people can tolerate all the gibberish in the world. Jackie can. [Peter] Revson can have fans climbing over him all day and he will sit there signing autographs – no problem. I can’t. I don’t get claustrophobia but it’s a feeling very like that. I could be locked away in a small chamber and it wouldn’t bother me. In fact I would probably like that. As long as there were no people. I can’t stand people touching me. It drives me mad – instantly. If someone just lays a hand on my shoulder – wham – instant reaction.”
“I put on the tough exterior look to keep people away and so they get the feeling that I have got a hate on and don’t come near me. My friends know that this is just like the shell around the walnut, a protection that I put up. A big draw-back is that I am very, very shy. I don’t know why. I’m frightened to answer the telephone or make appointments to see people.”
Hulme hated writing letters and feels that it is much more efficient to get on the telephone and come to decisions quickly. Paradoxically he hated answering the telephone.
“All this ‘come up to London and have lunch with me while I sort out a deal’, wastes my time. I’ve got so much time it doesn’t matter but it wastes my time. What’s wrong with a two-penny telephone call to tell me the same thing? It saves the guy buying me lunch so it must be more economical in the long run.”
“I just want to be me.”