Michael's Profile: motoring, racing, road and motorsport safety
Early life in the UK, 1937 to 1968
Michael was born to his Australian father and Scottish mother in 1937 in Woking, Surrey. His school education was at Wellington College in Berkshire, moving on to become a Cambridge University and St Thomas’ Hospital London graduate in medicine.
He cannot remember ever not being interested in cars, motoring and motor sport. His first cars were Dinky Toy models of racing and land speed record cars. He learnt to drive in his father’s drophead Morris Minor. His father pointed out that this was not a racing car and he was not a racing driver, an assertion Michael felt to be an affront. Of course he was a racing driver, he thought.
His first road car was a Singer Le Mans four-seat tourer. He and his then girlfriend Norma spotted it in a back street in London, displaying a sign, “non-runner; free to tow away”. They towed it away and soon fixed the magneto in the street by Norma’s flat in Ladbroke Grove. The local bovver boys assured them that it would be kept safe there because they had lent the boys some tools.
The Singer was replaced by an Austin Seven Nippy with a Ford 1172 motor squashed in. It went quite well but on full lock the front wheels started coming in again, which required some care. Then came an A7 Ruby that gave some reliability and comfort until the block cracked over the main oil gallery.
Meanwhile at Cambridge he made his competition debut at the CUAC sprint at Snetterton in 1956. A very good friend, David Blacklidge, gave him a drive in his Lotus Six Consul. Michael was also very early into the karting scene, and brought one to Snetterton to run in the same sprint, to the interest of all because it was so quick.
He became Secretary of the CUAC, and through his friendship with the Costin brothers brought both Frank and Mike to Cambridge for one of the most fascinating car club meetings in history. He was also friendly with Keith Duckworth, then an engineering student, who told Michael one evening that he really did think he could build a better engine.
In London for clinical training in 1959 he did some freelance race reporting, and was a regular commentator at Brands Hatch and other circuits, sometimes alongside the famous John Bolster. For London transport nothing could beat his Messerschmitt KR200. After lunch at the Steering Wheel club one day he transported Norma plus three large men, including Bolster – with the cabin top open – in the three-wheeler to another club in Piccadilly.
At a Christmas party in 1959 he suggested to Colin Chapman that he might write a series of articles about building a Lotus Seven from a kit to be lent by the factory. Chapman and Peter Warr were keen to promote the new BMC-powered version, and agreed. With the aid of his Lotus Six-owner friend this was done, with the series published in Sports Car and Lotus Owner magazine.
Without Chapman’s sanction Michael took the finished Lotus to Brands Hatch for a track run, and then started racing the car in the 1960 season. He competed at most of the great British circuits including Goodwood, Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Oulton Park. Peter Warr soon found out, but as he was going well, allowed him to keep the car for the year. The whole project became a film produced by Peter Warr, entitled “Seven Story”, starring Michael, Norma and David Blacklidge with his Lotus Six.
Further to his involvement with Lotus, Ian H Smith, the author of “Lotus, The Story of the Marque”, invited him to bring the first edition of 1958 up to date and he thus became the co-author of a second edition of the book in 1961.
After graduation he began training as an ophthalmic surgeon, enthused by the precision and technology involved with eye surgery. He and Norma combined assets to buy a Renault 4CV, for which he modified the engine with Gordini parts. They took the Renault for their honeymoon trip to Europe in winter, first in a Paris hotel for Christmas and then down through the Alps just before the last pass closed. Driving the rear-engined car on standard tyres along rutted icy roads taught him a lot about car control.
During 1961 he co-drove a BMW in the Tourist Trophy at Oulton Park and a Morris Minor in the Nurburgring 500 km. The latter belonged to the Littlewoods heir Nigel Moores, then a friend and competitor in club racing, who was running the Morris in all the long-distance saloon car races in Europe for small-engine capacity categories.
The next car was a Jaguar XK 140 drop-head coupe with a C-type engine. This was a fantastic and memorable vehicle, which they also took across Europe, this time on a camping trip to Yugoslavia. Norma by this time was working for John Webb, organising travel for, and accompanying, Formula One drivers and other personnel to events in Europe.
Michael’s joint interest in medicine and engineering took him out of clinical medicine and into fields that embraced both sciences. Joining the RAF in 1963 he was posted for three years in Cyprus, where one of his duties was as the medical officer in the Near East Air Force parachute rescue team.
After a brief time with an early VW Beetle in Cyprus he now owned an Alfa Giulia sedan, not the prettiest car in the world but a fabulous tourer, fast and quiet. He and Norma shipped it across to Israel for a camping trip.
Back in the UK he joined the RAF’s Aviation Medicine Centre in 1966, which awakened his professional interest in the prevention of injury in aircraft crashes. Using RAF libraries he studied the physics and practicalities of crash protection, and was involved in developing a new harness for the RAF version of the F4 Phantom. He came to understand that given sufficient attention to emerging science in medicine and engineering, injury in any sort of impact was neither a matter of luck nor inevitable. This directly led on to his lifetime's work in biomechanics and the prevention of all kinds of accidental injury.
He had already dabbled into motor vehicle safety matters. He had fitted a three-point seat belt into the XK140 in 1961, and for his baby daughter in 1963 bolted a tiny fibreglass seat into the Alfa along with the world’s first five-point child harness.
No open race cars in Europe were fitted with any kind of safety harness those days, but he realised that on purely theoretical grounds a suitable restraint could drastically reduce injury in racing. A problem was that the emergence of the fully reclined driving position meant that in a frontal crash the driver would tend to “submarine” under the lap belt.
But he also realised that the impact loading from a parachute harness was in generally the same direction as for a reclining racing driver. So, why not combine the crutch restraint used for parachutes with a four-point competition harness? He approached some British road harness manufacturers, and Britax cobbled together to his design the world’s first six-point race harness.
He returned to racing in 1966 with a Mallock U2, and fitted this new restraint concept to the car.
Through 1967 he had been writing articles on racing safety for the motorsport press, mainly Motor Racing magazine under Doug Nye, based on his aviation safety knowledge. He argued for the use of belts in open cars. Michael’s friend and fellow Mallock driver, Max Mosley, was probably the second driver in Europe to fit a set.
Realising the need for more real-life data on race crashes he set up his own study of well over 200 incidents during the 1967 UK season. During that year Patrick Stephens agreed to publish a book to be written by Michael, titled “Motor Racing in Safety". This was released in May 1968 to favourable reviews worldwide, and proved to be a seminal step in the introduction of safety concepts into motor sport.
Louis Stanley, who wrote a Foreword for the book, was then running BRM with Jackie Steward as his driver. Jackie was already becoming active in increasing circuit safety, and Stanley put belts in his BRM in late 1967. These were the first in Formula One, and were made by a new company, Willans.
“Dumbo” Willans was a consultant to the GQ Parachute Company, which made aircraft harnesses for the RAF and which Michael had approached with suggestions for race harnesses. Dumbo was assigned to the project and, seeing possibilities, suggested that Michael and he go into business together. Michael told him to go ahead on his own, because in the following year Norma and he were moving out to Australia.
Michael (already an Australian citizen back through his great-grandfather), Norma and their daughter Anita moved out to Sydney in February 1968. They brought with them a beautiful sports-racing car, an Elva BMW 7s. He raced it a few times at circuits such as Warwick Farm, Katoomba and Oran Park, but ran out of money and time while trying to establish a working life in his new country of residence.
The use of belts in open race cars in Europe and Australia escalated during 1968. In Formula One the usage rate went from zero to 100 percent by the end of the year. Both Norma and Michael had tried to convince Jimmy Clark to use belts, but he was never to be persuaded. During the 1968-69 Tasman Series Jochen Rindt told Michael that he had read the book, was convinced about the benefit of a harness, but would never use crutch restraint. As is well known, a major contributor to his death at Monza was submarining under the lap belt.
Before making the move to Australia, Michael had been assured of a job in the aviation medicine division of the Australian Department of Civil Aviation. There was a delay in establishing the position, however, and before the planned job became available he was asked to fly back to Europe for what promised to be a highly exciting undertaking.
This was to join a team sponsored by Italy's Pininfarina and Ferrari companies. The group’s intention was to design and build the “Sigma Grand Prix”, a concept safety race car based on the running gear of a 1967 Formula One Ferrari 312. The concept team members included Sergio Pininfarina and his colleague Renzo Carli, racing driver Paul Frere, Professor of Engineering Ernst Fiala and Mauro Forghieri of the Ferrari Formula One team. All were brought together by Robert Braunschweig, editor of the Swiss journal, Automobil Revue.
Several meetings were joined by the Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari, and the group often lunched in his private room at the Cavallino, across the road from the factory. He gave us all a copy of his autobiography, signed in his purple ink. He is said to have regarded his book as being the most significant gift he could present to anyone.
The Sigma GP was first shown at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1969, and was the featured car on the Pininfarina stand.
The Sigma (S for "safety") was hugely influential in stimulating interest in race car crash protection in the early 1970s. It embodied every known principle of crash protection at the time, and every one of its innovations eventually became incorporated into Formula One (and other international) sporting regulations. They included a head restraint device, for example, 20 years before the HANS went on the market.
Until his death in 2012 the Sigma was regarded by Sergio Pininfarina as one of his most important Ferrari concept cars ever. It is still shown worldwide, and is usually displayed either in Turin or at the Museo Ferrari in Maranello.
Returning to Sydney, and partly as a result of publicity associated with his work on race car safety and the Sigma Grand Prix (which was shipped to Sydney for a car show), and some articles on road safety, in 1969 he was invited to join a brand-new road safety team in Sydney.
The NSW government had decided to establish in its Department of Motor Transport the first government-funded road crash research institute and laboratory in Australia, and one of the first in the world. He soon came to direct the work of what became the Traffic Accident Research Unit (TARU), and was nominated Director of Traffic Safety in New South Wales.
TARU rapidly built an expert team of engineers, traffic engineers, statisticians and psychologists. It incorporated a comprehensive test laboratory including an impact sled. In this job Michael became one of the then quite few professional road safety researchers and administrators in the world. He oversaw innovations such as the mandatory use of seat belts, development and certification of child seats, the invention (with a Swedish team) of the booster seat, testing for alcohol in the blood and breath, and a substantial direction of funds and policies to safer cars, safer roads and more effective road rules.
It was during the decade of the 1970s that the apparently inexorable rise in the annual road toll in Australia came to a plateau, and commenced the decline that has continued ever since thanks to the work of countless researchers, officials and coordinating groups in Australian governments, private bodies and research institutions. The country now has an enviable reputation in the field, world wide.
For his garage in Sydney, along with the Elva Michael had brought out the Alfa Giulia. However, the latter was suffering from the rust bug and was replaced by a Fiat 124 coupe. He enjoyed the Fiat and it became another camping car, with the tent on a roof rack. Norma’s car was a 1958 Porsche 356 removable hard-top cabriolet, a very rare model now; she liked it a lot more than Michael did!
The work with road safety research and administration was hard and inspiring, but by the end of the seventies Michael found the bureaucratic demands of public service became too heavy for challenging research.
It was time for a sabbatical, which allowed him and Norma to concentrate on their joint love for sailing and on plans to sail the world. They had been working together for several years (Norma was a qualified sailmaker) to build a suitable yacht from a bare hull. They set off first across the Pacific Ocean in September 1981 for the start of eight years voyaging, covering some 50,000 nautical miles in deep waters. (Much more about their sailing adventures can be found in the Yachting pages of this web site.)
While in the Mediterranean on the boat Michael wrote a book for the British Medical Association, “Living with Risk”, in an attempt to bring into balance public perceptions of risk in a complex world. It won the UK Science Book Prize in 1988.
On return to Sydney in 1989 Michael established his own influential road safety research consultancy, which became very successful over the next 25 years.
During this time he worked with the Federal and State governments and non-government organisations in diverse fields including major studies of childhood injury in vehicle crashes and the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets, road safety in rural regions, school bus safety, drug use by drivers, crashworthiness assessment, vehicle rollover protection, speed management, driving simulators, and crash reconstruction and analysis.
He became a member or Chairman of several high-level advisory bodies and safety-related committees of Standards Australia. He was also awarded Fellowship of the Australasian College of Road Safety and the (international) Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine.
He continued writing for the public on road safety, and for eight years was the safety expert on the Wheels Car of the Year team.
He also returned to motor sport in 1992, entering the historic race scene with a vengeance. John Dawson-Damer invited him to join the CAMS Historic Commission, and he joined the HSRCA, later becoming Vice President.
He started racing again with yet another Clubman but rapidly progressed to many of the kind of cars he had wanted to drive in his early years. These included Australian Formula 2 (Birrana), Formula Atlantic (Lola and RT4), European Formula 2 (with the ex-Niki Lauda works March 722) and the Elva BMW that had been through many hands since he had originally brought it out to Sydney. He contracted the restoration of a barn find (in California) Lotus Eleven, but never raced it – too gorgeous.
Most of the road cars he was then owning were of the bread-and-butter tow-car variety, but did include a neat little Fiat X1/9 for a while. However, on a trip to Europe in 2001 he and Norma purchased a 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS, in which they duly enjoyed a fantastic tour of the Continent, including a return visit to the Ferrari factory. After the tour they shipped the Ferrari back to Sydney, and it is still in the Henderson garage after over 20 years, now on HSRCA historic vehicle plates.
His interest in motor sport safety never abated, and in 2007 he was invited to became the inaugural Chair of the new Australian Institute for Motor Sport Safety. Soon after, he was awarded Fellowship of the Institute for Motor Sport Safety of the FIA, the primary world body for international motor sport.
He joined the Institute’s high profile safety research working group led by Professor Sid Watkins, with his main contribution being on the biomechanics of impact. On age grounds he had to step aside from FIA activities in 2017.
He is still competing in historic events, latterly with a Lotus Europa and currently with yet another Clubman, designed and built in 1972 by Dave Mawer and carried on a trailer towed by his 2021 Volvo XC60.
Finally, as a culmination of Michael's efforts over more than half a century, in the 2021 Queen's Birthday Honours he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for "distinguished service to motor vehicle and motorsport safety, and to the prevention of road trauma".
See more about the race cars in the Racing pages of this site.
FIA Institute Article
Dr Michael Henderson is a doctor of medicine and a graduate of Cambridge University and St Thomas’ Hospital, London. He has spent his entire professional life in aviation, road and motor sport safety research and administration. He was author in 1968 of the seminal book “Motor Racing in Safety” and was one of the designers of the pioneering race safety concept car, the Pininfarina/Ferrari Sigma Grand Prix. He was the originator of the six-point race harness and a pioneer in the use of seat belts in racing cars.
Dr Henderson began circuit racing in Europe in 1960, and has competed since then at national and international level in a wide variety of formula, sports and sedan cars. He still races successfully in one of his significant historic formula and sports racing cars and is an acknowledged expert on the history of safety developments in motor sport. He has lived in Sydney, Australia, since 1968.
He is a past Director of Traffic Safety in New South Wales and established Crashlab, the first government road crash research unit and test laboratory in Australia. He was Chairman of the Australian Government’s Advisory Committee on Road Trauma, and is the author of around 100 research papers on road safety and an award-winning book on the analysis and perception of risk.
In addition to his position as a Fellow of the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety, Dr Henderson is also a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM), and the Australasian College of Road Safety. He is a member of several other international safety organisations including the Australian Trauma Society and the Society of Automotive Engineers.
In 2004 he was awarded Life Membership of the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS), and in 2016 CAMS' highest honour, the Award of Merit. In 2007 Dr Henderson became the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Institute for Motor Sport Safety, and led its expanding research and educational activities until his retirement in 2017.