The not-so-gentlemanly ‘gentleman racer’
A serial conman and deluded ‘Walter Mitty’ fantasist, James Munroe — born James Cox —appeared to typify dull, unremarkable respectability but led a very public and extravagant double life. During the week he was the bespectacled manager of an accounts department but at weekends he became an attention-seeking, self-styled ‘millionaire businessman’ and ‘gentleman racer’ of a McLaren F1 GTR. Through his extraordinary duplicity, the ultimate vanity project was unwittingly financed by funds embezzled from his employer.
Like so many schoolboys, James Cox was passionate to the point of obsession about cars as a teenager and dreamt of racing them as soon as he was old enough. Typically for his age, his bedroom walls at home were adorned with large posters of the contemporary Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testa Rossa models. Inevitably, like most youngsters with similar aspirations, there was neither the money nor the opportunity to fulfil his ambitions. By the time he had reached his 20s, the nearest he had come to owning any kind of ‘performance car’ was very much more modest.
‘I hocked myself to the hilt just to, albeit briefly, own a MkII Golf GTi 16v,’ he said, ‘sadly ending its days stolen, ransacked and unlovingly abandoned on bricks on Wentworth golf course. The debts mounted and the bailiffs circled so that I could have that car on the driveway. Then the usual banal examples of company cars came and went; the A-Z of small executive saloons. I dreamt of that day when I could put something special in my garage. But it never materialised. Each day, it seemed ever more remote.’
The reality of his life was such that by the time he was in his early 30s he was married with a young family living in suburban Wokingham, Berkshire, and working in middle management in an accounts department. As disenchantment grew with what he felt was a meaningless existence, it simply fuelled his dreams more strongly. He started to make frequent trips to the nearby showrooms of Maranello Concessionaires, the famous Ferrari importer and main dealer. Although his job prospects and personal life didn’t change materially over the next couple of years, he ended up being able to acquire a Ferrari 348tb in the classic and desirable colour combination of Rosso Corsa with cream hide interior.
By 1997, aged 33 and intoxicated by the 348tb’s performance, he wanted more. Now going by the name James Munroe, he fooled himself that he was ready to live the second part of his childhood dream: he was going to become a racing driver. He chose the Goodyear-supported Ferrari Challenge, a club-level British championship that catered for drivers competing in a wide variety of Ferrari models divided into two categories, one for older and often standard road models, the other for much quicker ‘modified’ cars.
He bought a Ferrari F355 Challenge, which was a special race-bred version of the F355, the 348tb’s successor. However, the woefully inexperienced driver’s performance was underwhelming to say the least and he found himself consistently and hopelessly outclassed, trailing behind not only all the modified cars in his class but also most of the slower standard cars. His fellow competitors found him a very ordinary, quiet and unassuming man who made no attempt to mix with them.
Yet he was a man of contradictions whose ego seemed to grow each time he made one of his sporadic appearances on the starting grid. He so wanted attention and approval that his singular lack of success proved hard for him to bear. Indeed, the only recognition he ever seemed to receive over the course of two seasons with the F355 came at Croft, North Yorkshire, when the race commentator lavished inordinate attention on his car just because its red-and-white harlequin livery looked similar to nearby Sunderland football club’s team strip.
Undeterred by his embarrassing lack of results and craving the limelight more than ever before, he resolved to step up into the much higher-profile British GT Championship for the 1999 season. His ambitions knew no boundaries and he acquired from the Parabolica Motorsport team a McLaren F1 GTR, a spectacular racing car that had won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1995. Introduced in 1993 at a price of more than £500,000, the McLaren F1 in road-going guise had a top speed of 230mph and was capable of 0–60mph in three seconds. Powered by a 6.1-litre BMW V12 engine, it had a central driving position and dramatic lift-up ‘scissor’ doors. For more than a decade it was hailed as the world’s fastest production road car and immediately became a modern classic with its ground-breaking design. As only 106 examples were ever built, its rarity combined with its eye-watering cost ensured that ownership was confined to a very exclusive club. The elite who recognised it as the ultimate supercar of the time included celebrities such as Elton John, George Harrison and Rowan Atkinson. Very few owned more than one of these incredible machines apart from Ralph Lauren, who had two, the Sultan of Brunei, who had no fewer than five… and James Munroe. He not only acquired an example of the even rarer GTR racing version, of which 28 were made, but also became the proud — and very dishonest — owner of a road-going model as well.
The aspiring racing driver’s new venture was announced with great fanfare at a lavish press launch held at the exclusive Mezzo restaurant in London’s Soho on 15th January 1999. Glamour was added by the presence of Caprice, the world-famous supermodel who, in return for a hefty appearance fee, was hired to unveil the car, which was finished in McLaren’s famous Papaya Orange. She posed next to the car dressed in white racing overalls, together with Munroe and Calum Lockie, the team’s professional driver, who was to share driving duties and had been introduced to Munroe by driver coach Les Goble. As the champagne flowed at the Veuve Clicquot-supported event, the slightly chubby accounts manager from Wokingham revelled in all the attention he received from the numerous photographers and journalists, but in reality he looked almost as out of place in those surroundings as he did on a race circuit.
To prepare and run the McLaren, Munroe had engaged the well-respected team AM Racing, owned and managed by Aston Martin dealer Paul Spires, an accomplished racing driver himself who was also scheduled to race the car. Although AM Racing’s previous experience had been mainly in the preparation and running of historic Le Mans cars, Spires had put together a very strong group of engineers and the operation proved to be well up to the required standard. Munroe announced to the media: ‘We have no pretensions to winning races. We could have put a high-profile professional in the car but we wanted to keep it as a purely privateer team. We will rotate the driving between the three of us and see how it works out. Most importantly, we want to show that we are doing this properly.’
The British GT Championship, which featured cars from the GT1 and GT2 categories, was in its seventh season and in 1999 was sponsored by Privilege Insurance. This was destined to be the final season in which GT1 cars — including the McLaren F1 GTR — could compete, so the series provided a last opportunity for British fans to see top-line grids of these spectacular machines. The season comprised 11 races, one of which was a continental excursion to the daunting Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. One of the attractions of the championship for entrants was that cars were shared between two drivers and the regulations pandered to the egos of wealthy amateurs by allowing so called ‘gentleman’ drivers to pair with quicker professionals. Despite this, most of the amateurs at this level were capable drivers, as they needed to be to handle such powerful race-bred machinery. This was not the right arena for someone with as little talent and experience as James Munroe.
Taking advantage of clement winter weather in Spain, AM Racing conducted initial pre-season testing at the Albacete circuit with Calum Lockie. Less than a month after the well-publicised press launch, the McLaren was in action again at Silverstone for more testing on the national circuit. The car was devoid of any signs of external sponsorship except for a strip across the top of the windscreen sporting allegiance to Veuve Clicquot, presumably in deference to the copious quantities that had been quaffed at the launch party. Behind the wheel at Silverstone, however, was not Lockie but Chris Goodwin, who coincidentally had raced the very same chassis for its previous owners in the 1997 FIA GT Championship and had been drafted in for this session. Within a couple of weeks Goodwin was formally signed up as lead driver, replacing Lockie for reasons that were never made clear. Lockie’s contract was annulled and paid off in full by the team patron, after which he took up offers of drives in both a Marcos and Porsche in the GT2 class later in the season.
When Goodwin flew in from America, where he had been racing at Sebring, and topped the official pre-season testing sessions at Silverstone, spirits were high and Spires said: ‘It couldn’t have gone better. We now have a true pro-am [professional-amateur] line-up but I think we can win races.’ As Goodwin’s international career was in the ascendency, this wasn’t a drive he needed or even particularly wanted, but he accepted it on the basis that it would do him no harm, keep him race-sharp and reward him with, in his words, ‘a crazy amount of money’.
Come the first round of the championship, at Silverstone on 28th March, the pre-season optimism continued when the team’s lead driver put the McLaren on pole position with a lap over eight seconds quicker than the car’s custodian could manage. Goodwin leapt in front at the start of the race and led convincingly, building a six-second margin over his nearest rival and setting the fastest lap. Leaving the obligatory driver change until the last moment permissible under the regulations, he then had to watch in frustration as his hard work was undone and Munroe slipped down the field to an eventual fifth place.
For the second round, at picturesque Oulton Park in Cheshire on 3rd May, there was special dispensation for Goodwin to drive solo because the ‘self-made multi-millionaire’, as Munroe had started to describe himself, was reported by Autosport magazine to be ‘away on business’. Goodwin again put the car on pole position and recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to third place, complete with the obligatory pitstop.
Munroe was back in the cockpit for the next race, at Snetterton on 31st May. After an enthralling battle in qualifying, Goodwin just missed out on pole position, beaten by Tim Sugden’s EMKA-run McLaren. This time Munroe took the start, with the team’s strategy resting on the hope that he would hold up most of the field before handing over to Goodwin after a short but steady stint. That was how it turned out, the pair finishing second just over half a minute behind the winning Lister Storm, with Goodwin diplomatically praising Munroe’s flash of promise. This result would be the best of the team’s campaign.
For the next round, at Brands Hatch on 20th June, Munroe again took the start for a short stint before handing over to his ‘pro’ co-driver with the car two laps down. Goodwin managed to reduce the deficit by one lap and bring the car home fourth, his efforts once again rewarded with fastest lap.
In the meantime, Munroe’s off-track exploits had started to attract attention. People in the British GT paddock were intrigued about where this previously unknown driver had come from, especially one who not only owned a McLaren for road use but could also afford to own and race another one. By now, Munroe also possessed other high-performance sportscars, all with personalised registration numbers, and turned up at race meetings in a variety of them. He cultivated a growing reputation for big spending and his ‘generosity’ extended to providing top-of-the-range Ducati motorcycles for his pit crew and mechanics as well as buying a Mercedes C180 for his co-driver.
Immediately after the Brands Hatch race, Munroe funded an extravagant trip to the third round of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) at Mosport in Canada for Goodwin and several AM Racing personnel. This was supposedly a fact-finding mission to investigate the possibility of running the McLaren in the last three rounds of the ALMS season. Afterwards, Spires enthused to the media about the prospect and added that the team was also considering buying an open-top sports racer for the following ALMS season alongside another British GT campaign. The cost of the round trip, which included flights on Concorde and hotel bills at the Marriott in Toronto, were said to have been over £50,000.
To feed his apparently insatiable appetite for fame and attention, Munroe had hired a public relations specialist, Panic Publicity, at the start of the season, and this company probably organised the original Soho launch. Panic Publicity certainly did an extremely good job, one that in retrospect could be deemed to have been too effective. At the first round, for example, superstar singer Paul Young was present in the team’s hospitality unit and everyone assumed he was there because he was a friend of Munroe’s, although he was actually just another hired hand who was being paid for his appearance in order to feed the illusion the team benefactor was creating around himself.
Over the next few months, Munroe was highlighted in several magazine articles, including an interview in Boys Toys, a so-called ‘lad’s magazine’ whose erroneous headline proclaimed: ‘James Munroe: he’s filthy rich and owns a racing team’. In the story, Munroe was quoted as saying: ‘I’ve been into fast cars and racing since I was a teenager, but it’s a difficult game to get into. I’ve never had the chance until now. Yes, this is a dream come true, definitely.’ Panic Publicity continued to prove its worth by ensuring that its client made a series of television appearances, the most notable of which was on BBC2’s The Car’s The Star in an episode featuring the McLaren F1. After trying unsuccessfully to entice various high-profile owners to take part, the programme’s producers had to look elsewhere. In his quest for fame, Munroe needed no persuasion and gleefully accepted the invitation to participate. During his short appearance, he ill-advisedly boasted to presenter Quentin Willson that he had once driven his McLaren F1 at 170mph on the M40 motorway.
The next outing for the AM Racing McLaren F1 GTR was back at Silverstone, this time for the biggest British GT Championship event of the season, as one of the support races for the British Grand Prix on 11th July. In front of a huge crowd, Goodwin sprinted into the lead from the front row of the grid as the pack flooded down into Copse Corner on the first lap. He stayed in front for five laps until encountering a backmarker, a Marcos Mantis, that crossed his path just as he was about to lap it, forcing him to spin in avoidance. He made up the lost time before handing over to Munroe, who brought the car home a disappointing sixth, nearly two laps down on the winner. Goodwin admitted that by now, despite being handsomely paid, he was finding it difficult to maintain his motivation when co-driving with someone who was completely out of his depth.
Goodwin never saw Munroe again. Indeed, his abiding memory of the team patron was watching him leave the Silverstone paddock as pillion passenger on the back of a motorcycle and disappear into the sunset.
Alarm bells started ringing at AM Racing just a few days after the British Grand Prix when team manager Paul Spires called Chris Goodwin to say that there was ‘a problem with the money’. Spires didn’t know it at the time but Munroe’s assets had been frozen by lawyers. By the time of the next round of the British GT Championship, at Donington Park on 7th August, the AM Racing McLaren F1 GTR had vanished from the entry list. The following month, news broke that James Munroe was under investigation.
In ‘real life’, away from the race circuits, Munroe — real name James Cox — was still a very ordinary accountant, albeit with a little more seniority than in earlier years. McGraw Hill, a highly respected American company that had become one of the world’s biggest educational publishers, employed him as head of its accounts department in its European offices in Maidenhead, Berkshire. In 1995, soon after joining the company, he had established ghost companies — Execom Management Services Ltd, Thinexcel Management Services Ltd and Business Visions Ltd — and registered them at his home address of Almond Close, Wokingham, with he and his wife listed as directors. He used these companies to submit bogus invoices to his employer and was perfectly placed to ensure that payments were authorised and made to the respective bank accounts, of which he was the sole beneficiary.
Questions had already been raised about the honesty of this ostensibly very ordinary man who took excessive amounts of sick leave so that he could devote time to his extracurricular activities. His long and creative list of excuses included the claim that he suffered from chronic kidney problems. Even worse, on one occasion he cruelly lied that his young son Adrian was seriously ill and receiving treatment at Great Ormond Street Hospital. This prompted sympathetic colleagues to arrange for flowers to be delivered to the hospital only for their kindness to be repaid with the discovery that no child of that name was at the hospital.
Serious suspicions escalated when a senior McGraw Hill executive watched television coverage of a British GT Championship race on Channel 4. He was astonished to spot one of the company’s employees being interviewed about racing what the commentator had described as ‘a million-dollar car’ in a sport that he correctly assumed was beyond the means of an accountant on an annual salary of £51,000. After internal investigations soon revealed two unauthorised payments, a more extensive audit was instigated with Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, and this uncovered 15 more illegal transactions made by Munroe, ranging from £46,400 to £549,300.
It was while Munroe was away on a two-week family holiday in Spain that his life of subterfuge began to unravel. In subsequent interviews with Thames Valley Police, he admitted all the charges of fraud, saying that he did it because he was ‘disillusioned with his job’ and wanted to ‘step up’. He said that he fully recognised that his job had put him in a position where it was easy to take advantage. Initially, he said, he had simply intended to use the stolen money to fund a lavish personal lifestyle, which included buying an expensive Rolex watch, before his greed escalated and he progressed to buying expensive sportscars. With it all seeming so easy, the regularity with which he sent phoney invoices to his employers spiralled out of control.
When Munroe appeared at Reading Crown Court in September 2000, the prosecution stated that he had used the stolen money to buy lots of cars as well as to fund the racing team. Besides the cars already mentioned — the two Ferraris and the two McLarens — his fleet of road cars included three Aston Martins, three Mercedes and a Ferrari 550 Maranello. He had also acquired two important historic racing cars, an ex-Gerhard Berger Benetton Formula 1 car and a Silk Cut-liveried Jaguar XJR Le Mans car. He certainly had good automotive taste.
‘The whole of this enterprise was funded by unauthorised payments by McGraw Hill,’ said Sally Howells for the prosecution. ‘As the director of accounting he was responsible for the management of the payment system and had detailed knowledge of the payment process.’ Munroe was jailed for five years after he admitted 17 charges of transfer by deception and three of procuring the execution of a valuable security. During a four-year period he stole £2,885,722, of which it was calculated that no more than £830,000 would be recoverable for his employer. In defence of his 36-year-old client, Peter Warne told the court: ‘Munroe describes himself, or his creation, as “a monster which he could not stop”. He appears to have gained an immense adrenalin rush from what was, in effect, a double life. He became wracked with guilt, wretched.’ Judge Josh Lait was not sympathetic and said when summing up: ‘This was a serious and continued breach of trust carried out over a substantial period, executed by false documentation.’
The fall from grace of the car-mad fantasist should have ended there. But it didn’t.
Even after his early release from prison in 2003, Munroe evidently still felt that the world owed him a living and that crime paid. Within nine months, he had been recruited by Automotive Skills, a charity funded by the Department of Transport to promote training skills in the retail motor industry. He falsified his CV and provided his own references because communications to the email addresses and phone numbers he supplied for two named referees were in fact directed to him. In his senior post as financial manager with a salary of £63,000, he was given free rein over where funds were distributed and forged dozens of cheques to pay for the rental of a £5,000-a-month house, buy a £70,000 Porsche, lease a BMW, a Saab and a Mercedes, and purchase Chelsea football club season tickets costing £12,000. His fraudulent activities over a two-year period were only uncovered after staff stumbled upon a website detailing his earlier crimes. He was suspended the next day and then sacked when he failed to show up for a disciplinary hearing.
After his arrest, he claimed that the executive cars were for use by company directors and that the season tickets were a legitimate business expense for entertaining clients. Although he estimated that he had ‘only’ forged cheques worth £100,000, Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court heard that in total he had stolen nearly £500,000. Now aged 42, he was convicted on one charge of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception, three charges of obtaining services by deception and two of theft, but there were 16 other charges that he denied and weren’t dealt with. His defence lawyer, Ronald Jaffa, said: ‘He owed some money and decided to pay off his credit card. Once it started, he went on to commit these offences. In handing down a four-year prison sentence, Judge Roger Chapple told him, ‘Your naked greed is breathtaking.’
Unfortunately, for the victims whose livelihoods were affected by his deceit, the story still didn’t end there. Remarkably, he found responsible employment yet again, in March 2015, by which time he was 51 and once again using his real name, James Cox.
This time he managed to con his way into becoming the £65,000-a-year finance director of Britain’s Energy Coast (BEC), an organisation set up to assist economic development in Cumbria. In his first month, Cox defrauded his employer out of more than £40,000 that he used to buy a Jaguar XK, which he then part-exchanged for a BMW, and later two Mercedes. When an audit highlighted concerns about him, he left the firm after only five months in the job. After his departure, chief executive Michael Pemberton called in the police. Cox was tracked down and found to be living in a Premier Inn hotel in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, at the time of his arrest.
In the court hearing that followed, magistrates in Carlisle heard how Cox had been responsible for negotiating a £100,000 loan to a local company. Part of the arrangement had included an option of access to a further £40,000 if required. The Prosecutor, Pamela Fee, told the court that when BEC checked its accounts, it discovered that the full £140,000 had been withdrawn rather than the initial £100,000 that had been agreed, and that on inspection the signature used to authorise the additional amount — £40,490 to be precise — had been forged. Fee said that this sum had been transferred to a Jaguar dealership and that the paperwork was in the name of James Cox.
On 21st April 2016, Cox appeared in front of magistrates and admitted that he had forged a loan agreement and used company funds to buy a Jaguar. Other offences included committing fraud to get the job, obtaining money through fraud and four counts of transferring criminal property. He was remanded in custody until his sentencing and one month later was jailed for a third time, on this occasion for six years. At Carlisle Crown Court, Recorder Mark Ainsworth described Cox’s action as a ‘planned and determined deception’. He said: ‘Any funds that are siphoned off [from BEC] dishonestly means a reduction of funds that are available for the community and for the regeneration of this area.’ This was reiterated by Detective Inspector Dan St Quintin, of Cumbria police, who said: ‘James Cox has stolen over £40,000 from a fund set up to help communities in Cumbria that need it most, he has put jobs and community projects at risk. He has used this money to fund a lifestyle he could not afford.’ In a rather charitable defence, Paul Tweddle told the court that his client was an ‘educated’ single man with a degree in accounting and finance from Bristol University, but that is open to question as the university has no record of him. Tweddle continued: ‘He has no assets whatsoever. He has no accommodation and as of his release from custody will be of no fixed abode.’
Following his sentencing, Cox was ordered to hand over to BEC all property found in his possession, which included a Mercedes C180, three mobile phones, a laptop and a wireless mouse, and also a pair of silver Aspinal cuff links that he had been given by colleagues upon his departure from the company. These various items were to be sold in an attempt to claw back part of the loss but it was estimated that they were only likely to raise about £15,000.
Cox was back in the news again as recently as December 2018 when, now aged 54, he absconded from an open prison in Norwich, having been allowed out for a pre-arranged medical appointment that he failed to attend. Members of the public were told to be vigilant and warned not to approach him, and anyone sighting him or knowing of his whereabouts was asked to call the police immediately. Having done a full circle, he had returned to his roots and was found a week later 170 miles away in the Reading area, from where he was returned to jail.
We may never fully understand the true reasons why a middle manager living in a mock-Tudor house in Wokingham turned to a life of crime and massive fraud. His own attempt to justify his actions was that he resented his life and felt that he ‘deserved’ so much more than he had achieved through any efforts of his own. Clearly a troubled individual, his curious mixture of insecurities, ego and stupidity had combined to form a dangerous cocktail. Added to this was his brazen arrogance in publicly bragging to anyone who asked about the source of his wealth at the time he was racing the McLaren F1 GTR. He claimed that he had started a multi-media company and sold it for £50 million to McGraw Hill, who, he would explain, required him to carry on working there for several years.
As anyone involved in a sport such as motor racing knows, adrenalin is a very powerful hormone that can produce extreme emotions and excitement. In the case of James Cox (aka James Munroe), his craving for attention suggested that he received his highs not so much from racing one of the fastest and most desirable sportscars ever made but more from the publicity and kudos that went with it. His behaviour guaranteed that he would draw attention to himself to such an extent that it was almost as if he wanted to get caught.
For all his many failings, which included a lack of talent behind the wheel of a racing car, what is undeniable is that this figure of intrigue and amusement amongst the paddock crowd was not only passionate about fast cars but also had great taste in them.