UK’s most experienced stunt driver: “Everything is now instinctive”
One day, during the mid-1980s, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car hurtling towards a parking-space-sized hole in a sea of brand-new vehicles. A moment later the car was in that very space, facing the opposite direction.
I was vaguely aware that in between there had been a yanking on of the handbrake, a blur of hands and arms, the screeching of tyres, a smell of rubber, smoke, and the car transitioning from forwards to backwards in a blink. Then I heard a voice: “Should we do that again?”
It came from Russ Swift, who had finished demonstrating to me – at the time a reporter on a local paper – his immense skill when it comes to driving cars.
I said no, a repeat wouldn’t be necessary. He had approached the parking space at 30mph through a car dealership forecourt crammed with pristine metal, and the imprints of my fingernails are probably still embossed in the sides of the passenger seat.
So, instead, he took off back across the forecourt towards a ramp, drove the passenger side wheels up it, and continued for a further 50 yards on two wheels.
Please don’t try this at home. Or in Waitrose car park. No, really, don’t.
Almost four decades later, stunt driver Russ, now 71, is still up to his tricks, currently in the Far East doing a series of precision driving shows with carmaker Subaru.
Inches from an accident
You might be thinking a stunt driver is someone who trashes heaven knows what value of expensive motors in one of those destruct-o-fest car-wrecking movies. But Russ is one who engages in completely the opposite: he often looks inches from an accident, but never quite gets to the fender-bender bit.
He makes some of it look very easy – his website has a host of clips – but then that’s what experts do. In fact, there’s a lot of hard work involved. “My job is physically demanding, so I need to stay strong and agile,” says Russ. “I’m careful about what I eat, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink to excess.”
And his stunts certainly weren’t picked up overnight. He puts his driving prowess down to skills he learned in his twenties. “The techniques I mastered competing and winning national autotest championships are the basis of most of my repertoire,” he says. “Everything is now instinctive.”
Growing up in Darlington, Russ was mad about cars from an early age. He wanted to compete in rallies but couldn’t afford the costs to enter the sport. Instead he competed in autotesting – like gymkhanas for cars – in which precision driving around traffic cones and lines is measured and rewarded.
Having racked up many British Autotest Championship wins, he bagged a place in the Vauxhall Astra Rally Championship, driving with them in international competitions, all while continuing to develop his stunt and precision driving skills, with which he started doing displays for Rover.
Russ then appeared in one of the stand-out car adverts of the late 1980s, for the Montego 1.6L (see below), in which he performed stunts in a workplace car park.
He has since become one of the world’s most in-demand precision drivers, demonstrating cars’ capabilities all around the globe, even into his eighth decade – a longevity Russ puts down to good fortune with his health.
“I still have good mobility and am blessed with very good eyesight,” he says. “I’m very lucky not to have any problems. I think my reactions should be slower, but I don’t find that is the case.”
“I love what I do”
He also believes his work helps him stay in peak condition. “It does keep me physically fit and mentally alert,” he says, adding that there are aspects to the job that are mentally stimulating and satisfying. “I deal directly with clients and do all my own negotiations.”
And a Russ Swift car display isn’t all about driving: he must be just as engaging behind a microphone as he is behind a wheel.
“Much of my work is live public performances,” he explains. “I need to be witty and entertaining. This is as important as the driving and has been one of the reasons for my success. I think this keeps my mind alert and sharp.”
So will it be the end of the road for Russ and his stunts any time soon? “I know I will have to retire one day, but the demand for my services is as great as ever, and I love what I do,” he says. “I expect the demand to continue until I can no longer perform at the highest level.”
Although often asked, Russ has never performed stunts for films, primarily because of the weeks-on-end time commitments of movie production. “I prefer display work,” he says. “I forged a niche in the market that I’m happy with and I love the feedback from the people I entertain.”
His preferred stunt cars are Subarus – agile and rally-proven. “I’ve built up an enormous respect for Subaru cars over the past 20 years,” says Russ. “They are well-engineered, tough and extremely responsive. Not all makes of car would afford me the confidence to perform at the level I do.”
Outside of his work, Russ indulges a passion for classic cars, of which he has a collection.
“Modern cars are much easier to drive on public roads, with all the technological aids, but I find classic cars much more rewarding.”
The older, the easier
He says that some classic cars are good for display driving, too. “The classic Mini is perfect, as are the early Ford Escorts. I started out in a VW Beetle, which I loved chucking around.”
If anything, he says, older cars are easier to work with. “Modern cars need several systems disabled to allow me to perform an interesting display, such as ABS [anti-lock braking system] and traction control,” he explains.
“Many also now have electronic handbrakes, which make some of my most popular manoeuvres impossible without replacing them with manual levers.
“And many come with sensors that can recognise when something out of the ordinary is happening – this can instigate a safe mode, which restricts speed and power. Every new generation of cars launched requires more complicated solutions to override systems.”
Russ cites a strong support team as one of the reasons for his success – in fact, his son Paul has followed in his footsteps to also become a stunt and precision driver.
“My family and friends love what I do and I’ve established a great circle of friends both here at home and worldwide because of my work,” he says.
“Christine, my partner, accompanies me everywhere I go. She enjoys the experiences as much as me. I’m extremely lucky to have her support me the way she does. It wouldn’t be the same without her.”
He is also keen to point out that, contrary to how his work might appear, he is not a risk-taker. “I know what my capabilities are and don’t push things to the limit. Neither of my children worry about what I do; they know I’m not a daredevil and always stay safe.”
But, given what his job entails, do his road-car insurers feel the same?
“My everyday car is a 16-year-old Land Rover Defender,” he adds. “My car insurers are well aware of my work activities and apply no penalty. I have a full no-claims bonus and consider myself a very careful driver.”
Something the lack of dents in his display Subarus perhaps confirms…
Written by Iain Macauley
Iain started working for the Sunday Mirror as a freelance sports reporter before he even received his A-level results. That was in 1979. Between then and now he worked in both newspapers and broadcast in news and sport before “defecting”, as his senior journalist father described it, to public relations, and then reputation & crisis communications – his current “day job”.
However, throughout and in parallel he has maintained his journalism connections, ghost-writing in the likes of The Times and Metro on behalf of a range of clients, but in recent years as a by-lined contributor to the likes of the Financial Times HTSI magazine, GQ magazine, various county “Life” magazines, and, of course, Saga Magazine and Exceptional.
He mainly writes about his self-indulgent interests of classic and collectable cars, motorcycles and aircraft, as well as the people and personalities in those fields. He has raced cars, restored classic cars and motorcycles, flown around the Arctic Circle in a 1940s Douglas DC-4, gets around on a Honda 1000, and keeps a rare Yamaha 50 in his dining room to the bemusement of his wife, Pam, and ginger cat Darcy.