British Motor Heritage’s Motoring Classics magazine produced a series of features on ‘classic characters’ between Winter 2011 and Spring 2020.
Some of us are born with petrol rather than blood in our veins. Sydney Herbert Allard certainly seems to have been, and remains the only person to win the Monte Carlo Rally in a car bearing their own name.
Baxter was a pioneering radio and TV broadcaster for over 30 years, prior to which he had completed 2.5 operational tours as a WWII Spitfire pilot. He was also an accomplished competition driver who competed in no less than 12 Monte Carlo Rallies.
Unlike most subsequent industry pioneers, W.O., as he referred to himself and by which he is still affectionately known, was not born with petrol coursing through his veins. He didn’t travel in a motor vehicle until aged 16, and initially viewed them as ‘draughty, antisocial objects that irritated dogs and frightened horses’.
John and brother Richard arguably owed their motoring passion to their mother. She transported WWI VIPs in her own Napier and Gordon Watney Mercedes and was actively involved in the cars’ maintenance – when just six, John helped her decoke the Merc’s massive six-cylinder engine. His first drive occurred courtesy of the family chauffeur, who illicitly allowed him behind the wheel during the school run.
Every James Bond aficionado can recognise an Aston Martin DB5, as driven by the famous fictional spy in the films Gold Finger, Thunderball and Skyfall. But how many know what those evocative letters DB stand for? The answer is David Brown, the thrice-married knight of the realm, who not only rose to manage the engineering company established by his grand-father, but acquired for it the high-speed boat manufacturer Vosper and prestige car makers Aston Martin and Lagonda.
Record-breaking, racing and rally driver, powerboat racer, pioneering aviatrix and successful business woman, the diminutive Mrs Bruce (née Mildred Mary Petre) was a female way ahead of her time.
The Cotton dynasty has bestrode the world of British light entertainment for a century. Its latest representative is popular radio and TV presenter Fearne, Billy’s great-niece. His own career began on the drums, while simultaneously holding down the job of London bus conductor. However, he was always a man in a hurry, and by 1924 was fronting his own dance orchestra, the London Savannah Band.
When Thomas Anthony Donald ‘Tony’ Crook passed away one month shy of his 94th birthday, the automotive world was robbed of one of its greatest characters.
Few would question that Keith Duckworth was the most outstanding engine designer of his generation. As if fathering the Ford Cosworth DFV engine wasn’t testament enough, he was primarily responsible for a string of other victorious car units as well as valued technological contributions to aviation, motorcycling and powerboating.
A.F.P. Fane earned considerable respect for his prowess at the wheel of various competition cars, but is perhaps better remembered for locating and photographing Tirpitz, Germany’s infamous WWII battleship, that was subsequently destroyed by the RAF.
The author of the world’s most famous fictional spy was the second of four brothers born to Eve and Valentine Fleming. The son of a successful Scottish banker, Valentine became a member of parliament for Henley-on-Thames before serving with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in WWI, during which he was sadly killed in Ypres a week before Ian’s ninth birthday.
Flight engineer, motor trader, resistance fighter, gas generator inventor, car designer/ manufacturer, competition driver, – ‘Gatso’ packed a great deal into his 87 years on planet earth, but is best remembered for creating the dreaded speed camera.
As a WWII fighter pilot F.A.O. ‘Tony’ Gaze was credited with destroying 11 enemy aircraft and playing a role in the destruction of up to seven others; a proud record for which he was awarded the DFC on no less than three occasions.
He crashed numerous cars and aeroplanes, did his best to drown an admiral, and his dog held up a critical wartime convoy for four days by eating top secret naval documents, but Duncan Hamilton was also one of Europe’s most successful racing drivers of the post-war period, and penned the funniest motor racing autobiography ever written, Touch Wood!
Britain has spawned 10 F1 World Champions – seven more than any other country. This plethora of home-grown talent perhaps explains why our first victor is now arguably the least well-remembered.
The 50th anniversary of the MGB brought the name of Don Hayter to the attention of a new generation of car enthusiasts. However, this modest man put his stamp on a good few other projects too.
Ronald Price Hickman died on the island of Jersey in February 2011, aged 78. His name may not be familiar to you, but the products of his fertile brain most certainly will be, and include the original Lotus Elan and the Black & Decker Workmate.
It often feels as if our pasts were shaped by just a few individuals, as the same monikers surface again and again. Certainly, if you investigate the pioneering days of motoring and motorsport, the name Charles Jarrott quickly rises to the surface.
It has been said that achievers achieve and the rest of us either tell them what to do (teachers) or report on their results (journalists). But there will always be exceptions – multitalented characters for whom one classification is insufficient. Denis Sargent Jenkinson was just such a mortal.
Motorcar, motorcycle and powerboat racer; pioneer aviator; submariner; boxer; fly fisherman; skier; big game shot – Kidston’s action-packed 32 years on earth reads like a Boy’s Own Annual. His feline ability to survive near-death experiences was legendary, but lady luck finally deserted him while flying over the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa, in a de Havilland Puss Moth, May 5, 1931.
The MG brand has been kicked from pillar to post since its inception, yet the famous Octagon badge remains a symbol of a golden age of British car manufacture. Despite this, few people outside the motoring sphere are truly au fait with the company’s founder – the enigmatic Cecil Kimber.
‘Morgan Maverick’, the title of Chris Lawrence’s illuminating auto-biography, provides a couple of clues to the life of one of motorsport’s most talented characters. Though he claimed only his mother was pleased by his debut on earth, it was his motorcycling father who introduced him to motorsport and provided his first mode of transport – a 1928 350cc AJS – on which he travelled between home, Pangbourne College and Goring & Streatley Golf Club.
Though you could almost fill this page with the duke’s titles, he scorned them, preferring to be known as Freddie March. The youngest of four children, he adored his brother Charles, sharing his passion for cars, motorcycles and aeroplanes, and together they frequently cycled to the home of Henry Royce in nearby West Wittering. Sadly, Freddie was just 15 when Charles died at Archangel while supporting the White Russian army.
A pioneer of flame retardant racing overalls, Les Leston was a successful driver, jazz musician, WWII aircraft gunner, businessman and broadcaster – i.e. a multi-talented character of a bygone era.
Leonard Lord (later Baron Lambury of Northfield) was born in Coventry, by then the heart of Britain’s embryo motor industry. Having received a technical education he briefly joined Courtaulds as a draughtsman before spending the majority of WWI working for Coventry Ordinance Works.
This year is the centenary of Morris Motors and its Bullnose Oxford. What better excuse to celebrate the man who brought us that milestone motorcar and, despite shunning personal publicity, found fame all over again as a philanthropist of almost unequalled generosity.
Pat and her brother Sir Stirling had much in common. They were serial winners on horseback before turning to wheeled competition where, again, they both excelled. Stirling’s story is well known, Pat’s less so. We pay tribute to one of the finest drivers of her generation, irrespective of gender.
Devotees of Formula One will be familiar with the name, but may not realise why, in 1979, the last corner on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit previously known as the Gasometer Turn was rechristened ‘Virage Antony Noghès’.
Though best known as the co-founder of Rolls-Royce, C S Rolls lived the equivalent of at least three lives in his 32 action-packed years, and the fields of motoring, ballooning and aviation each have much to thank him for.
For a man of such accomplishment and personal presence, Tony Rolt’s extraordinary life has remained remarkably unpublicised. At the tender age of 20 he won the 200-mile British Empire Trophy race at Donington in the immortal ERA ‘Remus’, eliciting ‘boy wonder’ headlines as a result. His astonishing war record included seven escape attempts and he was a mastermind behind the famously audacious Colditz glider.
As air warfare between Britain and Germany intensified in 1940, a potentially fatal flaw was found to afflict Britain’s Merlin-powered Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. When placed in a nose dive their carburettors tended to flood, snuffing out the flame – a problem unknown to Luftwaffe pilots, whose Messerschmitt powerplants were fuel injected. Numerous brains were tasked with solving this serious problem, but the one that did so belonged to Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling.
Few people are truly successful in one career. Whitney Straight, however, excelled in motorsport, aviation and business and the story of his colourful life reads like a ready made film script.
Born in Paddington, London, Van Damm is best-known as a champion rally driver, but her passion was rooted in the infamous Windmill Theatre that coloured her childhood and which she ultimately inherited and ran until its closure in 1964.
Though never a household name, Villiers underpinned Raymond Mays’s early motorsport successes and contributed to powerplants for the incomparable Blower Bentley and Graham Hill’s championship-winning BRM, plus the design of Malcolm Campbell’s inaugural Blue Bird. He was also involved in a variety of major aeronautical and aerospace projects and became an accomplished artist.