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April 25th, 2007

The Dean of Automotive Writers tells all

If you are not familiar with the name and works of Graham Robson, you haven’t been reading enough. It is almost impossible to go to an automotive bookshelf and not see a book authored by this prolific Englishman. Robson, now in his seventies, is today the Dean of Automotive writers, having written more than 100 books, mostly on cars, and all excellent historical works. His books are always delightful, well written, extremely well researched and as he tells us, “Whatever you write, go to the real source - preferably interviews, or factory primary records”, a work ethic increasingly ignored in this age of Google.

For Italian car enthusiasts, Robson has penned “Lamborghini Countach”, “Fiat X1/9”, "Alfa Romeo Sports Coupes, 1954-89”, the “Encyclopedia of European Sports and GT Cars from 1961”, his latest, “Lancia Stratos”, and our favorite, “Fiat Sports Cars.” Via email from Dorset, England, Robson replied to our questions:

Tell us something non-automotive about Graham--age, education, where are you living, family, anything you might want to share with our readers.

My first job was as a graduate engineering trainee with Jaguar in 1957. I was born in Yorkshire. I had no motor industry background, except a father who was interested in motorcycle racing. Educated at local grammar school, I then read Engineering science at Oxford. I wanted to become a great engineer at Jaguar. But this lasted only three years. Nowadays I live in a seaside village in Dorset..I've have been here for 26 years.

You are one of the most prolific automotive writers, ever. What is the latest tally of Robson books?

The total is more than 130, and rising fast. Four more to be published this year (two of them being Rally Giants - Austin-Healey 3000 and Peugeot 205 T16).

This car thing--when did it start, how, who inspired you, who mentored you, what drove you to a career as an automotive writer?

No mentor, no family money, no inspiration, just a personal interest in cars and motoring. I wanted to be an engineer, but the writing bit followed after (i) rallying as a co-driver, (ii) writing rally reports for MOTORING NEWS, (iii) joining AUTOCAR magazine in 1965, and slipping into books in the 1970s.

I notice there are no books on Ferrari or Maserati by Robson--not that I can find. Is this true and if so, why?

It would not be credible to write about cars of which I know little. Awful thing to admit, but I have never driven a Ferrari or a Maserati, or even visited their factories as a tourist. I refuse to do 'cuttings jobs', so unless I have personal knowledge of a car I will not write about it

Which cars, of any age, are your all time favorites? Which would you most like to own? Why?

All time favourites - Ford RS200 - of which I drove four over a period of four years in the late 1980s (totaling 85,000 miles, in daily use), all on loan from Ford and used as Group B 'endurance cars'. And the Lancia Stratos, as I have explained several times, over the years, in print. If I had to live in the 1930s, a Rolls-Royce built Bentley, probably a 4 1/4-litre 'overdrive' model.

Do you own a classic, if so what kind, and what do you drive on a daily basis?

Not at the moment - because I'm too busy to enjoy it. Problem is that I am often working at weekends - for my sins I am also a busy commentator/presenter at old car events, shows, etc. My daily driver is a new BMW 330d, but I also have a smart little 1997 1.7-litre Ford Puma coupe - in which I managed to do all of 1,100 miles last year!

Tell us a bit about your rally experiences--which team, position, etc.

I started as club co-driver, became an International co-driver, joined Sunbeam works team (team prizes in the 1961 RAC and the 1962 Monte, 4th on the Monte), then became Competitions Secretary of Triumph from 1961 to 1965. Also found time to win the odd event as a co-driver with Roger Clark (Lotus-Cortina).

What was it like to ride with Roger Clark?

Sheer joy, because Roger was so relaxed, so laid back. Nothing seemed to be impossible (it usually wasn't, in any case !), and this provided almost an atmosphere of calm in the car.

But he was lazy, he would rather not drive on liaison sections, so the co-driver had to do a lot; he didn't like navigating so the co-driver had to do that; he didn't like to practice because he found it boring, and he liked a beer or three at night halts ....

Being a co-driver might require more bravery than being a driver. What kind of a person makes a good co driver and how do you refrain from attacks of sheer terror?

Preferably one with poor eyesight (LOL!) Good co-drivers (seriously) know that they are not as good drivers as the heroes they sit alongside, so they do their best to bring the best out of him. A good co-driver must be in complete administrative charge of the car - knowing everything about the route, the stages, the weather, timing, tyre choices, fuel loads, hotels, etc, etc. The ideal co-driver makes sure that all the driver has to do is to drive - not to find his way, not to make car-management decisions, not to worry about schedules. The ideal co-driver, too, is trusted completely by his driver.

I once asked a driver how he rated his long-term co-driver. 'I trust him, completely', he said. 'If he told me to turn left and drive off a cliff edge, i would do so, on the basis that he knew what he was talking about ....'

Italian participation in rallying today is pretty limited. Any reason for this? Any hope for the future? What about Fiat and Abarth rally cars? Do they have potential to be of the same category as the Stratos and 131?

Italian factories, I think, find that they get more publicity, under a very controlled engineering environment, in motor racing. Alfa and saloon car racing, for instance, go together. Today's engineers are clever enough to turn any mundane road car into a competitive WRC - after all, if Suzuki think they can do it, Fiat and Lancia should be able to do it with huge distinction. To summarise, I reckon that rallying is slowly but surely dying away due to lack of interest from major factories/marques. Are the costs worth it ? I doubt it.

Click here for a review of the Stratos book.

We are always amazed at your enthusiasm for a subject, not matter how obscure or mundane. You bring this high level of excitement to every book your write. How do you do that?

I wish I really knew, because it would be good to be able to bottle it, and sell it. It's just that I find the whole business of motor cars fascinating and always have. In all fairness, I couldn't possibly write about stuff that I don't know, or understand fully. I refer you back to what I said about not writing about Ferrari.

Do you have your own library? How do you do your research?

Yes, I have a fairly good library, kept in a biggish house which is now bursting at the seams. It helps that I have AUTOCAR, MOTOR, AUTOSPORT, CLASSIC CARS, CLASSIC & SPORTS CAR back to the dark ages - and, more important, I also have Indexes which allow me to find source material in a hurry. Plus mountains of books, of course.

Robson's library is essential, and huge.

If I need to, I can visit the National Motor Museum Reference Library at Beaulieu, which is about 75 minutes' drive away. I can carry out my own research there, which is a real privilege granted only to a few people.

After Rally Giants, what next?

If the series succeeds, that will keep me going for the next four years or so. I also have a Monte Carlo Rally book coming soon (Herridge), a Consul/Zephyr/Zodiac history (Crowood) on its way, a Capri book (Crowood) on its way, and the prospect of writing a 50-year history of the British Saloon Car Championship, which reaches its 'Golden' in 2008.

You’ve been all over the world and in all the right places for at least the past 30 years. What is your most significant event, memory, or experience?

My most significant event/experience, no question, was in acting as one of the (small) organising team which ran the World Cup Rally of 1970 - London to Mexico City by way of Sofia, Monza, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janiero, etc. Six weeks of sheer bliss.

My most flattering experience was in being chosen to write COSWORTH, THE SEARCH FOR POWER, which was really the official history of Cosworth, and involved sitting at the feet of founder Keith Duckworth for many an hour, with my tape recorder running.

Finally, what kind of advice would you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?

Advice ? That the lucky sort of career I have had was not pre-planned. I didn't set out to be a writer but an engineer, I didn't set out to write more motoring books than anyone else, and I didn't set out to be working at an age when I ought to have retired. It just happened like that, and I have gone with the flow. Don't expect it to be glamorous - it isn't. Do expect it to be hard work and very time-consuming - it is. NEVER, NEVER rely on secondary sources. Whatever you write, go to the real source - preferably interviews, or factory primary records.

Past Issues


Graham Gauld

Otto Linton

Giulio Ramponi Part 2

Giulio Ramponi Part 1

Curtis LeMay

Graham Robson Tells All

Jason Castriota, Pininfarina

Tom Tjaarda

Bob and Dennis Show

Ed Hugus, Obit

Joe Nastasi, Part II

Joe Nastasi, Part I

Tony Adriaensens

Otis Chandler Obit


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