Obituary – Tony Rolt

(Major Anthony Peter Roylance Rolt, MC)

Le Mans 24 Hours winner, Grand Prix driver, decorated war veteran and true gentleman, Tony Rolt has died aged 89. Before the outbreak of WWII, Rolt was one of Britain’s most promising amateur drivers, racing one of the exotic Triumph Dolomites and winning the 1939 British Empire Trophy at Donington in ERA ‘Remus’. While competing in a minor Brooklands race, aged only 19, a bolt dropped from the ERA’s exhaust and flames engulfed his lap. Rolt removed his gloves, plugged the hole with one of them and went on to win the race. He was well known for being a keen and exceedingly quick competitor throughout his career.

In 1940 his unit, the Rifle Brigade, was sent to France to try and halt the German advance. Lieutenant Rolt was soon in the thick of the fighting, stalling the 10th Panzer Division’s move towards Dunkirk by holding them up for three days at Calais. He was awarded a Military Cross for his efforts. It was here that Rolt was taken prisoner for the first time. After seven escape attempts involving being dressed as a prison workman, a member of a visiting German general’s entourage and a German plumber who didn’t speak German, Rolt was sent to the maximum-security prison at Colditz. He spent many nights in an attic behind a fake wall working on the famous two-seater glider in order to escape, but the castle was liberated before the plan could be carried out. Rolt said that “escaping was not a game. Nor was it fun. It was a duty”.

Having returned from the war with a bar to his MC, Rolt started working with Freddy Dixon on a four-wheel drive system and together they formed Dixon Rolt Developments. With backing from Harry Ferguson tractors, the company later became FF Developments, engineering the first 4WD production car, the Jensen FF. The Ferguson P99 was another result, the only 4WD – and the last front-engined – car to win a Formula 1 race, and many GpB rally cars used FF technology.

It was after racing various machinery, including Alfa Romeos and Delages, and sharing a car with Peter Walker in the first F1 World Championship race at Silverstone that Rolt was offered a works drive with Jaguar. Rolt and Duncan Hamilton then won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1953, driving a C-type Jaguar. The following year, in a D-type, the duo finished second both there and at the Reims 12 Hours. One of the last pre war racers and the oldest BRDC member, Tony Rolt and his dry sense of humour will be much missed.