The racing historian, his fighter pilot son, and the Nazi…

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One of the most cherished of all the volumes on my library shelves is a first-edition A Record of Motor Racing, published for the Royal Automobile Club by Reveirs Bros of Fetter Lane, London, in 1909.

This was the first great British history of motor sport, and its young author, Gerald Rose, put his painstaking training as an engineer into researching and writing it. He addressed the earliest pioneering competitive events of the late 1880s before describing the Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894 and the formation of the sporting-minded Automobile Club de France which followed. Thereafter, year by year, complete with detailed entry lists, race reports and technical analysis, Rose traced the development of the sport from the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris epic of 1895, clear through to the American Grand Prize race at Savannah, Georgia, in November 1908. The book is almost as well illustrated as it is fact-packed… and for any like-minded enthusiast it’s an enduring bible.

My copy is signed by Lionel Martin, of Aston Martin fame – I presume it was his. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of its original publication, A Record of Motor Racing was re-published by Motor Racing Publications Ltd, with encouragement from Sam Clutton of the VSCC, in 1949. Three years previously, in December 1946, he had invited Gerald Rose, then still only 59, to dine with fellow club luminaries Anthony Heal, Laurence Pomeroy, Kent Karslake and others.

In his preface to the re-issued edition, Rose wrote: “I rather think that my hosts – not at first knowing that I was only 22 when I wrote the book in 1908 – regarded me with some suspicion until my ability to discuss or enlarge on almost any episode of the old racing days proved my identity to their satisfaction.” He remarked upon the VSCC finest’s astonishment that he did not wear “a long white beard”. Decades later, A Record was re-issued in another reproduction edition by Ken Ball’s Autobooks of Brighton – and its various renditions continue to inform and entertain hardcore racing buffs.

This past year has seen the 70th anniversary of a rather more noisy event than any book launch – the 1940 Battle of Britain. Martin Stockham, a TV producer friend of mine, had been filming interviews during the year with surviving veterans from the battle, and in the run-up to the Goodwood Revival meeting he telephoned one day with some news. “We’ve just filmed a remarkable old boy who flew from Goodwood when it was RAF Westhampnett, during the Battle of Britain. He was in No 602 City of Glasgow Squadron and while we were chatting he asked me what else we covered in addition to aviation. I mentioned the Festival of Speed and Revival meeting, and he said that was interesting – his late father wrote an early book on motor racing. His name was Gerald Rose, have you heard of him?”

And so I found myself in an Essex pub near Clacton, lunching with Nigel Rose, 92-year-old former fighter pilot, RAF Westhampnett veteran, and son of Gerald, the pioneering motor racing author and researcher, born in 1886. Nigel explained that his father had contracted rheumatic fever while training as an engineer and had been told by his doctor to take it easy and pursue “only light work” for a year. While looking for a book worth reading to alleviate the boredom, Gerald realised that nobody had yet written an exclusive history of motor racing. So he set about filling the gap. This involved several gentle research trips to France, and in the 1909 first edition he acknowledges the Chevalier Réné de Knyff and a M Sautin who gave him access to the Automobile Club de France archives, enabling him “…to verify personally the records of all the important races which have taken place in France since 1901”.

Count Sierstorpff and Herr de la Croix had provided him with German race records, and Messrs Elliott, Butler and Dave H Morris the American data. He then confessed, “It is with deep regret that I have to state that I have been unable to obtain the official verification of the Italian times. The records exist, it appears, in the keeping of an official who is unwilling to transcribe them or to allow them out of his possession. I have therefore been compelled to take the times from the motor journals…” He infers that he personally attended the 1908 Targa Florio in Sicily and gives fulsome credit to the bi-weekly French sporting paper, La France Automobile, which permitted him to use its entry and result tables.

To his readers, Gerald has since remained a somewhat obscure figure. Nigel Rose now added more biography: “I was born when he was fitting torpedoes into submarines at the Elswick shipyards near Newcastle. Then we moved to Leyland near Preston where father became works manager making solid-tyred Leyland trucks, and I believe Trojan cars. After another bout of fever around 1925 he had a spell in the South of France, and then became a pioneering business management consultant, from 1927 until around 1960. He lived in Sydenham, South London, and later – during the war – had a flat near Lord’s Cricket Ground.”

Gerald fathered three sons – Nigel now 92, Tony now 95, and Peter now 97. All three flew throughout the war years, amazingly all three survived… and how. One of Nigel’s memories is of living off base at Prestwick and being called out to intercept a Messerschmitt 110 reported as crossing the North Sea coast. “I cycled furiously to the airfield, only to be told that the intruder had just crashed and the lone pilot had baled out, so I cycled back to bed again. But that pilot turned out to be Rudolf Hess – Hitler’s deputy – demanding to give himself up to the Duke of Hamilton to open peace talks. The Duke was our Squadron commodore, and each of us was given a piece of elastic cut from Hess’s parachute. Suitably inscribed I gave mine to Dad, who gave it to Harold West, a director of Newton Chambers, one of his client companies, who made Izal toilet paper. And 69 years later I received a letter from Harold West’s grandson, who had just found among his grandfather’s effects this piece of elastic with its explanatory label.”

Gerald Rose passed away in 1963. How extraordinary that his youngest son should have fought from RAF Westhampnett – which eight years later as the Goodwood Motor Circuit became the pioneering British motor racing venue – and even more extraordinary that all three of Gerald’s sons should not only have survived wartime combat in the RAF, but are still hale and hearty in their nineties today. And just to round off the story, writing seems to run in the Rose family genes, for Nigel’s daughter is the successful historical novelist Barbara Erskine. I asked Nigel to autograph my copy of his late father’s magnificent book. It just seemed the right thing to do, and I am very happy that he obliged.