"Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot"

“Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot”, by Anthony Blight. 496 pp. x 10 in 6 in. (Grenville Publishing Co. Ltd., Standard House, Bonhill Street, London, PC2. 105s.)

Anthony Blight’s long-awaited work on the Roesch Talbots, which is the culmination of eight years of writing and research undertaken by a non-professional writer against the background of restoring and racing eight historic Talbots of the period the book covers, is altogether remarkable. Apart from the difficulty of comprehending how the author found time to write it and also efficiently look after his splendid motor-cars and his professional commitments—Mrs. Mary Blight calls it the longest pregnancy in history—the completed work must rank as the most comprehensive one-make study ever compiled. It is, in fact, three books in one—the story of the romantic and unique career of the late Georges Henry Roesch (1891-1970), who went to Paris to seek his fortune and became the designer of one of Britain’s best-engineered cars; the complete account of these simple but effective push-rod-engined cars in races and trials, in which they so notably upheld British prestige after the demise of the big green Bentleys; the history, in fascinating detail, of the sports-car races of the late ‘twenties and the nineteen-thirties, races which, run under complex handicapping systems, over ingenious courses, with unbelievably mixed entries, filled in for drivers, engineers, enthusiast spectators and the writers of publicity material after the decline of costly Grand Prix racing.

“Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot” is not light reading. Indeed, it is about the most obtuse motoring book I have read, apart from engineering text books. But it had to be written and only Anthony Blight could have tackled a task of such magnitude as it should have been done. He has produced a wonderfully continuative narrative, superbly readable.

I have a personal interest in this book, which, once admitted, may suggest that someone else should have written this review. I rekindled Blight’s appreciation of the finer points of Roesch’s great engineering talent by articles in Motor Sport in 1957, before the time anyone had devoted much space to this great Swiss engineer; and very hard going those articles had been, for Roesch, while being exacting in what he wanted me to say, was at the time completely disinterested in his past achievements, believing that his designs had been copied without acknowledgement by mass-producers, so that after a brief interview he left me to write the article from old instruction books, and such other material as I could muster. How fortunate that, before it was too late, Blight was able to extract a good deal more from this charming but stubborn man.

My wife and I had formed the STD Register (having owned several Sunbeam cars) and brought in to join the Wolverhampton make the Roesch Talbots, which rallied some more data. Charles Mortimer acquired three GO Team Talbot 105s and began to compile their history. Blight bought these and others and took on the job of historian. I found him a publisher but when the bible-size mss. was shown to them they threw up their hands in horror and asked for a gentleman’s agreement, the contract torn up. The book was the most fascinating and derailed I had read and I was relieved when Grenville, who fond paper for my Brooklands’ tome when other houses were down to their last thin toilet roll, agreed to take on the formidable chore of publishing It. I can say that had I never heard of it until I received a review copy I would have written exactly the same notice as I am writing now.

The book ranges over every aspect of Roesch and the invincible cars he created. There is the account of how Louis Coatalen gave the inexperienced but confident young designer the chance to devise the 14/45 six-cylinder Talbot, after his earlier designs had been still-born—his astonishing 50-litre aero-engine, 30 cwt. lorry, etc. The subsequent development of this and all the later Talbot models is treated as thoroughly as any one-make book has dealt with its subject. This is interesting stuff to all Roesch Talbot owners and essential to those restoring them. But what makes Tony Blight’s Talbot bible irresistible is his meticulous description of Talbots in competition. Here he was very fortunate to have access to the records, notebooks, even the bills, kept by Arthur Wingrave Fox, who ran the Talbot teams in innumerable races with works co-operation, with the excellent results this painstaking author recalls. (Intriguing are the details of the 20/60 Hurlingham Vauxhalls which Fox would have raced instead, had GM proved more co-operative). Blight does not just repeat parrot-fashion the contemporary reports of these races—the TT, the “Double Twelve”, the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, the Irish GP, the BRDC 500-mile Race the JCC 1,000-mile Race, the Alpine Trials, in which the silent, crankcase-camshaft Talbots did so much for Britain. He shows how Fox planned his strategy for each event, according to the current capabilities of his Talbots, the class-handicap situation and the opposition. Each race of importance to Fox’s team cars is so fully and graphically covered that the book becomes the best history yet of the motor racing of this type and period. The detail—which I regard as so important to this type of writing—is, like the cars being described, unique—the cost to Fox of each one, following discussions with the factory, the bonuses paid, even the numbers of the hotel rooms in which the drivers stayed, how these drivers were chosen and taken on, down to a note of an unposted letter addressed to Dudley Froy, picked out of the wreckage of the Talbots which crashed in the unhappy “Double Twelve” of 1930, and even the quantity of beer Fox ordered for the “Double Twelve” mechanics!

If this Brooklands’ accident, with its two fatalities, is likewise described in detail, what a dramatic start it gives to Blight’s account of Talbot’s racing career—Fox with his brand-new team of specially-bodied Talbot 90s tragically eliminated on their very first competition appearance. Blight tells sympathetically how Fox was fortunately encouraged to carry on, with the 90s, and 105s, the PL2., PL3 and PL4, GO51, GO52, GO53 and GO54 and subsequent team cars, with the great success which should be remembered but which too many people choose to forget. He covers the lesser races in which Talbots took part, culminating in BGH23’s Brooklands’ lap at nearly 130 m.p.h. as a dignified four-seater, with equal thoroughness. To say that all these races, and those great Alpine Trials in which the Talbot team was truly invincible, live in these pages as if it were yesterday is no exaggeration. So vividly does Blight capture the scene, the atmosphere, the excitement and (for Fox) the anxieties of those days that I once innocently remarked to this West Country solicitor that presumably, as young men, we must have frequently attended Brooklands on the same occasions. I was dumbfounded when he said he had never been to Brooklands…

Yet, thanks to his dedicated research and Arthur Fox’s meticulous notes, the book is as authentic as any piece of motoring history I have read. It can be dull in parts for any but equally-dedicated Roesch fanatics, but most of it is absolutely enthralling, and dramatic withal, as the story of how the smaller Talbots from Barlby Road, London, go out to vanquish the mighty cars from other Nations unfolds. The crash which happened to Corinne Eaton’s Bentley on the way to Le Mans, in 1932, which injured Roesch and his foreman-mechanic, Wilcockson, is another piece of drama in a book which recaptures so exactly the spirit, the problems, of motor racing before the war.

I will not attempt to outline here why the Talbots were so remarkable, for it is all in the book. Blight is unashamedly out to prove the superiority of Roesch’s designs in almost every respect, from comparisons with contemporary production cars of other makes and those of today, to how they disposed of the race opposition, which in itself leads him into highly interesting exposures of famous and obscure sports/racing cars of the 1930s. He clearly has a contempt for vintage Bentleys (although his father owned two) and no use for twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeams, even though Roesch himself did what he could to improve this STD inspired, Barlby Road-built engine. He even picks to pieces the Jaguar XK engine in comparison with Roesch’s push-rod o.h.v. power units.

Never previously has an author of this kind of book had the advantage of driving and racing the very cars about which he is writing (eight in all, including the GO team cars and BGH23). This alone makes Blight’s great book unique. I can strongly recommend it, expecting it to give the same intense pleasure to those who read it as checking the proofs gave to me. Lord Essendon, who as the Hon. Brian Lewis, was one of the racing drivers who consolidated the invincible Talbot reputation, says this far better than I have, in the Foreword. Incidentally, the frontispiece photograph depicts Owens, Wilcockson, Scott, Nicholl, Saunders Davies, Lord Brecknock, Rose Richards, Robertson, Fox, Eller, the Hon. Brian Lewis, Roesch, Cobb, Reeves, Hindmarsh, Symons, Fitzgerald, Woolfe and Day, after the 1932 Alpine Trial—and that is the cast of the book.

I will conclude by printing a letter from one person with Roesch Talbot associations whom Blight did not contrive to meet before putting his first sheet of virgin paper in his typewriter, because it shows the sort of regard in which Roesch is held by those who worked for him and join with Blight in thinking his cars unique:—

Regarding your book “Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot”.

As one who carried out 99.9% of all engine testing experiments for Mr. Roesch, I am extremely interested.

I joined the Talbot firm in 1920 and left in 1947, and I wonder how many of the people who were with us in the early days are still with us—not many, I am afraid. Seen through my eyes, Georges Roesch arrived at the firm when things were bad. He looked, to me, very young (he turned out to be 10 years older than me).

Much has been said about his inventive mind and engineering skill, but little of the equally wonderful staff he joined, names at this time evade me, a few come to my mind, Wyres, Knell, Craighead, Saunders, Brown, Kneebone, Bill Berry, Thompson, and many, many others whose skill was in immediate demand by many fine firms when we were turned over to the Rootes tinware people.

I wonder how many projects Roesch had up his sleeve in 1935. I know the straight-eight was shown and not marketed, but what happened to his tiny worm-drive starter [Mentioned in the book—Ed.]—absolutely silent with a current consumption a fraction of any of today’s starters and many others. A difficult man to work for, but you had to marvel at his work.

Today, details of engine design are shown as something new, which were old hat to us in those days 40 years ago—don’t seem possible. I could go on.

The purpose of the letter is to find out something of the book. I do not want to spend money on a book carrying pictures of the dollies of the time.

But engineering-work of my time, yes. Can you enlighten me?

C.G. Troll

Through a long confinement, Tony Blight conceived almost certainly the longest and, I think, the greatest one-make history yet published, assisted by many mid-wives. If I was the person who, in any way, brought about this fruitful match, I am extremely happy that it was so. The book concludes with eight exceedingly erudite appendices, but it seems almost a criminal omission that there is no index.—W. B.