Looking back with Tony Rolt: Jaguar Le Mans hero who plotted Colditz escape

Born a motor sport enthusiast, Tony Rolt's racing career spanned from a promising youngster to a engineering pioneer — and everything in between

Tony Rolt in Jaguar D-type talks to Duncan Hamilton

Tony Rolt in cockpit talks to Duncan Hamilton at Silverstone in 1955

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It seems hard to believe that Tony Rolt could be old enough to have raced at Donington, but the fact remains that, at the relatively tender age of twenty-one he won the 1939 British Empire Trophy at the wheel of the ex-Bira 1.1/2-litre E.R.A. “Remus”. Since that period when many hailed him as a promising youngster, a varied racing career brought him the first Le Mans victory to be gained at an average speed of over 200mph as well as a regular place in the Jaguar works team.

Perhaps, more than anything, his name is connected most strongly with the research work into four-wheel-drive systems and their application to racing and road cars with Ferguson Research Ltd. Now Managing Director of FF Developments, an entity in its own right which has been in existence for just two years, we visited Major Rolt at his Coventry premises in the shadow of the big Massey-Ferguson plant to chat informally about his racing memories and his work with Fred Dixon and Harry Ferguson.

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A.P.R Rolt was born shortly before the end of the First World War, firing an early enthusiasm for matters mechanical long before he was ever old enough to hold a driving licence. His family lived for a time on a farm in North Wales and the young Rolt bounced around the farm tracks “in an old Singer and an early G.N.”, demonstrating sufficient enthusiasm for motoring as was necessary to swing his parents round to providing him with a Morgan three-wheeler before he left for Eton. One was permitted to drive three-wheelers at the age of 16, so this willing workhorse was immediately put to work in trials; “it wasn’t particularly suitable with that two-wheel-front, one-wheel rear arrangement. But that’s all there was, so I made do.” He confesses that, as a young boy, he often spent hours sitting by the roadside near Maidenhead watching for an interesting car to appear.

These schoolboy watches by the roadside were often sustained in the company of Lance Macklin, a face he was later to meet regularly on the circuits of Europe once the war was over. When the writer, later quizzing Major Rolt on the subject of D-type Jaguars, remarked that these cars were his personal favourites when he was growing up, our subject agreed with the theory that one forms one’s basic criteria by which one judges everything later in life when one is young and impressionable. So, although Major Rolt has a particular soft spot for the D-type — “remember, it was only a 3.4-litre engine… I think Duncan (Hamilton) managed to wind one up to almost 190mph at Agadir or somewhere like that” — his personal favourites were the 2.8-litre Roesch Talbots. “These were the cars I really loved. As far as I was concerned, Bentleys were just tanks, Bugattis too finicky. Those Talbots always won the team prize. You can’t imagine how I envy Anthony Blight, owning those team cars of his!”

Tony Rolt D-Type

The Jaguar D-Type would be a career-favourite of Rolt’s — but he kept a soft spot for his beloved Talbots

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The days of car-watching were soon over and Rolt’s ambitions to go motor racing remained unfulfilled. His first “real” motor car was a 1936 Triumph Southern Cross: “Ex-Donald Healey, overhead inlet, side exhaust, straight six. Do you know, it would do over 110mph when you wound it right up.” The Triumph was duly dispatched to Spa for the 24-hour sports car race shortly alter Rolt’s seventeenth birthday where he achieved a worthy fourth place in the 2-litre class. “First, second and third were a team of German Adlers; that was real Teutonic efficiency for you. But I’d actually competed in the same race as Dick Seaman, he was driving a Lagonda which gave me a great thrill to say the least.” Unfortunately, a slight disagreement with the local constabulary in rural Wales as to the precise speed achieved on one occasion with his later, and rather rare, Triumph Dolomite was responsible for his reduced programme in 1937, even though the RAC were not obliged to suspend competition licences automatically!

By this time Tony Rolt had moved to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, duly passing out and being commissioned into the Rifle Brigade before World War II broke out. But, before that unfortunate turn of events, Rolt had purchased “Remus” from Bira for the 1938 season and embarked on a very ambitious programme of racing. It was during the winter of 1938/39, when searching for more speed and road-holding from the E.R.A., that he met the rugged and rough former motorcyclist Fred. W. Dixon who had already built up a substantial reputation for preparing and driving Rileys.

Dixon agreed to carry out the preparation of Rolt’s E.R.A. while also mentioning the fact that he’d prepared plans for a four-wheel-drive record-breaking car. Rolt took a great interest in this project, but managed to persuade Dixon that his ideas would be better if they were applied to circuit racing rather than record breaking. By this stage, very little development had been done in the sphere of four-wheel drive. Back in 1903, Spyker had built such a car which, powered by an 8.6-litre engine, had won a Birmingham Motor Club hillclimb. In 1932, Ettore Bugatti built his hillclimbing pair of four-wheel drive Type-53s and Rene Dreyfus had actually established a new record for the La Turbie hillclimb near Nice, being the first competitor ever to ascend the 6-kilometre course at more than 100kph.

Bugatti Type-53

The Bugatti Type-53

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It was eventually agreed that Dixon would prepare a four-wheel-drive chassis powered by Rolt’s E.R.A. engine, but although plans were drawn up for this project in 1939, the onset of war meant that they had to be shelved. Nevertheless, the two men formed a small company called Dixon-Rolt Ltd with the intention of examining such systems and Rolt spent a lot of time attempting to persuade the war office that they would be ideal for military vehicles. However, they were not particularly interested and the matter was left in abeyance after Rolt was captured at Dunkirk and Dixon just got on with his work for the war department on other matters.

After the war, Rolt returned from his enforced sojourn in the notorious Colditz, where his most famous exploit had been to instigate the building of a glider for an escape attempt from the Castle roof, to find Dixon still hard at work in his small Reigate factory and he retired from the army in 1948 to resume a career in motor racing “despite my parents urging me to take a choice between the army or racing, emphatically pointing out that motor racing could not be made to pay. Of course, I was absolutely determined to prove otherwise.” Rolt’s first post-war mount was the famous Alfa Romeo Bimotore, the twin-engine record breaker in which Nuvolari had bravely established some 200mph-plus times on an Italian autostrada in 1935. However, this car was now minus its rear engine, owing to an overwhelming inclination to eat up its rear tyres at the rate of one set every ten miles or so.

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In addition to his efforts with the Alfa Romeo, in which he took a fine second place at Zandvoort, Rolt got together with two friends, Geoff St. John Horsfall and Pat Fergusson (no relation to Harry Ferguson) and, together with Dixon, built up their first four-wheel-drive test bed, this being a rather stark two-seater equipped with a pre-war Riley engine. This showed considerable promise.

Meanwhile Harry Ferguson, in whose Belfast garage Fred Dixon used to keep his Rileys whilst competing in the pre-war Ards T.T. races, was making a big name for himself in the tractor world, while also distinguishing himself by being one of the few people to sue the Ford Motor Company with success (this, being in connection with tractor design) and obtained some three million pounds in damages. He had kept in touch with Dixon and, approving of the four-wheel-drive concept, offered a small amount of monetary assistance to the precariously financed Dixon-Rolt Ltd. Shortly afterwards, Aston Martin designer Claude Hill, the man who designed both engine and chassis of the DB1, left David Brown’s firm and joined Dixon-Rolt Ltd. He was later to design the famous Ferguson Project 99.

Rolt’s racing career, meanwhile, was developing apace. Between 1949 and 1952 he drove all manner of cars, notably Rob Walker’s famous Delage and Delahaye which Walker had promised his wife he would never again race in circuit competition after the war. In 1950 and 1951, sharing the wheel of a Nash-Healey on both occasions with Duncan Hamilton, Rolt finished fourth and sixth at Le Mans. His attraction to long-distance racing was the factor which had driven him to Spa when he was just seventeen.

1952 Le Mans

Trouble for the Jaguar of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton

In 1952 came the most significant move of his racing career; he was invited to join the Jaguar team, “I’d proved quite competitive at Dundrod where I actually lapped the C-type faster than Stirling. Then they asked me who I’d like as my co-driver and I said Duncan. They said ‘Duncan, you must be mad!’ But he joined me in the team for 1952 and we always drove in long distance races together.” The first Le Mans was a disaster for Rolt. “Stirling had been blown off by the Mercedes on the Mille Miglia and came back telling us that there would be no way of keeping up, so Jaguar rushed through the construction of a more streamlined ‘droop snout’ nose section. Ironically, the Mercedes were not as quick at we’d feared, but all the Jaguars overheated and were sitting in the pits, three cars retired, by the time it was seven o’clock on Saturday evening.”

The 1953 race was memorable, because Rolt and Hamilton became the first to win the 24-hour classic at an average speed in excess of 100mph at the wheel of a 3.4-litre C-type. However, Rolt’s memories seem more stirred by the 1954 race, where their D-type ran to second place on its very first outing.

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On the billiard-smooth surface of Le Mans, this classic aerodynamic machine could reach 170mph which, in retrospect, seems shattering for twenty years ago. “We had a lot of problems in practice, and we were told that we’d only got time for two laps. But I told Lofty England that I had to do one flying lap, which meant I’d really got to put in three laps. As I came past the pits to start my flying lap I turned a blind eye to the ‘come in’ boards and tried as hard as I could all the way round. The chequered flag was out when I arrived back at the pits, but I tore across the line and then obliged Lofty to have a lengthy argument with the organisers to establish whether I’d got the time or not. They eventually agreed to give us 4 min. 23 sec. which was really not bad for my first flying lap in a D-type!”

Rolt and Hamilton had a troubled time in the early stages of the race, their D-type starting to misfire from an early stage. They stopped at the pits to change plugs and check the electrics, it eventually becoming clear that the Jaguar team was using their car as a “guinea pig” to find out what was wrong so that if any of the other team cars ran into trouble they could be quickly repaired. Eventually it was diagnosed as dirt in the gauze of the fuel filters, so they went back into the race with a vengeance.

“We agreed to drive flat out all the way,” recalls Rolt. “We were chasing the Gonzales/Trintignant Ferrari all night and the following day. We could take ten or fifteen seconds a lap off it when Trintignant was at the wheel, but we were pushed to take two or three seconds a lap when Gonzales was driving.” Nevertheless, the Jaguar roared on through the night at a terrific pace, hauling in the Ferrari all the time.

Tony Rolt in Jaguar D-type with broken headlight at 1954 Le Mans 24H

Flat-out pace earned Rolt and Hamilton second place at Le Mans in 1954

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Then came an incident which slightly clouded the race for Tony Rolt. “It started to rain, in fact hail, like I’ve never seen before. The road was awash on the Mulsanne straight and smaller cars were skating everywhere. I realised that I couldn’t see properly, so I stopped at the pits to ask for a vizor. It wouldn’t have taken a few seconds, but the Ferrari was in its pit at the time and they just waved me out again. Next time round it was still very bad, so I came in again. My goggles were full of water. I hopped out to fix on a vizor and the next thing I knew was that Duncan had jumped into the car and was away. That caused just a little bit of tension, I really don’t know why they couldn’t have given me that vizor.”

Having made up a four-lap deficit, the Rolt/Hamilton D-type finished second, less than four kilometres behind the winning Ferrari. Rolt’s success over the years with Jaguar enabled him to continue with Rob Walker’s team, handling the 2-litre Connaught and later the 2½-litre Formula 1 Connaught, but he was always in touch with the motor industry as, back in 1950, Harry Ferguson had bought out Dixon-Rolt Ltd and installed them, now as Harry Ferguson Research, near the tractor plant in Coventry. This quite naturally suited Rolt, for Jaguar’s factory was just a few miles away from the Ferguson premises.

By the end of 1956, although still a member of the Jaguar works team, Rolt fully realised that an increasing commitment to Harry Ferguson Research Ltd was going to take more and more of his time, so he retired from active motor racing at the end of the following year to devote his full time efforts to the development programme. Later, much later, he tried Stirling Moss’s Rob Walker Lotus 18 during a test session and concluded that he retired at about the correct time. “I liked to see the nose of the car, I liked something to aim with, and after a few laps I came in and told Rob that I just couldn’t get used to it.”

Of course, whilst trying to sell the British motor industry the concept of four-wheel-drive on a commercial basis, Ferguson Research laid plans at the end of the 1950s for their famous Project 99 Grand Prix test bed. Claude Hill’s work on this distinctive “centre engined” machine with its rear-mounted driving position was completed by early 1961, but only Tony Rolt remained of the original triumvirate to see this project through to fruition.

Jack Fairman 1961

Jack Fairman in a 4-wheel-drive Ferguson P99 in the 1961 British Grand Prix

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Fred Dixon had died five years earlier after splitting with Ferguson in 1952 after a difference of opinion and poor Ferguson himself died suddenly in the autumn of 1960. The decision was taken to proceed with the project and, although Rolt was more than capable of driving the car fast enough for test purposes, Jack Fairman was called in to drive it in the British Empire Trophy and the British Grand Prix at Aintree, proving without doubt that four-wheel-drive allied to the Dunlop Maxaret braking system was substantially superior in the wet. The P99 was run under the Rob Walker banner and, after Stirling Moss won the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in the car, Ferguson offered the whole project to any team that was interested.

Unfortunately, grand prix racing didn’t aspire to any great heights as far as engineering standards were concerned in the early 196os and there wasn’t a British team with the technical ‘know-how’ to successfully adopt the P99. Despite a later trip to the Tasman Series and success in Peter Westbury‘s hands in the RAC Hillclimb Championship, the car wasn’t used very much again.

From the archive

Meanwhile, Ferguson Research Ltd built up several systems for racing cars as well as trying to interest the British industry as a whole. Rolt made contact with Andy Granatclli, a move which sparked off a series of four-wheel-drive systems for the Novi-Fergusons, the STP Turbine car and latterly the Lotus 56 turbines. “BRM wanted to do a system for the H16,” Roll recalls “but they were not prepared to turn the engine through 180 degrees and they wanted to use the same gearbox. It really wasn’t feasible. Incidentally, you realise that there was a hole down the centre of the H16 motor between the cylinder banks that was to accommodate the drive for a four-wheel-drive system.” As it was, BRM had sufficient problems with the car to forget four-wheel-drive and it wasn’t until 1969 that the constructors ended up swinging their engines through 180 degrees and taking the power on the “front end”.

Harry Ferguson Research Ltd has now changed its name to FF Developments and it is GKN who hold the licence to mass produce the Ferguson four-wheel-drive system should a bulk order be required from any manufacturer. GKN show a fatherly interest in the project, but Tony Rolt continues to keep control of FF Developments to which GKN pass over any orders “if they are less than 50,000 a year” explains Rolt. Looking round the workshops it may come as a surprise to many to see just how many people are interested in paying £1000 (or more) to have the full four-wheel-drive treatment on their road cars. Patting the roof of a Capri, Major Rolt quipped “this fellow comes from Switzerland and uses it a lot in the snow. He gets a great deal of pleasure from stopping to help Porsche drivers to fix their chains and then shooting off away up the road!”

Despite his all-consuming involvement with four-wheel-drive systems, Tony Rolt remains an ardent motor racing enthusiast and a great supporter of his son, Stuart, who has just started in Group 1 with a 3-litre Capri. “Really, I find saloons rather more stimulating than formula cars nowadays,” he remarked. Then, with a flicker of pride on his face, he added, “He’s done eight races in that Capri now and he’s only once touched another competitor. That’s not bad for Group 1, is it?” Not bad at all, in fact, and a virtual guarantee that the military bearing of Major Tony Rolt will continue to be seen at race circuits all round this country, his effervescent enthusiasm for cars and motor racing unlikely to wane. A.H.