The gentleman apologised that he could offer only £1500 a year and a company Lotus Cortina. I was earning £998 a year at Barclays. Life is full of difficult decisions and this was not one of them. Looking back, I wonder if I would have been brave enough to accept the job had my parents not been away on holiday…” Alan Henry, The Last Train From Yokkaichi, January 2014
It’s possible that Alan Henry is the only person ever to have secured a pay rise by committing to the Dickensian charms of Teesdale Publishing, former home of Motor Sport and Motoring News, but it was a shrewd move that paved the way to one of the most successful automotive writing careers of the past 40 years. A prolific wordsmith who was adored and respected by his peers, Alan passed away on March 3 after a lengthy illness. He was just 68.
Having attended events as both a spectator and a marshal, Henry got his first journalistic break in 1968 after writing to Autosport club racing editor Simon Taylor (yes, that one) to complain about one of the magazine’s Brands Hatch reports being “rubbish”. Taylor wrote back inviting him to prove he could do better, by compiling a dummy account, and soon afterwards Henry was dispatched to cover a Romford Enthusiasts’ Car Club event at Snetterton. Subsequently he dovetailed bank clerical duties with his role as a weekend warrior for Autosport and Motoring News, culminating in the proposal detailed above and a full-time role with MN from the summer of 1970.
Two years earlier, his maiden race report – headlined ‘Varied Romford Snetterton’ (above) – contained details of Merlyn driver Ian Foster’s victory in a combined FF1600, Monoposto and Formula 4 race; in his new role, Henry would soon be rubbing shoulders with F2 stars such as Niki Lauda, Mike Hailwood and Ronnie Peterson, developing firm friendships in an age when motor racing involved a small band of travelling brothers. Things continued in that vein after AH – as his reports were signed – became MN’s Formula 1 correspondent at the 1973 British GP. At the time it was unthinkable that F1 might ever become a global media circus and Alan was able to forge bonds that would serve him well when access to Grand Prix racing’s leading players became ever more restricted, at least as far as the broader media was concerned. He was already a very fine journalist, who understood his sport well and had a keen ability to distinguish fact from froth, but his peerless contact book helped him stand out as the internet age began to spread news ever more thinly. Whenever a story bore Alan’s byline, it would be both worthwhile and correct.
Although most closely associated with MN during his time at Standard House, Henry was also a vital Motor Sport cog, providing features, road tests, ever more Grand Prix reports as Denis Jenkinson scaled down his travelling commitments and even evaluating contemporary GP cars such as the Shadow DN5 and Benetton B186. He left the firm early in 1988, to go freelance, and served as a regular contributor to The Guardian, Autocar, F1 Racing and a number of other titles around the world, as well as editing respected annual Autocourse and writing many books that were ripe with his trademark authority. The Last Train From Yokkaichi, an autobiographical romp through a career that commenced in a bygone age, would complete his literary output. He stepped back from regular Grand Prix attendance at the end of 2009 – then broke the news, shortly afterwards, that world champion Jenson Button would be defecting from Brawn/Mercedes to McLaren…
Having hung on his every word for a decade or so, I first met him during the summer of 1982 – a few days into my career with Motoring News – and was slightly taken aback to be welcomed as an equal. I soon learned, though, that he was as comfortable dealing with wide-eyed cub reporters as he was with multiple world champion racing drivers or multinational chief executives. He was warm and engaging, friendly and funny and had a balanced world view – as well as being able to pinpoint a Surtees TS14 chassis number from a distance of 200 metres.
Behind the serious journalist, there were also delicious streaks of mischief and anarchy. At the 1986 Austrian GP, I was awoken in my guest house at about 3am by the sound of two men stumbling upstairs, saying “Ssssshhhhhhh!” very loudly (and thereby waking most of the village). It was just Alan and Nigel Roebuck, returning from a night out with Innes Ireland…
That was the spirit of the age in which he began his reporting career – the genesis of countless anecdotes that kept subsequent generations richly entertained. To call him a close friend would be an exaggeration – Nigel and Maurice Hamilton were his bosom writing buddies – but Alan was a valued colleague and I relished collaborating with him on MN, Autocourse and other projects. It never really felt like work – and his buoyant, laidback demeanour played a part in that.
A sprinkling of his yarns could fill this whole issue, probably several, but you never knew quite what to expect from the far side of the dinner table. “Had I told you about that time in the Temporada series, when I found myself running through Brett Lunger’s bedroom at about 2am, dressed only in my underpants?” No, Alan, you hadn’t. Please proceed…
Time in his company was never wasted – and it’s a privilege to have spent any at all. Simon Arron