Before the war he was an up-and-coming racer but hostilities drew Tony Rolt from Donington to Colditz. He returned a war hero on the verge of stardom. Phil Llewellin profiles his remarkable career
May 1940 was a month of immense drama as General Heinz Guderian’s tanks crossed the River Meuse near Sedan and brought blitzkrieg to northern France, thrusting a spearhead between the French army and the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force. Aware that evacuating through Dunkirk was the only hope, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decreed that the nearby port of Calais must be ‘fought to the death’ to protect his army. As the noose tightened, a 21-year-old Rifle Brigade lieutenant risked his life to rescue a wounded soldier. Brave and cool enough to administer first-aid while keeping the Germans at bay with bursts from a Bren gun, Tony Rolt received the Military Cross. Thirteen years later that brave soldier would receive further accolades a winner’s garland at Le Mans.
Events moved too fast for the subaltern to be hailed as a hero by a wider audience, but a year earlier the Old Etonian and his ERA had attracted acres of newspaper coverage, at home and as far afield as India. ‘Boy driver wins 200-mile race’ was how the Sunday Mercury headlined his British Empire Trophy triumph at Donington. According to The Times, victory at 75.91mph “established Rolt as the most promising of the younger school of drivers”. The Daily Express applauded “the tall, boyish, fresh-faced” infantry officer while Motor Sport commented, “We have long considered that Rolt, given a car in really good trim, would reveal himself to be in the very front rank of British drivers, and at Donington this belief was justified up to the hilt.”
The 20-year-old’s achievement becomes all the more remarkable when you realise that he was competing in the Southern Command Motor Cycle Reliability Trial while experienced campaigners practised for the race. But the British Empire Trophy was his last big win for several years, because the ‘brilliant future’ predicted by The Times boiled down to being captured at Calais. The next five years were spent escaping or attempting to escape often enough to be sent to Colditz Castle. The theoretically escape-proof fortress was liberated before Rolt and his comrades completed the Heath Robinson glider they planned to launch from the roof. Being such a thorn in the enemy’s flesh while a prisoner-of-war earned him a second Military Cross.
Today, a disarming smile and an infectious chuckle complement the unquenchable courage and touching modesty of a quintessentially British hero. The only son of a distinguished soldier, he was born in October 1918 and grew up in St Asaph, Denbighshire. Brigadier-General Rolt’s boy was inspired by Tim Birkin, dreamed of winning Le Mans, entered his JAP-engined Morgan three-wheeler for the Schoolboys’ Trial in 1935 and was ‘mentioned in dispatches’ for being the only three-wheeler driver to negotiate an exceptionally difficult corner. He soon acquired a Triumph Southern Cross and jumped in at the deep end by tackling the 24-hour race at Spa in 1936, a year after flying there in a chartered aircraft to watch Rudolf Caracciola and his W25B Mercedes-Benz winning the Belgian Grand Prix.
The 24-hour race represented good value for money, he explained when I tried to imagine a more daunting debut “The one snag was that I didn’t have a driver’s licence, because the moment I was 17 I was stopped for allegedly speeding in Denbigh High Street. It cost me a suspension, but the rules were such that ‘a reasonable explanation’ enabled me to keep my competition licence. At Spa we averaged almost 60mph and finished fourth in class. The pillars for our headlights fatigued at the bottom, but the Belgians next to us had a very large tent that was secured with miles of rope. For some reason or other,” he chuckles, “it was less secure after we fixed our headlights.”
Rolt graduated to a supercharged Triumph Dolomite, started attracting ‘Ace from Eton’ headlines and hoisted the Leinster Trophy’s lap record to 75.53mph during the first of several enjoyable events in Ireland. Increasingly confident, and determined to prove his mettle in a real racing car, he bought Remus from the Siamese prince who raced as ‘B Bira’. Prepared by Freddie Dixon, whose ability to make cars go faster was even greater than his legendary capacity for alcohol, the ERA established Rolt as a rising star when he bagged two firsts, two seconds and a fourth during 1938’s Coronation Trophy meeting at Donington. Back in County Dublin for the Leinster Trophy, he was ‘the hero of the day’ after breaking the lap record seven times.
He campaigned the ERA as far afield as Switzerland before his start-to-finish victory in the British Empire Trophy. Nothing if not a gracious gentleman, Rolt told the Daily Express, “I’ve been three years at the racing game and this is my first big win. But give Freddie Dixon the credit – he was grand.”
The war cost him seven seasons of racing, but he jokes about keeping his hand in by thrashing Jeeps around the Nürburgring while based in Germany. Back in the cockpit, he ran what had been the twin-engined Alfa Romeo, but was now a conventional, 2.9-litre single-seater. Major Rolt finished eighth in his first post-war race, the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay, Belgium, where the “rather light-hearted organisation” evoked memories of dodging sheep and pigs in Ireland.
Most of his post-war racing involved Rob Walker and Jaguar. He is vague about the start of his friendship with Walker – “I think we first met in a London nightclub, just before the war” – but by 1949 knew him well enough to drive his old Delahaye 135S at Le Mans. It was running fifth when main bearings that had completed the race in 1939 gave up the ghost. This was the first of Rolt’s seven runs in the 24-hour race that had enthralled him since childhood. The final tally included a first and a second with Jaguar, and a fourth and a sixth with Healey.
Rolt’s copy of Rob Walker’s biography is inscribed “To Tony and Lois who started all this and without whom I would never have entered F1.” According to Michael Cooper-Evans’s book, Walker’s decision to contest F1 was made after meeting Rolt at a party that lasted “until about five o’clock in the morning” during the weekend of the 1951 Tourist Trophy race in Ulster. They hoped to acquire a pre-war W165 Mercedes which had languished in Switzerland since 1939, but ran the unsuccessful ERA-Delage before switching to an A-type Connaught in which Rolt notched-up the Walker team’s first international victory, winning the 1953 Coronation Trophy at Crystal Palace. He remembers the Connaught with affection – “The Lea-Francis engine wasn’t very powerful, but super handling went with excellent reliability” – and the recorrd reveals 16 wins, seven seconds and five thirds in 1953. He was unfortunate not to finish fourth in the British Grand Prix and lucky to emerge unscathed from a bizarre accident at Goodwood, where he was confronted by Ken Wharton’s spinning BRM. “Taking to the grass was better than ramming him, but wood from the wattle fence that reared-up in front of me jammed the throttle and the steering. I couldn’t stop or steer, so kept going until I hit a wall. I don’t know if Rob believed me, but that’s what happened.”
He disliked Dundrod for reasons that included “a lot of hoping for the best” while hurtling over blind brows, but this did not deter him from pulling out all the stops in 1951. He went to Ulster at his own expense and was offered a Jaguar XK120 when it became obvious that Leslie Johnson was unwell. “Realising that a works’ drive was at stake, I rushed off and set a new lap record – faster than Stirling. I finished fourth in the race and accepted Bill Lyons’ offer to join the team, which was very well organised under Lofty England. He was always there, from start to finish, and knew exactly what was happening.”
Tony Rolt’s name is invariably associated with Duncan Hamilton, but his colourful co-driver’s version of the run-up to their 1953 Le Mans victory is pure fiction, according to Rolt and other reliable witnesses. The legend tells how Rolt and Hamilton spent the night before the race drinking enough to float a battleship after their C-type was disqualified for a relatively minor infringement during Friday’s practice. According to Hamilton, they had to sober up after Jaguar paid an enormous fine. “There was a moment on the Thursday when we thought we might be disqualified,” said Rolt, “but by Friday morning we knew we would be allowed to race. Duncan’s talk of Bill Lyons finding us sitting outside a café at ten o’clock on the Saturday morning after being up all night is nonsense, but the story is revived year after year.”
Rivals included Alberto Ascari in a brutally fast Ferrari 375 MM, but Rolt and Hamilton won at a record-breaking 105.84mph.
Living close to Coventry made Rolt an obvious choice for testing Jaguar’s D-type, which clocked 170mph on RAF Gaydon’s runway. At rain-lashed Le Mans, the Rolt/Hamilton newcomer came second, less than two miles behind the Ferrari 375-Plus of Gonzalez and Trintignant. A month later, Rolt and Hamilton were second to another D-type at Reims. According to Andrew Whyte’s book on Jaguar’s competition history, the two races earned Rolt a total of £1737:5:0d – slightly more than the price of a new XK140 drophead coupe.
He loved racing, but the need to concentrate on a different challenge convinced Rolt to retire soon after 1955’s horrific accident at Le Mans. An interest in four-wheel drive that went back to his pre-war association with Freddie Dixon gave rise to Dixon-Rolt Developments. Backed by Harry Ferguson, the Ulsterman who made a fortune in the tractor business, the company became Harry Ferguson Research in 1950 and lured Claude Hill from Aston Martin to design an advanced road car whose features included four-wheel-drive. They failed to sell the concept to any of Britain’s major car manufacturers, but all-wheel-drive proved its worth at Oulton Park in 1961, when Stirling Moss won the F1 Gold Cup race in the Ferguson P99. Six years later, a car with a gas-turbine engine and Ferguson transmission would have won the Indy 500 had a six-dollar bearing not failed with three laps to go.
“My father and his colleagues were voices crying in the wilderness,” says Stuart Rolt, who served with the Rifle Brigade before joining what had become FF Developments. “The world wasn’t ready for what they were trying to sell, although there were times when the future looked bright. Ford, for instance, came very close to producing an all-wheel-drive version of the Capri.”
The tide turned in 1980 when Audi launched the Quattro. Never again would 4WD be associated with nothing more exciting than Land Rovers in axle-deep mud. The ingenious viscous coupling, patented by Tony Rolt and Derek Grainer, became essential equipment for road and rally cars. By 1990, clients for FF Developments included Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Lancia, Land Rover, Mazda, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Volkswagen. How was this achieved by someone with no formal engineering training whatsoever? Tony Rolt smiled. “Well, I certainly had the interest and inclination, but whether or not I had the ability is another matter.”
Dismissive modesty is delightfully typical of the man whose initial reaction to being profiled in Motor Sport was to doubt if there was sufficient material for a 2000-word magazine article. The truth, of course, is that thick, glossy books have been devoted to people who are not fit to lick the boots of Anthony Peter Roylance Rolt.