With the death of Graham Robson on 5 August 2021, the world of automotive history has lost an extraordinary and prolific chronicler.
Graham Robson was born and schooled in Skipton, a North Yorkshire market town. His family, middle-class but certainly not moneyed, had no connection with the motor industry other than his father’s interest in motorcycle racing. His interest in cars and engineering evolved from his early years, and the clever and motivated grammar-school boy was awarded a place at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he studied Engineering Science.
On graduation in 1957, the young Robson joined Jaguar as a graduate engineering trainee. Without doubt, Coventry shaped him, and in his free time from Jaguar, he was active in club rallying, making important contacts which led to co-driving opportunities with the Rootes factory team, and in 1961 a new job at Standard-Triumph, first as a development engineer, and in due course taking on the role of Competition Secretary.
Robson had a useful sideline in writing rally reports for Motoring News, and in 1965 he left Standard-Triumph to join Autocar’s Midlands office to further his journalistic ambitions. In 1969 he once again answered the call of the industry, accepting the post of Chief Engineer – Product Proving at the Rootes Group, soon to become Chrysler UK. His final industry post was as technical director at seat-belt manufacturer, Kangol.
In 1972, aged only 36, Graham Robson departed from an impressive industry career to work independently as a writer and journalist, also taking on motor sport organisational and co-driving work at a high level. This was not a new departure, he was Roger Clark’s co-driver on many occasions throughout the 1960s, and while in Chrysler’s employment was a member of the organising team which set up and managed the 1970 World Cup Rally, an event which ran from London to Mexico City by way of Sofia, Monza, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janiero.
One of his earliest books was The Story of Triumph Sports Cars, published in 1972, a precursor of the renowned Triumph Cars, the Complete Story, written jointly with Richard Langworth, a distinguished US history academic. The later book was first published in 1979, and is now in its third (2018) edition.
Graham Robson may well have established the accepted format for automotive histories; carefully planned and logically sequenced chapters, brief, tightly-written biographies and relevant digressions in their own text boxes in order not to break the flow of the narrative, photos and illustration closely related to the main text, and comprehensive appendices at the back of the book.
As a writer, he was not given to literary flourishes or over-dramatisation, but instead used something akin to a conversational style, like a favourite uncle who always had an interesting story to tell. At least in his later years, that accorded with his real-life persona, certainly on the one occasion I met him, in November 2011. He was surprised when I told him I had bought his Book of the Standard Motor Company as soon as it was launched – I don’t think I fitted his imagined demographic. We talked easily about our own rather unremarkable cars – coincidentally both of us had followed a Mondeo with a BMW 3 series. I’d turned up on the day in a rented Hyundai i20, but there were better things to talk about.
He was most enlightening on his approach to his numerous publishers. The proposals were of his own making, but work didn’t start until the publisher committed to an advance. He quoted a story about the songwriter Sammy Cahn. When asked ‘what comes first, the tune, or the lyrics?’ he replied, “First comes the telephone call”. He reckoned that two out of three of his book ideas were not approved by publishers, as they could not possibly be a commercial success. His paradigm was a hypothetical work on the British invalid cars, as an example of a book which wouldn’t sell.
In his short address at the occasion, Robson said that writing brought very little financial reward – his 150 (and counting) books do not keep him in an income, and very few motoring authors have their writing as their main activity. It’s a dispiriting thought – Robson was a trusted brand, and his works were intensely researched and highly informative. By the time writing became his main activity he was well known in the industry and its media. If a fact or figure eluded him he could easily pick up the phone and speak to a primary source in its highest echelons.
Today’s citizen authors may have no shortage of enthusiasm and knowledge, but few of them grew up in the industry, and almost certainly none of them have the modern equivalents of Keith Duckworth, Harry Webster, or Stuart Turner on speed-dial.
Robson constantly emphasised the importance of primary sources; knowing and meeting the people involved, researching industry archives, trusting only the earliest published information, as facts are often distorted and misinterpreted in later publications. Now most of the human sources are gone from this life – we should be grateful to Robson for his record of their experience.
Graham Robson’s life in the automotive world was diverse and intensively well-lived. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be the vast bibliography of detailed, accurate and entertaining history he produced, often far more as a duty to posterity than as a means to a livelihood.
Alec Arthur Graham Robson 18 January 1936 – 5 August 2021
 Unlike most of Robson’s works which washed their face financially, publication of the Standard book (by Veloce) was only viable through sponsorship from the Michael Sedgwick Memorial Trust. Very personal to Robson, the book was a major research effort on his part and was – dare I say it – a triumph.
 Robson does not seem to have had much interest in living with the metal. His stated favourite daily drivers were a series of four Ford RS200s in which he drove 85,000 miles over four years in the late 1980s. They were all on loan from Ford and used as Group B ‘endurance cars’.
 In his final ten years he eased off the throttle a bit, reckoning the final total to be just short of 170.
 Despite his best efforts, the occasional error did slip through, most commonly mis-spellings of proper names. Robson took some amusement at seeing his rare solecisms repeated later in other publications.