The Doyen has Departed – Graham Robson 1936 – 2021

With the death of Graham Robson on 5 August 2021, the world of automotive history has lost an extraordinary and prolific chronicler.

Graham Robson. Image: TR Register

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.

Robson as co-driver – 1959 RAC Rally. Image: Veloce Today

One of his first published 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. This 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[1] as soon as it was launched – I don’t think I fitted his imagined demographic. We talked easily about our own rather unremarkable cars[2] – 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.

Graham Robson in his Library. Image: Veloce Today

In his short address at the occasion, Robson said that writing brought very little financial reward – his 150 (and counting)[3] 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.

Graham Robson at desk in Burton Bradstock. Image: Veloce Today

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.[4]  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

[1] 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.

[2] 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’.

[3] In his final ten years he eased off the throttle a bit, reckoning the final total to be just short of 170.

[4] 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.

10 thoughts on “The Doyen has Departed – Graham Robson 1936 – 2021”

  1. Good morning Robertas and thank you for a thoughtful tribute. I have a couple of Mr Robson’s books but had no idea he was so prolific. The economics of publishing such books are indeed difficult but it is good that he persevered, otherwise much detailed history might have been lost. RIP.

  2. It is sad to hear that the inevitable has happened once again.
    I own a sizeable number of his ‘Rally Giants’ books and I like them very much.
    Thank you for this fine tribute.

  3. So sad. I’ve read his words for over fifty years via Autocar and sometimes Motoring News. Just stuck my head in the bedroom to confirm my tome on Cosworth is his work also. He will be missed.

  4. That’s a lovely tribute, Robertas. I think everyone who is even slightly interested in cars will have read something of his and know his name.

    He recorded a short interview about his life for his publisher and I think it complements your article nicely. He comes across as having a great sense of humour and being very likeable, as well as being extremely knowledgeable, of course.

  5. A life well lived has come to an end. Sadly I don’t have any of his books, but I’ve read countless of articles of articles he wrote for Classic & Sport car.

    Thank you for this tribute, Robertas

  6. Charles – that’s a great piece of film. Exactly how I remember him, and a very informative set of answers.

  7. Graham Robson turns up everywhere. Earlier this evening I was reading the January 1993 issue of ‘Classic Cars’, and found his “A-Z of Cowley”. He relates how as a student at Oxford, living on slender means, his greatest pleasure was riding his bicycle to the Morris works, and keeping a close watch on the gate used by the experimental workshops.

    In his words:

    “Maybe I shouldn’t have got so enthralled by Wolseley 1500s looking like grown-up Morris Minors, or by strange and angular machines which later became ‘Farina’ saloons, but to me it was cloak-and-dagger, it was secrets unveiled, it was heaven. From then on I knew I had to be involved with motor cars, and motoring, for the rest of my life.”

  8. My reading ability was thus: Mojo Swoptops, by Cindy Black. Gumdrop, by Val biro. Metro, the book of the car, by Graham Robson. From then on in, I just couldn’t read a school books, but I could read one of Robson’s books in one sitting. Sitting in the library on a Saturday reading one of Robson’s books as a child was a pleasure. 40 years later, I still buy an automotive book to take on holiday or for a birthday treat or Christmas present. The library is now a trendy coffee shop.
    I was fortunate to meet Robson in 2011 with Robertas and, contrary to many I’ve got to say, thought the man a gentleman and I was very pleased to meet and talk with him. A good innings and a good legacy.

  9. A nice appreciation from Richard M Langworth, his co-writer on the Triumph history:

    https://richardlangworth.com/graham-robson

    ‘I was astonished at his reaction to the 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V Bill Blass Designer Edition. Two tons, over 20 feet long, extravagantly trimmed, with acres of sheetmetal, it was the biggest coupe Ford ever built. Surely a monument to Utter Excess? But Graham was enthralled. “Do you Americans realize what you have here? This much sheer motorcar? Do you understand that the same money in England will barely buy you a Mini?”

    Five years later Robson tore up the Detroit motorways in a Ford Mustang SVO, which he loved. (He was a superb driver, practicing rally ace Paddy Hopkirk‘s technique: “Fill Up Their Mirrors.”) I thought we were going to gaol, but somehow the coppers missed us.’

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