Graham Robson: “He Was Always, Triumphantly, in Touch”

Graham Robson: “He Was Always, Triumphantly, in Touch”

It was typ­i­cal of my dear friend of 47 years that he wrote his own advance obit­u­ary, for Clas­sic and Sports Car. Gra­ham Rob­son always planned ahead. I quote from it below, hop­ing to approx­i­mate the mag­ni­tude of our loss.

Alec Arthur Graham Robson 1936-2021

AAGR (right) dur­ing tests of the Tri­umph Spit­fire, with David Hobbs and Peter Bolton, Le Mans, 1964. (Gra­ham Robson)

Gra­ham was born in Skip­ton, York­shire, the only child of Clif­ford and Kath­leen Rob­son. He was edu­cat­ed local­ly before going to Lin­coln Col­lege, Oxford, where he read Engi­neer­ing. His first job was as a grad­u­ate trainee at Jaguar Cars in 1957. His sub­se­quent career became a per­fect train­ing path for some­one des­tined to become a lead­ing author.

In 1961 Rob­son became a devel­op­ment engi­neer, then com­pe­ti­tion sec­re­tary at Stan­dard-Tri­umph, then a writer for The Auto­car. By 1969 he was at the Rootes Group as chief engi­neer, prod­uct prov­ing. He became a full-time inde­pen­dent motor­ing writer, researcher and author in 1972.

That word “inde­pen­dent” can­not be stressed too high­ly, because what­ev­er his links with the man­u­fac­tur­er of a car he was writ­ing about, his research was always thor­ough and he nev­er pulled his punch­es. He wrote near­ly 170 books and count­less articles—one of most pro­lif­ic motor­ing writ­ers ever. Many Rob­son books were about motor­sport, for he had been a ral­ly co-dri­ver in the mid-Fifties. His pas­sion for writ­ing was trig­gered by his 1950s ral­ly reports for Motor­ing News.

Quan­ti­ty did not affect qual­i­ty. Rob­son books were all metic­u­lous­ly researched and well writ­ten. On many sub­jects his books are now the “stan­dard works.” Because of his wide knowl­edge, Rob­son was also a fre­quent mas­ter of cer­e­monies or com­men­ta­tor for nation­al club events. He was pres­i­dent, vice-pres­i­dent or an hon­orary mem­ber of sev­er­al Tri­umph clubs.

Gra­ham mar­ried Pamela in 1962 and they had two sons. Hamish is now a senior design engi­neer with Toy­ota Motor­sport in Ger­many. Jonathan is a land­scape gar­den­er in Dorset. In 1981 Rob­son moved from the Lake Dis­trict to a pic­ture-post­card vil­lage in Dorset, there­after trav­el­ing wide­ly on busi­ness and plea­sure. Sad­ly, Pamela died in 2014 after a long illness.

Triumphant passage

I wrote Gra­ham in 1974, after I wrote a brief his­to­ry of Tri­umph for my employ­er, Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine. He had recent­ly pub­lished The Sto­ry of Tri­umph Sports Cars (1973). And so I wrote with trep­i­da­tion, the acolyte at the foot of Olym­pus. He couldn’t have been kinder over my ama­teur­ish efforts. After I became a free­lance, we met per­son­al­ly in Lon­don. There to my aston­ish­ment, he offered to co-author with me a com­plete his­to­ry of our mutu­al pas­sion, Tri­umph Cars, and to find us a publisher.

RobsonAppear­ing in 1977, the book has had a long run in three editions—the cur­rent, and by far the most elab­o­rate, in 2018.  While I had equal billing, Gra­ham sold the job to Veloce Pub­lish­ing, and did lit­er­al­ly all the work. I had, orig­i­nal­ly, writ­ten Triumph’s his­to­ry through 1940, and a few post­war sec­tions. That part of the sto­ry was told. But Gra­ham had to update every­thing that had hap­pened since the pre­vi­ous edi­tion in 2004.

He tack­led the job with his usu­al celer­i­ty, round­ing up dozens of excit­ing new pho­tographs. The fabled 1930s Dolomite Straight Eight was also Graham’s to update: he had test-dri­ven the new­ly restored car it in the 2000s. He nev­er com­plained and treat­ed me as his full part­ner. As a result of his efforts, Tri­umph Cars is one of my two proud­est auto­mo­tive histories.

Sunbeam sublimities

Gra­ham helped in innu­mer­able oth­er ways. Togeth­er we co-authored the long-run­ning Com­plete Book of Col­lectible Cars. He enabled a mutu­al friend get his dream job with Motor Rac­ing Pub­li­ca­tions. When I tack­led my sec­ond-favorite Eng­lish mar­que, Rob­son was there again. Here is what I wrote in Tiger Alpine Rapi­er: Sport­ing Cars from the Rootes Group (1982):

Gra­ham Robson’s efforts on behalf of this book and myself could not be list­ed in 100 pages. He began by record­ing a long inter­view with the Tiger’s vision­ary, Lewis Gar­rad. Then he com­piled the spec­i­fi­ca­tions for Sun­beam and Hum­ber. Next he read and cri­tiqued the man­u­script, locat­ed the pho­to archives and got filthy help­ing me select images. Gra­ham liaised with E.M. Lea-Major of Tal­bot UK’s PR depart­ment. He also wrote the appen­dix on Hill­man Imp ral­ly­ing. (My file on the Imp con­sist­ed only of Bob Fendell’s com­ment that he could keep his ral­ly Imp going by string­ing a wire over his shoul­der to the car­bu­re­tor when the link­age broke.) I can­not begin to express my thanks to Gra­ham for sav­ing me from myself, for help­ing make the book as accu­rate as pos­si­ble, for being so tol­er­ant of my faults, and for being, in short, such a good friend.

Halcyon days

Betimes Gra­ham would come to the States, always with a book to write or an appear­ance to make. On sev­er­al occa­sions I took him to Detroit, which fas­ci­nat­ed him. I always tried to line up inter­est­ing “press cars.” 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. On the same trip we bor­rowed a Chrysler Laser, only just announced. We parked it in front of the GM Tech Cen­ter, and laughed when every sin­gle win­dow of that famous styling empo­ri­um was filled by some­one peer­ing out.

In Eng­land we were wel­comed at his two homes, first Croft House in Cum­ber­land, then Girt House in Dorset. (“Dorset has a hel­lu­va lot more sun­shine.”) Here, accom­pa­nied by the sonorous tones of sleep­ing Eng­lish bull­dogs (“a fam­i­ly tra­di­tion”), we whiled away evenings with Famous Grouse, talk­ing cars. For the auto­mo­tive tours of Eng­land, which Bar­bara and I ran in 1977-90, Gra­ham paved the way. His good offices allowed us access to places where ordi­nary tourists were usu­al­ly barred: Van­den Plas Coach­works, Aston Mar­tin Lagon­da, the met­al-ben­ders in the Rolls-Royce radi­a­tor shop. The mag­ic name of Rob­son was our Open Sesame.

Always pressing on

Graham’s most mem­o­rable motor­ing moment was “First sight of the Ford RS 200, the day it was shown to a priv­i­leged few, before its pub­lic launch.” Clas­sic & Sports Car wrote: “It was typ­i­cal of the esteem in which he was held by man­u­fac­tur­ers as well as enthu­si­asts that he was invari­ably on that list.” (Pho­to by Steven Straiton, Cre­ative Commons)

Graham’s world was motor­ing, and by the 1990s his friend and fel­low car nut was turn­ing increas­ing­ly toward Win­ston Churchill. He under­stood, of course, and was hap­py to fall in when Churchillian mis­sions brought me to Eng­land. When I sold Churchill books, he turned over his gar­den shed for me to pack up my pur­chas­es to ship home. In 2019 we arrived in Lon­don after the Hills­dale Col­lege Cruise. Gra­ham made it his busi­ness trav­el up from Dorset. (“One always says ‘up,’ nev­er ‘down’ to the Great Wen,” he once warned me.)  We dined lux­u­ri­ous­ly at Horse Guards Hotel. He hadn’t changed a bit. Even if he had, how could Rob­son be for­got­ten after 170 books?

I quot­ed to him the words of Alis­tair Cooke—a max­im I know he shared. “I shall nev­er retire, because I have observed that many of my friends who do imme­di­ate­ly keel over.” Alis­tair lived to 95, and broad­cast his final BBC Let­ter from Amer­i­ca only months before he left us. Good, sound policy.

On to the end

Gra­ham Rob­son shared and typ­i­fied Alis­tair Cooke’s philosophy—and mine. “We shall go on to the end,” as Churchill said. And sure enough: Last April Gra­ham wrote me about anoth­er book! It was his last message:

I am com­mis­sioned to pre­pare a mon­u­men­tal four-part (one year until 2025) Ency­clo­pe­dia of Clas­sic Cars 1945-2000. Not “Col­lectibles” but “Clas­sics” in the British/European sense—and I have to cov­er the world. Car-by-car entries for A-C are being done right now (with D-K to be done next year.) Today’s conun­drum for me: Nat­u­ral­ly I will include Chevro­let, and will con­cen­trate on Corvette. But should I also make space for the hot­ter ver­sions of the oth­er mod­els? If so, which ones?
In 2025 he would have been 89. Alas that task must now fall to some­one else. But it was so very typ­i­cal of Gra­ham. He was for­ev­er press­ing on, obliv­i­ous to time and age—on and on, as alive and vital as ever. As a BBC col­league said of Alis­tair Cooke: “He was always, tri­umphant­ly, in touch.”


2 thoughts on “Graham Robson: “He Was Always, Triumphantly, in Touch”

  1. Last time I saw Gra­ham was a few years ago at the British Sports Car Hall of Fame. We had break­fast togeth­er the fol­low­ing day. You can imag­ine the sto­ries that were retold! We lived at the same time in the auto indus­try and he was indeed the real thing. As a his­to­ri­an he had a keen sense for the peo­ple in the indus­try and the envi­ron­ment in which they worked. It wasn’t just about the cars and, because of this, he made many excel­lent rela­tion­ships which enabled him to write real insight. Richard is right. Gra­ham was always tri­umphant­ly in touch.

  2. I was hop­ing that you would do an obit­u­ary — thank you. Although I was, in the late 1950s, a Rootes pupil, I usu­al­ly hung out with Stan­dard-Tri­umph appren­tices and on sev­er­al occa­sions as group we’d meet with him a Coven­try “cof­fee-house” called the PortoFi­ni. Held him in some awe — he was by that time going up the lad­der at STI — but he was always friend­ly, easy-going and inter­est­ing to talk to.

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