A Great Man in the Old Tradition: Rob Walker

I was recently in the US and bought a couple of issues of Road & Track on the newsstand. They are slim things, quite glossy but devoid of the dense content that made magazines worthwhile in the past. I suppose they’re a victim of the mania for online stuff, but people in the future are going to have cause to regret this generation’s lack of taste in media, as they won’t be able to delve into the past in the same way that I have… and if you’ve ever tried to recover content you saw once on a long-gone website you’ll understand why this is important in more than an aesthetic sense.

Back in the 1970s, however, this things were different and magazines were not only the principal way for people to get information on their interests, but they were rich enough to be able to afford contributors who were not just great, but memorable.

We’ve already mentioned Henry N. Manney III here, but there’s another colossus of the motoring industry who was writing for Road & Track in the seventies (and was still doing so when I came in in 1989, and remained on the payroll for some years afterwards). That man is Rob Walker, and as I read the October 1974 issue above, I realized that I had to talk about him.

And now it’s time to admit something painful. As a thirteen-year-old reader of Road & Track who hadn’t intentionally missed a live Formula One race since I discovered the sport in 1983, I had no idea who Rob Walker was or why the fact that this man was writing the F1 race reports was a privilege which put other publications to shame.

But I found out.

Briefly, Walker was the heir to the Johnny Walker distillery fortune, and he used some of this money to become the most successful private entrant in the history of F1. Imagine winning the lottery and buying a car from one of the teams today… and using that car to win several races with drivers the likes of Stirling Moss or Jo Siffert at the wheel. Well, that is exactly what walker did. (it speaks to why F1 was also much better back then, but this isn’t a rant, it’s a celebration).

Better still, Walker was a apparently good guy, which meant that he got invited to the parties, which, in turn, meant that his prose is rich with anecdote and detail. As a teenager, I was hooked, and now that I’m reading his work in the 1970s, it gives me a look into how R&T became the top automotive publication in the world, to the point that a random teenager would pick it off a newsstand in Argentina in 1989. Walker is a huge part of that. I don’t think the magazine could ever have achieved its status as the class of the field without that man writing F1 reports. They are, reading them fifty years later, perfection… and again, I hope there are similar reports of today’s races being produced in hardcover somewhere, because if not, people in fifty years are going to hate us.

Best of all, though, is the fact that Walker was a gentleman in the traditional sense of the world. Rich enough to know that life exists to be enjoyed, but educated in the liberal old British way that informed him that the enjoyment is to be shared by all, without regards to class or economic level. He is the epitome of what a gentleman in the 20th century should be–and what so few managed.

The fact that he resembled Ken Tyrrell is, of course, unfortunate, but no one is perfect (both Rob and Ken were nearly so, so the fact that they had imperfections to deal with is only fair).

As a car nut, I would have loved to live his life… but he was more than just cars, and that comes through in his writing. A truly great man in all meanings of the word, and the kind that the world would be better of having more of today.

Gustavo Bondoni’s fiction has appeared in hundreds of publications. His debut novel, Outside, extrapolates the current trends in digital civilization to their logical conclusion–and is also a rousing tale of love and hope. You can check it out here.

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