FEBRUARY 7, 2008

Tony Rolt

Tony Rolt has died at the age of 89. The former Grand Prix driver had a spectacular career both as a soldier and later in racing and in business.

At 21 he was a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade which was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France when the German invasion occurred. Rolt was trapped in Calais where the small British force helped to hold back the advance of a Panzer Division that was bound for Dunkirk. This was of vital importance as it meant that large numbers of British soldiers were able to evacuate. The defenders of Calais were not so lucky and although Rolt was awarded a Military Cross for his actions, he was taken prisoner. He dedicated himself to the task of escaping and after seven different escapes was sent to the high security prison at Colditz where he dreamed up the amazing idea of building a glider in the attic of the castle and flying two men out. The castle was liberated before the glider was ready to fly.

After the war Rolt returned to Britatin and began working with Freddy Dixon on the development of four-wheel drive systems. They formed Dixon Rolt Developments which pioneered the viscous coupling and later attracted backing from the tractor magnate Harry Ferguson. It became known as FF Developments. At the same time Rolt was busy racing with ERAs and other interesting machinery. He and Peter Walker shared a car in the first F1 World Championship race at Silverstone in 1950. This led to a works drive with Jaguar and in 1953 Rolt and Duncan Hamilton shared victory in a C-Type Jaguar in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

By the early 1960s FF Developments had decided that it would build a 4WD racing car to demonstrate the value of four-wheel drive technology and Rolt drove the Ferguson P99 F1 car. This later became the only 4WD car to win a Formula 1 race when Stirling Moss drove it to victory in the Gold Cup at Oulton Park. The 4WD concept was also quite successful in America and in 1966 was built into the Jensen FF road car. The company ended up being a huge success with its technology being used throughout the motor industry and Rolt retired a wealthy man.

A member of the British Racing Drivers' Club, Ront was the last surviving member to have been elected pre-war.