Rivers Fletcher

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The Independent Culture
THE WORLD of motorsport has lost one of its most enduring and endearing characters with the death of Rivers Fletcher. This dashing, dapper man was for more than 70 years one of the sport's quietly ubiquitous figures, a profoundly dedicated custodian of what remains of its old Corinthian spirit and the last link with that glamorous group of square-jawed sybarites from the 1920s known as the "Bentley Boys".

Rivers Fletcher was, above all else, an enthusiast. He appreciated, and was eager for others to appreciate, those qualities, those challenges, those great events in his sport which, as C.L.R. James once said of cricket, "extended our conception of human capacity and in doing all this had done no harm to anyone". Whatever he did - as a competitor, a film-maker, a broadcaster or a journalist - he did with the energy and the expertise of one whose whole life was invested in his subject.

Alec Francis Rivers Fletcher - addressed by all simply and affectionately as "Rivers" - was born in London in 1912, and educated at Homewood Preparatory School in Finchley. His parents had harboured hopes that he might either enter the Church or train to be a schoolmaster, but, from an early age, he was committed to pursuing a career in the relatively new and attractive world of fast cars and racing stars.

His father, a stockbroker, agreed, with some reluctance, to approach his Stock Exchange acquaintance Woolf Barnato, chairman of Bentley Motors, on his son's behalf. Barnato explained that although Bentley had no indentured apprenticeship scheme they usually accommodated a few boys - mostly the sons of directors or important customers - on apprenticeship terms with a view to a career in the motor industry.

His interview was conducted by an unsmiling and brusque works manager, who was startled when this callow yet confident young man declared that his ambition at Bentleys would be "to drive at Le Mans and lead the team", but Rivers Fletcher was not only accepted but placed under the tutelage of the legendary W.O. Bentley himself.

By his penetrating look alone, Rivers Fletcher recalled, W.O. Bentley could wither any apprentice caught mistreating a tool or a casting. The boundlessly keen and willingly malleable Rivers, however, flourished under Bentley's regime, and it was during this period, working alongside his fellow apprentice Lord ("Freddie") March, that he was afforded countless opportunities to encounter, and in some cases form lasting friendships with, such celebrated customers as Rex Harrison, Cicely Courtneidge, Jessie Matthews, Jack Buchanan and John Mills.

Rivers Fletcher went on to work closely with a range of accomplished racing drivers that encompassed such greats as Malcolm Campbell, Raymond Mays, Whitney Straight, Ritchie Ginther, Graham Hill, Stirling Moss, Froilan "Speedy" Gonzales and Jackie Stewart, and he travelled the world to record their achievements with his hand-held camera. These vivid documentary films of races, places and figures from the Thirties (Rivers Fletcher was a pre-war pioneer of colour cine) through to the Sixties captured the defining images of an era in the history of the sport that would otherwise largely have been lost.

As a journalist and broadcaster Rivers Fletcher worked tirelessly to communicate something of the atmosphere of race meetings. As an administrator he did everything from organising the very first British post-war racing event - the so-called "Cockfosters Grand Prix" - to serving in the Fifties as Assistant Clerk of the Course at the British Grand Prix, and he also played a notable role, right up until his death, as chairman of the ERA (English Racing Automobiles) club.

As a motorsport historian, he travelled all over Britain, as well as to various other parts of the globe, giving talks, showing archive films and sharing memories (his regular winter visits with Graham Hill to Australia were particularly successful).

A rare "double member" of the British Racing Drivers' Club - first his organisational work was acknowledged by Earl Howe, who appointed him an associate and patron, and then his successes at the wheel of his GP Bugatti were recognised by his being made a racing member - Rivers Fletcher inspired as much affection as he did respect among successive generations of racing drivers and followers. He was recently honoured by Prince Michael of Kent and the RAC with a lifetime achievement award, and only retired, reluctantly, from active competition in 1996 as a result of failing eyesight.

Alec Francis Rivers Fletcher, racing driver and motorsport historian: born London 23 June 1912; married 1941 Penny Overall (two sons); died Warwick 29 August 1999.