Tony Rolt: Racing driver and Colditz hero

Monday 11 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Tony Rolt was arguably Britain's most promising upcoming racing driver before he joined the ranks of those whose best years were stolen by the Second World War, a conflict in which he distinguished himself by attempting to escape from Colditz in a glider.

Born in Bordon, Hampshire in 1918, Anthony Rolt grew up at St Asaph in North Wales and was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He made his motor-racing début in 1936, at the Spa 24 Hours race in Belgium, coming fourth in his class. In 1937 he twice won Coronation Trophy races at Donington Park, and at the age of 20, steered his ERA "Remus" to victory there in the prestigious 200-mile British Empire Trophy in 1939.

The same year, Rolt was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade and, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, he was awarded the Military Cross in 1940 for his part in repelling a Panzer Division bound for Dunkirk. Captured when France fell, he tried to escape seven times from German prisoner-of-war camps including Laufen, Biberach, Posen, Warburg and Eichstätt. Eventually he was sent to Oflag IV-C in Colditz Castle.

A serious-minded man who regarded attempts to escape as a duty and most definitely not as pranks, Rolt conceived the dramatic concept of constructing a glider in a hidden attic room in the castle. The craft was built, and Rolt was to have been one of its two-man crew, but the camp was liberated by the Americans before the "Colditz Cock" could fly. Back in England in 1945 he was awarded a bar to his MC.

Rolt competed three times in the British Grand Prix in post-war years, retiring on each occasion, and his death removes the final survivor of the 1950 race which inaugurated the official World Championship. He shared the winning Jaguar C-type at Le Mans 24 Hours in 1953 with his great friend Duncan Hamilton, and they finished a narrow second in a D-type the following season.

But, sickened by the Le Mans disaster of 1955 that killed more than 80 people, he decided to stop racing and build a career as an engineer. He began working with Middlesbrough's colourful and profane pre-war racer Freddie Dixon on the development of four-wheel drive systems. They formed Dixon Rolt Developments, which pioneered the viscous coupling and advanced safety systems such as anti-lock braking, and later attracted financial support from the tractor magnate Harry Ferguson.

The company metamorphosed into Ferguson Developments and, in 1961, built a four-wheel-drive single-seater to showcase the value of all-wheel-drive technology. Stirling Moss drove it to victory in the rain in the prestigious Gold Cup at Oulton Park in 1961, making it the only four-wheel-drive car to win a Formula 1 race. Subsequently the four-wheel-drive concept succeeded in the United States and in 1966 was built into the Jensen FF road car.

David Tremayne

Anthony Peter Roylance Rolt, racing driver and engineer: born Bordon, Hampshire 16 October 1918; MC 1940, and bar 1945; married 1945 Lois Allan (née Blomfield, died 2005; two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Warwick 6 February 2008.

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