Doug Nye: Remembering motorsport photographer legend, Maurice Rowe

04th January 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Very sadly, on December 13 our friend, the great motor racing photographer Maurice Rowe passed away. He was 89 years old, and his funeral will take place this Friday, at Bredon in Gloucestershire where he had lived in retirement with his wife Beryl.


Working for The Temple Press Group’s leading weekly magazine, 'The Motor' – in its later days with the title ‘modernised’ to simply 'Motor' – he was one of the finest action photographers of the 1950s-1980s. During his long career, he also worked for Temple Press’s associated aviation and commercial vehicle titles, and he met his future wife Beryl there since she was ‘The Motor’s editorial secretary.

In common with every motor racing photographer worth his salt during ‘The Goodwood Period’, 1949-1966, Maurice spent many long hours at the circuit, and not only at motor race meetings. He also spent time here with the magazine road test unit running cars around the course, and at what became – in various guises – the annual Guild of Motoring Writers Motor Show Test Day.

Maurice’s work appeared in countless weekly issues of ‘The Motor’ and in 1999 it was celebrated by publication of his book ‘Track Record’ (published by Queensgate Publications, ISBN 1-902655-00-1) which I highly recommend to all fellow enthusiasts.

In the introduction to ‘Track Record,’ he explained how what he really wanted to do as a wartime schoolboy was join the RAF. He joined the Air Training Corps and visited many RAF and USAF air bases to try scrounging a seat in a flying machine. His proudest tale from that time was of how he “…even managed to hitch a five-hour ride in a Lancaster bomber flying out of Waterbeach, a truly exhilarating experience that simply confirmed my passion for aviation”.

Finding a job in the closing months of World War 2 was incredibly difficult. Maurice would recall “It was my love of flying that got me started”. As an avid reader of ‘The Aeroplane Spotter’ and collector of aircraft recognition books (me too into the 1950s) he also read ‘The Aeroplane’ published by Temple Press and one day he boldly presented himself as a cold caller on the doorstep of the Temple Press building in Bowling Green Lane, London EC1. He had decided that he was going to talk the management there into giving him – at 17 – a job. He found himself being interrogated at reception by a sceptical Sgt Berry, in effect the commissionaire. The tall young boy’s self-evident enthusiasm and enterprise must have touched a chord with Sgt Berry who suggested that “You could try the photographic department, I think they need an office boy”.

Karussel, Nurburgring - waiting for F1 practice to begin - Maurice Rowe (centre) with fellow photographers Laurie Morton of ‘Motoring News’ and ‘Motor Sport’ (left) and Geoff Goddard of ‘Road & Track’ right

Karussel, Nurburgring - waiting for F1 practice to begin - Maurice Rowe (centre) with fellow photographers Laurie Morton of ‘Motoring News’ and ‘Motor Sport’ (left) and Geoff Goddard of ‘Road & Track’ right

Maurice evidently protested that he wasn’t interested in photography, but the sergeant was already on the internal telephone, on his behalf. The outcome was an interview with the head of photography, a benevolent and aged gentleman whose name was Tom Rowe. The surname coincidence seems to have been regarded as an omen by ‘Uncle Tom’ who said that despite Maurice’s protests of not being interested in photography he would, in fact, make a fine press photographer because he was tall and could shoot over the heads of a crowd of people.

Years later Maurice would go several steps further by habitually lugging a folding aluminium step ladder around with him at motor shows and functions and races and rallies. He became “the bloke with the stepladder”. It wore a large ‘The Motor’ decal in identification, and dear old Maurice used it to terrific effect. But on the day of his chat with Tom Rowe, it was 1944, and he left Temple Press with a job – objective achieved. He was an office boy, and with the aviation magazines and their staff just down the corridor, he had found a way into the inside of the world that had gripped him.

His home was in Earl’s Court, London, and he used to cycle into work at Bowling Green Lane in the city centre – with the stomach-quaking chatter of V1 flying bombs arriving from the Continent and floundering overhead. From the top floor office windows at Bowling Green Lane, he also recalled watching the vapour trails drifting away after V2 rockets followed the V1s. A particularly vivid memory was the V2 hit upon Smithfield Market close by – “The tremor seemed to lift Temple Press several feet off the ground”.

He proved an able photographic pupil, helping Tom Rowe, the great aviation photographer Charles Sims and car snapper George Moore on assignment. He loved the variety, never knowing from one week to the next what ‘the job’ might entail.

In 1947 he was called-up for National Service, joining the Fleet Air Arm as an air mechanic working on Supermarine Seafire 17s and Fairey Fireflies based at St Merryn, Cornwall and later RNAS Ford in Sussex, not far from Goodwood. National servicemen’s civilian jobs were protected during their service, so Maurice slotted back into Temple Press on his demob. He shot photos for ‘The Motor’, ‘The Aeroplane’ (which made him intensely happy that he really had found his dream job), ‘Motorcycle’ and ‘Cycling’. He flew in a Fairey Gannet to shoot HMS Ark Royal at sea “…and even scooped the first-ever pictures from the cockpit of the Russian Tu-104 jet airliner…”.

Spanish GP, Jarama - Maurice in typical reflective mode, waiting for the race to start

Spanish GP, Jarama - Maurice in typical reflective mode, waiting for the race to start

But in 1964 ‘The Aeroplane’ was closed down due to Temple Press economy cuts. Friendly, calm, immensely competent Maurice was offered the choice of two plum jobs with the group’s surviving titles, ‘Flight’ or ‘The Motor’. He chose the latter – and didn’t regret it. There he worked very closely with succeeding Sports Editors, most notably Philip Turner with whom he travelled thousands of miles covering racing and rallying.

But above all he had become Temple Press’s regular Le Mans 24-Hour race photographer – starting in 1953 and subsequently becoming virtually a fixture at the great event. Having covered races regularly at Goodwood and Silverstone he was absolutely unprepared for the sheer scale of Le Mans – and the 300,000-plus crowd there took his breath away.

He had to bring home full race coverage despite having to leave halfway through in order to meet the deadlines in the print works that night and next morning. And what’s more he had been issued with two-dozen glass slides only – and Tom Rowe had warned him absolutely NOT to waste any. So 24 negatives to cover the 24-Hour race. Maurice required the foresight of a fortune teller to ensure he’d even have a shot of the winner.

Around midnight he handed over his slides to his colleague Dick Benstead-Smith at Le Mans railway station, who would then take the rattler to Paris, from where he would fly home to London. Maurice: “…(on) more than one occasion I was in the back of a car at Le Mans station with a blanket over my head, changing slides and taping up the boxes to keep the light out. It was like something out of a spy novel….”.

But that’s just the way that race photography – indeed any news photography – just had to be conducted in those days – no digital cameras, computers, internet, wi-fi and dongles then – much less Photoshop or any of the other digital-photo edit programmes which allow snappers to correct their mistakes, or improve their images, today. 


Maurice just got on well with almost everybody – he was a cool, placid, relaxed and calming influence on his great freelance friend Geoff Goddard – his regular fellow photographer around the race circuits of the world – who was notoriously prickly and explosive – especially with “fat-headed” foreign officials and police officers – and liable to detonate at any moment. Maurice would often stand and spectate nearby, quietly puffing on his pipe (while giggling) before remarking, perhaps to me, “…he’s gonna blow” – whereupon he would move in, smiles, affability, a gentle, calming tone – and effectively would keep Geoff out of jail so they could shoot yet more magnificent photography undisturbed.

Maurice was the epitome of a calming influence. He was great to be around – and his technical proficiency and competence never ever in any doubt. It was standard practice, out on circuit, to find him not just as “the bloke with the stepladder” but also as “the bloke stretched out, with his head on his camera bag, catching a few zzzs in the sun”. But the moment the action started on track, he would be wide awake, absolutely alert to a potential picture, and up and about his business.

And never doubt that when it mattered, Maurice could also be very crisp, direct and decisive; an always charming man, yet absolutely nobody’s softie. And he really was a superb photographer, with tremendous technical grasp and that most vital of innate talents – a great eye for a picture.

One year his great eye for a picture triggered a wondrously Italian drama high on the Monza speedbowl banking in Italy. Maurice was shooting for a feature story that Philip Turner would be writing on Alfa Romeo. They had six cars from Alfa’s contemporary range, and Maurice choreographed a tracking shot in which the cars would formate upon the one from which he would be shooting. Alfa’s PR man Rai would drive the car in which Maurice was riding, and they would zoom – not too fast – around the banking section permitted, before they would have to stop at a barriered-off obstruction beyond which maintenance work was taking place.

They tried a first run, but the formation was awful and not at all what Maurice had visualized for his front-cover photo. So Rai re-briefed the drivers. Another run was better, but still not right. Maurice would recall: “I felt there was something strange about the drivers’ behaviour – they all seemed to be gripping the steering wheels with fixed stares. Coming round for the third time I said to Rai it still wasn’t working, so we should pull off instead and just take some static shots. But as we slowed the world went crazy…

Maurice Rowe - Le Mans Test Weekend, 1971 - Porsche 917 Langheck, framed with typical taste by a master

Maurice Rowe - Le Mans Test Weekend, 1971 - Porsche 917 Langheck, framed with typical taste by a master

“One car rushed past us on the right with smoking tyres and crashed straight into the closure barrier. Rai flinched and swerved left just as another car shot down that side, hitting us a glancing blow. Another rammed us in the back and a fourth piled into that one! The fifth and sixth cars just about escaped with minor headlamp damage.

“We all climbed out – the sun was shining, the birds were signing, what a lovely day it was – marred only by the blare of a car horn which wouldn’t stop, and the hissing of steam from split radiators. And pure Italian comedy erupted all around me – all the drivers began yelling and screaming at one another and waving their arms around. I just couldn’t stop laughing and had to disappear into the bushes to pull myself together…”

It turned out that while six test drivers had been requested for the shoot, six delivery lads had been conscripted instead. Their normal job was to drive new cars just from the end of the production line straight onto transporter trucks. Yet here they were at Monza Autodrome, being asked to perform for the camera, no less, on the superbowl Pista de Alta Velocita, at Monza – wow – Monza!!! No wonder they all went dinner-plate-eyed as Milanese machismo triumphed over common sense.

But I can still hear Maurice chuckling about it now. And I am confident that he would have lit his pipe – OK, maybe after checking first for leaking petrol – and have spoken quietly – and have provided that calming influence.

As editorial secretary on 'Motor' magazine, his wife Beryl could provide an equally calming influence for stressed scribblers, imprisoned in tiny hotel phone booths, on the end of a crackling and unreliable Continental telephone line while attempting to dictate their reports over the hot line. In short – a lovely couple. And amongst his peers working with him – over so many long years – Maurice is widely recalled as having been just “…one of the nicest people I have ever known”.

Photographs courtesy of The GP Library

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