One of the great characters of British motor racing just postwar was, of course, John Vary Bolster. He had achieved considerable fame as the constructor, pre-war, of his twin-JAP engined Shelsley Special ‘Bloody Mary’. Postwar he re-emerged as quite an accomplished racing driver, most notably in an ERA which – sadly – he up-ended in an extremely serious accident at Silverstone in 1949. The car somersaulted after sliding into trackside straw bales – which were merely livery-stable sized and therefore little real use other than as trackside trip-hazards for high-built racing cars. Poor John was thrown out of the cockpit of his car which then rolled and bounced on top of him. He would say that, ever after, his back bore the imprint of the ERA’s filler cap.
John survived after a long spell in the krankenhaus – as he would put it – emerging with a characteristically ramrod straight-backed stance. Clad in his favourite sports jacket and inseparable deerstalker hat, with a droopy moustache and ear-splittingly cut-glass Oxford-English accent, he was exuberant, extrovert, fiercely independent and entirely distinctive. With his engineering and driving experience – not to mention the enthusiasm for good food, fine wines, and generally convivial repartee – ‘Bolster’ became a great friend of another genial racing enthusiast, named Gregor Grant. When Gregor found the backing – largely from industrialist/driver Dennis Poore if I recall correctly – to set up a weekly racing magazine they entitled ‘Autosport’, John Bolster became its technical editor.
The British Broadcasting Corporation also picked him up as its regular pits reporter on the all-too-rare occasions that it covered motor race meetings on radio, and on the budding medium of television. Of course deer-stalkered Bolster, with a roving radio transmitter pack strapped to his ramrod back, and holding a lip microphone clamped to his mouth, made good TV. His vocal tone – which I always thought was about as sharp as a Bugatti Type 35’s crackling exhaust at around 7,000rpm – was certainly distinctive.
Very early on, around 1953 or ’54, John found himself called up to report why a 500cc Formula 3 car had just pulled into the Silverstone pits at either a May Meeting or at the British Grand Prix. It was rare exposure for the supporting races, and John – who also demonstrated the then stereotypically-expected upper-class-twit inability to pronounce his ‘r’s – crackled into life from the pit lane, bawling “Oh what tewwibly bad luck – I’m afwaid his chain’s bwoken!”.
Worse would follow, and when he was taken on as circuit commentator at Brands Hatch, he ended up being fired – I believe – for describing Jack Sears’ Austin Cambridge overtake of rival driver Jeff Uren’s Ford Zephyr as “Oh and Jack Sears has just passed U-wen…for the first time today…wah-hah-haaaa….!”.
In particular, John loved France and Paris with its bars, restaurants, and clubs. The annual Paris Salon motor show would see him and Gregor Grant both in attendance, enjoying the simply splendid International social scene to its absolute maximum. The motoring press Test Day at Montlhéry Autodrome would follow, and Bolster would be there, stuck into the thick of it, deerstalker at a jaunty angle, moustache bristling, driving anything and everything that the manufacturers had available for journalistic evaluation…like an absolute demon. He was, in short, a Brockbank cartoon character come to life. Indeed, ‘Brock’ was a friend, and I am sure that John Bolster was the real-life prototype for many of his wonderful drawings…