Monday, 1 July 2013

AUTHOR PROFILE No. 3: MALCOLM BOBBITT

Malcolm Bobbitt’s first book for Veloce, the story of Fiat’s forever young 500 and 600 models, was published in 1993. The work came about through the author’s chance meeting with publisher Rod Grainger, who was promoting Veloce’s titles at a Fiat Motor Club event in 1992. The absence of a ‘Baby Fiat’ publication in the catalogue prompted Rod to suggest Malcolm write a history of the cars.



After several editions, including German and Japanese translations, the Fiat book is still in print. It was the starting point of Malcolm’s long relationship with Veloce, and a portfolio now comprising some sixteen titles, a number of which have entered multiple editions with several released as eBooks. Malcolm’s diverse interests are evident in the subjects he has tackled, which include London taxicabs, austerity motoring, three-wheelers, and British lorries, as well as Essential Buyer’s Guides, and in-depth books on Karmann Ghia Volkswagens, VW Buses, Rover, Citroën, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Numerous other works bring the total number of Malcolm Bobbit titles to over thirty.

1974 with Citroën Dyane; slim, almost hippie style, and with hair!

“For long an enthusiast of minimal motoring, my everyday transport at the time of meeting Rod was a yellow water-cooled Fiat 126 Bis. Despite being told by Fiat owners that the car would prove wholly unreliable, it turned out to be an ever-ready and willing workhorse that often undertook speedy 750-mile round trips from London to the northern rim of the Lake District where I and my wife, Jean, owned a small cottage. With its tailgate and folding rear seat, the car also served as a capable if somewhat miniscule load carrier, and once transported an ancient Velosolex, which was a whim purchase at a Beaulieu Autojumble. Jean still reminds me of the ordeal, especially the fact that, having helped me remove the Velosolex’s wheels to get the machine through the rear hatch, she had to endure the journey home with the motorcycle’s handlebars turned through ninety degrees and resting on her shoulders.

My love of motor vehicles and motoring stems from my parents having never owned a car, regardless of my encouragement to do so. As a child, my constant pleading for them to buy a ‘sit-up-and-beg’ Ford Prefect fell on deaf ears, and it was that which determined me to acquire a car of my own as soon as I was able.

Looking back to around 1962, it seems ludicrous that I contemplated buying a car before I was old enough to learn to drive. It’s even more incredible that, along with a friend, I got as far as setting off to do a suspicious deal involving what must have been some wretched example of a prewar machine.

A study of the local paper’s ‘motors for sale’ section had revealed a plethora of Austin Sevens and Morris Eights on offer in exchange for a crisp fiver, no questions asked. Real luck would have been meeting the owner of an advertised car in a pub, and the dubious deal being done for no more than the price of a pint of Watneys, but the plan in this instance was to meet the vendor of an Austin Seven outside a hostelry a mile or so away from home, hand over £5 and push the vehicle home, as there were no hills along the route. Exactly what we would do with the wreck once it was in our possession hadn’t occurred to us, but all went well until our fathers suddenly arrived on the scene at an inappropriate moment and quashed all hope of the deal being done.

I bought my first car in March 1967. I handed over a hard-earned £350 for what appeared to be a clean four-year old Morris 1100, but actually, it transpired, had been denied sympathetic maintenance. It suffered from all sorts of the ailments for which the earliest examples of these models were notorious, and all the more scarily, it rode on re-tread tyres that, during the first long run I made in the car, began to fragment. The experience with the 1100 was a lesson in how to part with money, and it wasn’t long before the offending machine was part-exchanged for a 1966 Austin Cambridge.”

What I really longed for was a Citroën DS, as I remembered seeing these spaceship-like cars when they first made their appearance on Britain’s roads. Their unusual styling, along with the ability to seemingly waken and rise from a recumbent position before wafting along with all the ease of a magic carpet, had made a huge impression. I couldn’t afford one, let alone pay for its maintenance and running costs, so I settled for a brand new two-cylinder air-cooled Dyane 6, which was the slightly upmarket version of the 2CV.

It was the early 1970s, I had left home, and the frugal Citroën was an intrinsic part of my independence. The minimal motoring ethos blended in with my lifestyle, and it wasn’t long before I was embarking on long trips, such as completing the End-to-End run (then known as Le Jog) in under twenty-four hours and without using motorways. Leaving Lands End at six in the evening, I somehow managed to arrive at John o’ Groats twenty-two hours later. The grandest expedition was navigating a tortuous route through Europe to Norway’s North Cape, to arrive there on the longest day of the year. The three-week adventure, comprising some 3500 miles, was made without even a puncture.

At Lands End ready to leave for John o' Groats. Again with hair!

In Norway en route to the North Cape with just two cylinders and 602cc under the bonnet.

The Dyane was soon joined by a proper ripple-bonnet 425cc 2CV complete with flower-power decals, and I did eventually attain DS ownership by finding an early British (Slough) built example, which I discovered to my delight had enjoyed a remarkable provenance. It had been owned by Citroën Cars as a works vehicle reserved for the use of the firm’s chief engineer, and it was my pleasure to take the car to the DS’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Paris in 2005, where I was able to reunite it with its former celebrated custodian.

At the top of Queensland in Australia with a DS.

The one Citroën escapade that will forever remain in my memory is when, on a two-month long visit to Australia in 1978, I drove a DS from Brisbane to the top of Queensland. For most of the 2000 or so miles the going was over loose surfaces, and at one stage meant crossing a deep creek which usually could only be addressed by Toyota Land Cruisers and the like. Thankfully, the DS’s hydropneumatic suspension, with its adjustable ride height pumped up to its maximum altitude, enabled the quarter-mile water crossing to be completed without problem.

The many Citroëns in my life have included two ‘Maigret’ Traction Avants, a brace of 2CV vans, a now rare split-screen H-van, a CX, a sporty GS, an XM and, currently, a C6. There have been other cars, such as an early ’50s Fiat 500C Topolino, an Austin Metro, a couple of Fords, a Rover, and a wonderfully reliable Renault 4 that gave many thousands of trouble-free miles until it fell apart after even the rust had disintegrated. There’s always one car that rules the heart and not the head, and in my case it was a 1951 Bentley Mark VI. I saw the car at a classic car show and did the deal on impulse. I still remember the look of horror on my wife’s face as I arrived home with it.

With my 1951 Bentley Mk VI.

I’ve always liked what I think are odd-ball cars, which is why I have seldom been without an air-cooled or hydraulically suspended Citroën. French and Italian cars particularly appeal and there’s a soft spot for those deliciously specialist British cars, like the Rileys and MGs of the 1930s. Somewhere inside me is a voice telling me it’s time to have a sports car: okay, a mid-life crisis (or in my case, post-mid-life crisis) is probably to blame for my yearning, but I cannot help hankering after a Jaguar XK 150. Morgan comes into the frame too, and the thought of a three-wheeler – original or the new version – is fun. In reality I’d probably end up with a 2CV-based Lomax or similar.

With my wife Jean in 2005. After Paris, the Citroën DS 50th anniversary celebration continued in the UK, at Slough, the home town of Citroën in Britain.

As a member of the Society of Automotive Historians in Britain, I somehow agreed to the editorship of the society’s quarterly journal, which covers all aspects of motoring history. Society membership includes a number of distinguished historians and authors, some of whom, like Karl Ludvigsen, have written books for Veloce. Producing the journal was initially a daunting prospect, but with the publication of each edition it has become all the more rewarding in terms of members’ contributions.

Publication of the Veloce Karmann Ghia VW book is recorded for the local rag.

As a full-time motoring writer (I’m a member of the Northern Group as well as Guild of Motoring Writers), I do get to drive a lot of new cars, and I have to admit that I enjoy my work. Getting behind the wheel of the latest supermini is just as gratifying as squeezing into the confines of the new F-type Jaguar, an Aston Martin, Porsche or Bentley. Living in the northern part of the Lake District, my ‘road test’ area has England’s highest mountains and the wilds of Southern Scotland, all of which is within the coverage of the regional journals I write for. The terrain lends itself to trying out the latest 4x4s, often in true off-roading manner.

Road testing an Aston Martin V8 Vantage in Southern Scotland for the regional press.

Writing about classic and vintage cars for various periodicals is also a major part of my work. Getting to talk to enthusiasts who are passionate about their vehicles is a pretty good way of spending my time, as is being invited to sample such delights from behind the wheel. All in all, it’s not a bad life.”

Click here to view all Veloce books by Malcolm Bobbitt, here for eBooks.