Spent a fascinating day with one of the true doyens of motoring journalism, Charles Bulmer. This former editor of The Motor was the man who did the original road test on the Jaguar E-type – more of which in a forthcoming advertising special in C&SC magazine – but his lengthy career throws up many a fascinating insight and anecdote. Such as the night rally he and his wife competed in with Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson. Jenkinson was a near-narcoleptic passenger, but had a photographic memory for directions. Bulmer recounted the long night spent with a dormant Jenks in his car, and how, every time they got lost or stopped, this bearded passenger would wake up with a start, wave his arm and pronouce "it's that way", before instantly falling back into his slumber.
In fact it was Jenks who sold Bulmer his first car, a Frazer Nash TT Rep, in 1946, having paid £300 for it himself. The two had met earlier, though. On leaving university in 1944, Bulmer was posted to RE at Farnborough and on the first day went to the canteen and heard a very loud voice declaring that Frazer Nash was the only car worth anything and everything else was rubbish. "I disagreed with him, of course, and that is how we met," says Bulmer today.
Farnborough and nearby units proved a hotbed of future motoring journalists, including long-time The Motor Technical Editor Joe Lowrey, especially the engine research department. As others moved into those magazine roles, Bulmer stayed put, but his old services pals started pushing work his way. As he explains: "I started doing things for Motor Sport. Often when they had a road test car, they would give it to me because Jenks and The Bod [Bill Boddy] hadn't quite come to terms with understeer and oversteer at that stage. Of course, I didn't get paid for it."
In the 1950s, The Autocar, The Motor and others came calling with more and more work and Charles found his loyalties divided. But the pay – on the rare occasions that there was any – was woeful and sometimes never arrived, so it was usually easy to resist persistent overtures of a full-time staff position. "I wasn't keen to leave my established job, but in the end they [The Motor] made me an offer I couldn't refuse." Later, Bulmer discovered that his joining pay packet was weightier than just about any of the established hacks on the staff.
Shortly after joining he got the crucial E-type gig with John Anstice Brown, but that is another story, and then stayed on the magazine until 1973, Editor for the last seven years of that stretch.
His memories of those days are vivid and show that the lavish car launches of today are nothing new: "I think I visited every corner of the Mediterranean in that period and that kind of extravagance was a much bigger deal back then."
His most memorable launch was when Rudolf Uhlenhaut took a select band of journalists to Sicily to drive the new 280SL. Bulmer was amongst them as they were just given the cars and encouraged to do endless laps of the Targa Florio course. Of course it all ended in tears: Uhlenhaut was one hell of a hotshoe, rumoured to be quicker than all his works drivers, and he decided to chivvy Bernard Cahier around the course. The pair picked up the pace and were having a super dice, until something came the other way and both the cars and their drivers ended up in a ditch. Playtime over.
The most "disproportionate" launch Bulmer remembers was for the ASA 1000 in 1961. Never heard of it? The ASA was another of Giotto Bizzarrini's projects, a pretty little plastic baby Ferrari coupé, built in Milan with a 1032cc engine that was just a segmented Ferrari 250 lump. Not only did the wildly optimistic press launch precede the car going into production by more than three years, but its sumptuousness at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco obscenely outweighed the 75 units the terrifyingly overpriced ($6000 in the USA) car would shift.
Like many in that era, Bulmer was a big admirer of Colin Chapman. "He was so articulate, he spoke in complete sentences and in one hour I would get about 24 pages of material from him that my long-suffering secretary would have to transcribe. I knew him from his earliest days and he had a fantastic ability to explain the most complicated things in an incredibly simple way, to the point where they just seemed so obvious you wondered why everybody wasn't doing it."
So Chapman the interviewee was great, but what about Chapman the man? "You know what, even his least likeable qualities were still admirable. He was always sticking his nose in everything, visiting every department every day not only so that he knew everything that was going on all of the time, but also so he could instantly stop anything he didn't like . A few of the staff seemed to resent that and think that it was a control issue, but it makes perfect sense if you think about it and saves everyone's time and money. Plus, the loyalty he engendered was phenomenal, especially for a man who drove his employees so hard. He just had this fantastic knack of carrying everyone else along on his wave."
The second best test-car Charles was loaned – the E-type has the top spot, natch – qualifies because it was so bizarre, an experience he still describes as "surreal". Well it must have been a bit odd when he was given the keys to the 150mph Rover BRM gas turbine Le Mans car and told to go off and do what he wanted with it for a week. So that was precisely what he did, including a lovely August bank holiday day at the seaside. "I drove out of the gates at Solihull wishing I still had the engineers with me," he recalls. "The problem was that you had no option but to do left-foot-braking and, because it was still set up for Graham Hill at Le Mans, Hill being an accomplished rower with massive leg muscles, the pedal was incredibly heavy. When we tested it we found that maximum braking took 180lb of pressure, which is masses. We did enjoy annoying petrol stations by filling it up with paraffin which hadn't been subject to duty, though." Behind the Rover BRM comes the Mercedes-Benz CIII triple-rotor which he drove for a day in Germany with Uhlenhaut as passenger.
As you would expect, not every car that crossed his path was good, either inherently or even just for entertainment. Bulmer confesses: "Of course there were an awful lot of cars at the other end of the scale. In the 1960s and 1970s after all, some cars were looking to the future, but just as many were simply rehashing the past. Joe Lowrey said that the AC Greyhound really wasn't safe at all, and I thought that the Humber Hawk was quite dangerous at high speed. Cars could still be really awful in those days, comparatively they were far far worse than the worst cars today."
Eventually Bulmer's journalistic career ended when he accepted a role at BL after being headhunted by Lord Stokes in 1973. As a result he had a grandstand seat as the British motor industry was thrown to the lions. It's not something he particularly likes to dwell on, but he recounts myriad familiar reasons for its demise: industrial relations, internecine rivalry between a bunch of brands that mixed like oil and water, the inexorable rise to the top of the "Triumph people", the subsequent elevation of their Canley compatriots and the final outcome of a mismanaged company with too many people in jobs they were not qualified enough, or experienced enough, to cope with. "The right people were there, all right, particularly the engineers, but they were all in the wrong jobs," he says before, controversially for some, I am sure, adding: "I think Alec Issigonis had too much power, he was a total autocrat and would override anyone who questioned him. That was fine when he was right, but he was sure not to be eventually and that would always prove costly."
For those of you who aren't familiar with The Motor, it was a weekly UK mag that was founded near the turn of the 20th Century and lived on independently until it was absorbed into [The] Autocar in the late 1980s. The name lived on briefly (as Autocar & Motor), but then was lost. Then again, those are just the perennial machinations of this trade. Machinations that clearly fascinate Bulmer, this sprightly well-you-don't-like-to-ask-year-old in the nicest, most urbane, possible way, bombarding me (well, that's a bit strong, but I am a journalist) with questions on the industry today, budgets, resources, how the internet interacts with and has an impact on magazine sales and much more, including just about every new car turning a wheel ("I am very into modern cars despite my associations with, and obsessions with, the past").
Meeting Charles Bulmer, was a delight, an honour and a privilege, but boy did it leave me feeling rather inadequate!
Pictured: Charles Bulmer recreates the first ever E-type road test 50 years on, in the very same car and with Jaguar's David Rooney keeping him company. Lurking is C&SC's Elliott and Jaguar's Richard Mason in the XKR