For a racing driver Tony Dron was a remarkably good writer. And for a motoring journalist, he was an exceptional racer – so good, in fact that on one of the many occasions he won a round of the British Saloon Car Championship outright, his works-backed 2.0-litre Triumph Dolomite Sprint beating the massed ranks of more powerful 3.0-litre Ford Capris, the cover of that week’s Autosport carried the headline ‘DRONINGTON’. That year, 1977, he missed becoming overall series champion by one point…
Tony was always meant to be a racing driver. It all began, aged 12, with a 1932 Austin Seven in which he and brother Peter undertook time trials around the garden at the family home… when their mother had gone shopping.
Tony had plans – later abandoned – to turn the Seven into an aluminium-bodied special to compete in the 750 MC championship but his racing aspirations became rather more serious in 1968 when, aged 21, he bought a Titan Mk 4 Formula Ford competing against (and often beating) the likes of James Hunt.
Motor racing needs more than just talent, however, and a lack of funds forced him to consider another career. Innes Ireland, another racer-turned-writer, suggested he should try motoring journalism. He entered, and won, the Guild’s Sir William Lyons Award for aspiring journalists in 1968 and in 1971 joined the road test team of Motor, becoming the magazine’s sports editor a couple of years later.
Ironically, this new career meant greater chance to go racing. Hoping for exposure in the pages of the magazine, manufacturers and sponsors started offering him drives and he grabbed the opportunities with both hands.
He juggled both careers until the end of 1974 when he left Motor to take up the offer of a seat in a Capri 3000 in the ’75 BSCC… only for the drive to fall through at the last minute. Fate was smiling, however, as British Leyland was looking for a journalist to race a second Broadspeed Dolomite in the championship alongside Andy Rouse. As Dron told Octane in 2018: “It wasn’t difficult to be quite a bit quicker than the other journos, so I got the job.”
That year he won his class in the Tourist Trophy and came fifth overall with Rouse in the Spa 24 Hours. The following year he raced a works Alfa and in 1976 he returned to single seaters in a Unipart-backed Dolomite-engined March F3 car. The car wasn’t a great success, but it paved the way for a successful return to Dolly Sprints in 1977 and ’78. He also managed to win the Porsche 924 Challenge in ’78.
He continued to race but from 1979 to 1982 he also tried his hand as a car salesman working for Saab in London and later a Porsche dealership in Darlington. He once confessed that sitting alongside potential new owners trying out a Saab Turbo for the first time could be one of life’s more terrifying experiences . . .
The racing, meanwhile, stepped up a gear with a works drive at Le Mans in a Porsche 924 GTP in 1980 – 12th overall – and a class win in 1982 in a Porsche 934. Throughout the 1980s Tony was closely associated with AFN Porsche. He was always quick in their 928, often taking pole but invariably arrived at the first corner in fifth or sixth having lost out to 911 traction off the line. And ten laps seldom gave him enough time to get back to the front.
In 1982 he stopped selling cars and returned to the keyboard, first as features editor and then editor of Thoroughbred & Classic Cars (later just Classic Cars).
This move to the world of classic cars saw Tony turn his hand to track testing and racing significant historic cars, again with remarkable success. His ability to describe how the car behaved on track was as impressive as his racing record. Among many successful outings he won the Sussex Trophy at the Goodwood Revival three years running in a Ferrari 246S Dino and won the 1996 Eifel Klassik outright in a Ferrari 330 LMB.
In all, he reckoned to have won events in 24 makes and 44 models of cars, everything from Alfas and Allards to his own race and rally Zephyr. The actual number of wins was in the hundreds.
He left T&CC in 1993 but continued to write for the magazine for a while before becoming a contributor to Octane and the Daily Telegraph. He also wrote a few motoring books. He retired from racing in 2011 and from writing in 2018.
What those facts don’t reveal, however, is too much about the man. Yes, he was a seriously quick driver and a damn fine writer but there was much more to him, as has been proven by the flood of memories that have poured out on social media since his death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was announced. Tony had picked up a lung infection on a trip to India when he was 19. This was followed by lung collapses in his 20s and was perhaps a contributory factor to his emphysema.
The comments show he was universally liked and admired – no mean feat in either business. Former colleague Rex Greenslade wrote: “He was such a good friend – mentor even – in my early Motor days, not just with regard to the writing and testing by also my nascent racing career. To have had the privilege, in 1979, of racing the Triumph Dolomite Sprint which he had developed to such a high level is something I will always treasure.”
Our own Sue Baker wrote: “He was one of the greats. Always entertaining company, and I even forgave him for beating me to the Sir William Lyons Award way back. Such a talented driver and writer.”
Tony was Malcolm McKay’s boss at Classic Cars. “(He) taught me so much – about life and enjoying it as well as about writing and editing magazines. And especially about driving. Sitting alongside him as we slid to a major award on the very slippery Longleat Stages in his Ford Zephyr as he controlled it from lock to massive lock while holding the column shift in gear AND flicking the overdrive switch on the dash was a masterclass – and one of many.”
Tony was something of a hero – and mentor – to me, too, and gave me aspirations to become a motoring journalist. I first met him in the early 1970s when I was a cub reporter on a South London newspaper, and I discovered he lived locally. He soon became a regular source of stories for the sports pages, tales of his exploits in Escorts, Dolomites and the F3 March providing a welcome relief from the acres of football stuff that usually graced the back pages.
I remember the first time I interviewed him in his bachelor flat in Blackheath – he was funny, charming, encouraging and helpful. He knew the value of a good story, all of which helped a slightly nervous, star-struck – I was an avid reader of Motor – wet-behind-the-ears youngster starting out in his chosen career.
People mattered to Tony, and he had an amazing knack of making you feel important, regardless of whether you were or not. As well as giving me stories, he was generous with his time and his guidance. He took me under his wing and introduced me to other members of the South London motorsport mafia, including an up-and-coming young Modsport driver called Jonathan Palmer. The fact that Tony’s life seemed impossibly glamorous – his co-driver/navigator on the 1975 Avon Tour of Britain was a Penthouse Pet called Madeleine LeMauviel, for example – also helped.
When I became editor of Classic and Sports Car, he was my opposite number on Classic Cars. Appreciating his skill behind the wheel and the keyboard, not to mention his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, I knew I was something of a fraud.
The Guild would like to offer its sincere condolences to Tony’s family and friends, notably his brother Peter, daughters Amy and Katy and son Will, and of course his wife Charis Whitcombe.
The family has established an on-line memorial book – www.remembr.com/tony.dron – where friends and fans can post their memories of a remarkable man.
Photos: Jeff Bloxham
A message from Tony Dron’s family
Tony Dron died last night (Tuesday, November 16) aged 75 from medical complications relating to his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Tony was more than an excellent racing driver, author and motoring journalist, he was a beloved husband, father and grandfather, and it’s impossible to express how much he will be missed by us all.
We thank everybody for their messages of condolence – they are greatly appreciated. Due to the large number of them we have created a page at remembr.com/tony.dron and ask that memories of Tony are posted there while we make the necessary arrangements for the funeral.
We will also be looking into the possibility of a memorial service and will share details of that should it come to fruition.