Every motoring enthusiast has a favourite Brockbank cartoon. Usually, only after long and careful consideration: how do you choose between the dozens of his wonderfully simple yet astute sketches that so often provoke open laughter?
Among the diverse assortment that have amused my curiosity and delighted my sense of humour are a few so sublime they still elicit a broad grin more than 50 years after first sighting. There’s Citroen Presse (reproduced in our On the Lighter Side), with a vintage Bentley looming large behind a Traction Avant Citroen as both drift through a corner at the limit, bodies and tyres at all angles. Brockbank’s cars always seem to be leaning dramatically, few more so than these two. You can almost hear the engines above the tyre squeal. Among Brockbank’s most popular cartoons, it invoked much correspondence, ending the story goes, with a challenge issued by a Bentley driver to meet the offending Citroeniste at dawn at Hogs Back (a hilly ridge in Surrey England) with their respective cars.
Or the caption less cartoon of the tearful wife knitting baby clothes as her scowling husband paints a For Sale sign for his open two-seater sports car that’s visible through a window. The people are so right, the emotion so sincere; nobody but Brockbank could have captured an episode so convincingly. The theme of car versus wife is also encapsulated in Coming Dearest, a cartoon advisement for Ford. The husband is reassuring his wife, who’s been left in a burning house while he first rescues his new (Ford Fiesta) car.
Russell Brockbank – Brock to his many friends – was unquestionably the consummate motoring cartoonist for three decades. His work, consistently published in the world’s best motoring magazines, was so international in its appeal that it seldom required translation.
Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, on 13 April in 1913, Brockbank spent his formative years as an amateur artist. He began drawing cars at the age of four. They had oval wheels (well off the ground), a Brockbank trait that continued right through his career. Russell came to England in 1929 and studied for two years at the Chelsea art school, where he developed his passion for drawing cars. His sketch pad was his constant companion, so that when he and girlfriend Eileen went to Brooklands, or travelled around London, a pencil would come out whenever an intriguing car or circumstance appeared. Giving up the security of his safe job, he went freelance, struggling to make ends meet and ‘starved happily for seven years.’
His first important works were black and white sketches of the racing cars he loved, all full of an excess of exaggerated speed lines. Brockbank later said these pictures made him ‘crawl when I look at them now.’ Still, the MG Car Club and Speed magazine happily published them. Brockbank quickly realised that if he altered his style for various editors he could be published simultaneously in a number of journals. Besides, the more he drew the better he became. Drawing to a brief also added to the variety, so he was able to work under other names, such as JCM Hames (actually his wife’s brother) and MC.
Just before Christmas one year, Brockbank was approached by a racing driver who ask how much he would charge for five different Christmas cards depicting five different racing drivers. “Five pounds,” he replied. “Fine”, said the driver, counting out five, five pounds notes. Brockbank was staggered. He’d meant five pounds for the lot: 25 pounds was a few week’s wages before WW2.
Brock was a happy man with an impish grin, warm, unpretentish, with a marvellously mischievous sense of humour, traits effortlessly depicted in so many of his cartoons. In those prewar racing days he saw the humour in amateur motor sport and gradually turned to cartoons rather than serious illustrations of racing cars. Very quickly he became The Motor’s regular cartoonist, a position he held through the war, even while in the Navy. For Punch, he also produced brilliant coloured drawings of aircraft, tanks and naval vessels leaving nobody in any doubt as to exactly what they were. His artistic licence never made his subjects unrecognisable. During World War II his cartoon technique was used to help with aircraft recognition when published in the British training journal Aircraft Recognition.
The war over, Brock created the mythical Major Upsett, a short man with a bowler hat and a circa 1946 Austin 8 Tourer, who entranced readers through a continual series of absurd motoring situations. In one example, Major Upsett and a fellow motorist walk towards each other around a blind corner holding small – empty – cans while in search of petro. The Major appeared each week in The Motor, along with another cartoon on any subject that seemed appropriate.
Sometimes it was an aggressive policeman or a haughty Rolls-Royce driver; even minis side-by-side through the last corner of a race; a Chaparral having its wing fall off in the Targa Florio; a car designer looking at his last masterpiece complete with squared-off wheel arches and announcing: “Of course the wheels spoil it.” Brockbank made Wednesdays that much brighter for Pom readers.
His love of cars, racing and motoring was self-evident in every drawing. Each year he would go to Le Mans – entranced by the action, soaking up the atmosphere – and then use his experiences to provide readers with a unique view of the 24-hour race. From 1949 he was art editor of The Punch, but also found time to contribute to a growing number of international magazines, including Road & Track, where he worked with Henry Manney. For a time in the ‘60s, Manney was everybody’s favourite writer and the combination of talents was irascible. His cartoons also appeared in the Japanese Car Graphic, Italy’s Quattroporte, Reader’s Digest, Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly. He published books of his cartoons and owned a variety of sporting cars – Porsche, Mini-Cooper, Alfa Romeo, and Fiat – that also helped form the basis for many of his drawings.
Brockbank was happy to admit to a passion for all things motoring. In some brief biographic notes for Automobile Quarterly, he wrote of himself: “Hopeless racing addict, prone to regard the Fangios, Clarks and Stewarts as gods and have to be restrained by wife from prostrating myself at their feet. Getting too old to drive things like D-Types. Work seven days a week, as can’t think of anything better to do. Can never retire. Hopeless case.”
The steady flow of brilliant work only stopped when this affable man became seriously ill and died in 1979, at just 66.
There will be other motoring cartoonists but none will capture the spirit and humour of cars with the same perception and simplicity. What’s your favourite Brockbank?