The Internet has changed our lives in so many ways. In just the past 20 years, the Internet has both opened up the expanse of our immediate world and at that same time made it all closer to hand than we ever could have imagined. It is as a result of this strange global “closeness” that I now sit here, mourning a man I’ve known for over 20 years and yet never met. It is with a heavy heart that I report that Vintage Road & Racecar’s longtime contributor and “Italian Bureau Chief,” Robert Newman, has passed away.
Robert began contributing to VR sometime in 1999. I say sometime in 1999, because it was so long ago, I can’t find any definitive documentation on when he first started with us, other than his first inclusion in the masthead in the May 1999 issue. What I do recall is that the magazine was less than a year old when I received an email from a reader wanting to add a finer level of historical detail to a Maserati 250F article that we had run. While it seemed like minutiae at the time, this reader was going on and on about the importance of the 250F’s long association with Pirelli tires!
However, after further emails back and forth, his strange obsession with the history of Pirelli tires became a bit more clear, when this reader mentioned that he had recently retired from his job in public relations for Pirelli and, if I was interested, he’d love to submit an article or two. Would I be interested?! I jumped at the chance.
As it turned out, Robert Newman had started with the UK division of Pirelli in 1965, been the international head of Pirelli’s public relations since the 1970s and as such had overseen everything from Pirelli’s racy annual calendars to a myriad of publicity launches with Pirelli-sponsored celebrities like Stirling Moss, Juan Manual Fangio and Sandro Munari, to name but a few. As a relative nobody, cobbling together a magazine out of the back bedroom of my house, Robert’s involvement in the magaine was like striking the editorial equivalent of the Mother Lode.
Over a very short period of time, I came to realize what a knowledgeable, witty and gracious person Robert was (all key elements for any successful automotive PR flack). We clicked on a personal level right away, based solely on emails back and forth and the very rare phone conversation.
It was only much later on in our relationship that I learned that Robert was the somewhat odd combination of an Australian, who was fluent in Italian. While he never would have said as much, I think it spoke volumes about him that, despite not being Italian, he had risen so high within the organization at Pirelli. Having organized countless press launches that included brand ambassadors like Moss and Fangio, not only did Newman have an endless collection of personal stories about these racing greats, but he had also become close personal friends with them. When in Argentina, he stayed with Fangio in Balcarce and in 1990, he worked side-by-side with both the “Maestro” and Moss to produce the extremely popular book, “Fangio: A Pirelli Album.”
Within months Robert was contributing a steady stream of both articles and news out of Italy, so much so that I felt compelled to give him some kind of “title.” We decided on “Italian Bureau Chief” which gave us a both a chuckle, as it sounded very official and implied that we had more than more one person contributing in Italy! But the honorific stuck.
By 2005, Newman began amassing a series of shorter articles centering initially around his first-hand experiences with great drivers he worked with at Pirelli. When the magazine underwent a major upgrade and revision in September 2005, we launched Newman’s new, monthly column entitled “Heroes”, where he would examine the life and career of a different, significant driver each month. I’m pleased to say that Robert was always a prolific writer, so we still have a number of his Heroes pieces to carry us for some time into the future, but sadly these are a precious resource that one day will come to an end.
Over the 20 years that I worked with Robert on a monthly basis, we periodically laid on grandiose plans to meet in person. Trips to the Mille Miglia were planned, as were rendezvous at Retromobile, in Paris. But each fell through for any number of trivial reasons, with the refrain always being, “Ah, we’ll put it together next year.” Like any number of planned interviews with driving greats that were put off too long, sadly my rendezvous with Robert will now never be.
As sad as this realization is to me, I’m thankful that through the miracle of the Internet, I was able to enjoy a rich, digital relationship with one of the truly great gentlemen of the automotive world.
While Robert spent the better part of the last 13 years sharing with us his impressions of the heroes of motorsport, I suggest that it was in fact Robert Newman who was our Hero of the “Heroes.”