Obituary: Robert Brooks 1957–2021

by John Mayhead
25 August 2021 3 min read
Obituary: Robert Brooks 1957–2021
Photo: Bonhams

Robert Brooks, auctioneer, racing driver and one of the biggest personalities in the UK historic car scene, has died aged just 64.

After finishing his time at St Benedict’s School in Ealing, Robert attempted to become a full-time racing driver but at the age of 19, after a short spell in Formula Ford, he realised this was not to be and followed his father, Bill, into the auction trade at Christie’s. Starting as a porter, he quickly worked his way up the ranks, becoming an auctioneer, then director. By 1986, at the age of 30, he was on the board of the company.

Christie’s motoring sales expanded rapidly under his direction using new, impressive locations both at home and abroad, but ever one to act on an opportunity, in 1989 with the support of Evert Louwman he established Brooks Auctioneers which became, in the 1990s, a dominant force in the classic car marketplace. Bonhams, Phillips, and Butterfields became part of the Brooks empire, with Robert eventually rebranding the empire to Bonhams. Under his control, the company became truly international, opening offices in New York and Hong Kong, and transforming its London headquarters. In 2018 the company, now one of the world’s top auction houses, was sold and Brooks retired.

Almost more so than an auctioneer, Brooks is remembered as an influential member of the historic racing community. A competent endurance racer, he became Group N European Touring Car Champion and subsequently Chairman of the BRDC, but it was in the historic racing pit where he will be missed most. Cutting his teeth on some exceptional historic cars in the 1990s, he was instrumental in providing the support and encouragement for the Duke of Richmond (then Lord March) to establish the Goodwood Festival of Speed and then the Revival.

A regular competitor, his unlikely victory in the very first Goodwood Revival Sussex Trophy in 1998 is surely one of the highlights of his long racing career. Having recovered from a start-line incident that left the bodywork of his Lotus-Climax 15 peeled back like a gullwing door, black flags twitching and commentator Murray Walker in his usual state of excitement, Brooks passed Frank Sytner in his Lister ‘Knobbly’ with just under a lap and a half to go, holding on the outside at the Lavant Corner staying ahead until the finish despite losing speed on the straights.

James Wood, racing driver and Hagerty ambassador, will be driving the same Lotus-Climax 15 at Goodwood, in preparation for the forthcoming Revival.

Speaking yesterday during testing of the car, Wood said, “Robert was a wonderful character and a leading force in motorsport both in his directorship of the BRDC and in his role in historic racing, remaining an active Governor of Goodwood. I was fortunate to know him for many years, both as a competitor and as a friend.

“When he retired, I was honoured to be asked to drive his cars at the Members’ Meeting in the Gerry Marshall Trophy, and at Goodwood Speed Week in October 2020, where I set the fastest time in qualifying in his Rover SD1 out of sixty drivers. Robert was thrilled, and even more excited than ever for the race. It was a long-standing arrangement for me to drive the Lotus 15 in preparation for the Revival, and it seemed very apt that this was the car in which he scored such a thrilling victory at the first Revival. We paused to pay tribute to him, and to Adrian Hamilton, who also sadly died at the weekend.”

James Wood remembers Robert Brooks

Since leaving Bonhams, Brooks had taken on the renovation and running of a farm that he had bought in Somerset.

Brooks died on 23 August, having been diagnosed with cancer two years previously. He leaves behind his wife Evelyn, children Sarah, Charlie and John, and nine grandchildren.

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