Motoring heroes: the most inspiring people in the car industry

Do you know who your motoring heroes are? Until this question fell heavily onto my desk a couple of weeks ago, I had little idea of mine and not much idea how to decide. I’ve since discovered that arriving at a coherent list is tough indeed but rewarding if you can pull it off.

First, you can’t allow yourself too many, or you’ll devalue the importance of those you do choose. This is your ultimate accolade, remember. Second, you’ve got to resist adopting other people’s heroes, thinking that they will make you seem insightful or respectable (neither of which you may be). Third, you must see a difference between heroes of your own era – who with luck you might have met – and those who are now strictly figures of history. The types are quite different: how would you ever compare the automotive achievements of Ettore Bugatti and Elon Musk?

Finally, you must decide what qualities move a candidate from high achiever to hero? Is it necessary to like them, at least by repute? After much thought, I’ve decided that it is, and that every one of my heroes should have personal qualities I’d emulate if I could. Using those criteria, I came up with six people from modern times and six from history I’d give anything to have known…

Modern-day heroes

Ron Dennis: Through sheer bloody-minded determination, a sure sense of destiny and a spectacular ability to do deals, the former racing mechanic built a tiny garage-based racing team into a global group with powerful technology, Formula 1 racing and road car building arms. In racing, McLaren came to match Ferrari, which had been at it much longer. In road cars, Dennis presided over first the 1992 McLaren F1, still beautiful and staggeringly capable today, and then the contemporary family of supercars that started with the excellent MP4-12C in 2011. Were it not for a commercial wrangle that saw him ejected from McLaren Group, Dennis might be as widely revered as Enzo Ferrari. He certainly deserves it.

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Sir David Salomons: As well as a civil rights hero, Salomons was a key promoter of automobilism. A talented engineer, he had Britain’s first electrically lit home and even built his own electric car in 1874. He was then a founder of the RAC and France’s ACF; held this country’s first car demo; helped organise a London motor show; and led the association that initiated the movement that freed us from the 4mph limit and red flag man. Kris Culmer