John Bolster

24/5/1910 - 13/1/1984

Record updated 15-Feb-23

John Bolster, a very English gentleman, was most famous for his 'Bloody Mary' special. He was a racing driver, commentator and motoring writer. He quit racing after a bad crash in the 1949 British Grand Prix.

John Bolster
The twin engined JAP powered sprint and hillclimb car started life in 1929 when he built it with help from his brother, Richard. They were both still at school at the time when Richard came up with the design. They built the wooden chassis and installed a 760cc JAP vee-twin motorcycle engine that pre-dated the First World War with the idea of, as John himself put it, driving around a field "as dangerously as possible."

John Bolster in Bloody Mary at Lewes in 1929. The car in in it's original single engine guise. note the Tax Disc as BM was road legal for many years!

From those simple beginnings, the car developed into one of the most famous specials to race in the UK. The original motor was replaced by a four-cam JAP vee-twin and then by a KTOR short-stroke overhead-valve JAP motor. By the end of 1933 Bloody Mary was a well developed and competitive car, though the handling was idiosyncratic. John managed to terrify Alec Issigonis (designer of his own lightweight special and the Mini) after taking him for a trial run at Brooklands. Issignosis said afterwards that in his opinion ‘the rather strait-laced officials should not have permitted record attempts by a car that travelled largely sideways’.

John Bolster in Bloody Mary in twin engined guise at Shelsely.

Not content and working on the principal that more is always better a second KTOR short-stroke overhead-valve JAP motor became available and this was duly inserted in the same wooden chassis that John and Richard had put together as schoolboys! Front brakes were now installed as John wanted to race the car at Donington. The chassis was also stiffened and the engines tuned further. At Shelsley Walsh in 1937 John set a time of 42.24 seconds, the quickest non supercharged car and only just over three seconds slower than Raymond Mays in ERA 4B.

Getting a b1t sideways at Croydon Aerodrome, 5th September 1937 (Photo credit National Motor Museum)

During the 1930s and 1940s John also raced at Donington, Brooklands and other British tracks until so called Shelsely Special were banned in 1938.

Four linked JAP engines. Getting them all to run smoothly at the same time was one of the biggest problems with the car.

John Bolster with the four engined special at Crystal Palace in 1938

But Mary was now at the limit and in 1937, to continue being competitive John decided to build a new special with independent suspension and 4 engines. With a 0 to 100 mph time of less than 10 seconds, it was very quick but beset with technical problems. Running on methanol based fuel, Bolster once said that "she seems to enjoy her alcohol as much as her owner does his". However John never had the same love for the new car and after the war went back to the original Bloody Mary.

Bolster also continued to use Bloody Mary in sprints and hillclimbs after the war, still finding ways to make her quicker. He even held the VSCC record from 1948 to 1953 at Prescott.

He also began racing Peter Bell's ERA R5B 'Remus'. Then, at the 1949 British Grand Prix, John Bolster lost Remus in a big way at Stowe just past half distance when he skidded on some oil, hit a straw bale and rolled twice. Bolster was thrown out and went under the car at the foot of the BBC commentary box. Murray Walker, who was calling the race informed his audience in a typically understated way that “Bolster’s gone off!”.

Although he recovered from the back injuries he had sustained the accident ended any further serious active participation in racing. He then concentrated on his work broadcasting and writing. He served as the Technical Editor for Autosport for many years.

John Bolster in R5B at the British Grand prix in 1949 following Phi-Phi Étancelin's Talbot-Lago T26C.

His brother Richard was a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during WWII and sadly perished in June 1941 when he crashed at Klein-Hansdorf. He is burrined in the Hamburg War Cemetery, Germany. Grave Ref: 9A.B.8.

John Bolster died in 1984. He had been suffering with heart trouble for some years, although those who met him at Press functions or saw him driving his 1911 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce to R-R EC and other meetings would never have known.

John Bolster was rarely seen without his trademark Deerstalker hat!

The fact that we shall never again have the company of this extrovert all-round motoring enthusiast is exceedingly hard to take.