MAN OF SPEED
Born Robert Bruce Ropner in West Hartlepool, he was always known as ‘Bruce’ because his father was also Robert (and his grandfather). His mother was Bee.
His grandfather had founded the family business in 1874. He had stowed away on a ship from his native Hamburg. He intended to have a career at sea but found himself extremely seasick. He made himself known and got off the boat at West Hartlepool – and there he stayed.
He started a ship business, ‘Ropner Shipbuilding and Repair Company’. It was based in Stockton on Tees. He made a fortune when the First World War occurred, and was eventually knighted.
His son, Bruce’s father, took over the company (and made even more money out of the Second World War), and also moved them into stockbroking.
Bruce was educated at Harrow and loved his time there. He discovered the joy of sport and became a cross-country runner, cricketer and played the ancient game of Harrow football (a rougher version of rugby).
He remembered being told off by his Housemaster when he was caught smuggling a radio into a lesson in order to listen to England in a Test Match. “Oh, for God’s sake, you’re behaving like an Etonian”, said the Master.
When he left school he did two years National service in the Welsh Guards and then he joined the family company. He kept running and once did an endurance marathon, running 87 miles in a 24 hour period. He also carried on playing Harrow football, even though his peers abandoned the game when they left school.
In 1959, he met, and became friendly with Keith Schellenberg. Keith owned the Scottish island of Eigg and was the British bobsleigh champion of 1956.
Keith was looking for new members of his 4-man bob. He said, “You’re a fit man Bruce. Come and join us.” Bruce said it took him 3 seconds to decide to join, even though he had never seen a bobsleigh before.
When he turned up for training, he was told he was not actually fit enough. He was sent off to spend a few days running around a football stadium.
Then he reported back. He took his cousin Jeremy Ropner with him, also an old Harrovian. The very first bobsleigh ride he did was on the famous Cresta Run at St Moritz in Switzerland – regarded as the most dangerous route of all.
He said, “Rather than being scared the first time you go down, you really just don’t know what’s happening. You are up on those corners, taking them at 3, 4 or 5 times G-force – Being Scared? I always say there is little time for that.”
The fourth man on their 1959 team in the Switzerland Championships was John Bingham, soon to become Lord Lucan. Although Bruce and Jeremy liked him, they thought Bingham was, “a little bit dim.” They distanced themselves from Bingham when they realised he was obsessed with gambling and alcohol. Bruce said that he himself was only addicted to sport and speed.
It was only 15 years later that Bingham/Lucan murdered his children’s nanny in what became a notorious case.
Bruce had already developed a love of fast cars, and owned many of them, racing them when possible. He owned a 1930 Bentley.
On one occasion he drove the young Duke of Kent up the Great North Road in the Bentley, at 132mph. The Duke said later, “The front wheels hardly touched the road”.
On holiday in France, Bruce met debutante Willow Hare. They were married soon afterwards and were to have two children, Nicola and Robert. They moved to the Camp Hill Estate, near Bedale in Yorkshire.
Shortly afterwards he sold their Jaguar XK150 wedding car – and immediately regretted it. He spent years tracking it down again and eventually bought it back – to become a treasured possession.
By now he was a keen skier, challenging himself on the most difficult slopes of Europe, particularly Switzerland.
He was also an outstanding water skier.
In 1962, Bruce and Jeremy entered the British bobsleigh championship, held abroad. Jeremy was the driver, Bruce the brakesman. Their biggest rivals were Old Etonian Robin Dixon and fellow Harrovian Tony Nash.
Amazingly the Ropners won gold – although Bruce generously admitted it was only because Dixon and Nash crashed.
Two years later, at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, the cousins wore the number GB1. But they finished 10th. The gold medal was won by…Dixon and Nash – the first Winter Olympic gold Britain had won – and to date the only bobsleigh gold GB has won.
And then Bruce retired from competition. His wife Willow was concerned about his safety. However, he continued to bobsleigh for his own pleasure. He built himself a bobsleigh run in the grounds of his home at Camp Hill.
By now he was in charge of the Engineering Division of the family firm. He owned many speed boats and a villa in the South of France. At Camp Hill he built a cricket ground for the local villagers to use. For the very first game he persuaded Dickie Bird to be umpire – he was the other umpire.
And he turned his attention to motor racing. He bought a disused airfield near Darlington and turned it into Croft racetrack. He also helped save the Mallory Park circuit – and for a while became co-owner.
He broke the unofficial ‘record’ for driving up the A1 (London to Yorkshire, averaging 164mph. The car was a Cobra 289.
He loved mixing with sports stars. Formula One World Champion Jim Clark once took him for a spin in his private Lotus Elan.
James Hunt was a very close friend. So was Prince Charles.
Bruce became Chair of the British Bobsleigh Association. He encouraged young people to take up the sport – a clear contrast to it being a rich boys sport in the late 1950s. He was on the search for new talent and welcomed anybody to try bobsleigh out on his own track – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or ability.
He discovered Nicola Minichiello, who went on to become the first British woman to win the World Championship. He also discovered Shelley Rodman, a regular in the British team.
He once invited Durham High School to try his track. 50 students turned up. One, Mica McNeill stood out. “I could tell she was a good athlete but at that stage I didn’t know if she was brave enough. I asked her if she wanted to have a go on ice and she said, ‘I’d give absolutely anything’. The rest is history.”
He paid for Mica to go to Austria and get proper bobsleigh training. She later won silver at the Youth Winter Olympics.
He went on to persuade many companies to fund the National Futures programme, opening sporting opportunities to young people. 250 schools signed up immediately. It was for this work he won an OBE.
He had a wicked sense of humour. At the 21st birthday party of Clive (Jeremy’s son), he filled a disused toilet in a derelict wash house, with explosives, blowing it 200 feet into the air.
He was obsessed with Laurel and Hardy and held screening weekends, showing all their films. Willow said watching these films was the only time he sat still.
Camp Hill Estate became an adventure park, run by his son Robert.
He finally sold his 1930 Bentley – for £1 million. He had an E-Type Jaguar built to replace it.
Bruce remained close friends with Keith Schellenberg. He took part in the annual Eigg Games. The summer games were on Eigg. The winter games took place in different resorts around Europe (e.g. France, Austria and Romania).
On his racetrack, which was formerly an abandoned airfield, he invited a school to visit. Using metal detectors, spades, and a JCB digger, they dug up a crashed Second World War spitfire.
Jeremy died in 2009.
Bruce continued riding bobsleigh at 84 – “but a little bit slower.” It is believed he was the oldest rider in the world, and the only person to have been riding bobsleigh for 7 decades.
When he died the British Bobsleigh Association said, “A true gentleman. He never lost his love for sport nor the sportsmen and women at the heart of it.”
RIP – Riding In Peril