Just over a decade ago Russell Bulgin and a few close friends had a ‘last lunch’ in a Soho restaurant.
Russell knew he was dying. He was frail, his grey skin the texture of tissue. He could barely walk unaided. The cancer was killing him. But his humour, his wit, that twinkle in the eye, were all still there in spades.
Then a few days later he was dead. There was no big funeral, no gathering to commemorate his life and times. He was an intensely private man and stayed that way after his death.
In my two stints as editor of CAR (1987-92 and again in the mid ’90s), I hired Russell, lost him to a rival and then rehired him again.
He is the only contributor with whom I ever had a row. Yet it was a testament to our mutual respect that we stayed on friendly terms until the opportunity came to bring him back to CAR.
When he became ill, we emailed each other regularly and in one missive I told him I regretted our row. He replied: ‘And all that stuff about arguments and hiring and firing? That was all water under the bridge five minutes after it happened. The way to successful freelancing is to view it as some huge game which, if you play your cards right, can lead to the most brilliant job in the world… Freelance writers are just like jobbing actors: one week you’re in East Enders, the next you’ve got a bit part in an advert, the next you’re what’s euphemistically termed “resting”. View the business like that and all the bumps in the road smooth out pretty quickly.’
We shared many interests, including F1, rallying and cycling. His bikes were handmade by Roberts, a bespoke bicycle maker near his home in Croydon. He helped turn my interest in cycling into a passion. I wouldn’t be doing the ‘amateur Tour de France’ – the Etape du Tour – next week were it not for him.
Russell was outstanding partly because, like that other great CAR contributor LJK Setright, he was one of a kind: an individual in a business that encourages a pack mentality. Most car writers think the same. Russell always thought different.
He put cars into their social contexts. He wrote about ‘brands’ before car companies had brand managers and about car design years before it became the great buying differentiator. He successfully did so because of his intelligence and his keen sense of popular and youth culture.
I wrote shortly after his death: ‘He knew all about the latest GameCube and the newest iMac, the difference between a Paul Smith three-piece and a Savile Row bespoke; he knew about football, shops and soaps. He knew whether brown or black was this year’s colour – and frequently wore the opposite, just to be different. His opinions of how “cool” a car, or a brand, was, mattered. Bulgin was always cutting edge.’
His many passions ranged from Stewart to Senna, from the PlayStation to the Pet Shop Boys, from Rolex watches to the Renault 4. He disliked Mansell, ‘classic’ cars and the Porsche 911. He also wasn’t fond of Clarkson.
He would have loved today’s technology and gadgets. He would have loved the growing importance of design. He would have written incisively about car marketing departments and their brand obsessions, about social media, about the digital revolution; about modern advertising and car connectivity.
Today’s car industry is ripe for Bulgin’s brilliance. It is a great loss to car journalism that he is not here to do it, and a great shame that no-one has filled the void.