Book Review: First Principles: Keith Duckworth OBE

Here is an author betrayed, alas, by his publisher. Norman Burr packed the pages of this Official Biography with everything he ever knew about Keith Duckworth, Cosworth Engineering and anything connected. Sadly they fail to join up into a coherent narrative. This is the first time I have read a biography of somebody I knew quite well, ending up liking him rather less than I did before. His personal life was a mess. His quirky aphorisms, to which we were well accustomed are made to look trite, sometimes absurd. His achievements are scarcely analysed in a way you would expect of an author described as a technical journalist. The book has the sense of being hurriedly put together without a plan. A good editor would have excised all topical references to “at the time of writing” as more appropriate to a magazine feature than a full length book. The author should have been told to write something better. No need for a whitewash; like many an engineering genius Duckworth must have been a nightmare to work with, but half a century after some of his most notable achievements, an opportunity to reflect on them has probably been lost.

Burr has done his homework. A lot of the material was certainly a surprise to me and not just over the subject’s tangled relationships. Cosworth’s creation is well narrated with the aid of creditably acknowledged references to Graham Robson’s 1990 book Cosworth The Search for Power. But its concentration tails off with long passages of what Tom said to Jim and Dick to Harry, fascinating to insiders like me who knew the Toms Dicks and Harrys but there is no flesh on the bones of the individuals. It is difficult to follow. The crucial role and the skill of main players like Walter Hayes and Colin Chapman is widely covered but they have been well covered before not least by Walter Hayes and Colin Chapman. Real portraits are missing. People appear and disappear throughout, and lots of minor characters flash up as names without any explanation at all.

Most of the engineering descriptions are clear. They would have benefitted from more diagrams among the wide-ranging illustrations that range from holiday snaps to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (wrongly spelt on the caption) at the launch of the 24v Ford Scorpio, and too many microlights. One might also have hoped that a technical writer would know the difference between the Royal Engineers (RE) and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

First Principles: The Official Biography of Keith Duckworth OBE by Norman Burr. Foreword by Sir Jackie Stewart OBE ISBN 978-1-845846-28-5 £35.00 Veloce Publishing