Whether it’s capturing the death-defying stunts of some of the best rally drivers in the world, showcasing the genius of a comedic legend – or even the more mundane task of recording a coffee morning in a village – Tony North has always made sure his Subjects remain the sharpest focus.
The 79-year-old photographer, who will turn 80 in August, last month laid the curtain on a high-profile and highly interesting career of almost 60 years.
An employee who has worked primarily for Morecambe Visitor, Lancaster Guardian and Lancashire Evening Post since the early 1960s – North’s career took a different turn in the early 1990s.
After working as a photographer at rally driving championships in his spare time, he decided in 1991 to take the plunge and become self-employed full-time.
It was a pivotal moment in his life as he spent the next two decades working in places as far away as South America, the Middle East, and Africa. North’s job is to capture the action at some of the biggest motorsport events in the world on the racing calendar and estimates that he has visited 31 different countries over the course of his career.
His love for motorsport has been around for a lifetime, so much so that he remembers the days when he photographed vehicles that would be called classic cars today, when they were brand new and first introduced to the world in Time.
North, who lives in Morecambe, has toured New Zealand, Argentina, Kenya and Kuwait, among others – and got to know the greats and goodies of sport.
North said, âI once worked in the World Rally Championship, the Middle East Rally Championship and the Asian Pacific Rally Championship – and of course I was in the British Rally Championship.
âI remember working a lot for Marlboro, which is of course a big sponsor in the world of motorsport. As a result, I trotted the Safari Rally in Kenya for 12 years.
“I’ve been pretty busy and had a good life.”
On one special occasion, North was asked to travel to Argentina and ended up spending time at the home of one of the greatest names in motorsport history.
“I used to work for all the big automakers like Audi and Ford, but I remember Mercedes getting into the rally scene,” said North.
âAnyway, I was asked to fly to Argentina, and when I landed in the capital, Buenos Aires, I remember it came on the plane over the Tannoy: ‘If there’s a Mr. North on the flight, you can please contact? one of the flight attendants.
“Anyway, I did, and then I was met by these two men who were wearing those big Crombie coats. I remember thinking, ‘Damn what is this about?
âI was taken to the VIP lounge where a limousine was waiting for me to take me to the hotel.
Anyway, at the hotel the Mercedes PR man asked me if I could do him a favor. The Mercedes importer for Argentina was holding a cocktail party in its penthouse suite in Buenos Aires for the drivers and the team manager etc. and they wanted to know if I could take some pictures?
âI said no problems – that’s what I was there for.
“Anyway, just as he was leaving, I asked him who the Mercedes importer for Argentina was, to which he replied: ‘Juan Manuel Fangio’.”
The legendary Argentine Formula 1 racing driver Fangio won the drivers’ world championship five times in the 1950s – first in 1951 and most recently in 1957.
A record that lasted 46 years until it was surpassed in 2003 by the German Michael Schumacher, who later won seven drivers’ championship titles.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said North. âI wanted to go home to someone who was the greatest Formula 1 driver the world had ever known at the time.
âBut what a nice man he was – his penthouse was right in the center of Buenos Aires with a view of the city. It was wonderful.”
While North enjoyed being outside and filming all the daring actions of the rally drivers, he wasn’t particularly thrilled when he was once given the opportunity to be a co-driver.
âA lot of our work was commercial photo shoots with the rally teams,â said North.
âI remember once being sent to Cockermouth to do a photo shoot with Ford. Ford had the late Colin McRae and Finnish driver Tapio Laukkanen drive for them.
“Anyway, we did the photo shoot and I just remember telling the Ford team that was there, ‘You know what, I’ve never been in one of those cars.’
âThe next minute I was given a crash helmet with the message that Tapio wanted to show me around.
âSo I was strapped into this Ford Focus that Colin McRae usually drove.
âI’ve never known anything like it. We changed direction in midair – the g-force when he hit the brakes was incredible.
“I remember Tapio asking me after a lap if I wanted to drive around again – I said, ‘No, you’re okay, thanks.'”
Aside from his motorsport career, North worked mainly in North Lancashire. With his roving role, he was often seen as the face of the local press and befriended prominent figures in the community – people he photographed on many occasions.
One of his friends became the comedian Eric Morecambe.
“I became very friends with Eric,” said North.
âHis parents lived in the Hest Bank. I’ve always found my way there and at this point Eric was at the height of his fame.
âI always remember one occasion when Eric was named Honorary President of Morecambe Football Club.
âHe was supposed to be doing a photoshoot of him frolicking on the pitch at Christie Park – Morecambe’s old stadium.
âBut his Rolls Royce was up for sale, so he had no way of getting down there, so I finally took him. I had a Mini Cooper back then – it was like a rally car.
âHis son Gary came with us – he would have been only about seven years old. We all huddled together in the Mini and drove to Christie Park. There were a few other photographers and the press waiting for him and Morecambe officials, and I suppose they were all expecting him to show up in his Rolls Royce – instead he drove my Mini Cooper to Christie Park! “