Richard Heseltine recalls legendary journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker
Richard Heseltine recalls legendary journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker, an amusing and learned man to the last.
A recent conversation with a 70-something enthusiast wasn’t anything of the sort. It was more of a haranguing. Apparently, motoring writers these days are not up to snuff. I attempted to land a few counter punches but it soon dawned on me that I was only prolonging the misery. I then opted for the easy option and got on with my life. That, and being ‘…not like George Bishop, “Steady” Barker and LJK Setright’.
He had a point. I am nothing like any of those gentlemen. For starters, unlike my illustrious forebears, I have never been sacked from a magazine. Nor have I ever sold someone else’s long-termer for that matter. I am not terribly au fait with Latin proverbs, either. And while I think about it, I am yet to build my own car (there’s still time, mind). I never met Mr Bishop, but I have heard a lot of stories. I only ever had one dealing with the scholarly ‘LJK’ and he couldn’t have been nicer. As for Barker, he was a top chap. I had dealings with him at the start of my journalistic career a thousand years ago and spoke with him on occasion thereafter.
Of all the legendary motoring writers whose names get talked of in awed tones, I will admit that my favourite was the much younger Russell Bulgin, but I had enormous respect for Barker. It helped that we had a similar taste in cars. Erudite, effortlessly friendly, and never less than entertaining, his career in journalism stretched back to the mid-1950s when he joined The Autocar. Over time, ‘Steady’ would rise to the position of technical editor, but his talents as a wordsmith came into full bloom when he jumped ship to CAR magazine. No 1970s road test on the continent was complete without a forthright assessment of whatever machine he was driving. That, and perhaps a word or two about the gastronomic delights (or otherwise) sampled during the trip. These days, it is hard to imagine getting away with writing a story titled ‘Miles per Restaurant’.
Because of Barker’s background in engineering – maybe even in spite of it – he had a knack of assimilating technical information to the point that even the most thick-skulled of Luddites could understand him. It was a rare gift, and one that set him apart from his contemporaries. In the 1980s, he also wrote regularly for CAR’s sister title, Supercar Classics. His column would be awash with anecdotes, be it a story about one of his beloved Lancias – including the building of the Astura-based ‘special’ pictured here - or another involving him racing an Edwardian Napier.
For his 70th birthday, Barker famously went wing-walking and only a stroke late in life slowed him down. ‘Steady’ was 94 when he died in January 2015, but his legacy among us scribblers was already assured.
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