From Le Mans to Dakar, the Rothmans colors evoke elegance and success
In terms of famous race car liveries, Rothmans doesn’t spring to mind with the immediacy of a Gulf or a Martini. Which is a shame. Because the white and blue of Rothmans appears on all the race cars you remember from history, all the victories you only once read about, and the more you chase that rabbit hole of memory, the more it pops up.
The Rothmans company dates back to 1890, when Ukrainian immigrant Louis Rothman opened up a cigarette stall in London’s Fleet Street, selling cigarettes he hand-rolled the night before. Ten years later, he moved his little stand to a showroom at Pall Mall, where he launched the eponymous brand, permanently cementing Pall Mall as a cigarette and not an actual street in London. King Edward VII was suitably impressed and granted him a royal warrant.
Unsurprisingly, Rothman died from lung cancer in 1926 at the age of 61.
In the mid 20th century, Rothmans grew into one of the largest British tobacco brands, tying up with the likes of Rembrandt, Carreras, and Alfred Dunhill, in those heady days when one could learn so much about a stalwart European man by his brand of cigarette.
The enduring legacy of the Rothmans livery is in its simplicity: not Gulf livery simple, mind you, as there’s a few more colors, but more straight-laced than the Martini stripes, without the occasional flights of swirling fancy. Visually, the Rothman’s livery is one of the strictest, holding steady to a certain set of rules.
First, the Rothman’s look is divided into white and dark blue, white always being on top. Then, red and gold lines divide the colors, in that order. Other than the logo, there are no intermingling of colors. Lastly, the stripes must match the car’s lines perfectly.
To wit: on the folded-paper Holden Commodore SS Group A, which won Australia’s 1987 Monza 500, the lines are absurdly straight. On the MG Metro 6R4, the blue and the stripes follow the car’s nearly full-length box flares, both colors and flares interrupted by the door. (Later, the colors even rise up that tall, tall wing.) On the Honda NSR 500 that eventually won 10 Grand Prix World Championships, the colors shoot up the side in twin diagonal stripes, once across the bodywork, and once across the tank, both parallelling the angle of the seat for dramatic effect. Rothman’s appears on Walter Röhrl’s Opel Ascona 400; an earlier livery, but the arrow-straight stripes are still present, mimicking a Martini pattern instead of the one we’d recognize. That year, Röhrl won the 1982 World Rally Championship, the year before he famously drove the Lancia 037 to battle Audi’s Quattro.
And on the livery’s most famous application, the Porsche 956 and 962C, the twin stripes arc over the front wheels and follows the car’s curves straight along the fenders. The sides? Blue. The top? White, with Rothmans’ emblem of world domination on the front. Unusually, the stripes just kind of end at the headlights, having nowhere else to go, and the blue wraps around to the side of the flares and just stops. Elegant.
In 1984, Porsche entered the Paris-Dakar rally, with Jacky Ickx driving a 953. Again, the top is white and the sides are blue, and unlike the 956, the stripes wrap around the front of the 953, connecting headlight to round headlight. A year later, Porsche’s 959 was ready for Dakar, and the same sponsor and scheme carried over. But this time, the red and gold stripes follow the car to the back, and then something unusual and wonderful happens: the stripes split up, the red curves around the base of the windshield, and the gold inhales the 959’s spoiler. It’s a delicate, lovely, curvaceous look, one that makes sense. (Behind the red stripe, under the spoiler, is white—keeping the theme consistent.) Not that it matters, since 90 percent of the time it was covered under an inch-thick layer of West African sand. By 1986, a Rothmans-liveried 959 took first and second at Dakar.
Porsche introduced the 956 for the 1982 season and immediately scored a 1-2-3 finish at the 1982 24 Hours of Le Mans. All were wearing Rothmans colors. At the next Le Mans, the 956 took nine of the top 10 spots. The first two were Rothmans cars. When the 962C debuted for the World Sportscar Championship in 1985, the Rothmans works team placed third with Derek Bell and Hans Stuck—ironically, behind two of the 956s it was supposed to replace. (Stuck still managed to set a lap record at Sarthe, one that remained unbroken until 2017.) But in 1986, Bell, Stuck, and Al Holbert held off tough competition from Jaguar and won; eight Porsches followed them to fill the top 10, like 1983 all over again.
In 1987, it was the battle of the cigarette liveries against Jaguar’s Silk Cut team, which had won the previous four WSC races. At the beginning, the two works 962Cs nearly destroyed each other, Jochen Mass’s car eventually suffering engine failure. The 962Cs were hampered by bad fuel. Stuck drove through the night at near-inhuman endurance. The Jaguars were knocked out from punctures. Porsche won, followed by another 962C.
So, like the previous liveries of note, it’s not just the simplicity. The victories help, too.