Bill Boddy has been contributing to MOTOR SPORT for 70 years and was its editor for over 50 of them. Here he reflects on the life and often curious times of the world’s oldest motoring magazine.
I have been asked about what it was like to work for MOTOR SPORT in the Teesdale regime and before, and as this is a special issue of what was the first sporting motor journal, I suppose I must dismiss thoughts about libel actions and tactless and maybe inconsiderate asides, and comply. Always obey the editor! I have no idea why motors gripped me from an early age. Before motor racing, it was animals and the London Zoo which interested me. Encouraged by a weekly newspaper called Zoo Pictorial I wanted to keep the rarest of mammals at home, but was quickly discouraged… Then Wireless Pictorial caused me to ask for old cigar boxes for my home-made crystal sets. But for some reason motors won in the end, though I had been brought up on nothing more exciting than an Austin 12/4 and 20 and Citroen, Chevrolet and Overland tourers in my schooldays in the early 1920s.
I wrote letters to The Autocar, The Motor and the wonderful Light Car and Cyclecar, one of which earned me a demonstration ride in a supercharged 2-litre Lagonda and a 100mph run in a 36/220 Mercedes Benz. My mother typed my first published article for MOTOR SPORT in April 1930 – surprise, surprise, it was about Brooklands. I was soon to bombard the now-famous journal with letters and regularly win its quizzes.
I walked to Brooklands for my first visit one winter’s day in 1926 with the younger son of the great batsman JB ‘Jack’ Hobbs, who used to take us to the Oval in his Austin 16 or Sunbeam. While the Ashes were won or lost we never even watched, preferring to play silly games in the dressing rooms, like changing over the great players’ shoes. I first saw Brooklands racing in 1927, going down from South London with my mother, so that she could approve of the place or otherwise (‘bookies’, fast men and women, accidents etc). Luckily for me she approved and I was a regular visitor right to the end in 1939.
After my mother’s death, a family friend got me, mistakenly, a ghastly job at 15/- (75p) for a long working week. After a year or two I faked sickness to go to a motorcycle meeting at Brooklands; unfortunately the boss was there watching his sons race, so I got the sack.
I freelanced after this to earn a crust (butter on it sometimes) which led to a marvellous job writing the car side of Brooklands – Track and Air, a monthly bought by an ex-Indian Army Officer. I wasn’t paid, but he gave me a third-class ticket from Clapham Junction to West Weybridge. But being at the track was bliss. As money ran down, the magazine office moved to the war-time mortuary – it much amused some of the racing drivers to cry “Boddy in the mortuary” from which I would emerge to run to the Paddock whenever a racing car was heard to start up. The typist, with only a Primus stove for warmth in the winter and such repeated interruptions to dictation, gave notice. I was then too naive to see why I was blamed for this!
This wonderful life went on for two or three years, before the magazine was sold to become The MG Magazine. I was its advertising manager, but lack of business acumen and inbuilt shyness soon terminated that. However, I was allowed to contribute MG pieces. And then, in about 1937, I met Mr Wesley Tee, who had just obtained MOTOR SPORT in payment for unsettled printing bills and wanted someone to run it. I knew it well, having bought No2 in 1924, when it was The Brooklands Gazette, having seen it on Marylebone Station bookstall. Having bought for 1/- this irresistible journal, I immediately ordered No1 and the subsequent issues, and have not missed one since. Who was clever enough to change the title to the all embracing MOTOR SPORT in 1925 I do not know.
So I started work for Mr Tee. The pay was peanuts, but nuts are better than rail tickets, so I acquiesced. Indeed, money was apparently desperately scarce in the new venture: I was offered editorship as reward for not attending a creditors’ meeting, from which I might have been the greatest benefactor. I had started to write regularly for MOTOR SPORT before that, in 1933 or ’34, but it was years before my initials or those of my colleagues were permitted to appear, presumably to make sure our services were not poached by other publishers.
The war intervened. “See you after it is over. Perhaps,” said Mr Tee, intending to shut the paper. But I persuaded him that I could fill it even if this World War lasted twice as long as the last. So he rang the printers to say we’d do an emergency eight-page issue, and we continued as before. I volunteered for the Army, but on hearing I ran MS the recruiting officer talked of his 1750 Alfa and forgot to enrol me! So I did ARP work, driving American chassis with crude ambulance bodies. I regarded every run as a motor race, even to passing trams on the far side of both tracks, earning a reprimand.
But £3 a week wasn’t very attractive, and when I saw an ad in The Aeroplane for technical writers in the Ministry of Aircraft Production at RAE Farnborough, Britain’s top-secret aviation establishment, I applied and spent a happy war compiling MAP (later Ministry of Supply) Air Publications for the RAF, one of whose Adjutants told me they just took them down to the Station bonfire.
We discussed cars in the company of Jenks, Joe Lowrey, and other motor-folk, with Holly Birkett just a few miles away. I ran MS through the war, but without seeing a single galley proof, and had to use old picture blocks which Mr Tee had acquired when he had bought Speed from Alan Hess. I was told copper for picture blocks was unobtainable, so my selection of pictures was necessarily bizarre. Miraculously we never missed an issue, in spite of bombs almost destroying the City Road offices.
At Farnborough they waited until the little ships were bringing back what remained of our army from Dunkirk and the war seemed lost to tell me I should be running a proper car, not that monstrosity, my 1926 Lancia Lambda, used, with a 1927 12/50 Alvis, to visit various aerodromes. I was also told to wear a proper suit, not my purple one which, being colour-blind, I thought was a smart office blue. Apparently I missed promotion due to these factors! War-time readers deprived of their motoring were marvellous with their (unpaid) contributions, and it was then the magazine took on its individual format, with well-known VSCC members and others writing for me. When, newly married, I was posted to Harrogate, I was still able to continue. Again money was drying up, and now my pound or two a week would not always arrive on time.
Mr Tee used a wonderful strategy to get my wife to post the copy he was awaiting before the hoped-for cheque reached Yorkshire. I left a wad of urgent ‘copy’ on the mantlepiece, suggesting it wasn’t posted unless a cheque arrived. When I got home the package had gone. Mr Tee had charmed Winifred, after asking was it raining and was there a Post Office nearby, into sending it. Next month the same – no cheque, only another ‘phone call; but this time she wasn’t to be charmed twice, and next morning the cheque duly arrived…
The Ministry had posted us to London when the bombing calmed down, then to Harrogate when its ferocity was resumed. This when my newly-wed wife and I had just found a house, to be abandoned in mid-honeymoon for the journey north in a 12/60 Alvis with fellow colleague Tom Lush; but just as well, as flying bombs had fallen close to our bridal suite at the Hog’s Back Hotel and nearly got me the night before my wedding.
When the war was over we were told we might be able to remain as Civil Servants. But as I considered the options the ‘phone rang; it was Mr Tee wanting me back. Again I acquiesced, mistaking the offered salary for a weekly one instead of a monthly one! But it was the life I preferred – cars to test, races to report and so on. The offices were still daunting: when The Sunday Times Magazine interviewed me in October 1965 it described the “tin lids used as ash-trays, sooty cracked walls, grim to say the least”. But as the circulation soon equalled that of The Autocar and The Motor combined, who cared?
I had been told that I could work in my own time, so I travelled up from our place in Hampshire, by train and then Austin 7, only when needed in London. I had told Mr Tee that I could not promise the best motor magazine, but certainly a different one. It seemed to work.
Prominent VSCC people contributed to the long-running Cars I Have Owned series, I started Cars in Books, and the Letters columns ran with Vintage Postbag. Road test reports multiplied after the war and were always critical, at first because we had little advertising to lose, then later it was policy, based on the respect I had for the equally outspoken editor CG Grey of The Aeroplane. I interviewed many racing drivers, such as G E T Eyston, Charlie Martin, Archie Frazer Nash, Pat Driscoll, the Duke of Richmond, Cyril Paul, Jack Dunfee, W B ‘Bummer’ Scott, etc. Kent Karslake contributed his inimitable Sideslips and Veteran Types articles, the latter introducing the VSCC to Edwardian cars.
We soon moved to new offices around the corner, with our own car park. When peace broke out but while still at the RAE I had persuaded Denis Jenkinson to write for us (after his objection: “You are the writer, I am the engineer”), with excellent results – the Moss/Jenks Mille Miglia win in 1955 being the ultimate bonus. (DSJ was insured, Mr Tee told me, so the paper would benefit either from an immortal story or a sum of money if it all went wrong…) I was provided with deputy editors and other staff befitting a big-circulation, well-established journal.
Road test cars flooded in. Michael Tee, Mr Tee’s eldest son, who had begun as our photographer on a Douglas motorcycle, became our top picture-producer with the well-equipped LAT photographic department while the other sons David and Ian looked respectively after the print and distribution side of a thriving organisation, assisted by their sister Mary, until she was sadly killed with her husband in a light aeroplane crash. There was also one long-lasting secretary who was a whisky drinker, and when we cleared out some filing cabinets, empty bottles rattled across the floor together with piles of unanswered letters and readers’ photographs which I’d thought had gone back years before – so any disgruntled readers of long-standing need not blame me.
Office meetings, like Christmas parties, were memorable but Mr Tee always supported me in disputes. I like to remember the time I had upset Mintex, the brake lining people. Their rep came, and having being kept waiting, was finally shown in. “Ah,” said Mr Tee, “I am not sure what the trouble is – I believe your company makes peppermint mints?” When we said the new Austin A70 was unsafe over 65mph, we were summonsed to Longbridge, where Sir George Harriman threatened to cause the whole British motor industry to withdraw its advertising. Mr Tee refused to back down, and as we left Harriman said “Well, your little paper will no doubt have been sold and gone while Austin is still flourishing.” Harriman withdrew his advertising, and persuaded many firms to join him. A year later Austin was amalgamated into BMC, and Mr Tee sent him a telegram saying “Austin absorbed by BMC; MOTOR SPORT still flourishing”; an hour later came the reply, just saying “Touché.”
Pay apart, staff cars were unstinted. Mine included a Morgan 4/4 and the new Plus Four, as I wanted a sportscar when these were scarce just after the end of WW2; a Mini, a Morris 1100, my much liked VW Beetle, Rover 2000TC and 3500 V8, two BMWs, and an Alfa Six cast-off by Mr Tee. When a move to Wales and a steep twisting house drive called for 4WD, it produced a series of the most remarkably reliable Ford Sierras. As Jenks had long continental journeys to do I was not envious of his Porsche and E-type Jaguars, but when he hoped for a top Porsche Carrera, Mr Tee discussed this with me and I said that as editor I should have a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. DSJ settled for the less-costly E-types.
In fact, the MS fleet was truly impressive as many staff members had exciting fast cars, with Michael running a BMW 3.0 CSi. He was not only a capable fast driver but an accomplished pilot too. Ian Tee raced a Ginetta, and we had other such participants on the editorial strength, Jeremy Walton being a proficient racer and Gerry Phillips both rally reporter and competitor.
Mr Tee was also a very fast driver, with ever-faster cars, after his Austin Ten. I journeyed to Bo’ness hillclimb with him in 1948, where he took a classic picture of Ken Wharton cornering in ERA R4D, after which Wharton was his favourite driver. When he spectated at a Silverstone corner, for example, he never minded criticising the likes Fangio or Ascari as they rushed past. His later cars included DKWs, Bristols, Jowetts, BMW, Alfa Romeo, Ford, and a much-liked Mercedes-Benz.
Before too long I had to think of more recompense, especially after I lost out heavily when an increase which I was told was untaxable had caused a top fuss with the Inland Revenue. A wealthy reader persuaded me to start my own magazine, Vintage and Thoroughbred Car, a rather undercover job, until its forced anonymity killed what might have been a golden goose and Lord Montagu took it over and turned it into his late-lamented Veteran and Vintage Magazine.
Later I suggested a separate Vintage Motor Sport, but the idea was not welcomed. Then years later Mr Tee said “I want you to start that idea you had”. By then Classic & Sports Car and other historic magazines had got into their stride, so I politely refused. But Mr Tee deserved praise for taking on the innovative Motoring News; both it and MOTOR SPORT are flourishing to this day.
My friend Cyril Posthumus was Motoring News‘ first editor, and I looked forward to discussing plans with him so weekly and monthly did not clash over features. But no, I was told never to see Cyril, and vice versa, which puzzled me. Motorcycle Sport was another individual Teesdale journal, but we seldom saw editor Cyril Ayton. Rival publishers constantly wanted to buy MS, and there came a time when Mr Tee thought to sell. Just a final signature was required, and to get this a head accountant, bowler and briefcase equipped, arrived at the Bonhill Street offices. After an extremely brief time with the proprietor he stormed out, demanding a taxi. The previous night apparently Mr Tee had decided not to sell. So many memories from my time as editor, until first Simon Arron and then Andrew Frankel took over this very original and for me remarkable magazine.
Life at Teesdale was never dull and often astonishing; unique, in fact! I could tell you much more, but even ‘1d-a-liners’ are space-restricted. I still await my gun-metal presentation watch from Teesdale in lieu of a golden handshake, since Haymarket outdid the opposition in the bidding for this long-running journal back in 1996. It has all ended well, but on reflection, like Mrs Worthington with her stage-struck daughter, I would not have advised going in for motor journalism if it had been anyone’s intention to make a fortune.