Living in the shadow of his late, great father Tom can’t have been easy. But as saviour of Donington Park, it’s high time Kevin Wheatcroft received his dues
Writer Damien Smith, photographer Jeff Bloxham
Enter the first hall of the crankshaft-shaped building and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve opened the wrong door. This is the world’s most renowned museum dedicated to Grand Prix cars, right? Yes, but first there’s something completely different: a weird and wonderful assortment of WWII-era military vehicles, and mostly salvaged from ‘the other side’.
This is Kevin Wheatcroft’s first love and increasingly it shows. The tanks, half-track vehicles and wartime motorcycles have crept further round the first part of the Donington Collection since our last visit, but finally the khaki and camouflage turns into familiar British Racing Green and the garish primary colours of 1970s-era Formula 1.
Our host loves the racing cars – how much becomes obvious during the course of our conversation – but loves the military stuff more. And he makes no apology for that.
“As much as I cherish the Grand Prix cars, I’m not what I’d call an overly capable driver,” says Wheatcroft, owner of Donington Park, its famous museum and son of the much-missed Tom, who revived the pre-war British Grand Prix venue in the 1970s. “I can run demonstrations in some of them, but sadly can’t fit in others! To me the military vehicles are practical things that have the same level of history – just wearing a different coat.”
We pause for photos by the motorcycles. Kevin cocks his leg over a pristine black one with sidecar attached and tells its story: “It’s a 1937 Zundapp 600 combination, which had been ordered new by a guy in Denmark. In May 1940 the Germans invaded, there was a knock on his door and the bike was confiscated by the German military. It was used by a military policeman, but always kept in its original black livery and the guy who owned it never thought he’d see it again. Then on May 8, 1945, there’s a knock on the door and it’s the policeman with the bike. ‘It’s all serviced, full of fuel’, he says. ‘The war’s over, I’m going back to Germany. Here’s your bike’. I bought it off him about 20 years ago, so I’m the second owner but the third operator…”
If you’ve read Tom’s wonderful autobiography Thunder in the Park you’ll know exactly why Kevin has such an affinity with WWII artefacts, in particular those of German origin. He offers the abridged version: “My dad was a tank driver in WWII, finished the war in Germany and met a young lady, a German teenager [Lenchen was a nurse in the hospital where injured Tom was recuperating]. They got together and married in 1946, then came back to England where he created his business. At every family get-together stories would be told harping back to the war years.
I was getting them from my mother as a civilian and my dad as a soldier. And growing up in the 1960s, every kid’s comic was about the Germans and there were all the classic war films such as Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen. I watched them to death and by the age of five I was hooked. I remember dad asking me what I wanted for my fifth birthday, and I said, ‘a German helmet’. He often looked a bit puzzled why I should show an interest, but as a collection started to grow he could see the direction I was going in. It wasn’t the competition stuff he was interested in, but it was the same gene.”
His passion for restoration and recreation has clear parallels to the old car world. “If I can find something in original condition that has been preserved but not restored, I love that,” he says. “But that’s getting harder to find. And I love a project where someone says, ‘nah, that’s only for scrap’.
“We’re big into re-engineering parts now. The majority of the tracked and semi-tracked vehicles ran Maybach engines, six or 12 cylinders. To find old stock parts is now virtually impossible, so we remake valves, pistons, main bearings, cranks, cylinder heads where necessary, clutches, bellhousings… It’s not restoration, it’s recreation, but without it you’re never going to see these things running again. It’s done in a way to make them live again, otherwise they’re gone. So much of this stuff went to the bottom of the sea, got blown up or buried somewhere across Europe. If you’re looking for something now it’s most likely below ground.”
He enthuses about a painstaking 30-year Tiger tank restoration that is nearing completion. But then he talks about the racing cars, and you’re reminded it’s not just the military stuff that matters to him. “I’ve bought the Roger Williamson F1 March [purported to be the 731 in which he raced at Silverstone in 1973] which I want to do. It’s unfinished business. I was very close to Roger, as we all were, Tom especially. It might not go on show, but it’s something I have to do to close a book.
“Then we have another V16 BRM on the build at Hall & Hall and I want to finish that. I’ve thrown myself into finishing the W125 Mercedes, which my dad started. We built a streamliner too, which will be the next car to go together. To me they are not replicas, they are tool-room copies that enable people to see, smell and hear what some of these things were like.
“I’d actually like to explore the possibility of doing more recreations of things that I’m missing. For instance, I sat on what was left of the 4WD Matra and I’ve sold that, but I’m still working to find as many bits to have that built back up. It’s going to be part new-made, but it’s such an important car in the 4WD period and no one can see it any more. I’ve stayed friends with everybody from whom I’ve bought cars, or to whom I’ve sold them. If you no longer own it, give the next owner every chance.”
In the wake of Tom’s death in October 2009, some of the cars were sold and there were concerns for the future of the collection and Donington Park itself. ‘Wheatie’s’ passing coincided with the collapse of the circuit leaseholder’s ambitious – and, as we feared, reckless – plans to turn the venue into a new home for the British GP. Simon Gillett tore Donington to pieces and it would have been easy for a grieving Kevin to sell up and walk away. His account of why he didn’t is heart-breaking, but also uplifting.
“Knowing my dad’s love for this place made me promise him,” he says. “He lived just long enough to see what was going on and the collapse. I told him the day that Gillett went bust that it was all over. It was really sad, because at the point he had less than a week to live, which of course I didn’t know at the time. I kept a load of stuff from him because I didn’t want him to suffer any more than he had to.
“Sadly, like most families when the leader goes, there was a huge in-fight over the place, whether we should sell it and sit on the beach. But it was Tom’s wish and I’d made that promise that I was going to see it open again. I never knew then what I’d have to spend to get there, because the place was seriously devastated as you might remember. That necessitated buying the family out, so we could repair it. That’s why some of the cars have gone, to fund that. It broke my heart to do it.”
The death of his dear friend and Donington stalwart Robert Fearnall was another blow. But in the past five years, under the management of Christopher Tate, Donington has been brought back to life and is beginning to thrive again.
Can Kevin tell us how much it has cost him? He smiles. “I can because I’ve just walked out of a meeting with my accountant, so I know exactly! We’ve pumped in more than £10m.”
The repairs, including the devastated infield, are more or less complete, and Wheatcroft and Tate now look forward to making real progress. “It is hard because we’re living in a world where everyone makes too much noise and every obstacle is that bit higher,” says Kevin. “But we’re in a forward-thinking area and the local authorities are very supportive. They had a taste of what the East Midlands would be like without Donington and I think they all saw it needed to be saved.”
Wheatcroft admits he could still sell Donington one day, but he has no immediate plans to do so. At 55, he’s hardly an old man and is planning for the long term.
As for the collection, it’s a struggle from a business perspective. On the January afternoon we visited, four other people were wandering around. But again, Kevin remains committed, and if anything the museum might expand – if not with the addition of more Grand Prix cars.
“I have to house my military collection somewhere, so it’s logical to pair the two together,” he says. “I do have other interests, such as my Shelby Mustangs, and I’d like to open an American muscle car section too. I’ve also got into military Volkswagens, so there are collections within collections.
“I constantly have an eye on my own body clock and I look at my girls and wonder if they are going to have any interest. Tom had me to carry it on, but at the minute I’ve got a bit of a blank space after me. Equally you can’t force it on someone, otherwise it becomes a chore. You’ve got to be in love with what you do.”
Quietly spoken and low key, Kevin is a very different man from his beloved father.
The fill-the-room charisma and contagious chug of Wheatie’s famous laugh might be missing, but it turns out the son is just as remarkable – in his own, determined, highly likeable way. And all of us who love British motor sport owe him a huge debt of gratitude.