(Continued from the June issue)
W. E. Wilkinson
By the very nature of “Wilky” (the abbreviation is automatic), it is no use trying to put him in any particular category. He is just Wilky, one of those happy people that everybody knows, who hears all and sees all, but wisely says “naught”; therefore remaining friends with everyone. In return, everyone loves Wilky, for it is impossible to do otherwise. His round, chubby face, the broad grin that is never far from its surface, the quiet manner that makes him respected by those who work under him, in truth these are the Wilky characteristics. He has absolutely no “side,” a vast sense of humour, and extreme kindliness into the bargain. The writer well recalls doing a series of tests with Wilky in attendance, some years ago now, which tests most certainly justified the use of the word “abortive” in respect of their outcome, and the aftermath was depressing in the extreme. But from Wilky, always the kind word, always that indescribable “better luck next time” atmosphere that helps to minimise the sting of disappointment and encourages the going on. Yes, indeed, it would be a poor man who found himself at cross purposes with him.
All the way through the piece, too, that undercurrent of humour that speeds the job along, the quiet reminiscence from his vast experience of the game that can, if the circumstances be right, make you laugh till the tears run down your face.
If memory serves, he used to tell some stories about the E-type E.R.A. and its assorted disintegrations that were classics in their own right, but, alas, unprintable.
R. F. Oats is probably a name unknown to the modern enthusiast, but in the “gay ‘twenties” his O.M.s were much a feature of the motor-racing scene, and on occasion the cheery Wilky could be seen, undergoing his baptism of fire in the mechanic’s seat — a hard place to learn, but the right one for the mechanic in those far-off days, second only to the sidecar passenger’s ticket for viewing the approaching drama.
George Eyston, Phoenix Park and sports Maseratis, too, now seem a peculiar combination, but during those days, the days of Guilio Ramponi as a driver and the “Double Twelves,” Wilky gained his riding experience and his tuning knowledge. Then in the ‘thirties there began to be seen advertisements for a certain Bellevue Garage, where M.G. cars, then starting their “golden age,” found great support from a father, two brothers and a sister. Kenneth, Denis and Doreen Evans drove them with the very greatest enthusiasm in trials, then in speed trials, and finally in full-blooded racing. The general manager was one W. H. Wilkinson, and their motor cars were prepared under his supervision. It is perhaps wrong to guess, but if such a pastime be allowed it would be the writer’s guess that these were some of the happiest days of Wilky’s life. The friendly atmosphere that always appeared to pervade all that the Bellevue people did, seemed to form a background into which the homely Wilkinson character fitted perfectly. They were hard days for the racing motorist, too, when bonus and starting monies were not prone to be there for the picking, and, in addition, the thing had to pay commercially as an adjunct to the garage business as a whole. But there were compensations in the fun that sometimes abounded, with ale at eightpence a pint, and perhaps it wasn’t quite so serious as it is now.
To recall some of the Bellevue motor cars brings the memories crowding back. Kenneth Evans in the Q-type M.G. at Donington the excitements over the twin-cam-conversion cars, Doreen Evans (as she then was) with the R-type M.G. nicely alight in an International Trophy, and many, many others; but perhaps the performance that first really brought home to the “cognoscenti” that Bellevue had is tuner of no mean merit on their pay-roll was when, during the “500” of 1932, Denis Evans was seen to be lapping steadily with an M.G. Midget at around 100 m.p.h. This was, as long ago as that, an altogether stupendous performance for a machine from a small private racing establishment.
Yes, indeed, Bellevue was one of the better things about pre-war racing. D. N. Letts and P. L. Donkin were amongst the “outside” customers whose cars were prepared by Wilky at Bellevue, and it was in Donkin’s K3, during the August Bank Holiday meeting in 1934 that way first blossomed out as a driver himself. It is interesting, browsing back over the reports in Motor Sport of those meetings to notice that the reporter used such expressions as “the cheery Wilky” or “the faithful Wilky in attendance” — no doubt an indication of the impression he created upon another enthusiast. But, going back to driving, it is also characteristic that history has traditionally written Wilky down as a tuner, whereas his driving record is far better than many a man whom tradition calls a driver, and his skill in this direction was, without question, great.
Typically, Wilky would say that driving was a sideline for him, but the writer cannot help recalling pre-war memory that he hopes a certain great band leader will forgive if this should come to his notice. Walking down from Coppice during a race at Donington hsa arm was suddenly gripped by a companion who said, “Blimey, Cotton’s moving!” But he wasn’t, for in the interim the E.R.A. had been handed over to the second driver, and for several laps what would now be called “real Gerard stuff” was witnessed. This not to belittle Billy Cotton at all, who was no mean tyre-bender himself, but just to let the world know that Wilky was “in the mood” that day.
There can be few who can look back on such a combination of skill in all branches of the racing game. In 1939 be broke the unsupercharged Shelsely Walsh record. But, in the long run, history is probably right and we must accept Wilky as a mechanic first and foremost and in this sphere he is probably the best there is in an “all-round” sense. Firstly, any successes that attended him have been achieved without factory backing in any shape or form, and at the minimum cost in man-hours. This latter point is not so easily appreciated by those without experience of the garage business, but to achieve motor-racing results in a number of man-hours that will produce an acceptable bill for the customer is exceedingly difficult and demands that rare knack of “sizing-up” the job and doing it right the first time, tackling everything in the right order and seeing that several jobs go forward at the same time without one customer feeling that his car is being neglected at the expense of another. Add to that the fact that in the interests of the business all sorts of different makes must he handled and you get some insight into the problem.
What, secondly, impresses the writer greatly about Wilky’s tuning record is that it has been built up in all classes of racing work. Sports-car races, sprints, hill-climbs, pukka G.P. staff, blown and unblown cars, alcohol fuel or petrol — and, further, he has such a wonderful knowledge of “how much can be done for how much.” For example, one customer might want to do a few sprints with a virtually-standard car, and have relatively little to spend doing it, whilst the next, might be a wealthy gent out to do the full racing season without let or hindrance. Wilky shines in both cases, and makes both feel at home. There are few about whom the same could be truthfully written.
Came 1939, and all motoring of any consequence ceased, the sandbags went up round the racing shop at Bellevue, the ambulances moved in, and sorrowfully Wilky moved to the West Country to tune aeroplanes. A chapter, and a very happy chapter one likes to think, closed.
Wilky got out his bicycle for the war years, but when it was over, racing gradually, very gradually, revived, although, alas, the racing shop at Bellevue didn’t. Many of the cars that were suitable gravitated to Reg. Parnell’s garage in Derby during the war and in the early post-war years Wilky joined Parnell as soon as things began to blossom forth again, and there he took over the 16-valve Maseratis, and several other cars. He drove with Billy Cotton at Jersey in 1947, and won his last race at Crimond in 1951, but thereafter confined himself to assisting with the Parnell cars.
Amongst others who had a car stabled at Derby was David Murray, who in due course became the instigator of a private stable which has since been one of the most interesting things about postwar racing, the “Ecurie Ecosse.” Wilky took over the preparation of the cars, Jaguars, up in Scotland, and the beautiful turnout of the whole stable and the consistent reliability which they have repeatedly demonstrated reflect the absolute correctness of Murray’s choice of technician. It is indeed a happy thought that Wilky’s experience now stretches from the days when our National racing prestige was (Bentleys excepted) at a very low ebb, to the present, when it stands as high as at any time, thanks to Jaguars and a host of others.
Throughout the good and the bad days the sport has been highly fortunate to have had the lifetime services of people such as W. E. Wilkinson, who have preserved the background of skill, and made the traditions as they laboured.
Wilky is married and has three daughters, one of whom is making a name for herself in the ballet world, and his hobby is racing pigeons. It is interesting to note that these pigeons are tuned by Mrs. Wilkinson, who is an acknowledged expert in this field.
Summing it all up, Wilky says, “I can assure you that if I had to put as much into the sport as the fun I have got out of it I shall live to be a ripe old age.” Unanimously, this is the hope of the whole motor-racing world. — A. B. C.