My friend Jenks

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By Bill Boddy

I knew nothing of Denis Jenkinson until I published a letter from him in Motor Sport, but when we met at the RAE during the war, he as an engineer and me as a writer of instructional Air Publications for the RAF (while still editing Motor Sport), we became closely associated. I recognised what a profound knowledge he had of GP history and told him he must become Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent after the war. Thus we secured the outstanding motoring writer, since recognised as one of the greatest authorities on all motor racing matters. That is how this happened, whatever other views are expressed.

But in spite of his worldwide reputation DSJ remained a close friend, which was a privilege I appreciated; and an experience! The little bearded, sockless figure worked on my 12/50 Alvises and his motorcycles when he was home from a season’s Continental reporting. He also built the Early Morning Special, for which he contributed an AC radiator and Jowett chassis, ruined as he reduced its width to suit me, in a single-seater body, for which he formed the shape of the tail by wasting yards of welding wire. I was to provide a 10-23hp Talbot engine, the idea being to have a car for early morning dices before the speed cops were about, hence EMS. But it was never finished; DSJ, as sometimes happened, had enjoyed the toil before losing interest…

He lived at various places, at first in Odiham, from where he thought it time to move when the house was to become a home for depraved girls. The cottage he then moved to close to the Odiham main road was still delightfully rural until DSJ pushed into the bushes all his discarded vehicles, left to rot away, even his first E-type Jaguar company car! One day a lady in correct riding attire, on a fine horse, appeared. She stopped and exclaimed, “When I was a girl I often rode down here. It was delightful but I see it has become a breaker’s yard.” DSJ looked on with his usual quizzical expression, unconcerned.

His cottage was famous for its lighting by hanging 6-volt bulbs powered from an outside Fiat 500 engine and dynamo. If the lights went low during a party and a guest had arrived in a Fiat 500 DSJ would go out and remove its battery. If this went ‘flat’, the luckless owner had to stay the night… When an important guest called he was given the only dinner plate. The cottage walls were defaced by telephone numbers and messages he wanted to remember, and his regular companion was a tame sparrow which he fed. Once when DSJ had ’flu I said I would fetch a hot water bottle but he told me instead to fill two empty lemonade bottles with hot water and push them against his feet. “A doctor? Don’t be foolish.” When I called it was difficult to find a space into which to reverse and DSJ would watch, never offering any help.

Round the cottage he had a personal scramble course, which he would use in the early hours, so that when the late Dr Nelms and his wife bought a newly erected house nearby it was fortunate that they were keen Hants and Berks Club members.

Jenks had little interest in veteran cars or rallies. He would see me off on London to Brighton Runs but never took part, and once, when I was reporting a Monte Carlo Rally with him in his car, he was very reluctant to take me to see the final test. “They put up a full results list tomorrow,” he told me, “so why not just relax and enjoy a good lunch.”

In spite of his esteemed reporting of Grands Prix and other races DSJ was never averse to helping me with my vintage cars, but his opinion of certain ones which I had always wanted to own became a disadvantage. For example, when I had a very fine Trojan Apollo saloon I had bought for a fiver from an old chap at the Hartley Wintney garage, I took DSJ in it to a film show in London. On the way home the two-speed Trojan, always a pedestrian vehicle, was overtaken by some cyclists, and Jenks said I must get rid of it the next day. I also wanted to have a Singer Junior and the day came when I was able to find one, but as soon as Jenks saw it in our garden he again told me to get rid of it as soon as possible which of course, always in awe of the little man, I had to do. On the contrary when I heard of a very cheap Jowett I was told to buy it at once because it would be useable as DSJ’s winter transport, and he even put in new king-pins to improve its steering.

On another occasion a well-known character who successfully raced saloon cars decided he wanted a Siddeley Special and sent his lads to obtain one that was for sale. When he saw it he realised it was a saloon and he had wanted an open tourer, so he asked me if I would like it. Jenks made use of it when he was in this country but because we had no proper storage for it told me he had heard of an Armstrong-Siddeley enthusiast who would look after it. I went to see it depart and that was the last I ever heard of it.

When dragsters arrived here and Sydney Allard built an impressive one, the stub exhausts of which set fire to the straw bales at the start of the Brighton speed trials, Jenks had to have a go in a less powerful dragster.

There was the Christmas when I was invited to go with DSJ to his parents’ place for the holiday. For the long journey to Catford he was fixing the sidecar I was to ride in to a firmly secured plank on the sidecar chassis with a few nails. It occurred to me that if the front nail came out I would hit my head on the road, so I held onto the right-hand chassis tube, to DSJ’s vocal disgust. The first part of the journey was over local roads to which DSJ should have been accustomed. But at the first corner the outfit went sidecar-over-Norton, and at the next corner it went bike-on-top-of-sidecar. And Jenks had been passenger to the World Sidecar Champion Eric Oliver…

DSJ kept one of his racing bikes at his parents’ home and when he opened it up on Christmas Day windows opened along the row of suburban houses opposite as irate occupants complained of the noise, no doubt wanting to listen to the Royal speech. I thought we were expected to stay for Boxing Day but DSJ thought otherwise, so we returned to Farnborough.

One day some of us were gathered together near Pondtail canal in Fleet when a soldier arrived to show us his brand-new motorcycle. Jenks asked to ride it and set off towards Aldershot, the soldier a bit askance at the sound of ever-rising revs. We heard DSJ turn round and heard him storming back, when there was a thud, and silence. He had misjudged the bend to the canal bridge and collided with it. I expect the bent railings can be seen today. We ran to the scene of the accident, and a lady appeared and said she would phone for a doctor. “No need,” said Holly Birkett. “I’m a vet. I’ll deal with it.” As he spoke he lifted Jenks up and took him inside. The soldier had to wheel his machine home on its back wheel, while we spent the rest of the day fishing for DSJ’s glasses which had fallen into the canal.

Before he had met Eric Oliver DSJ took a mildly tuned motorcycle to France, and competed in minor races. The organisers said his name and the place where he came from would look wonderful on their posters, and they would pay him a modest starting fee, which encouraged more hotting-up of his bikes. It was at this time that two of the great riders, Geoff Duke and Fergus Anderson, took him aside and told him, “Don’t look under your elbows approaching the corners to see where we are. You keep to your line and we will keep to ours and it will be alright.”

When he was refused the too-expensive latest Porsche Carrera as a company car he accepted a change to the first of two E-type Jaguars, informing his readers that frontal water-cooled power units were the hallmark of proper cars, conveniently overlooking the fact that he had proclaimed the desirability of rear-drive air-cooled engines, just as another leading motoring writer had changed rapidly from advocating the front-wheel-drive Mini to fulsome praise of the rear-drive Ford Anglia on changing from one assignment to another!

Before he qualified for company cars DSJ went abroad in an aged Fiat saloon. I recall how, when it had broken down, with him lying beneath it and his library piled high on the pavement, it soon attracted the curiosity of a Parisian gendarme. In later days DSJ delighted in using Continental roads instead of motorways, and did prodigious mileages in a day enjoying them.

He even went to the Arctic Circle in a 300SL Mercedes-Benz with the well-known racing driver Wolfgang von Trips – just for the ride. And in wartime he and I would go to London from Farnborough in any car making the journey, from Bentley to little DKW, “just for the ride”, returning by Green Line coach. Yet when we were going back to Harrogate, a wartime posting, he had said he wanted to see the Yorkshire scenery but slept all the way except for a minute or two when we woke him. Later he told us that when he returned to London he slept again in the bus to the station, missing his destination. But on the unforgettable 1955 Mille Miglia he navigated for Moss for the entire race of nearly 1000 miles.

The only task I had for this event was to take DSJ to Heathrow in a Lancia Aprilia, after he had a telegram from Neubauer saying testing was taking place tomorrow and his ticket was at the airport. The Mercedes-Benz drivers were always under control. At Donington Seaman had helped Neubauer with the after-dinner bill then realised that he had left his goggles in the now distant Donington Hall. “I will go and get them,” he said. “No,” replied Neubauer, “the mechanic will fetch the goggles. Seaman will remain here.” If Moss lent his 250F Maserati to a lesser driver and was wont to go over to see if help was needed Neubauer would say, “The drivers are needed here for a photo call.” Such were the fascinating things DSJ told me.

To revert to Neubauer for a moment, when the Germans came first to Donington in 1937 Neubauer met the equally tough Clerk of the Course Fred Craner and said that by tomorrow he would want so many chairs for his mechanics while he briefed them. “This is a race course, not a furniture store,” or words to that effect was the response. But next day, the chairs were in place.

After the war Jenks did not become Motor Sport’s unsurpassed Continental Correspondent until after he had helped Eric Oliver to that World Sidecar Championship but I am certain that my wartime conversations had resulted in this response, to Motor Sport’s great advantage, whatever else is said. In the various distractions of a press box DSJ’s knowledge of the racing was apparent; as other reporters were sometimes finding it hard to maintain accurate lap charts our man was calmness itself, able when two cars together blanked racing numbers to know who were their drivers by their helmets or stance.

Being with Jenks at a GP was memorable. He would listen during practice to top drivers, to check by the sound who took a corner flat out and who lifted off. After a long race, notably Le Mans, I would go to the car anxious to get back to our hotel and after a long wait would be relieved to see the famous figure approaching, when someone would accost him and he could be away for another long talk. He never lost his enthusiasm for a chance to gain interesting information.

At one time DSJ was going to live rent-free in the annexe of our Welsh house. This changed when he was returning from a Grand Prix on a boat in a fierce storm, on deck enjoying the waves and the spray while the other passengers were ill below. On deck, also enjoying the storm, was a girl. “Where have you come from?” DSJ enquired. “From the GP,” she replied. She was Robbie Hewitt. In the course of conversation she said her life was at a low ebb and she needed a new hobby. DSJ suggested vintage motoring. They exchanged phone numbers. One day she rang to say she had purchased an old car. “I suppose it will be some dull car like a rusty Morris Cowley,” DSJ said. When he had seen her cars – an ex-Le Mans 4½-litre Lagonda and an immaculate 3-litre Lagonda – his surprise was evident! Robbie had been to a dance and a partner who knew nothing about cars remembered an advertisement by an executor of a Mr Vokes’ will, listing these cars as available. Later Robbie owned a vintage Amilcar.

She lived in the right part of Kensington and had an MG for daily use. I remember a day when we were all having a picnic and Robbie was reading a letter. “Oh, my father has just bought a Model T.” Jenks looked somewhat annoyed, saying, “You never told me your father was keen on old cars.” “He’s just bought the latest Bentley,” said Robbie.

I saw little of DSJ for some time after this, although I was allowed to drive Robbie’s cars. At a Brooklands Reunion she asked me to drive one of her Lagondas up the Test Hill. After letting the clutch up I reached for the right-hand gear lever – which wasn’t there. No-one had told me that she had had the Lagonda ’box swapped for an Alvis unit with centre gearchange. As I rolled back for a second start I heard someone say, “apparently he works for some motoring magazine, but he’s not much of a driver…” If I had modified a historic car in this way Jenks would have disapproved greatly…

In this DVD and website age, news about Jenks may amuse. When he was Oliver’s passenger the Maserati GP mechanics, unaware that he was a journalist, allowed him access to the racing departments. When DSJ might enquire what had really caused Fangio or whoever to retire, they told him to ‘go over and lift off the cloth over the engine’, where there would be a con-rod hanging out or a similar total disaster. After a long spell abroad DSJ would call on me to recount such interesting disclosures. At other times he might arrive at our Hampshire home accompanied by an attractive girl and as soon as we were inside he would draw me aside and say, “Don’t mention motorcycle racing.” Her fiancé or husband had just been killed.

The abiding memory of Jenks is the 1955 Mille Miglia race – I was at home when I heard the result and went for a walk to think it over. I met another racing enthusiast and told him of the magnificent Mille Miglia. “I didn’t think there could have been a race like that,” he said, “but yesterday I did quite well in my Ford Special at a club meeting.” The two faces of motor racing enthusiasm.

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