The Donington Collection has been one of motor racing’s heritage landmarks, but its doors are now closing for the final time
The sad news that the Donington Collection museum would be closing its doors for the final time on November 5 did not altogether come as a surprise. But hey, let’s all look on the bright side. For 45 years the world’s largest collection of historic Formula 1 racing cars was right here, open to the public and its huge range of machinery did the best job possible – in the circumstances – of informing and entertaining not only an enthusiast audience, but also a considerable proportion of casual visitors. The museum’s visitor total over those 45 years exceeds some 2.5 million – not too shabby. For me the most satisfying thing was the number of young children brought to the place, to learn, admire and hopefully enjoy. If their visits inspired a proportion of them to get into the racing world, and so develop an interest that could sustain them throughout an enjoyable life, well… that’s what Tom Wheatcroft, the Collection’s creator, would really have enjoyed.
For ‘Wheatie’, Donington Park was where his own lifelong enthusiasm for motor sport on both two wheels and four had been first ignited. There could be nothing wrong about passing on that baton to today’s youth. Tom cycled to the circuit in 1935 to watch a motorcycle meeting. He was completely entranced, and subsequently attended most of the circuit’s race meetings for both cars and bikes up to the last in 1939. In fact, he would often reminisce about hanging on the fence, open-mouthed, watching the silver cars from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union absolutely pulverise British ERA opposition in the 1937 and 1938 Donington GPs.
When Kevin Wheatcroft, Tom’s son, telephoned me early in October and told me what he had regretfully decided to do – nine years after his father’s death – he said: “You were in at the start Doug, and I’d like you to be involved now at the finish.” I was, and remain, really touched by that thought. I had written the original press releases back in 1973 about the newly built museum’s imminent opening – which duly took place on March 16 that year – and now I found myself composing news of the closure, and distributing it to the agencies, the national press and the broadcast and internet media. Blimey – I’d always sworn I wouldn’t work in PR (largely because I know my own limitations in that direction).
But my goodness, how the memories came flooding back. I had first met Wheatie with fellow scribbler Eoin Young (now there was a born PR man) who had tied up with the Leicester builder during the 1970 Tasman Championship races in New Zealand. Tom had bought the lovely Brabham BT26A in which Jacky Ickx had won the previous year’s German GP at the Nürburgring. A 2.5-litre Cosworth-Ford DFW engine replaced the 3-litre F1 version for the tour, but after Derek Bell had finished well in the New Zealand GP at Pukekohe – placing second behind Frank Matich’s Formula 5000 McLaren M10A – things didn’t go well in the Lady Wigram Trophy race at Christchurch, where the engine failed, curtailing the trip.
Back in England, Eoin took Jenks from this magazine and yours truly to see Tom at his building company base in Wigston, Leicester. Tom took us to his home where the motor house at the foot of his garden was absolutely jam-packed with GP cars – and then he told us he’d just bought the circuit section of Donington Park, and he drove us up there for a tour of what for years had been probably the biggest military transport base in the country, under the name Breedon Depot. We found the old circuit site was derelict, and the track surface – what little survived of it – was truly ruined. But hidden in the undergrowth we found the historic old Stone Bridge, and the collapsed press stand, and Starkey’s Cottage, and remains of the old wall overlooking the Craner Curves. If ever there was a day dripping in memories, and of frozen photographic images of racing before I was born, that was it.
Tom told us of his plans to build and open “me moozeum” there, and we worked with him on that for the next three years. His in-house architect designed the place shaped in plan like a crankshaft with separate halls linked by corridors, “as the big and little ends” Wheatie said. He was locked in battle seeking planning permission to restore the circuit, but that would take some time.
We photographed all the cars, researched their histories – as best we could – wrote caption boards, made big display prints of relevant archive images and then issued invitations for press, public and assorted VIPs to the opening ceremony.
It was very important to Tom, and to us all, for Bill Boddy – the often aloof editor of Motor Sport, highly inclined to be critical – not only to attend, but also to be impressed. As the day approached Jenks warned me that ‘The Bod’ had told him he was going to wear his 1938 Donington season pass, but didn’t expect anyone to notice. My wife, Valerie, was posted on reception for the day, and – duly briefed – when The Bod walked in, barrel chest as always puffed out, soberly dressed, looking more glum than expectant, he approached her desk. “Bill Boddy,” he rumbled in his deep voice, “Motor Sport magazine.” And Val (whom he did not know) smiled at him, noted the badge on his lapel and said, “Oh welcome Mr Boddy – I can see that you have been here before.”
And The Bod’s face broke into a delighted beam, he apparently appeared to grow about four inches, his chest puffed out even more and he was – bless him – hooked. That was a good day… and with 50 cars initially displayed The Donington Collection was up and running.
Tom was always keen for many of his cars to be exercised and occasionally he’d phone and say “Coom oop an’ ’av a play day – and bring Jenks and that Geoff” – Goddard, the photographer – “with you.” So it was that I got the chance to experience some of those great cars from the cockpit. Before the circuit restoration was completed – Tom having won that particular war with the local authorities and pressure groups combined – there was just a simple loop from near the pre-war pits site on its crest, down to the Melbourne Hairpin and back again. Phil Hill came over to track test cars there for America’s Road & Track magazine, Dan Gurney much the same – and we ran cars around and around that little loop, the old pros sliding and wheel-spinning to their heart’s delight. Jenks looked just right driving the Austin OHC single-seater, wrong in the 1961 Monaco and Nürburgring-winning Walker/Moss Lotus 18. I once came out of the Hairpin in that car in a prolonged series of over-corrected tank slappers before sorting it all out – it was light and its rear tyres were like concrete. Vanwall, BRM Type 25, ‘ThinWall Special’, Bimotore Alfa Romeo (all on the big new circuit by then) – and V16 BRM; thanks to Tom’s enthusiasm and huge generosity we got to experience them all.
I spun the V16, and on another visit – taking foreign press visitors around the circuit in my big Rover SD1 – I stopped down by the Old Hairpin to show them the Stone Bridge. I veered off track onto the grass verge, yanked on the handbrake and spun Auntie three times on the grass, coming to rest just where I intended, with the tail about a foot from the bank. Wheatie pulled in behind us, and (quite rightly) gave me the most terrific bollocking for having just torn up his Donington Park grass. My two minutes of humiliation ended with him saying, “Nice parkin’ though, lad.” One was grateful for such small mercies.
We did a BBC TV programme from the museum. John Bolster – pre-war Donington personality, of course – was interviewed. Sadly he wasn’t on form, and his series of studiously drawn-out “Yeees” and “Aaaah – noooo” answers in his distinctively sharp voice didn’t exactly entrance the show’s producers. Off camera, his scurrilous anecdotes about goings-on in the Park bushes back in the 1930s did entrance them – but those were totally unbroadcastable.
Over the years Tom had some great people help him run the museum and circuit – but he also made some bad mistakes with quite the wrong people. One of the best was the late Robert Fearnall, and another – early on – was Ian Phillips of subsequent Formula 1 management fame with Leyton House March and Jordan. Ian and Tom were very close and both were just devastated by the tragic death of Tom’s driver Roger Williamson in the 1973 Dutch GP, only four months after the museum’s opening. That was a terrible blow to Tom, from which in several ways I don’t think he ever properly recovered.
Roger’s was indeed a great talent taken from British motor sport. He absolutely had the reflexes of a cat. One day at Brands Hatch I was talking to him in the back of Tom’s Formula 3 team transporter when a wasp flew in. It was hot, and that darned jasper was buzzing furiously, flickering a wild zig-zag path. Roger was in the midst of telling me something, full eye contact, when his right hand flicked out like a lightning bolt – and the buzzing just stopped. He’d picked that wasp out of the air, full-flight, while continuing to talk – and maintain eye contact – without the faintest interruption. And I’m not easily impressed.
Ever since Tom passed away in October 2009, the Donington Collection has been run by his son Kevin. When we announced its closure on October 10 – after so long as an absolute Mecca for motor racing fans the world over – he said: “Closing the museum after 45 years has been a really difficult decision, but family responsibilities simply make it the right thing to do…”
Thank you, Tom and Kevin – for the memories. The Collection’s closure is, indeed, the end of an era. But as an optimist I would say, ‘Watch this space’. Somewhere, a new one might be about to start…
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s