Famed for his Grand Prix car collection and for reviving Donington Park, ‘Wheatie’ was a rough-diamond old soldier with a heart of pure gold
By Doug Nye
So Wheatie has gone. We don’t have to believe it.
If ever there was an enthusiasts’ enthusiast who will live on in the memories of all those who met him, Tom Wheatcroft was that man. He was – by his own admission – a car, motorcycle and motor racing fanatic. And so much more. He was an enthusiast who generated the wealth to indulge his dreams… and then shared them with the rest of us.
I first really met him when Kiwi journalist Eoin Young invited Jenks and I up to Leicester to meet the man he had got to know really well on the 1970 Tasman tour. Tom had bought the Jacky Ickx German GP-winning Brabham BT26A, fitted it with a 2½-litre Cosworth DFW Tasman engine and ran it for Derek Bell in the New Zealand and Australian series. The story of their exploits on that trip could alone fill a book. Now Tom had something to show us…
We met him at his building company in Aylestone Lane, Wigston. Eoin and Jenks were already used to this big, powerfully-built character with his trademark spectacles, gravelly voice and entirely unique (and deafening) laugh. It erupted often from somewhere deep inside, and rasped like some diesel engine failing to start on a frosty morning – “Urrrgh – Urrrgh – Urrrgh” often followed by what I soon recognised as entirely typical Tom-isms, all in broad, sometimes tenor, Leicestershire – “Ooh yer beauty!” in approval or wonderment, and “Ooh yer boogah!” in reproof or sometimes rueful admission (like when he’d just damaged or crashed a car, which was quite often).
Above all, the immediate impression was of enormous warmth, and welcome and open-heartedness. We had heard the news on the drive up of Rolls-Royce Aero Engines’ collapse following the RB211 fiasco. That warranted an “Ooh yer boogah – all them good Derby lads out of work”. Then it was “Coom an’ see me cars then” and we whizzed across to his home, The Firs in Welford Road. He’d built a split-level garage at the foot of his garden, fronted with multiple folding glazed doors. And it was jam-packed with so much mouth-watering Formula 1 history I nearly fainted on the spot – H16 BRM, flat-8 air-cooled Porsche, the Rob Walker Moss Lotus 18, ex-Nuvolari Maserati 8CM, Bruce McLaren’s 1962 Monaco-winning Cooper V8… “An’ I’ve joost bought Donington Park y’know, so coom an’ see that too”.
Mouths agape, round-eyed, DSJ and I just stared at each other. For Jenks this would be a return to the circuit where in 1938 he’d scraped up Auto Union oil off the track and taken it home in a jam jar, which he still had. For me it would be a first sight of a venue which had fascinated me since I’d first read about it as a kid in the late ’50s. Donington Park! Wow!
We tore up there in his BMW and while Wheatie laughed and gurgled and regaled us with stories of “’gotiating wi’ Gillies Shields” (the vendor) we explored the desolation of what for long years had been the Army’s Breedon Depot military vehicle dump. Frankly, the place was wrecked, but the old Grand Prix circuit could just be traced. Engulfed in the woodland stood the collapsing old wooden press-stand. Jutting out of some bushes was the unique Stone Bridge. Here was Coppice Farmhouse where fearsome pre-war clerk of the course Fred Craner once held court. And at the main entrance stood the stone tower which had adjoined an archway, demolished by the military to allow access to ever-larger vehicles.
On Eoin’s introduction, Tom asked Jenks and I if we’d be interested in “’elping me put a mooseum together ’ere – an’ woon day we’ll get the track rebuilt an’ all”. A Trident airliner rumbled overhead, landing at East Midlands Airport just across the fields. “Crikey Tom, you’ll have your work cut out”. “Never afraid o’work, lad – never afraid o’ noothin’” – and his gleaming pale-blue eyes were suddenly boring into me through those lenses. Forget the jollity, the laughter – I realised this bloke was an authentic hard nut.
And in effect we worked loosely together for the next 10 years or more. At one point Jenks virtually moved into one of the Park cottages, only for a new girlfriend to make him a better offer. I got the impression Tom was disappointed by that. He gave commitment, and expected it in return. I also found he expected the best. He was warm in appreciation, but put on a great display of hurt if disappointed. “Ooh lad, yer’ve let me down”. It was horrible to hear that. We had enormous fun together, and worked like dervishes on the programme to open his Donington Collection Museum in 1973. Being involved was a privilege, and when the Melbourne Loop became the Park’s first re-surfaced section he’d occasionally call and say “Coom oop an’ ’ave a play!”. Jenks adored it, like a kid in Hamley’s. If I’m honest – so did I.
Tom’s generosity of spirit was incredible. He took a shine to our old photographer pal Geoff Goddard. “I do think a lot of ’im, y’know Doog. Miserable old boogah but ’e’d do anythin’ for yer, joost froom a good ’art”. He was dead right there. When he loaded Geoff into the Nuvolari 8CM for a few wheel-spinning laps, and later into the 250F – which Geoff half-spun and flat-spotted its original Pirelli Stelvio tyres – Wheatie just guffawed in appreciation. He loved proof of a kindred spirit. When I spun his V16 BRM and stalled its ear-splitting engine, the sudden silence was rent by his unmistakeable laugh drifting up from the pits… When he arrived with Rick Hall and Rob Fowler I expected a rollicking. Instead I heard “C’mon lad – put her in gear an’ we’ll push start yer” – and I was sent off again. That takes a very special kind of owner.
He was the wisest man I’ve ever met. He’d had only 18 months formal schooling in his entire life, from 12-13½, but his teenage experience as a young plasterer around Leicester’s building sites, then four wartime years as an artilleryman-cum-tank driver had left him well prepared for a combative career as a hugely successful local builder and property developer. He’d absorbed a unique understanding of the human animal. It didn’t stop him making some catastrophic employment choices – but he quickly clocked such mistakes. He’d dismiss some characters as “…not a full-grown man” – another he declared “…could strip ’isself moother-naked, walk through ma stores, and by the time ’e got to t’other end my shelves’d be bare”.
He seemed to enjoy few things more than presiding over a restaurant table, regaling us – and later Ian Phillips who became his Donington manager ex-Autosport (before subsequent Jordan, Spyker and Force India duties) – with tales of derring-do both in war, and business.
A Wheatie story was seldom fully intelligible. His tumbling delivery often omitted such important features as most of the verbs and numerous nouns. On a good day he would warn us of “tekkin’ on a petrol station – ’cos yer manager’ll put five in ’is pocket for every ten in your till” – but recommend buying land “’cos there’s noothin’ cheaper that they’re not mekkin’ any more of. If it’s down to five figures it’s small change i’nt it – so you lay it out, turn it round in a twelve-month an’ before yer know where y’are the bank manager’s writin’ yer loov letters!”.
During the circuit build-up he asked me to sit in on meetings with would-be suppliers. I got to speak almost fluent ‘Wheatcroft’, and would sometimes interpret to visitors who were glazed over in puzzlement. One classic was when he explained “An’ then there’s ’im – doin’s – from oop wotsit – what’s gonna put ’em out ’ere on wot I’m layin’ down for ’im an’ slidin’ over t’top for when it rains – then roll it back and off they go, for weekends like, y’know…”.
And with the broadest grin, eyebrows high in expectation, he’d scan stupefied faces, expecting full approval. As he scanned he’d nod in encouragement, all the while emitting a gravelly hum of anticipation – “Mmmmmmmm”, way down in a bass key.
At this point I’d explain “Mr Wheatcroft is talking about the local railway preservation society who might site their locos and carriages on some railway line he’d provide here, with a sliding shelter on wheels to protect them against rain or snow…”. “Aye lad”, Tom would bawl triumphantly – “You’a got it – you’a got it!”.
“Aaaah”, they’d say, “Great idea Tom”, and he’d beam fit to burst and it would be everybody off to lunch – always on him – and either another impenetrable master-class in business…or his mind-boggling war stories.
Called-up at 19, from 1941-1945 he’d seen active service in Madagascar, India, Iraq, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Holland and then Germany itself. He’d had two inseparable oppos throughout, Cooperwheat and Warr – the latter a 12-years-older ex-miner and convict whose street-wise cunning, ingenuity and can-do approach to any obstacle shaped much of Tom’s postwar character. They got into fearful scrapes together in conflict not only with the enemy but more so with their own officers! Tom’s detestation of petty authority and bureaucracy survived life-long. When Bernie Ecclestone phoned Tom’s son Kevin to offer condolences upon his father’s death, he said “Your dad and I were like peas in a pod – we understood each other perfectly” – shared contempt for inflated authority certainly being one factor in common.
As Tom recalled in his fine biography Thunder in the Park (buy it!) his final demob was delayed by a year to compensate for the months he would have spent in detention, usually for “bopping” puffed-up NCOs. He decked one after first pouring custard over his head, then jamming the jug on after it. Ditto a sergeant who’d rapped him with his swagger-stick – only then it was a mop-bucketful of slimy water. At Poona, when dysentery racked the unit and Tom noticed the CO had a personal latrine separate from the men’s, he nailed its lid shut.
His friend Ben Warr had steadied even Tom with his cold-blooded ruthlessness, but Tom credited Warr’s survival instincts with getting them all through to peacetime. Their war culminated in Lübeck where they found an abandoned bank, and its terrified manager. When ordered to open up, he pretended he didn’t have the keys. They promptly sent a Sherman tank shell through the door, and helped themselves. Upon repatriation troops had to change local currency into Sterling on the dockside. Tom changed some, then repeatedly slipped to the back of the queue and changed some more. “I finally came ’ome with enooph cash to set myself oop in business”.
As part of the occupying force in the Harz Mountains he developed a healthy black market trade in silk stockings but also met a local girl, Helena ‘Lenchen’ Morgenstern. He seems to have fed half her village with venison and wild boar pork – “There’s nowt so easy as ’oontin’ deer wi’ a Bren – urrggh, urrgh, urrgh!”. He and Lenchen were married in 1947, and their seven children followed.
After a flying start thanks to the Lübeck ‘windfall’ he founded his building company, Bernard Wheatcroft Ltd, in 1948 and through sheer hard work, bloody-mindedness, force of personality and a growing labour force of superb tradesmen he made his millions.
He bought his first historic Grand Prix car in 1963 – the ex-Peter Whitehead 1949 Ferrari, sight unseen, from Australia. When uncrated, he was shocked to find its original supercharged V12 engine had been replaced by a Chevrolet V8. “Ooh yer boogah!”. But he began driving it for fun. However, his sight had been impaired by blast late in the war and his ambitious driving was punctuated by incidents. At Oulton Park he was once awarded ‘The Fastest Man Backwards’ trophy. When he somersaulted the Ferrari at Silverstone he proved blameless – its steering had sheared. Dozens more great F1 cars followed. You know the rest of the story.
In the 1959 TecMec he torpedoed Silverstone’s parked circuit ambulance, so bought the BRDC a new one. When he limped his Mercedes-Benz 220S back home after demolishing his local Co-op store’s frontage, he didn’t realise that amongst the wreckage he’d left not only one front wheel – but also his number plate. The Old Bill called next morning. When he assured them he would pay for all damage they suggested helpfully that he must have ‘lost it’ on ice. “It were mid-May…”
When he arranged the loan of the Prague National Technical Museum’s 1939 Mercedes-Benz W154 he told us all “It’s bin be’ind the Iron Curtains – in Cheshire-slovakia” and that “Ooh, I tell yer we’ve spent moonths ’gotiatin’”. But he seldom missed out on a deal – his greatest disappointment was losing the Schlumpf Collection to the French Government after agreeing in principle with the Schlumpf brothers. On one car-buying visit to Jo Siffert’s place in Fribourg he found builders plastering a wall. He watched distracted while doing his deal, but could bear it no longer – “’Ere lad”, he announced to a startled Swiss plasterer, grabbing his float, “Yer don’t do it that way – yer do it like this”. Ten minutes later he’d finished the job.
In racing, his tragically ill-fated association with that superb young driver, Roger Williamson, needs little repetition here. “The lad never lied to me”. Tom adored him as a talent, and as a man. Kevin Wheatcroft recalls vividly when Roger was killed in Tom’s March in the 1973 Dutch GP that the old man was destroyed. He didn’t get up, didn’t shave, for four days or more. That was unprecedented. But then he seemed to resolve that Roger wouldn’t have wanted that – and it was full speed ahead again. “Tom really changed after Roger’s death,” says Kevin. “It didn’t diminish his love of the sport, but it changed him as a person. Not a July 29 went by without him thinking… For a big, hard old boy he was also a romantic, and very emotional, but he hid it.”
After he re-opened Donington Park for racing in 1977 the circuit became extra-special to him. On other projects once he’d “drawn his mooney” nothing else mattered. Donington was never like that. He cared if people left wheel-tracks on the grass verges. He was outraged if the loos were unclean, enraged if his paying public found the staff indifferent or rude. After leasing the circuit any complaints that Tom received had a personal response by return, and the lessees a formidable rocket. But he could only do so much… and no more.
Of course he had fought for his ultimate ambition, a new Donington Grand Prix. In 1993 Mr E finally awarded him the ‘European’ GP, but on an Easter weekend when torrential rain ruined it as a business venture, while making it as a memorable Ayrton Senna triumph. What wasn’t so obvious was that Tom had suffered three heart attacks in the weeks preceding, but had refused the bypass operation needed so he wouldn’t miss his GP! That wet race morning the crowd was so small he calculated he had lost £3.5 million. He still demonstrated a 1939 Mercedes-Benz W154, after taking deep draughts of oxygen, but almost blacked out at 100mph and left the road. After Senna’s victory he climbed the 40 steps to the podium fortified by an oxygen bottle hidden inside his coat. He had immense respect for the Brazilian and told him, “I’m glad it were you, lad”. When he was told the record for hospital release after a by-pass operation was nine days, he had the op and left in seven.
He remained a good judge of driving talent (other than his own) to the end of his days. When one historic driver out-braked himself into Goddard’s and hurdled across the lawns in front of Tom’s famous hospitality suite, his D-type Jaguar completely airborne, Tom’s old collector friend Reg Parker turned to him and said “Coo – he’s a bit lairy in’t he?”. To which Tom replied “Aaah – Robert Brooks, ’e’s a good lad but ’e ’asn’t got a brain in ’is bloody ’ead”.
After his first wife Lenchen’s death in 2002, Tom found he just wasn’t meant to be alone. And on his 82nd birthday, he married his long-time companion, Sheila. In February 2002, he test-drove his ex-Alberto Ascari/Lex Davison Ferrari at Donington. It was fresh from restoration, but he forgot it was still on old tyres and smashed into a concrete wall. Miraculously, he escaped without a broken bone, but otherwise he was “knocked about to b*****y”.
Indestructible as ever – he was soon back in harness. I had badly blotted my copybook with him many years earlier, when I criticised his sale of two Vanwalls in print. As far as I was concerned I was right. He never told me as much, but I knew from his look and distance next time we met that “Ooh lad, yer’ve let me down”. You had one chance with Wheatie, and I’d had it. I recognised that fact, I understood why, and accepted it, though in recent years we could still spend a couple of days together at the Mercedes-Benz museum, and great fun it was, again. Regardless, I would have given my right arm for him. He was a unique character, a truly great man. He could be enormously generous, yet utterly ruthless. I’d have hated to be a rival builder within his area.
He could be soft-hearted, and deeply thoughtful. And he could be abrupt, but seldom cruel. He could bawl out his mechanics and drive them ferociously hard – yet after a race he’d take them out for a riotous dinner, at any expense. He was a self-made multi-millionaire, a driven man, an everyman made good who never forgot his roots and who treated everyone just the same – from ‘Sir this’, ‘King that’ and ‘Princess doin’s’ to “old Bill Jones from round t’corner”. He should have been Sir Tom Wheatcroft – an example to every deprived kid with commitment and drive. He was just unique – and in so many ways just the ultimate iconic enthusiast.
Rest easy, Wheatie – your legacy to every racer is unforgettable, “Yer Beauty”… indeed. And thank you.
In lieu of flowers anyone who wishes to show their appreciation of Tom is requested to make a charitable donation at this website: www.justgiving.com/tomwheatcroft