Historic scene with... Gordon Cruickshank

Illuminating manuscripts

Delving into Bill Boddy’s notebooks from the 1920s on shows his sheer love of detail

When I wrote about the sale of Bill Boddy’s archive in November 2012, I hoped that whoever bought it, or parts of it, I might be able to take a closer look than was possible when I went down to his house before the sale. Now thanks to memorabilia dealer Adam Ferrington, who purchased some of WB’s personal records, I’ve been able to discern a little more about the man who rescued Motor Sport from imminent implosion in the 1930s.

I suppose there may be new readers who don’t know who ‘WB’ was – regulars should skip this bit – but if it hadn’t been for Bill Boddy taking the editorial helm in 1937, steering a course through the war years, and then shaping the magazine in his own erratically consistent manner into post-war success we wouldn’t all be here now. 

Steeped in arcane knowledge about cars and racing from the very first days, WB was the repository of facts on Brooklands, which he loved with a passion. Writing down the dates it seems impossible that he filed his last copy in 2011, days before his death, and yet was a regular at The Track for over a decade of its pre-war active life. There can’t be many who spanned Seaman and Schumacher, Rosemeyer and both Rosbergs. Ferrington’s hoard, covering notebooks, diaries, copybooks and correspondence, shines a little light on The Bod’s compulsive absorption of information: school exercise books dated 1925, when WB was aged 12, are packed with hand-written listings of car specifications. Others titled Notes on Cars of the World look like an attempt to compile a reference work while still at school. A couple list not only the chassis numbers but the engine numbers of well-known Brooklands racers, and the body colours – valuable source material for someone.

Most of this seems to have been copied from magazines, in small, neat script (a thousand miles from Bod’s later spidery scrawl that I so often struggled to transcribe), but from 1932 there’s a hardback notebook headed Famous Brooklands Cars; though it too is hand-written it is complete with Preface and acknowledgments – a dry run for a book that wouldn’t be published until the 1990s. 

Boddy often chased off after ancient cars for sale, and one notebook has a list of vehicles he has seen in breakers’ yards, or for sale – including a side-valve Aston Martin: “Boulogne team car, fair order, £35…” This book seems to be compiled during the war – probably an excellent time to buy moribund machinery. Though too late for the Itala spotted near Oxford: “1924 Coppa Florio, ex-Campbell, rough, original s.v. engine rotting”. That was one of Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebirds, later bought by historian and collector Kent Karslake, as he describes in the January 1931 Motor Sport. WB’s book adds a note: “Broken up”.

More books list mileages of every trip in a year, each of his 39 Brighton Runs, exhibits in his personal museum (at one time Boddy planned to turn his large barn into a car museum) and an attempt at a list of every car he drove – it looks as though he gave up, but who knows how many thousands that runs to.

These pernickety compilations plainly illuminate WB’s file-index mind, eager to assimilate information, then retrieve it smartly years later. I used to wonder how he remembered all the details he would produce month after month; now I can see that he knew exactly where to find the bore and stroke of an Alldays & Onions or his times up Prescott hill before it was officially opened.

I’ve caught him out, though. Seeing an extra ‘Chitty’ in Chitty-Bang-Bang (the Count Zborowski car, not Ian Fleming’s book or the film) would get him hot under the collar; yet there it is in his notebook. Nevertheless, even the notes he made aged 14 are all fluent and grammatically correct. That was one thing about his untidy copy: the sentences that snaked all over the page, up the margin and over onto the reverse, however tortuous to disentangle, would always make grammatical sense. 

Bod claimed that writing wasn’t his first ambition, but these little works, assembled for himself since his school days, seem to say otherwise.

RAC Book of the year

Choosing a top motoring work caused a lot of debate when the contenders were of this standard

Racing enthusiasts spend plenty of time debating whether you can compare a Nuvolari with a Senna, given the differing eras. It’s somewhat the same when trying to select a Book of the Year for the RAC’s new annual award. Should an attractive work at a base price of £10 overtop a specialist tome ten times as dear? Should an e-book be judged by the same criteria as a print book?

Still, by the night of the award in the wonderfully grand RAC clubhouse in Pall Mall the six judges, myself among them, had made our choice: Simon Moore’s costly but impressive pair of volumes on Alfa Romeo monopostos, from Parkside. The product of years of intense research, it’s a work of academic thoroughness, though one only a few people will see. 

We also commended Stirling Moss – My Racing Life, by the man along with Simon Taylor. Published by Evro, a new name but run by Eric Verdon-Roe, long-established in this business, it’s a story we know but with added value of being told first-hand with some terrific pictures, all beautifully presented. Simon and Stirling have been pals for years, so he was certainly the right man for this.

In a similar vein, Graham Gauld knew Jim Clark well, so his Racing Hero gave an intimate picture of the great Scot, well illustrated from the McKlein archive as well as Gauld’s own.

Also on the short-list were a pair from Porter Publishing, both close-up ‘autobiographies’ of individual race chassis, Ian Wagstaff covering Porsche 917 023 and E-type expert Philip Porter tackling Lightweight 4WPD. Two more quality productions dissecting individual cars, all placed in period context, and an example of where the book market is going. With so much information available free on the net it’s likely the stream of basic Porsche and Ferrari books will fade, while quality works will grow ever more specialised. Meanwhile the e-book market complicates the choice: I enjoyed being able to hear author Doug Nye talking about GTOs in Monza Books’ The Racing Car – Ferrari 250GTO, with all the depth of a print book but adding interactivity, downloadable from iTunes at only £8.99.

Though we didn’t short-list that one, publisher Martin Stockham demonstrated his book on the big screen at the award ceremony, where Perry McCarthy and Paddy Hopkirk’s stories enlivened a discussion on the book business before Moore stepped up for his gong. The new award is part of the Club’s policy of reconnecting with its motoring roots – there is now always a racing car on display in the pillared oval hall. But so we judges don’t get seduced by scholarship, we have decided that for 2016 there will be a ‘good value’ category too. Now where’s the review pile?

Bob’s your auntie

GC’s diplomacy was stretched when explaining Robert Cowell’s whereabouts 

Dealing with as many readers’ queries, requests, suggestions and occasional moans as I do, I sometimes have to dig deep in the tact reservoir. One of those moments came back to me when I sat down to watch a documentary on Britain’s first sex-change subject. No, I’m not an addict for those gleeful helpings of the weird, bizarre or wincingly medical that Channel 4 serves up; this was a serious documentary about how after a pioneering operation in 1951 Spitfire pilot, racing driver and father of two Bob Cowell became Roberta. 

Bravely for the time, Roberta allowed the press to feature her story, and returned to motor racing in her Alta at Shelsley Walsh. She continued to race (above at Brighton Speed Trials with an Alta) and to fly, even buying a De Havilland Mosquito of her own for a stillborn record flight. But clearly all of this had bypassed the gentleman who during the 1980s rang the office. “I flew Spitfires with a chap called Bob Cowell during the war,” he announced when I picked up the phone. “I know he raced as well, thought you might know where he is? Like to get in touch with him again.”

I think I may have used the phrase “You might want to sit down a minute…”