Lunch with... Bill Boddy

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It’s not usual for a magazine to interview its own staff – but Motor Sport has always been different. Simon Taylor talks to the man who made it so

In August 1924 a car-mad 11-year-old schoolboy went to Marylebone railway station with his mother. He was already a dedicated reader of The Autocar, on which he spent his 4d a week pocket money, and whenever one of his mother’s friends gave him a tip to buy sweets he’d spend it on The Light Car & Cyclecar. But as he passed the station bookstall he noticed a magazine he’d never seen before. It was called The Brooklands Gazette, and it was full of tales about the wonderful goings-on at the iconic track near Weybridge. The price was an exorbitant shilling, but the boy insisted that his mother buy it for him. In that moment, his life’s direction was set.

The boy was called Bill Boddy, and his initials – WB – were destined to become one of the most famous bylines in all automotive writing. The Brooklands Gazette soon changed its name to Motor Sport to reflect its broadening subject matter, and when Bill was in his early teens he submitted his first article. By 1936 he was on the staff, and effectively its only editorial member. He went on to be the editor for more than half a century. With his idiosyncratic hand at the helm its circulation soared, along with its reputation as an uncompromisingly quirky, opinionated and fearless publication – at a time when its established competitors trod a bland, safe editorial line, and rarely dared criticise any car manufacturer for fear of losing precious advertising revenue. Today this same WB is an extremely alert, mentally energetic and prodigiously knowledgeable 94-year-old. And, 80 years after he sent in that first piece, he is still filing copy every month. 

Bill doesn’t go out much now, and dislikes crowds. He has decided not to attend the Centenary celebrations at his beloved Brooklands, but says he will be there in spirit. He has lived for many years in a large rambling house in mid-Wales, alone since the death of his wife Winifred, but one of his three daughters has a weekend cottage in the grounds. It is she who arranges lunch for us so Bill can reminisce about his long life on Motor Sport. He talks fast and fluently, with perfect recall and self-deprecating wit. For a change, we don’t talk about the races he has seen and the drivers he has known: “I’ve covered that so much elsewhere. I want to tell you how things were on the magazine, behind the scenes.

“I was an only child, and my father died fighting in World War I. I was 14 when I made my first visit to Brooklands – by train to West Weybridge station, and then a short walk. My mother came too, because she thought that people who raced cars weren’t suitable, and there’d be bookies and fast women. But when we got there she realised it was a wonderful place. After that I went down to every meeting. 

“When I was 20 I went to see an officer from the Indian Army, Oswald Victor Holmes, who’d bought a magazine called Brooklands Track & Air. He did the air side, and I persuaded him to let me do the car side. He couldn’t pay me anything, but he gave me a third-class season ticket which allowed me to go from my digs in London to Brooklands whenever I wanted. My mother had died, and the little money she’d left me was rapidly running out. I knew nothing about money. I always went to the best places for my shoes and suits and so on, because that’s what my mother had done. One day my landlady said to me, ‘Bill, you haven’t paid me for three weeks.’ I looked in my bank account and it was empty. So I had to start freelancing. I freelanced for everybody, car magazines, aeroplane magazines, even for Commercial Motor, which took a piece about a car that raced at Brooklands with a diesel engine. 

“Once I’d got onto Brooklands Track & Air I said to Holmes, ‘What about road tests?’ ‘What are road tests?’ he said. ‘Well, you write to the manufacturers and they lend you a car.’ ‘I don’t believe it. Who shall we try first?’ I wrote to MG and they sent a driver down with an MG Magna coupé. Then we got a Railton, and one of the first 3½-litre Bentleys. The Bentley came with a chauffeur who said, ‘Sir, I have to remain with the car all the time you have it.’ We hammered it around the track flat out, while he sat in the back wearing his chauffeur’s cap. Bentley reprinted my article and sent it out to prospects, so I thought, if it’s good enough for Bentley I must be an established writer now. 

“After a time Holmes sold Brooklands Track & Air and it was turned into an MG publication. The only job they could offer me was as advertising manager, but I was no use at that. I shared my office with a typist, and I was very shy. I couldn’t make a sales call in front of her, so I had to wait until she went to the loo. I lasted about three weeks.

“But I was now contributing regular event reports to Motor Sport, which belonged to a wealthy enthusiast called Tom Moore. Why he wanted it I don’t know: just as a hobby, I suppose. Then he met a girl and they set off by ship for America, and in mid-ocean he had a cable from his accountant saying the printers’ bills needed to be settled. Moore cabled back, ‘Offer them the magazine in lieu of payment’. So the printer, one Wesley J Tee, who knew nothing about cars, was landed with a car magazine. 

“I was going to go to the creditors’ meeting, because I was owed quite a lot for my writings during the Moore period. But first I went to see Mr Tee, and told him what I’d been doing. He said, ‘How would you like to be the editor?’ ‘Thank you very much, Mr Tee.’ ‘There’s just one thing: if you go to the creditors’ meeting you’re out.’ So I didn’t go to the meeting.

“It was a lovely job, you see. I was just 23, and one had a constant supply of road test cars. But Tee would see a road test car in the car park, and say, ‘I’ll take that for the weekend, you can have it back on Monday.’ Unfortunately he was a terrible driver. He crashed a lot of them.

“One of my most memorable tests was in 1938, in the latest 4¼-litre Bentley which I drove from London to John O’Groats against the clock. My friend Tom Lush, later Sydney Allard’s right-hand man, did the navigation, and Jim Brymer came too, to take photographs. We set off from Parliament Square at midnight. A policeman tried to move us on, but we told him we were waiting for Big Ben to strike. I was young and keen, and wore gymshoes just like a racing driver. We were in John O’Groats by 3pm, so we did it in just 15 hours for 700-plus miles on the roads of the day, even though Lush and Brymer insisted we stop for a long breakfast.

“Then I thought of road-testing used cars. Nobody had done that before. I arranged to borrow a 3-litre from a firm which specialised in old Bentleys. I worked out how much petrol I could afford, and rang a girl up and said, ‘I’ll collect you at 5am on Saturday. We’re going to Donington.’ But when I went to pick it up the 3-litre had been sold, so they offered me a Speed Six instead. I asked, rather weakly, what its fuel consumption was. They said, ‘You’ll be able to see the needle going down.’ So I rang the girl and said, ‘You don’t need to get up so early. We’re going to Brooklands instead.’”

Then war broke out and, with all pleasure motoring and motorsport suspended, Wesley Tee decided to close the magazine. “He said the war might go on for 10 years, and there would be nothing to put in it. I told him we had to keep it going, and that I could do it myself, by filling it with history. So that’s what I did, and we never missed an issue. 

“I had to have a war job, of course. I answered an advertisement in The Aeroplane for technical writers at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough. I worked on Air Publications, loose-leaf digests of essential information from aircraft manufacturers. We wrote the copy out longhand, and to save paper we wrote on the back of sheets that had already been used for other APs. Then a girl from the typing pool would take it away and type it out. When one of my elderly colleagues went to lunch several pages of his work blew onto the floor. They were retrieved upside down, so his description of rigging a Tiger Moth continued with how to service an ancient Handley Page.” 

Despite all sorts of difficulties and shortages, Motor Sport continued to come out every month, and somehow the bombs always just missed the Tee premises in London’s City Road. “Because people couldn’t drive their cars they were happy to write about them, and I started a series called Cars I Have Owned which ran for years. Lots of well-known vintage people contributed – Cecil Clutton, Anthony Heal, Laurence Pomeroy. Kent Karslake wrote under his own name, and also under the pseudonym Baladeur. That meant he could criticise himself from month to month and start debates with himself, which helped fill the magazine.

“Later I was posted to Harrogate. I was married to Winifred by now, and still putting the magazine together in my spare time. Tee paid me £2 a week. I would put the package of copy and layouts for him on the mantelpiece and say to Winifred, if the cheque doesn’t come from Tee, don’t post the package. Then he rang her up and persuaded her to put it in the post for him. When I got home and found the package gone, but no cheque, I wasn’t best pleased. The next month, despite his entreaties, she didn’t post it until we had the cheque. Tee also said we couldn’t have any pictures in the magazine, because printers’ blocks were too expensive. But he had the old blocks from Speed magazine, which he’d bought in 1939 and folded into Motor Sport. So I had to make the old pictures fit my words with some inventive caption writing.”

War over, WB returned to the Tee offices, and the magazine went from strength to strength. Somehow he also found time to write his definitive history of Brooklands, which Wesley Tee published in three volumes. Meanwhile Denis Jenkinson, whom WB had known at RAE, had also started to write for Motor Sport. “Jenks was racing motorcycles around Europe, and was also sidecar passenger with Eric Oliver. They were World Champions in 1949. Jenks did a column about motorbike racing called Chain Chatter, under the name Carrozzino. 

“At that stage I did all the race reports too. Tee had worked out that it was cheaper to charter an aircraft to cover continental races, because going by car would have involved the crossing, petrol, and hotels on the way out and back. We’d fly out at dawn on race morning, and I’d write the copy in the aeroplane on the way back, get to City Road about 2am, read the proofs and home at 4am. If there were any spare seats in the plane Tee would sell them to help defray the costs. The aircraft were always pretty old. Tee came himself once, and a canvas panel in the roof that had been stuck over some wartime damage blew off, so he had to put his umbrella up. 

“We flew to Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix, and the pilot met us at Croydon wearing a smart uniform. I said: ‘This must be awfully dull for you, just a hop to Spain.’ ‘Not at all,’ he said, ‘I’ve never been further than Paris before.’ We approached Barcelona at about midnight, and he opened the door from the cockpit and said, ‘Does anyone know anything about Barcelona Airport? I can’t seem to find it. It must be down there somewhere, but everything’s in darkness.’ Luckily someone must have heard the approaching aeroplane because they switched on the lights and lit up the runway, and we got down all right. Next morning the pilot told me we only had 10 minutes’ fuel left.

“We flew to Le Mans on the Saturday morning, landed behind the main grandstand, and flew back after the race on Sunday evening. The pilot that day was a nice chap called Bennett. He used to race an Alta, but he said, ‘I’ve joined this pilot racket now.’ We got him a press pass and he watched the race with us all night. Flying home I was writing my report when suddenly the plane dived, and then righted itself. After we landed Bennett said, ‘Did you feel that sudden dive over the Channel? That was when I fell asleep.’

“When Jenks finished with Eric Oliver he stayed in Europe as our Continental Correspondent, covering the races there. I covered the English meetings, did the road tests and pasted up the pages. I never wanted to cut any copy, so I’d put it into smaller and smaller print size, and if there was still some left I’d put it at the bottom of another page where I had a hole, even if it was on an earlier page. I suppose it was very unprofessional, but I thought the readers would rather read it there than not read it at all. The circulation grew and grew, until Tee said we had three times the circulation of The Autocar, although I didn’t really believe him. Tee would never allow us to sign our articles, of course: he thought we’d get approaches from other publishers if we got known, so it was always just WB and DSJ at the bottom. Tee ended up with a very good Mercedes and a twin-engined yacht. He bought the right sort of naval hat, proudly took it on the Dutch canals, and crashed into a bridge.

“Actually I started my own magazine, in secret. Tee never knew. I called it Vintage & Thoroughbred Car. My wife did a lot of the work, and Jenks wrote for it as well. No initials in there, of course: the leader was just signed ‘The Editors’. It ran from 1953 to 1956.

“Our road tests always told the truth, even before the war. AC lent me a car which had a claimed 90mph maximum. I tried it again and again over a measured half-mile, and I could only do 86mph. Their PR said, ‘Well, Mr Boddy, will you be saying 90mph in your Motor Sport article?’ ‘No I won’t,’ I said, ‘I’m not The Autocar.’ They took it away, fiddled with jets and chokes, tuned it up, and said, ‘Try it now, Mr Boddy. We think you’ll find it does 90.’ It still did exactly 86mph.

“After Jenks wrote something rude about the Austin A90, which was a very pedestrian car, there was a terrible fuss. As the editor, I was summoned to the factory. Tee came with me, and they said, ‘If you just say something nice about our cars we’ll double our advertising.’ Tee said, ‘I’m not having that, that’s bribery.’ You had to hand it to him: although he liked money, he’d fight over anything like that to the last ditch. So the BMC PR, a man called Bishop, refused to let us have any more cars. I wrote about it in the magazine, so the readers knew. I called it the Bishop Ban. Then another PR replaced him and it was all forgotten.

“I took the family dog on road tests – usually a Labrador, but at one stage we has a St Bernard. I would refer to him in print as the Motoring Dog. When I tested the first belt-drive DAF I photographed him in the driving seat, to imply it was so simple that even a dog could drive it. When I praised the VW people got very cross, and accused me of being in the pay of the Germans. But I just thought it was very good for its day: all-independent suspension, air-cooled so it couldn’t freeze or boil, at a time when British cars were rather dull. 

“Something I wrote upset Mintex, the brake linings people. Their chap came down to see Tee to cancel their advertising. Tee kept him waiting for an hour, and when he finally let him into his office he said, ‘I can’t quite understand why you’re here. I gather you represent a firm that makes peppermints.’

“Tee worked on until he died, well into his 80s. Went to the office every day. He loved a fuss. When the print unions were trying to create havoc he’d say to me, ‘I’m going to have a lovely morning, Bill, the brothers are coming in to complain again. We’re going to have a really good fuss.’ 

“Rob Walker sued us for libel, because Jenks wrote that his racing cars were starting money specials. Stirling Moss was going to be a witness for Rob. The barrister told us it wasn’t going to be an easy case to win: ‘The jury will all be listening to Mr Moss, the famous racing driver, and on the other side there’ll be a little man with a beard who can hardly see over the witness box. So, Mr Jenkinson, I’ll tell you what you must say. First you come into the box and you take the oath…’ ‘I’m not going to take the oath’, says Jenks, ‘I’m an atheist.’ ‘It’s not so serious,’ says the poor barrister, ‘you just hold the bible and…’ ‘I won’t do it,’ says Jenks. So Tee had to settle out of court. Cost him a lot of money.”

After a life dedicated to motorcars, Bill still owns several: a 1925 Calthorpe, a 1927 Morgan three-wheeler, a 1934 Austin 7 Box saloon, a 1922 Darracq and – a recent acquisition – a 1929 Sunbeam two-seater. Bill was a founder of the 750 Motor Club, and set up the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq Register. He has done 39 London-Brighton Runs, and is an honorary life member of many clubs, including the VSCC, the VCC, the Brooklands Society, the Bugatti OC and the Riley Register. To keep abreast of current cars, he still reads Autocar every week, as he has for 85 years. 

In 1997 he was awarded the MBE for services to sports journalism. “But I’m not a journalist. I am just a motoring enthusiast who writes, being too poor to race and too impatient to work on my cars. Instead of putting penetrating oil on a recalcitrant nut and returning after lunch, I give up. 

“I think I’ve had a pretty satisfactory life. Being able to do what I’ve done has been fun.” And that remarkable memory, covering eight decades of motoring enthusiasm, continues to feed his columns in Motor Sport. “I still enjoy doing it. I hope to keep on writing, God willing.” WB’s serried ranks of readers down the years will say Amen to that.