Matters of moment, October 1976

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Leyland’s museum at Donington

For far too long the very large accumulation of historic vehicles amassed by the various manufacturers who were amalgamated under the BMC banner and which have consequently been inherited by British Leyland has been sadly dispersed, in storage, on loan to a fortunate few, or scattered in various museurns—at one time it seemed that the sole-surviving Leyland Eight had even been mislaid. So it must cause much gratification in many quarters that this £1.2-million collection (those millions again!) has been dusted-down and put on show at Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington Park Museum.

This prolific and comprehensive Leyland Collection, in this setting, was opened by Alex Park, Chief Executive of British Leyland Ltd., on September 2nd. In his speech at the official opening, Mr. Park, whose personal liking for old motors has caused him to set up the subsidiary Company of Leyland Historic Vehicles Ltd., went out of his way to prevent anyone from thinking that a Company living on money borrowed from the British tax-payers had spent any substantial sum on cleaning up and placing on show its valuable possessions.

“I am acutely aware”, he said, “that our expenditure is carefully examined and I would not want you, for one moment, to think that we were pouring money into history.” It wasn’t so much a shoe-string as a “tatty piece of financial boot-strap”, he continued, that was used to create Leyland Historic Vehicles Ltd.

Alex Park went on to say, as many museum curators do, that the exhibits must function as originally intended and not gently moulder away as museum pieces—but how many are exercised as frequently, and before such an appreciative public, as historic vehicles (like “Romulus”) that are privately owned ? He remarked that he will expect some of his Leyland Collection to work for their “retirement pensions”, by being hired-out here and overseas for promotional arid exhibition purposes. Cars will have to be exereised here, if undignified and nonsensical appearances are to be eliminated.

We drove to this opening of a great and significant Leyland collection with mixed feelings. It is splendid that the Leyland Donington Collection is in the Midlands and that it is displayed in the excellent setting of the Donington Museum. No praise is too great for Tom Wheateroft’s enthusiasm, the pristine Condition of his working single-seater racing cars, and the effective presentation for them he has devised—most housewives must be envious of the dust-less, shadow-less halls Tom has built to house his Donington Collection. He cannot fail to benefit from co-Operation with Alex Parks, because additional visitors will be attracted by the big and very varied Leyland display, especially those who come to future Donington race meetings, the first of which, for motorcycles, is scheduled for March next year, and because there must presumably he some pay-off for having opened two extra halls to house this prolific Leyland miscellany.

Having said that, the sad feeling intrudes that what was once a unique, purely racing-car Collection (the Single-Seater Collection, in fact) has become just another motor museum, an impression which was increased by the Army tank, steam-waggon, and other vehicles that now stand about outside. There may, too, be a few people who will think that as British Leyland share-holders they should be granted free admission to the Leyland Museum, as they would be to other motor-manufacturers’ museums we could name. As it is, they have to pay £1 and walk through the halls of single-seaters to get to the more prosaic exhibits beyond. No-one who likes racing ears can possibly object; we have always emphasised that. But as Alex Park says, Leyland owe it to millions of drivers who from the turn of the century have been introduced to motoring through the vehicles in the Leyland Museum. Some of them, and the men who worked in the many factories Where these vehicles were made, May have little interest in comparatively recent racing cars and may find a quid (100p) too much to pay for their nostalgia.

To list all the cars and motorcycles and commercial vehicles that Park has caused to come together at Donitigton defeats us. Ignoring the oldest steam-roller in Britain, a Rover cycle pedalled to an Olympic gold medal, and an E-type Jaguar which spent all its working life crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth instead of being driven on the road, with which the hand-out concerns itself, we will content ourselves with saying that these 150-plus vehicles (there are more to come) in 15,000 sq. ft. of show-space range from the 1897 Wolseley tricycle to the millionth Austin 16, and that those in between take in almost everything you could wish to see. A Wolseley Ten (surely built by Vickers’ ?), two Rover 8s, one a coupe, the MG which “Goldie” Gardner used for very high-speed record-breaking in 1938 (this one actually a single-seater!), all manner of Edwardians, special Jaguar, MG, Riley and Morris exhibits, an Austin 7 said to date from 1922 … the list is endless. The Leyland vehicles have nice backgrounds. The data-plates are rather too small but we were pleased to find the Kimber MG Sports correctly described, although the Thornycroft chassis described as a two-cylinder has a four-cylinder engine. From 119 Stellite to a Scammell Mechanical-Horse, from tine 1911 Daimler to the racing Morris “Red Flash”, it’s all there; we were even startled to come on a FWD Alvis, which we thought had strayed-in from the Wheatcroft department, until we remembered that the BMC eventually engulfed even this old Coventry Company. The Parry Thomas Leyland Eight might, we thought, have been more prominently displayed, like the big V12 racing Sunbeam at Beaulieu. . . .

Look at it how you will (and we hope you will!), it’s a fine acceptance of a glorious past by the present Head of British Leyland, who clearly does not regard history as bunk. The show is open every day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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