Bill Boddy 1913-2011

With the death of our Founder Editor, a remarkable chapter comes to a close. This magazine and the world of motoring owe a huge debt to the man known as ‘WB’

Bill Boddy was the heart and the voice of Motor Sport. Surely no writer has been part of a magazine for so long — from 1924 until this month. For all of its life and for most of his, WB was wedded to Motor Sport, first as a passionate schoolboy reader and letter-writer, then a freelance contributor, and then as its Editor and the architect of its eccentric and outspoken character. His death brings to an end a career of unparalleled achievement and longevity — an astonishing 81 years. Those of us who knew him will remember a figure who was strident in print, shy in public, and scurrilously amusing among friends.

Excited from childhood by obsolete cars, Bill made Motor Sport a haven for those who loved the old, the forgotten and the bizarre in motoring history, and arguably did more than any other single person to foster the vintage car hobby. He founded the 750MC, helped inspire the VSCC and the 500cc movement, and became the undisputed all-time expert on Brooklands, the world’s first motor racing circuit, where he spent some of the happiest times of his life. In founding the Brooklands Society, publishing his definitive Brooklands book, and writing constantly about the Track (always giving it that religious capital T), he fanned the interest which led to the derelict circuit being saved from destruction, and later to the founding of the Brooklands Museum. We do not know of anyone alive today who drove the Track while it was still complete; how fitting it would be if Bill Boddy proved to have been the last to do so.

Though we latterly called him Founder Editor, nine or ten men had sat in the Editor’s rickety chair before him. But if the title had a meaning, it was that he, along with Denis Jenkinson, changed the character of the publication from polite reportage to arguably, in the Sixties, Europe’s most influential motor magazine. Forthright, sometimes fiery, rarely even-handed, Motor Sport could, and did, damn a Grand Prix driver or a new road car if Boddy or Jenks thought they deserved it. At a time when others pulled punches to protect their advertising revenue, WB was immensely proud of ‘The Bishop Ban’, when he was the only journalist to criticise the Austin A70, causing BMC to withdraw all advertising and test cars from Motor Sport. But in person Bill, arriving at the office in his tweed jacket with sandwiches and flask of Bovril, hardly looked the fearless crusader.

Born in 1913 in Wandsworth, London, he was brought up by his mother after his father was killed during the fighting in 1917. His passion for cars began as a schoolboy at Belmont College, where the young NICT13 devoured motor magazines. Discovering the new Brooklands Gazette (which would become Motor Sport) he was hooked, and has read or written for every single issue since — including this one, which contains his final column. In the 1920s WB bombarded the motor mags with correcting letters — The Autocar’s Rodney Walkerley later recalled that he would hide when told “that schoolboy is here again”. Boddy constantly won Motor Sport‘s quizzes, scooped up brochures from car showrooms, and, aged 14, organised a 100mph test run in a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz from a bemused salesman.

After his mother signed him up as an apprentice at a Clapham garage, he would take notes on the work and write it up afterwards, but soon realised he preferred the writing. Having been overwhelmed in 1926 by the sight of the empty Track he prevailed on his mother to take him back, and was captivated for ever. Once he saw his first race in 1927 the Track, always open and always busy, became irresistible. After his mother died, when he was 17, he took a job in a shop where he alleviated the boredom by going absent, pleading illness; unfortunately his boss also went to Brooklands that day and spotted him. Thereafter he turned to freelance journalism to survive, and his first published article was in Motor Sport; the subject — what else but Brooklands history.

That first story, in March 1930, carried no byline, but soon WB was a regular contributor to the motoring titles, often defending the muchcriticised, ageing Track in print and already concerned about safeguarding motoring history. In 1932 he suggested a club for vintage sports cars; the VSCC was founded a year later, with Bill a crucial supporter ever since, and indeed the last link to its origins.

In 1933 his perfect job arrived when he was asked to write the car side of Brooklands — Track and Air. He wasn’t paid, but that didn’t matter — he was based at the Track, his own heaven on earth. Being rather innocent, it took him a while to realise why people giggled when he emerged from the paper’s office: during WWI it had been a mortuary. Despite being unable to drive he wrote his first road tests here; he would instruct the magazine’s owner, Capt Holmes, from the passenger seat and describe the results. He also rode with any driver who would take him round the Track, revelling in 130mph laps alongside Forrest Lycett in his 8-litre Bentley, or a spin in the exBirkin Maserati 8CM, and in 1934 persuaded Holmes to organise an exhibition of early racing cars, a seminal event for the old-car world. It was only in 1935 that he passed his test and began to buy cars, his first a short-lived £5 ABC, beginning a string of low-powered bargains which carried him erratically around the country.

When his magazine was absorbed by another WB briefly became advertising manager, but was so shy that he would only ring clients when the typist left the room. He was soon sacked and again went freelance, writing for Motor Sport, Speed and others such as Blackwood’s Magazine. Then the Brooklands gods intervened in the short and irascible form of Wesley J Tee. Motor Sport was in debt to the printer, where Tee was MD, and spotting that he could cash the copper picture blocks for more than the debt, he bought it for £20. Finding that WB already wrote most of it, in 1937 he fired the Editor and put Boddy in charge. Born not of far-seeing judgement but short-term expediency, this edgy partnership was to see Motor Sport burgeon from a clubby journal to a major international voice.

WJT would only allow initials for authors in case they were poached by rivals, so instead WB would sneak his name into picture captions or write to himself on the Letters page to further an argument. But these tactics became irrelevant as the initials ‘WB’ quickly became more recognisable than his name. Only in 1990 did the words ‘Editor: Bill Boddy’ finally appear on a Motor Sport masthead, and within a year he had become ‘Founder Editor’, as we introduced a hands-on Editor at the office.

It all nearly came to a halt in 1939, when WJT intended to close the paper, but WB persuaded him that he could fill pages somehow, so the September Motor Sport was a four-page emergency issue announcing it would continue. And so it did all through the war, WB re-using old picture blocks and running it by telephone for £2 a week. Readers, many in the forces, obliged with unpaid contributions, and as there was no racing and very little motoring, history predominated, which suited The Bod. Without seeing pages, he could not sub copy; instead the type-setters famously would shrink the print size to cram a story in. Allocated a journalist’s petrol ration, WB even managed the occasional wartime road test: he tried out a prototype Lagonda V12 while British and German fighters battled overhead.

In 1944 he married Winifred Holbrook, who also became absorbed into motoring, helping form and run the Sunbeam (later S-T-D) Register from 1950. She became Life President in 1981. Their three daughters, known as Dee, Flip and Nondus, grew up well used to travelling in vintage and test cars to motoring events around the country.

WB claimed that he went to join up at Woolwich, but got talking about Alfas to the recruiting officer who then forgot to sign him up. Instead he drove ambulances for the ARP before in 1941 joining the Ministry of Aircraft Production at Farnborough and later Harrogate to write technical manuals for the RAF. Arriving one day at Hawker’s, he was told he owed them £1m, as the Hurricane manuals were late and the ‘planes would not be paid for without them.

His transport between aerodromes, a Lancia Lambda, Gwynne 8 or 12/50 Alvis, was sniffed at by senior officers, but entirely suited to his circle, a bohemian motoring set centred round Holly Birkett and Tom Lush of Allard’s, his best friend.

When the war finished Mr Tee confirmed WB as Editor, who told him, “I can’t promise it will be the best motoring magazine, but it will be different”. That promise he certainly kept. Motor Sport was the only British racing title through the ’40s, and even the arrival of Autosport in 1950 did not detract from its authority.

During his time at MAP, WB worked with Denis Jenkinson, short, scruffy and racing-obsessed, and equally passionate for the sport. It was natural that after the war he should invite Jenks to write for him, forming the most famous and least conventional partnership in the business. According to WB, Jenks said, “You’re the writer, Bod, I’m an engineer,” before giving him a lecture on good journalism. A like-minded team devoted to every type of racing and car history, they quartered the country, attending the smallest events, chasing rumours of old racers and buying ruins of ancient cars.

WB never did a five-day week, arguing that his salary was too small. Instead he intermittently drove into London from Fleet in Hampshire, near Jenks, by Austin 7 or Delatmey-Belleville, or exchanged proofs by post with whichever harassed Assistant Ed was absorbing the flak at the office. Office days decreased after 1963 when Bill and Winifred moved to a large ancient house near Llandrindod Wells, chosen for its large barn. WB planned to fill this with cars, install Jenks rent-free to look after them, and call it the Mid-Wales Motor Museum. But, as he told me wryly, “then Jenks met Robbie Hewitt, and she had something I didn’t have”.

Gradually the combination of DSJ’s blunt race reporting and WB’s supremely personal car tests made Motor Sport a powerful voice, and by the early ’60s a huge seller and the only place to sell interesting cars. Neither Bod nor Jenks ever worried about pleasing readers, racers or advertisers, and to his credit, WJT left them to it. Jenks’ unabashed jibes at a poor race performance and WB’s veiled sarcasm spiced up the passion they shared. As the Continental Correspondent, Jenks roamed Europe at will, taking in Grands Prix, road races and workshops, sending a monthly digest back to WB which went into the mag. When I joined, Jenks wrote to me, “Motor Sport is not written for the readers. It is a private diary between Bod and Jenks.”

Yet, close as they were, theirs was not a social friendship. Jenks was at home in a pub with other enthusiasts; WB would rather be at some gathering of obscure light cars on a soggy Welsh hillside, which doomed many early dates with young ladies. Always in awe of titles and wealth, he loved to write about wealthy aristocrats such as Count Zborowski and Earl Howe, while his childhood heroes, particularly Parry Thomas, appeared constantly in the magazine. Ironically, although he saw the great names of the 1930s race, he was too shy to approach the flamboyant ones like Birkin and Barnato. His quiet nature even got him accidentally into the Blackshirts. He was friendly with two Bugatti-owning brothers whose Mosley-loving mother bullied him into paying the membership shilling (his only connection with the movement, of course).

If Bill sometimes came across as stiff with strangers at first it was because he was essentially reticent. Yet when off-duty, with people he knew, he relaxed and became The Bod, funny and talkative, with a fund of scandalous stories about racing figures, usually followed by “you mustn’t print that” even when they’d been dead for 40 years. A favourite was his tale of Earl Howe strolling the paddock and finding Freddie Dixon’s feet sticking out under a car. “Hello, Freddie,” calls Howe. “F*** off,” replies Freddie. Scandalised acolyte informs Freddie who it is. “Well, F*** off, Your Lordship.” Bill would relate this with a face of schoolboy innocence that doubled the laughter.

WB’s relationship with the Old Man was double-edged: while they often argued (WB resigned several times), WJT knew that the Bod, his most valuable resource, was so devoted to his subject that he wasn’t going to quibble too much over conditions or pay. In 1950 WB decided to expand his income by starting his own magazine, Vintage and Thoroughbred Car, and ran this secretly (as he thought) from the Motor Sport offices; in fact Mr Tee knew about it but let him continue, confident it would fail, and it did. Lord Montagu bought it and it later turned into Veteran and Vintage, beginning a long-lasting association between WB and the Montagu, later National, Motor Museum.

With poor pay as his excuse, WB never shied from writing for rival car magazines, and for years did road tests for the top-shelf magazine Mayfair, saying “at least I keep two pages of it clean”. He also wrote endlessly for vintage journals, especially on his particular passions, Austin 7s and VWs, which he drove and repeatedly praised in print. Then there were the books. When Brooklands closed for the war, WB nipped in and collected the Track records, crucial to his definitive History of Brooklands of 1957. He also wrote many other works on motor racing, circuits, sports cars and specials, becoming the voice of Motor Sport on air and later the first port of call for anyone making a TV documentary about motor racing history.

Behind his battered typewriter WB took courage from knowing that Mr Tee would back him against anyone he upset in the magazine. At a time when the only damning meted out by the weekly car titles was faint praise, WB gave Motor Sport a reputation for fearless opinion. He modelled this critical style on C G Grey, outspoken editor of The Aeroplane, and the title ‘Matters of Moment’ for our Editorial was taken from Grey’s magazine. WB himself hated confrontation; when displeased with me he didn’t tell me off but wrote lengthy letters to WJT. At our monthly meetings he would be friendly before and after, but in the stuffy little boardroom would relate the catalogue of my crimes (usually that I had cut his words to fit) to WJT, who would back him absolutely. Afterwards the Old Man would call me into his office and explain that he had to be seen to support the Editor, but was on my side really.

Boddy was not interested in travel unless motor racing was involved, and indeed the ever-patient Winifred told me that the only non-motoring holiday they had ever had together was their honeymoon. In later years Bill claimed not to like flying in airliners, although he was immensely knowledgeable about aircraft too, and wrote with relish of his flights over Brooklands, or to races abroad in the 1950s and ’60s, often in small aircraft piloted by Michael Tee, the photographer son of WJT. He and Michael also undertook many an epic car tour to museums and factories across the Continent, even racing a private plane from Cannes to Calais long before Top Gear thought of it.

With Mr Tee geeing him up, Boddy campaigned against compulsory belting up (because he was claustrophobic) and the 70mph limit, writing “We thought all those millions of our money spent on these elaborate roads was to foster speed. The British lion is being held down by his tail and beaten to his knees, and will soon be crawling on his belly.” He invented the word ‘mimser’ for lethargic motorists, warning “beware of drivers with string-backed gloves”. But he also took a refreshingly modern line on women racing drivers, often reminding readers of their achievements and praising the best of them as the equal of males.

In earlier years WB drove vintage cars every day, but after Mr Tee bought him a Morgan Plus 4 in the Fifties he had a series of increasingly up-to-date company vehicles including one of the first Minis, as well as a parade of test cars. With his interest in light cars, WB championed the Mini, Citroen 2CV and VW Beetle more than the exotics, which he tended to leave to Jenks. He was in any case not a sporting driver; he competed in trials, hillclimbs and rallies, but, barring one journalists-only event, never raced. Yet he was closely involved with the racing establishment: he met the German aces off the aeroplane at Croydon before the 1937 Donington GP, was the first person to drive up Prescott hillclimb, and advised on the first post-war race in Britain and on the establishment of Goodwood circuit. A staunch supporter of the Brighton Run, he either drove or rode in an astonishing 39 of them from 1936 on, and for years our January cover would be of a heavily padded Bill looking stern and cold on a puttering veteran car. Naturally he also drove scores of famous racing cars, including the Napier-Railton (he went to its press launch in 1933) and the Birkin single-seater Bentley.

His road tests were cheerfully subjective: damn the acceleration figures, would the Editorial Rolleiflex fit in the glove box? Could the Motoring Dog hop aboard easily? Much of the test might be about where he had been: tracking down a 90-year-old chauffeur, or an extinct hillclimb, or on one of several Land’s End to John O’Groats runs. Yet his opinions carried much weight, and his criticism was feared. Only in his seventies did he stop testing, and that through insurance difficulties, not disinterest.

Perhaps the most exotic car he owned was an Alfonso Hispano-Suiza, which often caught fire; the rest were a changing collection of mainly light cars, of which few ran at any one time — WB never claimed to be a mechanic and relied on Jenks, Tom Lush or other friends to keep him rolling. But the 1922 Talbot-Darracq, 1924 Calthorpe and Gould replica A7 Ulster gave him a lot of pleasure, while Winifred used her Sunbeam tourer for Sunbeam Register trips. An ancient FN was the family transport for some years, the family riding inside with WB exposed to the elements like any chauffeur. And for a long time the bins went down to the gate in a 1925 Cluley, its only duty. Bill and Winifred hosted many VSCC Light Car events at the Hall, setting up trials sections on their land and then providing teas afterwards, and even at 89 WB was still collecting, driving a ‘new’ Sunbeam 16 back from Devon to use as a tow-car for the Talbot. As his travelling decreased Bill’s range of events retracted, but as an honorary member of so many motor clubs he remained absorbed by their events, especially Austin Seven gatherings where for many years he was a guest of honour and judge.

A particular fan of the diminutive Austin, he was one of the founding spirits of the 750MC in 1939, a club where Chapman, Costin, Duckworth and McLaren among many others honed their talents, while by supporting the 500cc movement he added his own push to Britain’s Grand Prix revolution.

In the 1960s, old cars formed only a small part of his writings, but by the ’80s his whole output was historical. The flow was unwavering, though, filing copy for Motor Sport every month right to the end, as well as articles for other vintage titles and many letters to magazines (including his own) correcting historical slips, and revising his Brooklands book at the age of 90. He claimed his compulsion to keep writing was because early on he was paid by the word, but really it was a combination of nostalgia and insatiable curiosity, always hoping that readers would add information to solve some ancient, minor, motoring mystery. And he hated being edited; any words you cut would be back next month, expanded into a new article — a journalistic fission which guaranteed he never ran out of subjects. How glad I was when we trained him to use a fax machine, ending daily hours of galley corrections by phone, but it didn’t improve the dreadful quality of his typewritten copy, with its additions typed in between lines and sideways up the page, plus handwritten insertions, sometimes on the back of the sheet. A nightmare to decipher (his record sentence had 19 clauses), but he was driven not only to get it right, but to pass on as much of his deep knowledge as he could cram into a page. And despite the untidiness of the copy he sent, both grammar and punctuation would be perfect.

In 1997 Bill’s lifetime dedication to his subject was recognised with the MBE for services to sports journalism, adding to many in his own field, including the Tom Wheatcroft Trophy which pleased him as Tom had for years been an ally in saving important cars. After Winifred died in 1997 WB continued to live alone at the Hall in one or two chilly rooms, the rest packed with automobilia, brochures, pamphlets, advertisements, badges, spark plugs and parts of interesting cars, as well as thousands of photographs, hundreds of review books, and a treasured piece of Brooklands concrete. Latterly his worsening health and mobility prevented any travel, though his mind remained sharp to the end.

It’s ironic that writing was never WB’s ambition. Much influenced by Sammy Davis of The Autocar, after reading his book Motor Racing at the age of 18, WB would like to have followed Davis’s competition footsteps. He wrote in 2003 “I would have much preferred to race cars or build specials, though I would never have made a real racer. Lack of finance ended race dreams; as for special-building, I was too lazy, or hard up, for this”. Perhaps he didn’t build cars, but it’s due to WB that so much vintage and veteran machinery survives in Britain. He may have been no loss to racing, but it was the car world’s gain when Bill Boddy found his métier, and he was lucky to be able to enjoy right to the end what he called his “almost unbearable fascination with the sport”.

He may be gone, but Bill Boddy’s memorial is on the printed page, in the bound volumes of the years when his efforts made Motor Sport‘s slogan valid. Thanks to WB, it really became “the authoritative voice of the sport”; and that voice was the voice of Bill Boddy.