Motoring: Pages from the oracle: William Boddy, veteran editor of Motor Sport, talks to Phil Llewellin
'Old WB', as he signs his letters, is now in his 50th year as editor of the magazine, which celebrated its 70th birthday last month. Motor Sport was essential reading for my generation of enthusiasts. Born during the war, we grew up dreaming of the fast cars that were driven and written about by WB (he always used just his initials) and his colleagues.
The editor came across as a figure of immense power and authority. He hit hard at a time when others pulled their punches. On any question that involved the reduction of the motorist's freedom, he has always delighted in lambasting the authorities.
In 1964, for instance, he fulminated about the fuss created by news that AC Cars had tested a Le Mans Cobra at 180mph on the M1 - this being several years before the 70mph speed limit was introduced. He wrote: '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 . . . All without any proof that speed in good weather on roads built for modern travel has any bearing on road accidents.'
I felt apprehensive driving to meet WB at his 300-year-old home in Wales. His writings in Motor Sport, and his countless letters to other magazines pointing out factual errors, led me to expect a cross between a Victorian schoolmaster and an Old Testament prophet. The reality was an 81-year-old with a mass of white hair, a very warm welcome and a nice line in self-deprecating humour. Appearance, enthusiasm and energy belie his age, as does the fact that until recently he regularly made the 360-mile round trip to the magazine's office in London. He still drives about 18,000 miles a year and fills 10 pages of each issue. He works hard. His wife nods and sighs when he recalls the last time he took a holiday. It was in 1938.
Their house is stacked high with motoring books, including copies of the 20 he has written himself. His output has always been prolific, but there is no sign of a word processor: WB hammers away with two fingers on an old Olympia International. The outbuildings are filled with pre-war cars with such unfamiliar names as Calthorpe and Leon Bollee standing wheel to wheel, awaiting restoration.
Born in London in 1913, he has only the faintest memory of his father, who was killed in the Great War. Life became a struggle for his mother, but young WB's interest in motoring was fostered on visits to Wales, where a wealthy relation had two cars and a chauffeur. The boy waited to be taken for a drive while other children played on the beach.
He left school at 14 ('I told my mother it was a waste of time') and was briefly an assistant in a motorcycle shop. One day he phoned his employer to say he was ill, then went to his beloved Brooklands racetrack in Weybridge, Surrey. There, a tap on his shoulder and the question 'Feeling better, lad?' led to his dismissal - his boss had come to see his sons racing.
His career in motoring journalism began in 1930, when Motor Sport accepted the first of countless articles about Brooklands. He laughs when asked about the fee: 'I don't think I was paid anything at all. That's the story of my life. It may have been five shillings.' Later, a short-lived change of direction cast him as The Sports Car magazine's advertising manager. Painfully shy, he could not use the phone while a young female colleague was in the room, effectively reducing his working day to the time she spent in the loo.
The link with Motor Sport was strengthened when its present owner acquired the magazine. 'My appointment as editor became official in 1945,' WB explains, 'but I started filling most of the pages in 1937 or '38, and actually edited the magazine all through the war, while working as a technical writer for the RAF.'
A Ford Sierra XR4x4 is now his day-to-day transport. Given a blank cheque, the three cars he would choose for his garage would be nothing more modern than a Vauxhall 30/98, a Bugatti Type 51 and one of the sporting variations on the Austin Seven theme. (He thinks Mercedes makes the best of today's cars.)
WB admits to living in the past. 'We didn't have much money when I was a boy, so I soon realised that old cars were much cheaper than new ones. My first was a 1921 ABC, for which the man wanted pounds 5. I was so excited I gave him pounds 6. Studying the history of old cars is really how it all started for me.'
His boyhood hero, Parry Thomas, died attempting to break the land speed record in 1927. He was one of the men who raced cars powered by huge aircraft engines, easily acquired after the Great War. The spirit of those 'specials' was evoked when I asked if he had any regrets. 'I would have liked to have been a racing motorist at Brooklands, preferably driving something rather odd which I had built myself.'
As expected, my discreet inquiry about retirement's place in the great scheme of things was brushed aside by more anecdotes and talk of starting on another book. Fair enough. Trying to imagine Motor Sport without 'Old WB' is like picturing the Houses of Parliament without Big Ben.
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