Bill Boddy: The godfather of British motorsports journalism who wrote for 81 years
Monday 08 August 2011
Bill Boddy, known to his readers simply by his initials WB, was the undisputed godfather of motorsports journalism in the UK and a celebrated author and historian in the field of vintage cars.
He wrote for Motor Sport magazine for 81 years – surely a record in any field of journalism. He was the magazine's editor for a mere 55 years, but that no doubt is also a record. He wrote his first article for the magazine in 1930 and his last just a few days before his death, at 98.
During his editorship, from 1936to 1991, Boddy turned Motor Sport from a small, near-bankrupt specialist title into the pre-eminent magazine inits field – inspiring young whippersnapper motoring magazines around the world. Through its no-holds-barred road tests he won for Motor Sporta reputation for fearless, detailed and untainted testing that keptmanufacturers on their toes and often on tenterhooks awaiting publication.
Before then, manufacturers expected a glowing review in return for use of their car. Jeremy Clarkson, one of Boddy's faithful readers, was one of the many who followed his example. Few Motor Sport readers will be old enough to remember WB's road tests of pre-war Austin 7 models – which became one of his passions – but many still recall his road test of the first E-Type Jaguar in 1961.
Boddy was a lifelong campaigner for motor sports from the grassroots up – muddy hill climbs, private-entry rallies and vintage car events – rather than the more glamorous but now play-station-like Formula One Grands Prix. The latter he left to his equally esteemed Motor Sport colleague, Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson, whom he recruited in 1953. As in the case of WB, Denis Sargent Jenkinson, who died in 1996, was known to his readers merely by his initials – DSJ. The two men became a formidable team, together the unquestioned voice of motor sports for decades. While Jenkinson raced and hung out with the great drivers of the era – winning the 1955 Mille Miglia along with Stirling Moss in a Mercedes 300 SLR – Boddy edited the magazine but also churned out books which remain reference works for car bods worldwide.
He was and remains the world's unchallenged expert on Brooklands, the world's first purpose-built motor-racing circuit at Weybridge, Surrey, on which he was a human encyclopaedia. Built in 1907, it was shut down during the war and used as an airbase, and was thereafter turned into an industrial estate. In 1968 Boddy founded the Brooklands Society, which saved the derelict autodrome as a historic site and led to the setting-up of the popular Brooklands Museum, a mecca for vintage-car buffs. As a journalist he campaigned on countless issues on behalf of the serious motorist, including his fight against the introduction of the 70mph speed limit.
William Boddy was born in Wandsworth, south London, in 1913 to an English father and Welsh mother. In July 1924, he picked up the first edition of a new magazine, The Brooklands Gazette (renamed Motor Sport a year later), and was hooked. He first visited the Brooklands circuit as a 15-year-old and, when he was 17, had his first article, on the history of the track, published in Motor Sport.
Conducting some of his first road tests from the passenger seat before he got his driving licence – "I'd tell the driver to swing the wheel over and note how the car responded" – he was appointed editor of the struggling magazine in 1936. The magazine's owner insisted the writers use only their initials to keep their egos out of their copy. The magazine never looked back despite tough times along the way. Both in its pages but also in his private life, Boddy remained a passionate fan of "vintage" – at the time pre-war – cars. Wearing the appropriate cloak and hat of any vehicle's particular era, and cheerily hooting his klaxon, he took part in no fewer than 39 London-to-Brighton runs.
During the war, he worked as a writer for the RAF at Farnborough Airfield, Hampshire, working on maps anddevelopment projects, from bomb sights and camera equipment to the evaluation of downed Luftwaffeaircraft. At the same time, he managed to keep a version of Motor Sport going, albeit with a reduced point size to squeeze all the stories into limited space.
Before, during and after the war, he founded and supported severalvintage-car clubs which now have members worldwide. In April 1939, over pints in the Wheatsheaf pub in Virginia Water, Surrey, he and a few friends founded the 750 Motor Club, initially for Austin 7 lovers but now promoting low-cost racing for enthusiasts with sports cars, saloons and single-seaters.
Boddy saw the club, of which hewas president until he died, as a grassroots answer to the Vintage Sports-Car Club (VSCC), initially regarding the latter as being for toffs whohad their "man" prepare the car sothat they didn't get their fingernails dirty. Later, however, he became one of the VSCC's driving forces – it now has 7,500 members who get involved in racing, hill climbs, rallies, tests,trials and touring events. His influence in bringing the club closer to grassroots and younger generations canbe seen in its website comment that "you don't need a hip replacement, a black Labrador or a handlebar moustache to join."
After the war, Boddy and his wife Winifred (she owned a 1925 Sunbeam 14/40) founded the Sunbeam/Talbot/Darracq Register (STD), for owners of models of those cars built before 1935. After his passing, the Motor Sport website was inundated with posts from WB fans around the world, including this one from Adrian Muldrew who alluded to WB's 98 years and his opposition to the 70mph limit. "He has finally reached the chequered flag," Mr Muldrew wrote: "Sadly ... he fell just short of 'ton up' but he can chuckle now about getting a long way over 70."
Among the two dozen books Boddy wrote, the last, Brooklands Giants: Brave Men and their Great Cars, was published in 2006, when he was 93. He was appointed MBE in 1997 for his services to journalism. Even when hit by ill- health in recent years, he was never late with copy, his editors said, nor ever lacking something fresh, even shocking to say.
William Boddy, motoring writer and editor: born London 22 February 1913; married Winifred (died 1998; three daughters); died Llwynbarried Hall, Nantmel, Powys 7 July 2011.
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