Robbo on former Wheels editor Bill Tuckey

Peter Robinson reflects on what made Bill Tuckey the best of the best

Bill Tuckey Monaro

NOEL Tuckey emailed from Queensland to tell me that big brother Bill was soon to die. A series of strokes in 2010 followed, recently, by double pneumonia, was too much for an 80-year Bill and he died on Saturday, May 7.

A lot of us missed Bill over the six and a half years of his illness. We waited in hopeful expectation of a Tuckey story charting the stroke, but it never came. He refused visitors, worried, I think, that he might embarrass himself and wouldn’t be in charge of the conversation. So I was all the more grateful for the lunch we shared in August 2010, just a couple of months before Bill was laid low. Tuckey, garrulous as ever, was in fine form; talking up the books he was writing (by then 26) and even admitted to being 45,000 words “into a book about my life and career starting way back with my parent in England”. He bemoaned the many young motoring writers who, “think the motor industry began in 2000,” and told me in detail the story of double-beheaded murder in Maitland that he’d covered as a junior reporter on The Sydney Morning Herald in 1960. The manuscript of a book on the murders was finished and he was grumbling that he couldn’t find an Australian publisher.

A year earlier we exchanged emails and when I'd wished him a happy birthday, he gently reminded me that he shared his April 20 birthday with Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. “So I’m yet to decide whether I’m a comic megalomaniac or a megalomaniac comic,” he wrote. Makes a great line, except Chaplin was born on April 16.

One topic discussed over lunch was Tuckey’s enormous influence on a generation of Australian motoring writers, me included. Mel Nichols, Wheels' former assistant editor and later editor of Car magazine in the UK, was writing a paper, to be delivered to the Cardiff University journalism school, on the global influences in motoring journalism and asked if Bill would name those who inspired his unique style. Bill happily quoted lines from Ernest Hemmingway and praised Henry Manney, the wealthy American who covered Europe and F1 racing for Road & Track.  “I still have a copy of his marvellous piece on the Ford failure at Le Mans, based on the poem, ‘Casey at the Bat’.”

Tuckey at his best was The Best, pure genius, lyrical. His writing flowed effortlessly. He seamlessly included social commentary in car stories, he was biting, creative and enthralling, and a fine editor. Through Romsey Quints, his alter ego, humour became a weapon, first in Sports Car World (Wheels’ sister title) and later Wheels. Romsey, Bill explained, was created because the budgets were so tiny he couldn’t afford to employ more freelancers, so he created this mythical character to give the impression the magazines had more staffers.

I’d like to prove it with this extract from the September, 1965 SCW drive of a Lancia Flaminia GT: “There is a high country that I know where the grass grows green and thick right to the edge of the road and the clouds roll in like balls of cotton wool to fill the valleys so that you traverse the bends and dips between fields of rolling white. Up here you are perhaps 2000ft above sea level and on chill winter dawn mornings your breath hangs in solid clouds before your face and the air is blue and sharp. Sounds are amplified: the crack of your knuckles, the lowing of cows on the other side of a frosty slope. And from over the hills, and a great way off, you may one morning hear the sound of a car, travelling fast. If so, stop and listen, for it may be going very fast: you may hear the quick waa-rap of the upshifts, the squeal of discs clamped hard, the folding and unfolding crack-boom of the exhausts as the car dives between folds and out from behind hillsides. And suddenly it leaps over a brow into your sight and is there and past and gone, leaving a mind’s image of a gloved hand flashing, a rally jacket turned up high, and silver Touring bodywork rocking gently in its own violent slipstream. This, my friend, is the Country Of The Lancia.”

Quoting himself Tuckey wrote: “I think I was very drunk when I wrote that, but it still reads passably well.”

Paul Gover, for his excellent piece on Tuckey, originally for Australian Muscle Car, asked me what Bill brought to Australian motoring journalism. I concluded: “Bill believed there was no reason a car magazine shouldn’t aim for the highest standards of journalism.”

Wheels reflected that ambition and still does and that came from Bill Tuckey.

Upon hearing of Tuckey’s death, Mel Nichols sent me these notes, which warrant being republished in full:

“Bill was one of the world’s best and most influential motoring writers and car magazine editors. As a writer he was vibrant, inventive, witty, often provocative and always entertaining. As editor of Wheels from October 1963, he was original, innovative, energetic, brave and stylish. He was the agenda setter in Australian motoring journalism. The character and class he brought to Wheels endures today.

“What he did and how he did it influenced a generation of young motoring journalists and editors. A number of us went to the UK and through CAR magazine (which has had seven Australian editors) Bill’s influence flowed on to the next generation of British motoring writers, Jeremy Clarkson and Chris Harris (part of the new Top Gear team) among them. Via CAR, and the work of Aussie Angus MacKenzie at Motor Trend, it reached the US too.

“It's no exaggeration to say that the shape of modern motoring journalism owes a huge amount to Bill. Everyone who enjoys reading good writing about cars, and may thank informed and fearless automotive criticism for contributing to the massive improvement in cars over the past 50 years, should raise a glass in thanks and tribute to Bill. 

Ian Fraser, who preceded Bill as Wheels editor wrote:

“Bill had always been a terrific journalist, and as I read your e-mail all kinds of anecdotes came surging along my memory channels. His sense of humour and ability to write amusing copy was second to none. As I sit here in deepest Norfolk my clearest recollections of Bill involve humour, his hugely entertaining writing skills and his talent as an editor.

“The last time I saw Bill was over a cup of tea in Merimbula, sitting in the sun at an outdoor coffee bar. He was a world class motoring writer who really deserved better breaks than he actually got, although he had every reason to be proud of his huge output of books.”

Upon hearing the news Steve Cropley Tweeted: “Very sad to hear of death of Bill Tuckey, who inspired my generation of Aussie car hacks with brilliant, stylish, inclusive writing.”

You get the picture: William Philip Tuckey was a very special talent.

Peter Robinson was editor of Wheels from 1971-87


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