For years after becoming Wheels editor in 1971, I scoured the magazine’s contributors and beyond to find an author for a down-to-earth column I planned to call Dirty Wheels. Effectively, the idea was to resurrect Diary of a Wheels Garage, one of the most popular columns in the magazine’s early years.
Assorted people tried, but quickly found they couldn’t sustain a monthly column. Only after discovering Noel Tuckey, younger brother of former editor Bill Tuckey, did the column prove feasible. Noel worked on cars for a living, owned a typewriter and, as the readers discovered, possessed a lovely, dry sense of humour. For reasons I don’t remember now, Noel decided the column should carry the byline of George Ambrose.
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The first Dirty Wheels column appeared in June 1976, but being unfamiliar with the pressure of a monthly deadline, Noel missed the next issue. Then they arrived regularly until, he says, “the column paused for a while in 1979. The money wouldn’t cover the grog bill.”
From then until December 2001, Dirty Wheels became a must-read column. Through the telling of obviously genuine anecdotes – no one could make them up – Tuckey became a constructive reaction against the ever-increasing complexity of automotive technology. He fought against the often absurd cost of replacing multipart but throw-away components and the regular stupidity and absurdity of DIY repairs by owners with little or no mechanical knowledge.
For the June 1996 issue of Wheels, editor Angus Mackenzie persuaded Tuckey to celebrate 20 years of his column with a new story. It’s typical ‘George Ambrose’, railing against an engineer who was convinced he should be able to start his Commodore with a 12-volt torch battery, combined with stories of the various workshop dogs he had known and loved. Tuckey admitted that while he couldn’t remember anniversaries, he could tell you the tappet clearances for a 1949 side-valve Ford Ten.
The car makers didn’t quite know how to react to Dirty Wheels; sometimes they were embarrassed, occasionally they’d write to complain about a possible error, only to have George shoot them down with reality. The readers couldn’t get enough of his yarns. Even now, 17 years after the column was dropped, people still ask me why it went away.
Dirty Wheels ran until the Wheels December 2001 issue. In the words of Tuckey, it was a “messy ending.” Instead of being told he was sacked by a senior member of the editorial department, ideally the editor, it was left to the accounts department to deliver the unwelcome news. They demanded the return of money paid for columns already submitted. “I was a tad upset at the time, but it’s all past history now,” says Tuckey today. As a final note he was able to add the following last line to the ultimate column: “So, Nil Bastardo Carborundum. And goodbye.” (Don’t let the bastards grind you down).
Today, Tuckey lives on acreage in Queensland with his two 1938 DKW two-stroke cars – “they blow enough blue oil smoke to kill loads of my mosquitoes” – and a prototype 1958 Rochdale coupe, an obscure British sports car made in tiny numbers between 1952 and 1973.
I wouldn’t expect anything less of the great George Ambrose.