PRO­FILE: REX WOODGATE

One of the real char­ac­ters of the As­ton story. We meet the ‘King of Prus­sia’

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS STEPHEN ARCHER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GUS GREGORY (POR­TRAITS), DAVE NI­CHOLAS, AND THE WOODGATE FAM­ILY

THE KING OF PRUS­SIA? We’ll get to that in a mo­ment. By any mea­sure, Rex Woodgate’s life has been a re­mark­able one, from be­ing one of Stir­ling Moss’s first me­chan­ics, to be­com­ing ‘Mr As­ton Martin in Amer­ica’, to his re­turn to the UK to es­tab­lish an As­ton restora­tion busi­ness. Last year, to mark his 90th birthday, he treated him­self to a Gay­don­era V8 Van­tage – with a man­ual gear­box, nat­u­rally. That was typ­i­cal Rex. His achieve­ments in­clude ef­fec­tively sav­ing As­ton Martin in the States in the early ’70s and, shortly af­ter­wards, en­gi­neer­ing the res­cue of the whole com­pany. No hy­per­bole is needed to con­vey the sig­nif­i­cance of Rex Woodgate’s con­tri­bu­tion to As­ton his­tory.

Rex was was born in 1926 in Crick­le­wood, Lon­don. His fa­ther, an ad­ver­tis­ing man­ager, wasn’t es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in cars, but a neigh­bour was a keen mo­torist and on oc­ca­sion took Rex and friends to Brook­lands in his Lea-fran­cis. Through him, Rex met Prince Bira and other star driv­ers of the day and be­came in­fected with en­thu­si­asm for the sport. The out­break of the Sec­ond World War put ev­ery­thing on hold. His older brother, an RAF night fighter pi­lot, was killed in 1941, aged just 20, while fly­ing a Dou­glas A-20 Havoc. Un­de­terred, young Rex ap­plied to fol­low him into the RAF.

‘At that time I was an ap­pren­tice at Smiths Air­craft In­stru­ments in Neas­den,’ he tells me at his Hamp­shire home, ‘but I wanted to join the RAF and even­tu­ally I was ac­cepted as

air­crew. But be­fore I could join I got a let­ter re­quir­ing me to be­come a Bevin Boy and dig coal for the war ef­fort.’ Rex soon found him­self digging in nar­row seams in a mine in Wales – not ideal for his 6ft 3in frame!

‘Af­ter the war, I wanted to get in­volved with cars so fa­ther sug­gested I con­tact the Austin Motors pub­lic­ity man­ager, Alan Hess, who in turn sug­gested that I ap­ply to work at Thom­son & Tay­lor at Brook­lands – which I did.’ Though the com­pany was renowned for its work on John Cobb’s Napier-rail­tons and Malcolm Camp­bell’s pre-war Blue Bird cars, Rex’s ap­pren­tice­ship was on some­thing a lit­tle more pro­saic: diesel gen­er­a­tors. His life, how­ever, was about to take a sig­nif­i­cant twist.

‘I vis­ited Prescott in 1947 with a chap called Colin Strang who had built his own 500cc car. We saw a rather rapid but lit­tle-known young man in a Cooper climb the hill. His name was Stir­ling Moss. On learn­ing that he may need a me­chanic, I made an ap­proach and Papa Moss took me on. I spent much of the 1948 sea­son work­ing for Stir­ling, prep­ping and swap­ping en­gines around as the events re­quired.’

It was the start of a life-long friend­ship, the two men’s paths cross­ing fre­quently in the years that fol­lowed, and it was clearly an en­joy­able time for Rex. ‘It was great fun and of course Stir­ling did very well. One thing that did frus­trate me, though, was that I de­vel­oped an im­proved un­der-body and en­gine cowl de­sign for bet­ter air­flow to the en­gine. Moss se­nior thought this was great but for some rea­son gave the de­sign to John Cooper, thus re­mov­ing our po­ten­tial ad­van­tage!’

When JAP took over all en­gine ser­vic­ing and sup­port for Stir­ling, there was less need for Rex in the Moss team. In 1949 he joined HWM, help­ing founders John Heath and Ge­orge Abe­cas­sis build a team of cars for the 1950 For­mula 2 sea­son, a sea­son that would see one Stir­ling Moss taken on as an HWM driver!

Rex would soon get a chance to test his own skills at the wheel. ‘In 1951, Gor­don Wat­son, who raced an F2 Alta, asked me to join him at Leacroft En­gi­neer­ing in Egham. I helped him run his Alta, and, when he was not avail­able, I raced it. I en­joyed it, but in one race I was passed with ease by Fan­gio, González and Fa­rina. I re­alised then that I would not be­come an F1 driver.’ [This be­lies some mod­esty on Rex’s part. In 1974 he took the writer around Lime Rock in a Jaguar D-type and there was no doubt­ing his driv­ing abil­ity!]

Af­ter that, Rex con­cen­trated on span­ner­ing, all the time gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for his highly metic­u­lous work. Rex never left nuts loose. Af­ter a brief spell at Con­naught as chief me­chanic, he joined Les­lie Hawthorn’s TT Garage in Farn­ham. ‘In 1954 I worked on Reg Par­nell’s Fer­rari 500 Grand Prix car,’ he re­calls. ‘It was also the year I mar­ried Joyce…’ Sixty-three years later, Rex and Joyce are still to­gether – in­deed, she’s on hand today to fill in any gaps in the story!

‘Les­lie Hawthorn very sadly died shortly af­ter in a road ac­ci­dent on the way back from Good­wood in his B20 Lan­cia. So I then worked for [Les­lie’s son] Mike Hawthorn for a spell be­fore mov­ing on to Van­dervell. That did not last long,’ he gri­maces. ‘There were some very strong per­son­al­i­ties and I was not happy there.’

Fate then took a hand. In 1955, Reg Par­nell asked Rex to help him with an­other Fer­rari – and in­tro­duced him to As­ton Martin team man­ager John Wyer. At that time As­ton Martin was flour­ish­ing and needed tal­ented me­chan­ics and Reg rated Rex very highly.

‘Ini­tially I joined the team build­ing the short pro­duc­tion run of road-go­ing DB3SS,’ says Rex, ‘but I was also asked to look af­ter racing cus­tomers’ cars in the ser­vice depart­ment.

‘One of them was Dutch­man Hans Davids, who raced an or­ange DB3S. I re­mem­ber one day a man ap­peared at the fac­tory with a works twin-plug head. How such a head would ap­pear from out­side the works was a mys­tery, but with John Wyer’s some­what re­luc­tant bless­ing it was fit­ted to the or­ange DB3S. I re­mem­ber trai­ler­ing the car to Opatija in Yu­goslavia for a race and rather up­set­ting the lo­cals by park­ing the en­sem­ble on an ac­tive tram­line! I was dragged out of my ho­tel room by the po­lice to move it while a large crowd looked on.’

At Zand­voort in 1956, the DB3S gave Davids vic­tory in his last ever race, beat­ing Godin de

‘I’d parked the trailer on a tram­line! I was dragged out of my ho­tel room by the po­lice to move it'

Beau­fort’s works Porsche and set­ting fastest lap and a new lap record, ably sup­ported by Rex.

Over the win­ter of 1956-57, Rex was part of team that built the DBR2 sports-rac­ers, which would be pow­ered by Tadek Marek’s all-new straight-six, soon to ap­pear in the DB4.

He also built the one and only DBR3. ‘That was based on a DBR1 but with wish­bone front sus­pen­sion to ac­com­mo­date the DB4 en­gine,’ Rex re­calls. ‘It was rapid but the dry sump sys­tem was un­der-de­vel­oped and the en­gine, which was stroked down to 3 litres, failed at its only race at Sil­ver­stone in 1958. There was an is­sue with the scav­enge and too much oil was taken out of the oil tank, re­sult­ing in bear­ing fail­ure.’ New Fiarules made the DBR3 in­el­i­gi­ble for fu­ture races, but it was re­born as DBR1/4 and fin­ished sec­ond at Le Mans in 1959.

By then, the next chap­ter in Rex’s life was al­ready un­fold­ing. In 1957, he had trav­elled to the Nas­sau Speed Week to sup­port an en­try for Stir­ling Moss in the works DBR2, and there met wealthy Amer­i­can in­dus­tri­al­ist Elisha Walker. As­ton Martin was gain­ing real trac­tion in the States by the late ’50s and Walker had al­ready bought a MKIII to be raced by the very com­pe­tent Ge­orge Con­stan­tine. Walker hit it off with Rex and a plan was hatched for 1958.

‘Elisha Walker agreed to spon­sor the run­ning of a DBR2,’ ex­plains Rex, ‘so one of the two DBR2S was shipped over there and Reg Par­nell ar­ranged for me to go and look af­ter Walker’s As­tons. I lived on Walker’s es­tate ini­tially, then Joyce came over and we got our own place. I was still paid by As­ton Martin, but Walker paid As­ton Martin to run the car.’

Elisha Walker’s team with Rex flew the flag for As­ton Martin on the US tracks in 1958 and 1959. Walker looked af­ter Rex well and the team was very suc­cess­ful, with many ma­jor wins, which fur­ther boosted As­ton’s rep­u­ta­tion in Amer­ica. Rex was awarded the­new York­times tro­phy for Me­chanic of the Year – the first time a non-indycar me­chanic had won it.

They were happy times, but Walker re­tired from racing at the end of 1959 and Rex, want­ing to con­tinue to work in the US, found a place in Bob Gross­man’s Fer­rari team, where he en­joyed more suc­cess in the early ’60s. And then came the call from John Wyer, ask­ing him to be­come As­ton Martin’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Northamer­ica.

‘To start with I worked out of JS In­skip, the New York im­porter and distrib­u­tor. I found that cus­tomers were quite sur­prised that I could not only talk about the cars but also knew how they worked. This was un­usual in Amer­ica and cus­tomers re­ally liked it! Any­way, I sug­gested to Steve Heg­gie, then gen­eral man­ager at New­port Pag­nell, that As­ton should have their own distribution and im­port busi­ness.’

Mean­while, back in Eng­land, Lord King, a friend of David Brown, had of­fered Brown a unit in King of Prus­sia, Penn­syl­va­nia, on very favourable terms. Rex was duly ap­pointed to run As­ton’s first wholly owned US im­porter/ distrib­u­tor and would thence­forth be known as the King of Prus­sia!

In many ways th­ese were golden days, with strong sales of the DB5 and DB6, doubt­less boosted by the James Bond ef­fect. The DBS, an­nounced in 1967, was also pop­u­lar in the US, as was its V8-en­gined brother when that ar­rived in 1969. But in­creas­ingly tough emis­sions re­quire­ments were be­com­ing a headache. ‘We man­aged to sell the DBS V8s, but we got around the new emis­sion rules by sell­ing the cars as pre­vi­ous-year mod­els,’ says Rex. The loop­hole would soon be closed and the early 1970s would prove to be chal­leng­ing times for As­ton Martin, both in the US and at home.

Brown, by then Sir David, sold As­ton Martin in 1972, by which time the V8 was fac­ing a ban in the States. ‘A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of As­ton’s new own­ers flew over to ex­press con­cerns about the fu­ture in the US,’ con­tin­ues Rex, ‘since the cars could not con­form. I asked them for four weeks and $4000 to fix the prob­lem.’

Rex took a low-com­pres­sion V8 to renowned tuner AK Miller in Cal­i­for­nia. ‘The so­lu­tion was to have a large sin­gle [truck] car­bu­ret­tor that was set in the en­gine “V” and fed by a tur­bocharger. It worked and would pass even the Cal­i­for­nian stan­dards. As­ton Martin agreed with the so­lu­tion and set Harold Beach to the task of pro­duc­ing a pro­duc­tion ver­sion of the set-up. A snag arose when no car­bu­ret­tor could be found that was suit­able for pro­duc­tion use. Harold had a lot of deal­ings with We­ber and as a re­sult they to­gether de­vel­oped a car­bu­ret­tor that did not need a tur­bocharger. That did the trick and the en­gine was able to be ac­cepted in the US.’ Thus the 1973 car­bu­ret­tor V8 was born and the US mar­ket saved.

Two years later, Rex would be an even greater un­sung hero af­ter As­ton Martin went into

‘Cus­tomers were sur­prised. I could not only talk about the cars but I knew how they worked!’

ad­min­is­tra­tion. ‘I knew Ge­orge Min­den, who was the As­ton dealer in Toronto, and Peter Sprague in Con­necti­cut. They were two wealthy As­ton en­thu­si­asts. I sug­gested to Fred Hart­ley, then gen­eral man­ager, that th­ese two to­gether could help save As­ton Martin.

‘The only prob­lem was, time was short and I could not find them! By sheer chance it turned out they were both in Lon­don and on sep­a­rate floors of the Dorch­ester! So Fred Hart­ley drove down to Lon­don, met them both and got their agree­ment to sup­port and save As­ton Martin.’

Sales in the US were still slow, not helped by oil crises and global eco­nomic trou­bles, and Rex went to great lengths to per­suade As­ton Martin to fit wood trim in the V8s to meet US de­mand. ‘As­ton Martin’s line was: we don’t fit wood in our cars and the Amer­i­cans need to ac­cept that. Even­tu­ally they re­lented and the wal­nut in­te­rior trim was to prove pop­u­lar.’

More sig­nif­i­cantly, he lob­bied for a con­vert­ible ver­sion of the V8. Again he met re­sis­tance. ‘It should not have been a sur­prise that Amer­i­cans wanted a con­vert­ible ver­sion of the V8. I asked our Los Angeles dealer, Chic Van­der­griff, to com­mis­sion a de­sign for the Volante. That seemed to per­suade them and they adopted the idea.’ The V8 Volante was born in 1978, again largely thanks to Rex’s per­sis­tence and ini­tia­tive.

Rex re­turned to the UK with his fam­ily in 1978 and spent four years at New­port Pag­nell, work­ing on solv­ing en­gi­neer­ing is­sues, be­fore he fi­nally left in 1982 to set up his epony­mous en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness, today run by son Chris.

Rex owned and raced an ex-se­bring DB4 GT for many years and later bought a V8, which he up­rated to Van­tage spec and also raced with suc­cess. But he had been with­out an As­ton for some 14 years un­til last year, when he bought his cur­rent V8 Van­tage to mark his 90th birthday. ‘Joyce and I came to the view that an As­ton was bet­ter than money in the bank,’ he says. ‘We call it Babe, since it’s the baby As­ton. I open the garage door and say “hi Babe”. We love it.’

There is a charm­ing para­dox to Rex’s story. He is a man of firm opin­ions who never suf­fered fools gladly, yet his hu­mil­ity and mod­esty have also been trade­marks of his suc­cess. If his con­tri­bu­tion to As­ton Martin is fi­nally be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated, it’s not a day too soon.

V

Main im­age Rex Woodgate in 1959, sur­rounded by US race fans and thrilled to be named Me­chanic of the Year. And left: rem­i­nisc­ing at home in Eng­land in 2017

Right and be­low Rex in the cock­pit of Reg Par­nell’s Fer­rari 500 in 1954 with Les­lie Hawthorn. The fol­low­ing year, Rex joined As­ton Martin. Driv­ers he worked with in­cluded Roy Salvadori (be­low with co-driver Stu­art Lewis-evans and Reg Par­nell on the left) and Tony Brooks (op­po­site)

Above In 1958, Rex found him­self work­ing on the As­tons owned by wealthy Amer­i­can in­dus­tri­al­ist Elisha Walker and driven by Ge­orge Con­stan­tine – that’s Walker on the right, Con­stan­tine in the cen­tre, with the Walker fam­ily Bent­ley S1 and DB MKIII

Clock­wise from top left Rex helped solve AM V8 emis­sions headaches in the ’70s; also suc­cess­fully pushed for wood trim, and for a Volante ver­sion. Above: his Me­chanic of the Year tro­phy, still a source of great pride

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