PROFILE: REX WOODGATE
One of the real characters of the Aston story. We meet the ‘King of Prussia’
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.
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