Bill Tuckey 1936-2016

Bill Tuckey, Wheels editor (1963-68) and father of Car of the Year, died on May 7, 2016 aged 80. Here, Peter Robinson and many others pay tribute to the wordsmith whose creativity, eloquence and soaring wit entertained readers and inspired generations.

Peter Robinson

ONLY the change in editor’s name on the contents page of the October 1963 issue announced the arrival of Bill Tuckey to Wheels. No flourish of ambition by the new boss, no bold claims to dramatic change, just the shift from Ian Fraser to Bill Tuckey in 9pt. We didn’t know it, but Tuckey’s arrival heralded an era of transformation.

Bill was head-hunted from his position as motoring writer on the Brisbane Courier Mail. “It came as a surprise,” he later wrote, “particularly as my first road test for the Courier Mail described the Mini 850’s acceleration as emitting a ‘brisk chirp from the rear wheels’.”

When Bill took over Wheels, he said all he had was an “insistence on quality writing”. As he explained in the 50th anniversary issue in May 2003: “K.G.

Murray ran their magazines on the smell of a rag that had been wafted over an oil can 20 years before. Wheels had a staff of almost two – me and Chris Beck, who produced most of the sibling Sports Car World magazine.”

Tight budgets didn’t stop Tuckey. Within months he’d introduced Australia’s Car of the Year, now the longest continuous COTY title in the world. He invented multi-car comparison tests, Tuckey happily ranking the cars one to four, much to the consternation of the carmakers, who were more accustomed to glowing reviews.

“I had a gut feeling readers wanted real, independent buying guidance, focusing on grass-roots factors,” Bill explained.

In 1967 he brought colour to the magazine and redesigned the masthead.

Bill also created Romsey Quints in an attempt to disguise the tiny staff numbers.

The much-loved Quints was Tuckey’s satirical alter-ego, free to invent terms (“every crook and nanny” and “the shivering quits”) in otherwise standard copy. Romsey’s Sports Car World column, Of Cars and Men, spoke directly to enthusiasts and developed a huge cult following.

Most of all, though, Tuckey will be remembered for the quality of his writing and his peerless ability as a storyteller.

Entertaining, a sense of humour, effortless, he put readers behind the wheel and in so doing influenced a generation of motoring writers who attempted (with varying success) to adopt his creative style.

The fearless Tuckey brought credibility to Wheels and to motoring journalism, as well as establishing himself as the best of his breed – anywhere in the world. It helped that he could drive and was an insightful road-tester.

Bill believed there was no reason why a car magazine shouldn’t aim for the highest standards of journalism.

After four and a half years at the helm, the always restless Tuckey left to go freelance, but after a variety of disparate, short-term careers returned to Murrays as managing editor (1974-78), overseeing, among many magazines, Wheels, to which he contributed a monthly column. By this time I was in the editor’s chair and occasionally we’d disagree, but he was seldom wrong and he never pulled rank.

We spent time together on stories, most famously our attempt to drive a Jaguar XJS to the wedding in Brisbane of his brother Noel (aka George Ambrose, author of the great Dirty Wheels column).

Late in the journey the Jag dropped its cooling fluid and we came home in a Saab.

The subsequent Quints story Long Day’s Journey into Johtown (as featured in the April 2015 issue; you can find it under Classic Wheels on the magazine’s website) remains a classic.

I remember once abusing Bill because his Wheels column was late. At the time his office was one floor above ours. As I finished blustering, he slipped a piece of paper into his typewriter and started tapping. Twenty minutes later, he delivered the column – all of 1250 words, exactly to length, requiring no editing whatsoever and beautifully written. The bloke was a genius, a natural writer.

He wrote books – including The Rise and Fall of Peter Brock, a history of Ford Australia and a series of Bathurst yearbooks – worked in talk-back radio, wrote for Wheels’ opposition, edited Car Australia, was with Business Review Weekly from the beginning as its motor industry correspondent, was motoring editor of The Age and even worked for Holden’s advertising agency.

For all his success elsewhere, however, William Philip Tuckey will be best remembered for his inspired leadership and writing at Wheels. It was Tuckey who made this magazine great.

Tuckey tributes

Tributes from readers, colleagues and the industry have flooded in since Bill’s death.

We’ve published some here, and many more on our website, h f ave

Mike Simcoe GM global design chief

When I was still green, Bill was already one of the ‘Old Guard’…. I wasn’t smart enough to see behind the legend or understand his depth of knowledge and experience. All I saw was the myth, largely created by his own stories.

A warm, engaging companion, never dismissive of a less-experienced passenger.

We live in very different times. I fear the business is no longer big enough to contain a character like Bill.

Pedr Davis Author and motoring writer

Bill’s passing has touched so many people, not just his family, relatives and friends but also the countess readers who knew him only through the written words.

Bill had a magic touch.

I once remarked that his columns seemed so effortless. “Yes,” he replied, flexing his hands like a piano player.

“The words just flow out of my fingers.” They did, too, much to the envy of us all.

Trevor Worthington Vice-president product development, Ford Asia Pacific and Africa

Bill’s influence on the Australian auto industry can’t be overstated. His demand that all car companies, particularly those developing vehicles locally, become better really drove and inspired a whole generation of engineers.

The processes and checks and balances that he brought to the industry through the Wheels’ Car of the Year testing process was second-to-none. Winning that award for the

BA Falcon and Territory inspired those of us responsible to keep pushing ourselves to deliver the best vehicles we could.

On a personal note, am I the only person in Australia who didn’t realise that Bill was also Romsey Quints?!

Paul Gover Motoring writer, News Ltd

Bill Tuckey is the person who inspired me to become a motoring writer. His words in Sports Car World, especially when he was writing as Romsey Quints, captivated me.

Many years later, I learned from the master, travelled with him, and shared many days and nights of silly stories.

Bill was a towering presence. A fearless inquisitor. A brilliant writer. There are so many stories, but one thing shines through: He was my inspiration.

Bill Thomas Hyundai Australia PR manager, Wheels editor 2010-12

I didn’t know Romsey Quints was Tuckey.

How could I have? I was 11 years old when I first discovered The Great Magazine and immediately became devoted to every word Quints wrote. He was my biggest single inspiration, no question.

I tried to work out how he built his humour. Of course, I couldn’t – nobody other than Jeremy Clarkson could ever touch Tuckey for sheer writing brilliance – but Quints’ unrelenting hilarity and brilliant observation drove me forward into my career. Had I known he was also Tuckey I’d have been even more impressed.

There was a particular Quints column about a trip he had in a small car with a cat. Remember it? He was reluctant about the idea of transporting this cat, but he did it anyway, as a favour. In the beginning the cat was safely in a box on the rear parcel shelf, but then it went wild and escaped, ended up at Quints’ feet getting mashed into the pedals and then jumped onto his head and clawed at his face. In the end he flung it into the traffic.

It was probably just another column to Tuckey, bashed out in no time over a glass of red. But boy was it well written. I would laugh and laugh, even at the fifth or 10th or 20th time of reading, and what a gift laughter is. Tuckey gave that gift to millions. He was a genius, a legend, an inspiration, world-class.

Jac Nasser BHP Billiton chairman, former president of Ford Australia

Few make it to the top of their field. Bill made it look so easy, with a unique sense of insight and humour. A true enthusiast and a genuine, good bloke.

David Morley Freelance motoring journalist

A lot of people pointed out Bill’s ego and his unwillingness to suffer fools. But having worked with him for many years, I know the ego was justified. And when Bill was being Bill, he was the first to admit it.

He was a great boss. I won’t say we never had differences of opinion, but it was pretty rare and it was always a professional exchange. Usually followed by a beer or two and maybe a plate of pasta while we plotted the next issue.

What I really liked about Bill was he identified and rewarded loyalty. He was very good to me, giving me more than one break and being generous with his knowledge and creativity.

Steve Cropley Editor-in-chief Autocar (UK), former editor Sports Car World

Bill Tuckey was my first, best and most influential connection with cars and motoring journalism. He’s the reason I didn’t do well at school (too busy reading Romsey Quints under the desk) and the reason I wanted to get into motoring journalism, though as a feckless kid from Broken Hill I didn’t believe his world would ever have a place for me.

Bill’s writing had everything I valued: it was warm, inclusive, authoritative and hilarious. And always stylish. In English lessons, when teachers droned on about great writing, I privately reckoned Bill would finish any writing race 10 lengths ahead of Shakespeare.

I did get into journalism and within a few years I was working for Peter Robinson in Sydney on Wheels and Sports Car World,

the finest upbringing any young hack could have.

When Bill dropped into the office to see Robbo it was like meeting God, or would have been if he hadn’t been such a funny, normal, down-to-earth bloke. Even so, I was pretty much struck dumb. Couldn’t even hold his gaze. When it turned out he’d read one of my stories – and said something nice about it – I took days to recover. But that experience definitely applied the afterburner to my determination to do well at this game.

Fifty years later, I can still quote you phrases from Tuckey stories and RQ columns, and I’ll bet I’m not alone. One phrase I remember is from a Wheels story called Go See Australia, full of advice about seeing our country before leaving it. It was just a casually dropped few words in the last par of the story, where Bill was describing the noise of the wind blowing through power lines. As a kid from the bush I knew this noise intimately, but could never have described it so eloquently. Bill called it “a mad, strange song in the overhead wires”, and as I write those words now, with a lump in the throat, I can hear it all over again.

Tom Floyd Former Australian Hot Rodding Review editor, later business partner

Bill head-hunted me from a small publisher in the mid-1960s, and I was delighted to join him at K.G. Murray Publishing. Bill was then editor of Wheels and became my mentor. He taught well, I listened intently and we became good friends.

We also hooked up with a guy who became a true advertising guru in the automotive world, Ray Berghouse. The three of us eventually formed Chevron Publishing Group. We concentrated on Australian motor racing publications such as the annual Bathurst programme and the 256-page annual book of the 1000, The Great Race, on which we all worked like madmen for 12 weeks each year to get published before Christmas. Bill had a great team for the Bathurst efforts, but the finished products were in essence a tribute to his skill, insights and perseverance.

We published a coffee-table book on the solar car race won by the GM Sunraycer vehicle in November 1987. Again due to Bill’s writing speed and accuracy, we were able to present the finished book to the team’s backers in New York on New Year’s Eve. They couldn’t believe it.

Even in his early days at Wheels, Bill was already earning considerable plaudits for his writing. It’s one thing to have automotive knowledge and be a fan of motor racing and become a journalist.

It’s another to be able to quickly dash off 5000 words, interesting, informative and insightful writing that earns lasting praise from readers.

Mel Nichols Former Wheels deputy editor and Sports Car World editor

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 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 among them.

Via Car, and the work of Aussie Angus MacKenzie at Motor Trend, Bill’s influence also reached the US.

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 can thank informed and fearless automotive

criticism for contributing to the massive improvement in cars over the past 50 years, should raise a glass to Bill.

Bill McKinnon Freelance motoring journalist

When I began writing about cars 30 years ago, Bill Tuckey was already a legend, certainly as far as he was concerned, and among most of his fellow motoring writers as well. I found this out because as a young ingénue I quickly learned that the motoring press corps was made up of two groups: the genuine professionals and the freeloaders.

That’s still the case, although today the latter, sadly, outnumber the former.

Tuckey was fearless, knowledgeable and possessed of a rare talent in being able to share his expertise so effortlessly and imaginatively with his audience. To me and many other young writers, he was also kind and generous with his time and counsel.

Mark Standen Reader, via Facebook

I remember clearly Romsey Quints’ description of rallying, musing that he would worry that the umbrella in the boot would make dents every time he took a corner at speed.

Bob Watson Author, racer, engineer

I was a huge Bill Tuckey fan. The quality of his writing put him apart from his contemporaries and his passion for the auto industry was unmatched.

I was fortunate to work with him several times, once as a judge on the Car of the Year panel, and then as a writer for Car Australia when he was editor. And his wife Marcia drove in the Renault team I managed in the 1970 Ampol Round Australia Trial.

Honest, no bullshit and immensely knowledgeable about cars. He was a good, fun guy, and he will be sadly missed. We will not see his like again.

Iain Rossiter Reader, via Facebook

Devastating. Maverick in every sense. I grew up reading his brilliant articles and no-nonsense dry humour. One of the greats around the world.

Harvey Grennan Former motoring editor, Sydney Morning Herald

For half a century larger-than-life pillar of the motoring (and other) media, truly prolific scribe, industry icon, great companion on launch test drives on every continent. Bill can now swap notes with that other multi-talented great, the late Evan Green.

Jim Barnes Reader, via email

Bill and his alter ego Romsey Quints gave us readers great entertainment over the years. Romsey’s fascinating road tests of anything with wheels, and if I remember correctly “posh nosh” road tests of “posh” cars, were a delight. The motoring world has lost a great.

Bruce Bailey Reader, via Facebook

Started reading Wheels in the mid-1960s and Bill’s articles were among the mustreads.

Tragic that someone like him should suffer such a fate. I just hope he burnt rubber on his way through the pearly gates.