IN THESE TIMES OF A TWEETED PRESS SHOT AND A HASHTAG, IT SEEMS QUAINT TO REFLECT ON A MOTORING WRITER WHO REALLY WAS PASSIONATE ABOUT CARS AND MOTORSPORT, WHO RACED AND RALLIED COMPETITIVELY AT NATIONAL LEVEL, WHOSE INDUSTRY ACUMEN MIGHT HAVE STEERED A CAR COMPANY – AND WHOSE WRITING WAS SIMPLY AMONG THE BEST IN ANY GENRE.
Bill Tuckey was the package, the business.
For all his hard-won knowledge and skill, Tuckey was a fearless innovator. He revolutionised motoring journalism, not least through the pages of our beloved Wheels, by introducing out-there irreverence and entertainment to the previously Pommy-proper arena of motoring reviews.
A new generation of readers revelled in it; contemporaries worked hard to emulate it. And some of those took Tuckey’s disruptive influence international, infusing motoring journalism with his colourful, entertaining style.
He was deserving of comparison, on many levels, with Barry Humphries. Tuckey was writing gonzo at least five years before Hunter S Thompson.
I have memories of Bill from my childhood, when he raced with and against my father, Max. But I mainly remember being a fellow race-brat with his children Stuart and Elizabeth, playing in the mud at Bathurst, Amaroo and Oran Park.
Bill long pre-dated me at Wheels, but I had the pleasure of seeing him fairly regularly at Bathurst and on car launches, most particularly during the 1980s-90s. I’m unembarrassed to admit that I was always in awe of Bill's having the whole suite of talents: the writing, the humour, the driving ability, the eager ear of the industry.
Bill encouraged and, on occasion, upbraided me.
I know that I grew as the result of both.
On rare occasion I saw through the Derryn Hinch-like ego of armour. A small group of us were on a five-day event driving Jaguar XK8s through Europe. We were at Lake Como, Italy when news arrived that Bill’s elderly mother was gravely ill in Melbourne. I suddenly saw in this unflappable force of nature such emotion and caring as I’d never imagined existed in him as he scrambled to arrange the first available flight home.
More recently, in 2013, I was writing the feature story in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Wheels’ Car of the Year award – a Tuckey innovation. Two figures, of course, loom large in Wheels’ history: Tuckey and Robbo.
I had wanted, more than anything, for Bill to contribute some words. But he had suffered the first of his debilitating strokes in 2010. Son Stuart described how Bill, while observant and sharp-witted as ever, struggled to communicate.
Words had been the respiration for Bill’s incredibly fertile mind; the frustration would sometimes reduce him to tears.
The day after Bill died, I was at a birthday celebration for veteran motorsport journo and promoter Phil Christensen, attended by a who’s-who of automotive scribblers, snappers, commentators, PRs and publishers.
Naturally, Bill was very much in our hearts and words.
I heard stories I’ve heard before – like the French Hell Drivers, the sandwich shop venture, the pioneering motoring TV show – and others I’d never heard, like a bizarre plan to emigrate to New Guinea, and the maybenot- so-French Hell Drivers who worked more cheaply than the actual French ones….
Stories that were captivating, hilarious, passionate, scandalous, moving, unforgettable.
The kind that only Bill Tuckey could write.
The day after Bill’s death, motor racing commentator and prince of automotive PR John Smailes noted that, on that very day exactly 49 years earlier, he (Smailes), Bill, the late Mike Kable and my dad, Max Stahl, were racing identical Fiat 124s at Warwick Farm. They fi nished in the order Tuckey-Stahl-Smailes (as pictured above). It was a prelude to that year’s Bathurst 500, where Tuckey/Stahl fi nished 20th outright and eighth in class, behind a Mini Cooper S lock-out.