Not forgotten – Vic Willoughby | Columns | Gassit Garage
From footy player to acclaimed author, and a bike racer in between
Scan a baby-boomer bike nut’s book shelf and you’ll likely see the name Vic Willoughby. His works included Classic Motorcycles, The Racing Motorcycle, Winning Racing Engines, Exotic Motorcycles – A Tester’s Privilege, Classic Motorcycle Engines – A New Perspective and Motorcycle Chassis Design – Theory and Practice.
Willoughby was technical editor of leading weekly magazine The Motor Cycle from the 1950s through to his retirement at the end of the 1970s. AND His articles were often accompanied by wonderful diagrams drawn by fellow staffer Laurie Watts.
One of his plum jobs was testing Isle of Man TT-winning bikes on sections of the Mountain Course. With the long IoM summer daylight, this often occurred the same day as the race.
Moto Guzzi’s Giulio Carcano was one of Willoughby’s engineering heroes. Walter Kaaden of MZ two-stroke fame was another.
Willoughby was a race reporter as well and huge fan of Bob McIntyre, the first rider to lap the IoM at 100mph. He told this scribe Bob Mac’s attitude to the TT was ‘I didn’t come here to f**k around’ and that John Surtees’ father Jack would try to tell journos how to write their stories.
He attended the 1980 Easter Bathurst meeting, where he told the crowd at the post-race function that motorcycle racing wouldn’t have produced the characters it did unless it was dangerous. (Two riders had died at the during the meeting, Ian Dick and Rob Moorhouse.)
Victor Harold Willoughby was born in London in 1914 and initially worked as an office manager. He said it hurt him that as a “strapping lad, playing association football, I had to learn to type…”
He began racing before World War II, riding a Velocette KTT 350 at Brooklands, where he lapped at 100mph. It was a trek just to reach the circuit. The diminutive Willoughby would push his machine to the nearest station, take a couple of trains to Weybridge in Surrey, and then hoof it again to the venue.
One of Vic’s favourite stories was of a man he met one day at Brooklands.
“This guy was fascinated as I worked on the KTT,” Willoughby said. “He was much older than me, but he looked envious of my enjoyment. He’d had money in his younger days, but he had wasted it on wine, women and song. He said to me: “Do it now; because you’ll never be able to turn the clock back to do something you really wanted to do.”
In 1948, Willoughby joined the famed Continental Circus, after a fellow racer told him European organisers paid starting money. He raced in Europe for three seasons.
Vic marvelled at the enthusiasm shown by the organisers of the more distant races, recounting how he lived on French bread and tea for days while he and Bill Petch drove a ex-Canadian Army van from Belgium down through France to Barcelona, for the annual race at Montjuic Parc in 1949.
“We’d buy a bread stick in the morning and start eating from opposite ends as we drove! When we reached Barcelona at 2.30am, someone from the organising club was there to meet us and put us up in a four-star hotel,” he said.
Willoughby talked of the camaraderie of riders, including Australia’s Harry Hinton Snr, loaning bikes to their mates to ensure they could collect their starting money and the great times in general.
“If you won you had a slap-up meal; if you had a bad run and went broke you hitch-hiked home.”
Vic explained how at the end of the season, bike clubs from across England would send representatives to the channel ports to ask returning riders to talk about the European scene at their meetings. That grounding led to Willoughby writing stories for The Motor Cycle using the pseudonym Lone Wolf, eventually earning a staff job under famed editor Harry Louis – whose key piece of advice to his new hiring was “marshal your thoughts”.
Willoughby died at his home on the northern fringe of London on 16 November, 2000. The same week another tech icon, former Cycle magazine editor Gordon Jennings, author of the Two-Stroke Tuner’s Handbook, died in the United States.
By Don Cox