Reports of the sad death of Tom Walkinshaw, aged just 64, are already eliciting tall trackside tales about his racing successes, his many battles with motorsport’s rule-makers, his Jaguar Le Mans victories and his vital involvement in the early career of Michael Schumacher. However, there’s another important tranche of his work that deserves attention: the road car design and engineering business he established under the TWR banner in a rambling former telecoms centre on an Oxfordshire hillside at Leafield.
In its ‘90s heyday TWR's Leafield business had everything: a fully-equipped design studio (with several star occupants, the most prominent of whom was Jaguar-Aston Martin designer Ian Callum), a full set of virtual reality viewing tools, impressive engineering facilities for creating both car structures and powertrains, and workshops capable of putting it all into three dimensions.
With personnel for the F1 and Volvo racing teams thrown in, the workforce totalled well over 1000 people and for three or four years it even looked as if Leafield could become a kind of British Pininfarina, where high design and modern vehicle engineering could combine with low-volume manufacture, until the crippling troubles of the Arrows F1 team took too much management time and money away. Group Walkinshaw’s road car achievements together and they look mighty impressive. Leafield developed the mid-engined Renault Clio. It created the Aston Martin DB7, a model that literally saved the company.
Walkinshaw’s people designed and engineered Volvo’s C70 coupe and convertible, and set up the revolutionary (if not entirely successful) Swedish factory that made it.
TWR engineers were pioneers in combining composites, adhesives and extruded aluminium components to make the Aston Martin Vanquish, arguably the first Aston of the modern era. Walkinshaw’s designers also did lots of below-the-radar work for companies like Ford (the Puma coupe was one little publicised product) and Tom even allowed them to co-operate with us at Autocar in the creation of a full-sized three-seater concept car, the 3PV, as if were a real car manufacturer. Today, Ian Callum describes Walkinshaw as “probably the best boss I ever had, who had the knack of getting 110 per cent out of people by inspiring them. He was good at spotting talent, and great at allowing it to flourish. I owe Tom lots; in a sense he made my career.”
Engineer Peter Guest, now head of body and trim at Bentley, has similar memories. “I worked for Tom for 14 years,” he says, “and to us he was a great leader and a great man. Under a veneer of toughness he was a really compassionate and caring guy.”
I interviewed Walkinshaw at least dozen times over the years, and the pattern of our meetings was always the same: at first he’d stubbornly bat back your questions with two-word answers, especially if they were a bit intrusive.
Advisors kept telling Walkinshaw he needed to deal with the press, but you could see he didn’t always agree. He was always a bit of a “never complain, never explain” type.
Yet after a while he would start to enjoy a decent conversation and — dare I say it — even indulge in a bit of gossip. Eventually you would get what you needed, provided he had time to give it.
But I can remember being summarily turned out of Walkinshaw’s office when his PA came in with a note saying “B.E on phone.” (I read it upside down). Our talk ended for the day and Tom didn’t even dignify my departure with a glance.
Yet underneath it all, I knew Tom Walkinshaw as a great bloke. He never told me a lie, and he always followed through with the many agreements we made over the years concerning stories and embargo dates and who said what to whom.
I loved his toughness and his feisty sense of humour, to the extent that when the unhappy news arrived I’d been planning to call him and propose a visit. I will always regret not being quicker to lift the phone.