I guess I was always destined to be an engineer. From an early age I found endless pleasure in “Bako” modelling. Bako was a for-runner of “Lego” which used drilled components assembled onto thin steel rods. This gave way to “Meccano”, and the components I still have in my loft today!
Pedal car, tricycle, soap box, bicycle, were all used, abused, repaired and modified, but at the age of 8 or 9 I started to hanker after something with an engine. On a visit to a local cycle shop I had seen a “Cyclemaster” which was essentially a bicycle rear wheel with an enlarged hub containing a 32cc two stroke engine and running gear. Since I had been given an old frame and some other bits and pieces, I believed I could put something together to “scramble” around in our woods, part of the large garden I was fortunate enough to be brought up in.
I mercilessly pestered my long suffering parents until they gave in and bought it for me. It eventually became a feature of family weekends where we and visitors would compete for fastest lap of woods and vegetable garden!
Two wheels were all very well but there was always the tendency to try a bit too hard and come a cropper. What I wanted was something with 4 wheels.
This came in the form of a 1933 Austin 7 which dad thought might be suitable for my sister to learn to drive in but in reality was destined for the breakers yard. He bought it nevertheless for £5 and it sat in the garden for some time whilst its future was contemplated.
For quite some time previously I had become good friends with John Hinkley, whom I had met at the Junior School we both attended (Warren Road) and John’s dad was an engineer. He suggested the car could be altered to become a kind of utility vehicle to help with taking food and bedding to my sister’s horses down the garden. It’s a long story, to be found elsewhere, but culminated with John and I being invited to appear on BBC television’s “All Your Own” program with Huw Wheldon, in 1960. By then, of course, I was at Cray Valley and had met Colin Cadle, and John was at “Chis and Sid”. Never had a placement in a technical school been more appropriate than in my case!
The television “fame” led to an approach from the makers of “Corgi Toys” to write a serialised account of the car’s construction for their club magazine and an invitation to make a presentation to Donald Campbell. This was on the occasion of his departure to Utah for an attempt on the World Land Speed Record with “Bluebird”. John and I gave him a Corgi model of his car to wish him good luck. Sadly the attempt ended with a crash! Campbell survived that one but died later in his boat of the same name of course.
Also in the early 60’s, karting came to these shores from the USA. I was an avid fan of all forms of motorsport (though ‘bikes seemed a bit too dangerous!) and persuaded my dad that a kart would be a good idea. We bought a British chassis with an American engine (of chainsaw origin) and thus began a steep learning curve. They were both pretty rubbish!! By dint of chassis modifications and engine tuning both aided by endless hours in the Cray Valley workshops overseen by ever supportive John Gale, it slowly began to be competitive but extremely fragile. Learning the hard way about 2 stroke tuning, and several blown engines later, I decided that I could design and build a much better chassis which was driven by a far better engine. Sadly I have no photographs of the after school session where it was tested around the tennis courts! Several chassis and engine variations followed over the years including those built during my time at Borough Polytechnic after I had left CVTHS. Eventually the cost of staying competitive and devoting time to studies (and cars and girls!), made it unviable to continue.
I had stayed friends with Colin though, and, recently married and in my first salaried job, didn’t take much persuading to buy his rather ailing Lotus Elan in 1971, even though we could barely afford it. It became our sole transport until our first son was born in 1975. The story of what a good investment that proved to be is told on a separate page.
Read full details of John's Lotus Restoration
That first job was with Tanqueray Gordon & Co Ltd, better known as Gordons Gin with whom I had been working during the industrial parts of my sandwich course at Borough Poly. I was Development Engineer and one of two Graduate Engineers within The Distillers Company, the parent of Gordons. After 3 years of improving bottling line efficiencies at their Clerkenwell premises, I was transferred to sister company Booths Gin in Brentford to oversee the installation and operation of a ground breaking high speed bottling line producing the flagship Tanqueray Gin for export markets. Subsequently my role was expanded to that of Technical Manager for the whole site and its Clerkenwell distillery. We moved from Orpington to Berkshire in 1973 and to our present house in Sonning in 1977.
In 1985 DCL (by then part of Guinness) decided to close the Brentford and Clerkenwell plants and transfer all production to Laindon in Essex. I did not relish this move so I chose to be made redundant and set up a company, with colleagues from Scotland similarly affected, to supply machinery parts to the bottling trade. After another 3 years and, seeing no way to sensibly expand my part of the business, I sold out while it was still profitable.
I took various sales and project jobs with a number of specialist companies in the packaging machinery and conveying arena and managed large projects for complete bottling lines. None of these were as fulfilling as my positions with DCL, which incidentally also had closed the Laindon facility and transferred all production to Scotland!
During this period I remained connected with motor sport being involved with clubman's formula sportscars, one of which featured one of the first turbocharged engines in competition. Another steep learning curve!
I also developed a passion for hedge and woodland conservation, in my spare time, and when it was time to leave bottling and packaging behind, I took to this full time. To augment what is a seasonable business I became a self-employed contractor in other aspects rural land maintenance, with the principal customer being the estate operated by Henley Royal Regatta.
All very different from my chosen profession, but there was always the machinery maintenance aspect and I have always enjoyed the outdoor life, first experienced in my childhood in Kent.
I started a complete restoration of the Lotus in 2010 and retired to finish it in 2013.
John Woodhouse - January 2016