Brummies love their cars and the city has a fine tradition in the motor industry. So we couldn’t resist having a chat with Midlands-based TV presenter Quentin Willson, who’s revved up to do battle with the government over fuel
Quentin Willson is that ever-so slightly cheeky chappie who charmed the pants off millions as Top Gear’s frontman, long before Jeremy Clarkson ever donned a pair of Levi’s, or made his first outrageously non-PC joke. “I was called by a guy from the Beeb who sounded like a vicar,” says Willson. “The next thing I knew I was having a screen test and was hired. I stayed at Top Gear for the next 15 years.”
He’s also the owner of the silky smooth voice which has adorned a raft of TV ads. And in recent years, he’s also been the creative force behind Britain’s Worst Driver, a TV phenomenon that’s proved such a hit in dozens of countries, including the US and Canada.
FUEL TO THE FIRE
Perhaps most importantly, Willson has been fighting for fair fuel and car prices, campaigning in the national media and in Westminster itself. “I’m the fly in Osborne’s ointment,” he says as a wide grin appears across those Jack Nicholson-like features. “These politicians don’t stand a chance when I get my teeth into something. They’re scared of bad publicity, especially when there are elections coming up.” ‘Losing’ is a word you won’t find anywhere in Willson’s well-rounded vocabulary. Fifteen years ago he was all that stood between the bulldozers and a beautiful art deco house in Stratford. “Developers wanted to knock it down and build more of those bloody footballers’ style houses,” he says. “I couldn’t let that happen, so I bought the place.” He’s remained in the Midlands, not that there hasn’t been plenty of pressure to move south. “There’s always been lots of pressure to follow everyone else in the business and join the likes of the Surrey set. But this is just the most wonderful and beautiful part of the country. There’s no way I would give that up.”
CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE
Willson’s love of great design extends to motoring. He refused to let one of the rarest Jaguar E-Types ever built die – retrieving it from the scrapheap and restoring it to its former glory. It’s now in his garage alongside an equally beautiful old Daimler Dart sports car, which he drove in last month’s historic car run through the lanes of Warwickshire as part of Coventry’s Festival of Motoring. “The Dart is ultra-reliable, it just goes and goes. The Jaguar is amazing, but it takes a bit more coaxing,” he confides. His love of great British engineering excellence is also mirrored in his vociferous championing of the UK motor industry – especially in this region. But does he really believe we lead the world these days? What about the powerhouse corporations and economies of the Far East, Germany, or America. “The Midlands is a centre of excellence, but we are too retrospective, we look back on a golden era rather than looking forward. We are great right now, and we will get even greater if we just change out mindset a bit. We have amazing centres of excellence and world-leaders, such as Jaguar Land Rover. We need to support them more as a nation and get things moving quickly – otherwise people like the Chinese will pull the rug from right underneath us.”
For Willson, buying and selling cars came to be a way of having lots of different vehicles in a short space of time. “I’ve always loved cars since I was a kid. I didn’t realise at that age, though, just what a narcotic they are and how they define your social status. I’m incredibly fortunate that I happened to live through the age of Jaguar E-Types and D-Types. As a teenager then, you could buy the most amazing cars for just a few hundred quid. I remember seeing a proper Cobra for £500. I bought them, financed them, ran them and then sold them on for a profit – to finance an intensive nightlife style,” he jokes. “I drove around in all sorts of wonderful cars, things like Ferrari Daytonas.” A chance conversation with a leading motoring journalist got Willson into writing and then co-launching Buying Cars magazine, which gave people the nitty gritty facts on used motors – an area not previously covered by the motoring press. National newspapers and TV jumped on the project because it was so unique. “They all wanted to know more because we were causing a real stir among the motor manufacturers,” he says. Soon after he received a call from the BBC’s ‘vicar’.
Willson is determined that owning and driving a car won’t become history for future generations. “Personal mobility is a democratic right,” he says. “But we have to make sure that it’s cheap and economical for everyone – or else our society disintegrates.” He’s equally adamant that driving standards have to improve in the UK. “I’m campaigning for younger drivers to be taught how to drive and roadcraft much earlier that 17,” he says. “That’s way too old – teenagers aren’t listening at that age. We need to get them as early as 12 or 13. The Young Driver training initiative at Coventry shows how it should be done.” With two electric/hybrid cars (a Vauxhall Ampera family hatchback and Citroen C Zero city runabout) sitting on his drive, Quentin is a huge advocate of alternative fuel cars. “It’s the only way, we just have to push down this road,” he says. “It’s nuts that our whole world is based on oil.” Interestingly, when asked for his favourite car of all time, Quentin’s response seems somewhat at odds with the ‘lean, mean, green’ philosophy. “The original McLaren F1 supercar,” he answers without hesitation. “I got it up to 197mph on the test track – and have been constantly ribbed ever since by Clarkson that I didn’t hit 200mph.”