The collection of historic racing cars amassed by the late Tom Wheatcroft is to be closed to the public from Monday, 5 November. It is hardly unexpected news, but nonetheless rather a sobering thought that this, one of the world’s finest collections of racing cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, will soon disappear.
Wheatcroft fell in love with motor racing as a child in the 1930s, when he visited the recently-opened Donington Park circuit. As an adult at the helm of a highly profitable construction company, Wheatcroft indulged himself by collecting cars and then becoming the backer of rising British talent Roger Williamson, seeing him all the way through from Formula 3 to Formula 1.
After the death of Williamson at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Wheatcroft walked away from such a close involvement with the professional sport and put Williamson’s cars in pride of place in his new museum. Then he set about restoring his beloved Donington Park circuit, which had been used as a depot during World War 2 and subsequently fell into disrepair.
Ever since the venue reopened in 1977, a visit to the Donington Collection has been an essential part of the experience for many people. Thanks to the loan of additional cars by other collectors, and a decent chunk of the McLaren historic car collection, a truly incredible array of machinery has awaited every visitor.
Some of the cars had astonishing stories. There was the ‘1939 Auto Union’ that Wheatcroft brought back from Russia (in fact a Cisitalia 360, the post-war realisation of what the Auto Union engineers were creating for the abandoned 1940 Grand Prix season).
There was also what could well be statistically the most successful chassis in the history of the world championship: Alberto Ascari’s primary Ferrari 500 F2 from the 1952-53 seasons (pictured at the header). As a child, this was a particular favourite and, later, the sight of it being driven with a wildly enthusiastic grin by McLaren principal Ron Dennis in Bahrain will live long in this author’s memory.
After Tom Wheatcroft’s death in 2009, the Collection passed to his son, Kevin. It has been an open secret that his wish has been to reduce the number of racing cars that he has to look after, replacing those that have been sold from the museum with his own collection of prized military vehicles and other militaria.
The closure and, most likely, the dispersal of the Donington Collection is a sad prospect for those who appreciate the extraordinary passion for motor racing that flowed through Tom Wheatcroft’s every fibre. But by goodness it was a remarkable achievement.