The man with three classic race transporters (and more to come)

Douglas Samuel wanted a way to take part in the Goodwood Revival – and ended up restoring three vehicles, including the first-ever bespoke Williams F1 transporter

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‘I went to the first Goodwood Revival with my brother David, and thought, “this looks fun but the cars are going to be expensive”. I thought a race transporter would be cheaper.’

Now Douglas Samuel owns three transporters, with plans for more. His genuine ex-Williams Formula 1 transporter is only recently back from the team’s HQ, where it gained the approval of Frank Williams himself, and has also been shown at Bicester Heritage's Flywheel event.

‘I think it would have been cheaper to have bought a car for Goodwood,’ muses Douglas, with a wry smile.

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1973 Williams F1 transporter

Let’s start with the Ford-based Williams transporter, because it’s by far the most imposing of his collection. It was first used by Williams F1 for the 1973 season, when the team’s only regular driver was Howard Ganley.

We’re jumping ahead here, but when the famously unemotional (in public at least) Frank Williams was reunited with the truck a few months ago, he grinned widely, and became surprisingly excited.

But let’s start at the beginning, or at least the beginning of Doug’s time with the Williams transporter. He was at his mother’s house in Devon, chatting to his stepfather, a traction-engine expert.

In one of his stepfather’s steam magazines was an advert for a Ford car transporter. ‘It didn’t look like a transporter to me,’ says Douglas, ‘but I rang and asked for a few more pictures.’ That’s when the Williams connection came up, and so Douglas called the Williams HQ and managed to speak with Jonathan, son of Frank and head of the Williams heritage operation.

‘I gave him the registration number and I heard him walk down the corridor to check with his dad. And Frank said “Yes, that was our first transporter”.’ I managed to buy it for the price of a clapped-out Transit van.’

It was rough, though. In the best clichéd fashion, it had been home to a hippy living in a Welsh forest, and the sleeping quarters had been painted black while the living quarters were more psychedelic in style. Old MFI units had been used to create a rough kitchen, and double-glazed window units created a partition. Trees had rubbed against the truck, damaging the panels.

However, the original ramps were still intact, as were the chequerplate floor, the lockers and the rear doors. Unfortunately, dragging the transporter out of the forest further damaged the panels on overhanging trees, and the previous owner was suitably vague about its mechanical specification.

‘He said it had five gears,’ says Doug, ‘four forward and one reverse. Anyway, we drove it home, and as we were driving I thought “the gearlever seems a bit far away, shall I give it another go?” And it went into fifth. Then I thought “Well that’s fifth, I wonder if there’s another?” And it went into sixth.

The owner had also referred to mysterious switches in the cab. They turned out to be for a Telma retarder, an electromagnetic braking device that takes the strain off the conventional brakes.

So that was a bonus, but trying to work out the vehicle’s original specification wasn’t so easy. Every now and again Douglas would find a picture of it (such as the one above), but usually just showing a small section of the transporter. He placed an appeal in Octane magazine, and a year later received a response from a reader in New Zealand who had worked for the second owner of the transporter, after Frank Williams.

Douglas also wrote to former Williams driver Howard Ganley, via the BRDC, and a year later Ganley came back with a few snippets, too, most importantly confirming the colours as red and green – this makes sense, as for 1973 Williams cars were red, green and white. Douglas therefore made the decision to restore the transporter to 1973 British Grand Prix specification, sparing it the advertising graphics that it gained later during its time with Williams.

A local coach company was commissioned for the restoration, and it soon started stripping down the transporter – but it then abandoned the project, leaving the vehicle outside for several months. Eventually Douglas got chatting about the transporter to a customer at his company, Sterling Bolt and Nut.

‘Can you do this?’ he asked. ‘Yes, standing on our heads,’ was the reply – and so the job went to Global V-Tech in Peterborough, where the damaged body panels were remade and the clear roof panels replaced. Meanwhile, another of Douglas’s customers sorted out the mechanicals, using parts from another coach that Douglas had bought. ‘What they both did would have taken me a month of Sundays,’ he admits.

The transporter was sprayed in the huge paintbooth of a local crane company, and rebuilt with more expansive living quarters than it would originally have had. There’s now room for two cars rather than the three that it would have taken in the Williams days, but there’s a shower, toilet, kitchen and living area, which it previously wouldn’t have had.

Douglas took the finished transporter back to Williams F1, to show it to Frank Williams. ‘As he came round the corner, you saw him spring into life,’ says Douglas. ‘He asked, “How fast does it go?”, and I said “Didn’t you ever drive it?” He said, “No, I was too scared!”’

Gradually more Williams staff came out to join them, and Frank pointed out that the entire team used to travel in the transporter – now it typically takes 21 trucks to attend each grand prix.

Douglas isn’t scared of the transporter, and says it’s one of the nicest of his vehicles to drive – although other cars jump into the gap he’s left for braking. But then he’s grown up with trucks, having worked on the construction of Millbrook Proving Ground after leaving college. There, he often drove lorries, gravel trucks and Land Rovers amongst other vehicles. And the Williams wasn’t his first race transporter…

BMC transporter

So let’s step back a bit further, to Douglas’s decision that a race transporter might be a more affordable way to become a part of Goodwood Revival.

‘At the time I was a director of the MG Car Club,’ he recalls, ‘and we were building up to the 50th anniversary of the MGA at Le Mans. Going through the material for that, pictures of the transporter used for Le Mans kept coming up.

‘The original had ended up as a chicken coop in Ireland, so I found a chassis and cab from an EMC/Austin-Morris commercial tipper truck, and a Gold Seal engine, and I bought those. Then David [Douglas’s younger brother] died, and everything was put on the backburner for a while.’

When Douglas got back onto the project (‘I had to keep going,’ he says), he cut the chassis in half and lengthened it, calculating dimensions from eye and from four period pictures of the original transporter. The tipper truck was a 1957 model, while the BMC transporter was a 1955 model, so the front was cut off and remodelled in ’55 style.

Not only that, but the roof and rear of the cab had to be cut off as well, to be worked into the recreated transporter body. A caravan breaker provided side windows, and a late find by former BMC Competitions Department manager Peter Browning of rare colour pictures of the transporter in 1955 revealed that the rosettes on the side were gold and blue, and not white as originally thought.

Douglas also tracked down Jim Cox, the BMC works mechanic who had driven the original back from Le Mans, and Den Green, who had driven it through the Alps.

‘It was the original gutless wonder at first,’ says Douglas. ‘Den still remembers that drive through the Alps – no power steering, no servo and a crash gearbox!’

For this reason, Douglas eventually upgraded the mechanicals, using a five-speed gearbox and more powerful Bedford engine than the original would have had, along with power steering and brake servo – though for a while he stuck with the original specification.

Once the recreated transporter was complete, Jim Cox gave it his seal of approval, exclaiming: ‘You’re not going to get it much closer than that!’

The deadline for completion had been the 50th anniversary MGA celebrations at La Sarthe, with Douglas planning on driving the transporter all the way to the circuit. But the night before he was due to leave, the power steering failed, and there was no way to repair it in time. The seals on the hydraulic ram had gone, and that was that. Douglas was devastated.

He’s since been able to drive it to Le Mans several times, as well as to Spa and Dundrod for the 50th anniversary of the MGAs racing at the 1955 RAC Tourist Trophy. In 2005 he took it to the Goodwood Revival and has been back every year since, delivering works MGAs and bagging pride of place in the paddock alongside the famous Ecurie Ecosse transporter – at least until their regular parking spot was taken by the display area for the kids’ pedal car Settrington Cup race.

BL Special Tuning support vehicle

And there’s a third one… While the Williams restoration ground to a halt at the first coach company commissioned, one of the Farina-style BL transporters (ie with rear fins to match the Pininfarina-designed BMC saloons of the time) came up for sale, and Douglas just had to have it.

These distinctive transporters started out as mobile classrooms, 26 of them built to be shipped around the world to provide a training base for the more remote BMC dealerships to learn about such subjects as hydrolastic suspension. The first six built did without the rear fins – but the rest gained the fins, and are all the better for them.

Later, a few of them were converted into transporters and mobile workshops for the works teams – a long-wheelbase version was used to transport two works Minis. The red-and-white BMC Comps Department transporter is in a Midlands scrapyard, having been burnt out in an arson attack, though there are two red-and-white replicas in existence. The other training vehicles were dark blue for BL Works, light blue for Special Tuning and all-white for Unipart.

Doug’s vehicle had been converted to a mobile workshop, but ended up as a motorhome in Canada. It was brought back to the UK by a Norfolk-based dealer, and repainted from its then all-white to more evocative red and white before being sold through Cheffins auctions. It went to a consortium of historic racers but was left unfinished – and then eventually bought by Douglas.

Douglas went looking for evidence of which colour his new acquisition would have been originally. He found the original Marshalls of Cambridge coachbuilding contract number on the inside of the bodywork but, although the company still exists, the records had long since been lost.

However, under some of the trim Douglas found evidence of light blue paint, which matched with anecdotal evidence of the vehicle’s history, so he decided to restore it in the livery of works manager Basil Wales’ Special Tuning division. Basil and BMC historian Bill Price helped to determine the correct livery.

‘Then I realised that some of the trim was missing,’ says Doug, ‘so I tracked down the last-but-one owner in Norfolk, who said “Oh yes, I’ve still got the trim in my garden shed”. When he found out what I did for a living we did a deal, and I swapped the trim for umpteen nuts and bolts.’

Most of the classrooms/transporters were left-hand drive. Douglas says driving his is ‘an acquired taste’. It has a central accelerator pedal, simply because that was the only way it could be made to fit, and a non-synchromesh ‘crash’ gearbox.

Indeed, Douglas is thinking of selling it – although not because of the way it drives, but because he’s got his eye on two more race transporters for restoration, and needs to sell one of the existing vehicles to fund the new projects. He wasn’t wrong when he said that opting for transporters instead of a car for Goodwood Revival turned out to be the more expensive option…

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