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Tom Walkinshaw dead at 64

Gone but not forgotten: Tom Walkinshaw with a race-spec version of the first HSV Commodore, the VL SS Group A.

HSV founder and motor racing strong man Tom Walkinshaw claimed by cancer

HSV logo13 Dec 2010

BRITISH motor racing and car industry identity Tom Walkinshaw died overnight in Britain after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. He was 64.

He is believed to have died at home in Oxfordshire, with his second wife Martine and their two sons, Ryan and Sean, by his side.

The former race driver who carved a career as a no-nonsense team owner and performance car entrepreneur is best known in Australia for establishing Australia’s biggest and most successful special vehicle maker, Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), in the wake of Holden’s break-up with Peter Brock and his HDT in 1987.

Scottish-born Walkinshaw also had a long association with Australian touring car racing, starting with his assault on the Bathurst 1000 with his Jaguar XJ-S Group A cars in the mid-1980s – personally sticking one of the ‘big cats’ on pole at Mount Panorama in 1985 – and culminating in his ownership of Holden’s flag-bearing V8 Supercar outfit, the Holden Racing Team (HRT).

 center imageAfter retiring from driving in 1988 to concentrate on managing his special vehicles businesses and racing teams, he guided Jaguar to an historic Le Mans victory in 1990 and dabbled in formula one through the decade, helping a young up and coming German driver called Michael Schumacher to his first world title at Benetton before buying the ill-fated Arrows team and hiring former world champion Damon Hill.

Along the way, he found time to indulge his passion for rugby as chairman and owner of the Gloucester rugby club.

His take-no-prisoners style and adventurous spirit sometimes led him into trouble, with F1 debts dragging him into bankruptcy in 2002.

Among the arms of his business to fall into receivership was his Australian racing operation, including HRT and K-Mart Racing, which Holden bought from the receivers in the UK before on-selling them to five-time touring car champion Mark Skaife and John and Margaret Kelly – parents of Todd and Rick Kelly.

In typical Walkinshaw style, the pugnacious Scot fought his way back to the top, resuming control of HRT from Skaife and establishing a new secondary team, Bundaberg Red Racing, while also supplying other race teams with cars and engines through his Walkinshaw Racing business at Clayton in Victoria.

As well, he acquired historic niche sports car-maker Elfin Cars in 2006, through his Walkinshaw Performance operation that also sells go-fast bits for Holden Commodores, including supercharger kits.

His battle back to financial health, however, was no sooner won than he was faced with an even bigger fight against cancer over the past year.

Although Mr Walkinshaw kept his troubles private, it was known within his circle of contacts in Australia that all was not well during the course of 2010.

He rallied at times after treatment, even flying to Australia in July to visit HSV and his racing operations.

Mr Walkinshaw’s death is unlikely to fundamentally change the HSV deal with Holden in the immediate future, as HSV is owned by Premoso Pty Ltd, whose primary shareholder is believed to be his French-born widow, Martine.

A spokesman for Holden said that, despite the news of Mr Walkinshaw’s death, it would be business as usual with HSV.

HSV chairman Jeff Browne – a former lawyer and now boss of the Nine Network – and managing director Phil Harding have been guiding the Australian business during Mr Walkinshaw’s troubles.

Mr Browne said: “Tom was an amazing character, a dedicated family man and a shrewd businessman. His dynamic vision for HSV lives on in all of us who were touched by his brilliance, ambition and seemingly endless energy.

“Tom expressed to me during his illness the need to ensure processes that kept his legacy intact and I am proud that we have successfully achieved that, from board level to the factory floor.

“I will miss a great friend and colleague, but I am determined that his life’s work will live on in HSV.”

Mr Harding added: “Tom was a tremendous inspiration to me and the whole team at HSV and, while we will all miss him, the HSV business continues as normal.

“While these events are moments to reflect and grieve, it is important to remember that it is the continuation and success of the business that will serve as the best way of honouring Tom’s memory, and we know this was his desire and the desire of his family.”

John Crennan, the founding managing director of HSV and the man who helped build it from scratch in 1987, told GoAuto that Mr Walkinshaw was a pioneer of the niche special vehicle business through his Jaguar and Mazda operations.

“It was just part of his overall brilliance in being a visionary for the industry,” he said.

Mr Crennan, who was a Holden sales and marketing executive at the time of the collapse of the relationship with Brock, said everyone at Holden had been concerned at the demise of HDT and its affect on the Holden brand.

“Tom came along and took it to even greater levels of performance and character, and continued that asset for Holden very well,” he said.

“Tom was a guy with quite remarkable business courage. I have never struck anybody who was prepared to invest so heavily in the potential of projects.

“Many businessmen will only invest and gear up when a deal has been done, but he would have great vision on business opportunities and would present to clients solutions perhaps before they have even thought of them.”

He said Mr Walkinshaw first came to Holden’s attention when the Scot contacted Holden Motorsport manager Ray Borrett about buying a Holden Commodore to race at the Spa 24 Hour race in the 1980s.

When the relationship with Brock soured, Mr Walkinshaw approached Holden about taking up the factory-backed special vehicles venture.

Holden was won over by Mr Walkinshaw’s previous special vehicles success in the UK with Jaguar.

GM Holden chairman and managing director Mike Devereux said Mr Walkinshaw had helped to forge the Holden brand’s reputation as a performance leader both on and off the track.

“From the original 1988 Group A Commodore that will forever be known as a ‘Walkinshaw’ to the extraordinary W427 20 years later, Tom’s work was truly iconic,” he said.

“His contribution not only to Holden, but the automotive industry is legendary and will never be forgotten.”

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