The Earl Of Pembroke Explains Why Wilton Classic & Supercar Is 2017’s Freshest Event
Photography by Ted Gushue
Seven or so years ago, right after Will Pembroke took over the role of maintaining his family’s ancestral home, he started having his mates around for a low-key cars and coffee. Nothing too fancy, just a couple of supercars on a lawn, a burger truck parked next to them–and the house that once patronized William Shakespeare and hosted Madonna’s birthday party in the background.
Typically when you run into people that carry the responsibility of a family name spanning 18 generations, you’d expect them to be on the stuffy side. Not Will. After discovering his family’s automotive history, he dove headfirst into the hobby with the passion that we all share. Now with the help of the team that launched the Goodwood Festival of Speed as well as the Revival, he’s hoping to turn Wilton Classic & Supercar into a world class automotive storytelling festival.
He opened his garage to Petrolicious just this week, and it’s truly setting the stage for a special event that we’ll be attending in early June.
Ted Gushue: So Will, you discovered your family’s automotive history after you began your own automotive history, is that correct?
Will Pembroke: Yeah, very much so. I’d heard family rumors about my grandfather. He used to drive big, old sports cars back in the 1920s and 30s. I never really thought much of it until my grandmother passed away, and I was leafing through some of the old family photo albums. Tucked away in those were 15-20 photos of my great-grandfather in these incredible Edwardian-looking monstrous, great machines. Totally fell in love.
TG: What was the actual car?
WP: It was a 1908 GP Mercedes-Benz with a colossal 13.5-liter, four cylinder engine, with each cylinder about the size of a dustbin. The power of that thing, the torque was immense for the time, for something that was on wooden-spoke wheels and wasn’t geared to hit 100 miles an hour. It was a sensational machine.
TG: He received it as a gift for his 21st birthday, which would have been like receiving a Veyron for your 21st birthday at the time, no?
WP: It’s a pretty good birthday present–actually his brother had one as well. After the war they would take it down to Brooklands to see who could go the fastest, and ended up setting numerous records. I was talking to the historians at Brooklands and found four or five records that they set.
TG: By the time you discovered this, had you had in your mind the idea for an event here at Wilton House?
WP: Yes, I had. My event started out just as a supercars on the grass kind of thing with a hamburger truck parked alongside. As I grew up, my tastes changed and my understanding for what a classic car was and what it represented changed. I soon realized that it wasn’t about how much horsepower you’ve got or who’s got the shiniest car. The thing I loved about my cars–and it was something that was kicked off by researching my great-grandfather’s car–was finding out the history of these cars; who owned them and who pioneered them, and what lead to the design and development of that car.
TG: When you decided to have the event here, so many events rely on the history of the location. Goodwood, for instance, has the road and racing circuit. They have the hill climb that they’ve incorporated, and so on. Did you feel like all of a sudden you had more license to have a real event here because of your family’s history?
WP: Obviously the family history of Wilton and all the stories that spin off give us a great foundation for being a storytelling event, but really finding my family’s history with motors explained a lot of why I was fascinated with cars. Discovering that I did have pedigree through my maternal side of the family was a great thing in terms of a foundation for the event.
TG: What was the first car that sent you down the classic automotive rabbit hole?
WP: I think it was the last new car I drove, which was my Bugatti Veyron. From my first car to that, pretty much every car I had bought was twice as fast as the previous one, because that was all I was focused on. Going faster and faster and faster and faster until I got the Veyron, and then I realized that I was almost having less fun the more power I had, because you couldn’t safely use it.
My first classic after that was my Datsun 240Z. I’d seen it on a show and thought, “I have to drive this.” I’d always liked classic cars, but never really understood them. Suddenly then I was blasting this 240Z down the road, and I had a bigger smile on my face than I ever did in the Veyron because I was redlining at every gear.
I was getting the back out around corners, just tearing it up and thought, “I haven’t gone above 60 miles an hour, and I’ve been having an incredible time.” Whereas to have the same sort of fun in a Bugatti, you have to be doing 150 miles an hour to get that smile on your face, or for the car to even start working properly. As soon as I discovered you could have more fun in an old 1970s Datsun than in a thousand-horsepower Veyron, something very suddenly clicked. And then every subsequent car after that was getting 10 years older, 10 years older, 10 years older.
TG: You have some pretty serious kit in the garage, a Ferrari 288GTO for instance–a car that few are even lucky enough to drive. What else stands out in your collection?
WP: The GTO is a phenomenally great car and one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. It’s so well-rounded and doesn’t have all the appendages that, say, the F40 has, which is more flamboyant. A little bit more discrete, but sensationally fun. There’s obviously the 300SL Mercedes, the Gullwing that I just love.
TG: Talk about that because we spent a bit of time with that today.
WP: It’s an incredibly special car, not a car I bought for just the driving experience. It has a lovely history–one owner who owned it from about 1958 up until about 2008 who just loved it with all his heart. All of his attention was on this car; it’s never been restored, never been retrimmed, and had been enjoyed by his family for his entire life.
To find a car like that which hasn’t changed hands numerous times, still has 61,000 original miles, and has been cherished all its life was very unique. Yes, the driving experience wasn’t the best classic car I’ve ever driven, but my love for these old cars is about the ownership and the story and who’s owned them. That was part of the reason that I saw this car and fell in love with it.
TG: What about your R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R?
WP: I’ve always loved Japanese sports cars. I think a lot of them either get overlooked or perhaps people think they’re overrated. There’s even a certain snobbishness towards Japanese sports cars especially around here, but I’ve always loved them. The second car I ever had was a Honda S2000, which is a brilliant, brilliant thing to own. It was the Playstation generation’s car, and Gran Turismo was the racing simulator. Out of all the Japanese cars, the R34 was the pinnacle car to get in the game, because you could tune it up to 1000 horsepower and make it completely un-drivable, as people did in real life.
I just loved that car for its rarity, for its practicality, for the tunability of it. It’s a great looking thing, and I’m hugely passionate about them. They’ve got so much character. I absolutely adore it. It’s one of these cars that I would never, ever sell.
TG: What’s the story with Derek Bell’s Porsche 956? How’d that end up here?
WP: I’m just the temporary caretaker of for the time being, though I wish I could say it was mine. It’s the car that set the lap record at the Nürburgring. Simply incredible race car. Remarkably analog, which makes non-race team ownership strangely practical.
TG: What’s the story with the Willy’s?
WP: Well technically my Hotchkiss, which is one of my favorite cars I own.
TG: You were talking about the difference between a Willy’s and a Hotchkiss, and Hotchkiss being more drivable.
WP: Exactly. The Willy’s was obviously the wartime American military personnel vehicle. After the war, they sold the design and engineering drawings to a company called Hotchkiss, which I think is a European company, who then continued building them after the war and sold them to I think the French army, the Belgian army and so on. During the war, they made them as quickly and as cheaply as possible because they had to just churn them out and most of them were destroyed anyway.
After the war, they built them with slightly thicker-gauged steel. They upgraded the electrics. They put a bigger battery in, a double battery in it to give it 24 volts. Everything was just built to a slightly higher standard after war because they were expected to last more than a couple of months, and didn’t need to be flown out anywhere so they could be made a little bit heavier. They were made for 15, 20 years after the war. I think mine’s a mid-60s one.
For the family like mine–I’ve got four young kids and a wife–we’ve got this for picnics in the summer, and in the autumn we go out driving in the middle of the bushes to get the best blackberries. You just drive right through the middle of the bushes. All the kids stand on top of it and get the highest, best blackberries. In October, November, we climb on to pick the highest apples off the apple tree. In a couple year’s time, my kids can learn to drive on it.
It’s a brilliant thing. Again, it didn’t cost much, but it’s probably more enjoyable than any of my other cars.
TG: So talk to me about the upcoming event. You brought on Richard Sutton, who was part of the team that launched the Goodwood Festival Of Speed, no? He described what you’re going for here to be something of a Hay Literary Festival for cars. Is that accurate?
WP: Yeah, it’s something driven by passion for story. The nice thing is it’s not a big corporate event driven by just looking after investors or sponsors or whatever. This is my project, my baby, and it’s always gone the direction that’s interested me. My interest now is very much about the stories behind cars– why they exist, who created them, who rebuilt them and the adventures they’d been on.
TG: Not necessarily 100-point cars, but cars that have a tremendous story to tell.
WP: No, exactly. There are fantastic cars out there that might not have the right body, the right engine or right something, and because of that it won’t get entry to almost any event. But the story behind it could be absolutely phenomenal. There is great value to these cars. You might have a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle that’s worth 2,000 pounds, but it might have been bought by a father and son who then drove it to the north pole and back, who then did aid runs to Syria. Then it got forgotten in a barn. Then they rebuilt it.
You could have a fantastic story behind a car that’s virtually worthless, but have that sitting on the lawn next to a 10 million pound Ferrari that’s raced the Targa Florio. At the event people get to vote for their favorite cars, so the Beetle might win over the Ferrari. And I love the fact that it’s really back to the reason they love their cars.
It’s not because the value is necessarily higher or lower, or how well-restored it’s been. It’s because of who’s owned it. People say that they’re caretakers for these cars for their lives, and they get treated as such. It’s just going to be a fantastic platform to be able to promote that element.
Other shows do the other elements beautifully. Fantastic events where you get to blast your cars around a track or up a hill exist and thrive, but there’s none that I know of that really look in-depth into the stories and people behind them, and the culture and the music that made these cars special. Perhaps other events touch on these, but for us it’s our main focus. We’re trying to start our own little revolution in a corner of Wiltshire, and we’ve got a fantastic team who can help create it. I think it should be something fresh and exciting.
TG: How many over the weekend should people expect?
WP: We don’t want to pack people in. We still want that nice garden party feel so that if you want to bring a picnic, you can. You can set it up on the lawn around the cars. We might be looking at 20,000 people over the two days. Considering some of the other big events might be into six figures for attendance, it should be a pretty relaxed family event. With the house in the backdrop, even if you’re not that fascinating by cars, the house is open so you can look at the world class art collection or the sculpture collection. There’s going to be all sorts of elements that you can delve into depending on your tastes. We’re looking forward to seeing you there!