“Did you go to Winkleigh this year?” The words were uttered in hushed, almost reverent tones. Actually, I hadn’t been to Winkleigh recently.
Why would I? It’s a small mid-Devon village with a charming 14th century church, 2 pubs, a Post Office, a butcher’s shop, a wet fish shop, a general stores, a vets and a doctors’ surgery. None of these, although vital to the life of the village, would draw me to Winkleigh. Then there’s the old WWII airfield, once the home of RAF Winkleigh, which used to host Beaufighter and Mosquito night fighters. Now we’re getting warmer.
In a corner of the airfield – quite a large corner actually – is a hangar, sundry outbuildings and hardstandings. Since the early 1960s this has been the home of Colin Shears’ vehicle collection, a safe haven for countless classic cars, commercial vehicles, buses and coaches. The location soon became famous as the West of England Transport Collection (WETC) and over the years ever since, hundreds of enthusiasts have made the trek to Winkleigh for the annual Open Day. Many of the vehicles on display would have ended up as baked bean tins, were it not for Colin’s determination to save them and many historically important vehicles still with us in 2015 owe their survival to Colin Shears.
Sadly, Colin passed away about a week ago after a spell in hospital. He died at the grand old age of 81 and will be sorely missed in the classic vehicle world. Fortunately for us, Colin’s son Daniel has inherited the collection and is continuing in the tradition his father started. In his hands, the collection is safe and indeed continues to grow. Recently the collection at Winkleigh, under Dan’s direction, has developed a military flavour!
A visit to Winkleigh is a unique experience. Not only will you see sparkling examples of buses, coaches and commercial vehicles with important westcountry connections, you will also see some in a desperate state. Some will have languished at the end of the restoration queue for many years, some will have been acquired as a source of spares and have been heavily cannibalised. Despite this, Colin’s legacy is a lifetime of activity with road transport which has bequeathed the preservation world with some priceless examples of our transport heritage. It comes as no surprise that the Greenway House Leyland PS1 that I drove last year and the Sightseeing Tours Leyland PD2 that I currently drive have both spent time at Winkleigh!
With great foresight as it turns out, the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) published Colin’s autobiography last year. Long time friend and WHOTT Chairman Robert Crawley penned the words and the 40-page book takes an affectionate look at Colin’s life. His fascination with all things mechanical comes through clearly and it seems that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the many lorries and buses that used to be a familiar part of his life. He is reputed to have been able to accurately indentify any vehicle as it climbed one of Exeter’s many hills long before it came into view, just by the sounds it was making!
As a child Colin formed a particular attachment to Exeter Corporation’s very musical 1938 Leyland TS8 single deck buses and used to kneel on the rear-facing seat behind the driver to watch him at work. Ring any bells? One of this batch later became the first full-sized bus that Colin bought (the first bus of any sort was an Austin toastrack bus). In those days the Corporation would not sell directly to private individuals and so, on the day the bus was withdrawn, he took possession of EFJ666 in a nearby backstreet thanks to the efforts of an ‘intermediary’! As you can see from the photo at the top of this post (which appears with the kind permission of WHOTT), the bus remains an important part of the collection and indeed played a significant part in Colin’s 80th birthday celebrations last year, when the photo was taken.
My Dad knew of Colin long before I did and met him once at a Winkleigh open day. He always spoke very highly of him and, although I never met Colin myself, I owe him a great debt of gratitude as an enthusiast and heritage driver, and am honoured to be acquainted with his son Daniel.
Colin’s autobiography, aptly named ‘Sounds Mechanical’, is on sale from the WHOTT Bookshop.