Robert Woodside – The King of Driving Tests
This profile, by Esler Crawford, appeared in MotorWeek 2nd August 1969 with additional photographs from various sources.
The name of Robert Woodside, of Ballynure, is known and respected among motoring enthusiasts all over the British Isles, and further afield in countries such as Holland and Belgium. This has arisen through his performances in the television trophy driving tests which are seen each year by millions of TV viewers. In this event five home countries and sometimes Belgium, Holland and Sweden compete for the Ken Wharton Trophy. The Northern Ireland team has won the trophy seven times out of 10 attempts and on six of these occasions Woodside was a member of the team.
At home he has won every driving test event on the calendar and this year he has achieved his one remaining ambition – to win the Ulster Driving Test Championship. He has also been chosen as captain of the Northern Ireland team in the Inter Association Driving Test meeting at Newbury, Berkshire, to be held on September 28 this year.
Robert Woodside’s motor sport career started at the tender age of 17 when in 1955 he joined the newly-formed Larne Motor Club and with Esler Crawford in the navigator’s seat began competing in the club’s rallies and driving tests.
In those days Robert was very much the novice among such names as the Dowling Brothers, Ronnie Martin of Greenisland and Paddy Hopkirk, and the sights of heads peering out every window of a Mk. Ford Zephyr and shouting instructions to the bewildered driver must have been the source of much amusement to test officials.
The following year a modiﬁed Fordson van, with tuned engine and the rear doors substituted by prespex, replaced the Zephyr and this was followed by an A30 van – but all without much success. Perhaps slightly discourage by this, and also by the fact that his father was seriously ill at this time, Robert disappeared from the scene for a year, but then in 1958 he appeared in what was to be the first of a long line of Volkswagens.
Soon the success started to roll in with this car and in those days when the Belfast papers seemed to give much more coverage to motor sport, the name of Robert Woodside appeared with increasing regularity in the awards list. This was also the first year of the TV Trophy – then run in inter-regional form — and Ulster scored its first win with the team of Paddy Hopkirk, Gordon McNally and Frank Robinson. But by the time 1959 season came along Woodside was strongly tipped as a likely team man.
And so it was – the team was Woodside, Hopkirk and Thompson Glass, and they duly won the event for the second time. At this time the newly announced Austin Healey Sprite was every young man’s dream of heaven and the VW was replaced by a second hand model and the Circuit of Ireland Rally tackled. But a permanently severely retarded ignition kept him out of the running, while near neighbour Adrain Boyd went on to win in a similar car.
The following year he returned to a VW for the Circuit with Terry Harryman in the hot seat, but the gearbox packed up on the second day. However, there was better luck in the TV Trophy and the Ulster team won for the third time in succession with the Ballynure man playing his full part in the success with a VW.
In 1961 he tried a Sprite again in the Circuit and had his best ever performance in the rally by finishing second to the works entered Sunbeam Rapier of Paddy Hopkirk.
This time the Ulster team of Hopkirk, Glass and Woodside could only take seconds place in the TV event behind the Midlands, but Woodside, trying his hand at Mini driving was described by the leading English motorsport paper, “Motoring News”, as “the most outstanding Mini exponent yet seen in British driving tests.”
In 1962 Robert decided to try his hand at racing a Mini Cooper and was second in the saloon championship at Kirkistown. Consequently, driving tests were given ax bit of a miss and Robert dropped out of the TV team — to be replaced by brother Ian. This swop was completely successful and with Hopkirk and Ronnie McCartney, another win was notched up for Ulster.
In 1963 it was again the turn of brother Ian to hit the headlines with an outright win in the Circuit of Ireland but Robert and Derek Boyd helped to win the team prize. That year Ulster sent one of its weakest teams to the TV Trophy being without the Woodsides, or Hopkirk or McCartney, and were soundly beaten.
However, Robert did have a very fine win in the Circuit of Munster and the motoring correspondent of the ‘Limerick Leader’ showed him- self a very good judge of test drivers when he said that Woodside’s “..economy of driving was a joy to watch. He never wastes an inch of space.”:
Sanity returned to the selection of the TV team in 1964 and with a team consisting of the Woodside brothers and Ronnie McCartney, an easy win was secured with Robert back in a Volkswagen. The following year Harold Hagan came on in place of Ian, but the result was still the same — another win.
In 1966 Robert and Ronnie McCartney were still on the team, with Robert as official captain for then first time, but Boyd was replaced by Harold Hagan and the brilliant Stewartstown man helped the team to yet another win;
This was the first year of the Ulster Driving Test Championship for a trophy donated by Paddy Hopkirk. Robert Woodside finished in third place but considering his VW saloon was much less manoeuvrable than the open cars of joint winners Adrian Boyd and Lee Lucas, he had done as well as anyone could reasonably expect. Next year he took second place in the Hopkirk Trophy, this time just one point behind the MG Midget of Hagan, and with Ronnie McCartney this trio again won the TV Trophy.
The 1968 season was an inactive year for Robert Woodside. As manager of the VW agency in Larne and at the same time helping brother Ian to build up a road haulage business, his hands were full.
This year he entered the haulage business full time as a partner in the family ﬁrm enabling him to devote more time to tests in a new car — the now-famous VW-based Beach Buggy.
This, brieﬂy, is the story of a man who has brought untold fame to East Antrim with his exploits in competitive motoring. He is the acknowledged master of test driving and those who witnessed his driving in the Larne M.C. test at Carrick Harbour car park last September will understand the spontaneous applause of the crowd in response to manoeuvres which no other driver could attempt in a similar car.
His list of wins would fill a book and I have been able to mention a very small fraction of them.