ORIGIN & HISTORY OF THE CLUB ~ written by John Morgan
Soon after the war, the late Desmond Scannell, then Secretary of the British Racing Drivers’ Club and I (the then Secretary of the Junior
Car Club) were both concerned with getting our respective Clubs going and, of course, with re-starting motor racing.
We also felt that it would be a good thing if we could provide a West End social meeting place for the motor sporting fraternity in general. The difficulty in those days was to obtain a quota of spirits and wines but we had a friend - the late James Murray - who was a Director of John Egan & Son Ltd., wholesale wine and spirit merchants in the City. He was able to help, and with supplies assured, we began the search for premises. We looked at all sorts of places without success, but inspiration eventually took us to Peter Hampton (a motor sporting enthusiast) of Hampton’s the well-known Estate Agents.
We emerged with “orders to View” two flats in Brick Street. The lower, street-level flat was the one that had the better potential as
a Club, in our view; but we later discovered it to be “under offer”. However, once again we were able to call upon a motor sporting friend - Cecil (“Sam”) Clutton of Clutton’s the Crown Land Agents. The property came within his firm’s jurisdiction, and to cut a very long story short, we secured the flat and permission to convert it into a Club. Rather nervously we signed a lease for 17 years, and opened our doors in the latter part of November 1946. (By the way, the upper flat became the well-known ‘Baron’ Photographic studios).
The Club Bar (we still have the counter) was designed by Anthony Heal, and it was built and presented to us by the late Leslie Johnson. We bought utility chairs and tables (all you could get in those days) and wall seats were constructed from Anderson shelter sleeping bunks. Curtain pelmets were fashioned from some old Brooklands pit name boards which I had; the work being carried out by our first porter who was also a carpenter-handyman. As time went on we built up the decor with club badges, steering wheels from World-championship cars and other items of interest.
For the first part of our life, only the bar was operating; but with the assistance of an impressive list of witnesses - including the late Lord Howe, “Goldie” Gardner, John Cobb and George Eyston - we were able to convince the authorities that there were insufficient eating establishments in the area, and we obtained a Permit - which you then had to have - to start a restaurant. We knocked a hole in the lounge wall, adjoining another room, and created one of the smallest but most popular balcony restaurants in the West End.
The Club was launched with gusto and we enrolled members at great speed. Slowly, but surely the “Steering Wheel” (short for ‘United Motor Sports Club’) became the “in” place for anyone connected with motor sport. Pretty well all the drivers of note, and personalities in the Trade and Press have been, or still are, members. The Club is nowadays well-known throughout Europe and the Western world - wherever motor-racing takes place.
Early in 1956 Des. Scannell gave up his motor racing interests in favour of an important post with Borg-warner, and I took over sole
responsibility for the Club.
Cosy though the Brick Street premises were, we were compelled with the expiration of our lease, to seek a new home. Luckily we were
able to settle near at hand in Curzon Street, where we have been since September 1963.
Our present premises are, of course, well situated; much more spacious, and are of some historic interest. They were built in 1786 and for 125 years (until 1911) were well known as the “Sun Tavern”. The building was first converted to Club use after the last war - in 1945, and the interior retains much of its 18th century charm.
A measure of any success we have had must be credited to our staff. Des. Scannell ran the Club for the first years. Then we brought in
the late Mrs. Gwen Howard who did an extremely good job as Manageress. Peggy Sandberg appeared on the scene in 1956 and built up considerable popularity during her seven years. Cyril Watkinson was with us for an efficient, if brief, spell and now we have as our Manager Ernest Vent who has been with the Club 25 years. Frank Vent at the bar has been an institution for 29 years and the Head Chef’s spell of service exceeds 18 years. Others of our small staff are rapidly becoming veterans.
For more than 30 years, John Egan & Sons - headed by Brendan Murray - have attended to all our demands, large and small, with cheerful promptness.
The Steering Wheel Club has played its own part in motor sport history. It is amusing to recall that the early post war activities of the
B.R.D.C. - Secretarial and race organisation - were conducted from a tiny office based in the Club’s wine store in Brick Street. I, myself, as General Secretary of the B.A.R.C. agreed arrangements for many an entry for many a race meeting in the friendly atmosphere of the Club’s lounge-bar.
When Manageress of “The Wheel”, Peggy Sandberg (now Mrs. Rowe) was one of the instigators and founders of the popular and
active Womens Motor Racing Associates (“Dog House”) Club. In modern times, several television programmes have been based at the Club, by both B.B.C. and I.T.V.
The address of the old Brick Lane premises was 2A, Brick Lane, and the telephone number, HYD2692. In the 1970's, prior to John's retirement, a disco was held on Saturday nights and the Club opened to non-members. The disco was run by a David Upsher & Chris Bradbury who worked for BMW (Park Lane). These Saturday night disco's were very popular and attracted an entirely different crowd from those who freqented the Club during the working week. John sold the Club in 1979 to a consortium which included a David Capstick and Keith Pratt. Keith's association with David came about through their advertising company formed in the mid 1960's, David also being the co-owner of one of Keith's racing cars. David asked Keith to to run the bar and the entertainment side, while David ran the business side of things, ie. Club Membership, etc. It transpired that Keith had a disagreement with David with regards to plans for modernisation of the premises, - Keith felt that the mere mention of modernising it would destroy the atmosphere; the two eventually argued and Keith 'walked out' in 1983 or thereabouts. The Club finally went into liquidation in 1988 and David Capstick is known to have died in 2011 or '12 having suffered a stroke.
H. J. Morgan (John)
Frank Vent, (Barman)