By: John Norris
John Norris reports from his visit to the History on Wheels Museum
If you have seen any of the films in the Indiana Jones franchise, The King’s Speech or Saving Private Ryan then the chances are you will have seen vehicles provided by the services of Tony Oliver who has historic transport for all occasions. If you missed any of those productions you may have still seen other vehicles from the same collection in scenes of the comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo’ set in wartime France, the drama ‘Wish me Luck’ which is also set in WWII France or perhaps any of the many other dramas requiring vintage period vehicles for authentic scenes. In fact, Tony Oliver’s vehicles have appeared in many productions, and he also serves in the capacity of advisor - a role he took on in the famous 1969 film ‘Battle of Britain’.
Rare, unusual and prize winning vehicles
Tony is a ‘third generation collector’ of militaria, an activity which has kept him busy for 60 years and for the past 30 years part of his vehicle collection has formed the basis of his History of Wheels Museum located at Longclose House, Common Road, Eton Wick, near Windsor, Berkshire SL4 6QY. His vehicles are in pristine condition and a number of them, such as his Germany Army Krupp ‘Protze’ L2H 143 Truck which was awarded first prize at the War & Peace Show back in 2004, are very rare. The museum is a vehicle owner’s delight containing as it does many unusual items such as the tracked Renault UE Ammunition Supply vehicle built for the French army in the 1930s. Only around 6,500 of these were built and after the fall of France in June 1940 the German army pressed them into service or converted them to other roles which meant that many were later destroyed in other campaigns. The example in the museum is in fine condition and it is hard to believe two men operated such a small vehicle. By contrast the M5 Stuart Light Tank on display would be quite familiar to enthusiasts, but then one spots another unusual vehicle in the collection in the shape of an amphibious GPA, looking like a miniature version of the better-known DUKW, and is actually an amphibious version of the Jeep with fewer than 13,000 built.
It’s not all about armoured vehicles in the collection which contains trailers, motorcycles and commercial cars including a Humber ‘Snipe’ which was used as a staff car and has the 51st Highland Division distinctive badge HD in blue and red. There is a range of impressive Mercedes Benz cars which at one time were used by various German officers and officials, such as the Type 170VK which was in service with the Luftwaffe during the war. The Protze truck on display is believed to be one of only a handful still in running condition. These were built between 1935 and 1945 and used to tow artillery or transport supplies and troops. They served wherever the German army was deployed but after 1943 they were downgraded and relegated to secondary roles. There are other German vehicles on display such as the Opel Blitz truck in a line-up which more resembles a showroom for vintage vehicles than a museum. Each vehicle is extremely valuable in its own right and they are all polished and kept immaculately clean and given regular maintenance. All have interesting histories attached to them but a classic Cadillac which Tony supplied for the filming of the musical ‘Evita’ had a surprise even for him. It transpired that the car had at one time belonged to General Douglas MacArthur, he of ‘I shall return’ fame. Even a NAAFI wagon from which tea and biscuits were served to the troops makes an interesting display and a number of pre-war designs such as Crossley trucks show how vehicles had to develop very quickly for the military.
There are many other artefacts in his exhibition including display cases virtually bursting with weapons and uniforms of the belligerent nations during WW II, including Japanese.
The Home Front exhibition has an example of the more usual ‘Anderson’ air raid shelter which people built in their gardens. This example can be entered and has been fitted out with bunk beds. Visitors are invited to close the door to get the real feel of what conditions were like. Babies were sometimes born in these; look for the newspaper clipping with the story.
There is also an original of the more unusual indoor-type ‘Morrison’ shelter shaped like a table built in iron. Further round the collection a French army motorcycle stands opposite a very interesting display of entertainment for the forces during WW II such as the United Services Organisations (USO). There are also artefacts from the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA which some said stood for ‘Every Night Something Awful) which put on shows for the British troops. One of the vehicles used by the USO, very smart in the colours of the organisation, looks as though it is ready to put on a show. Stars of the day like Bob Hope, the Andrews’ Sisters, Vera Lynn and many more toured with these organisations to entertain the troops and it is good to see this being remembered.
Every exhibit tells a story
This is the archetypal eclectic collection of personal and general items and for that, and many other reasons, it is a truly fascinating display to visit. There is a story behind almost every artefact on display. For example, the small projector room is fitted out with seats that came from the Forum Cinema in Jersey in the Channel Islands. During the German Occupation the propaganda film ‘Sieg Im Westen’ (Victory in the West) was screened at this cinema. I explained to Tony how my late mother told me that she remembered how during the occupation civilians and soldiers had to sit in separate seats in the cinema. He smiled and then pointed to a framed order which had those very instructions printed in official form. It is items like this and the stories behind them, such as the cinema seats which really sets this museum apart from the larger, more commercial museums. For example, the bicycles dotted around the display remind us that the military used millions of these as transportation for the troops. Visitors like to linger over items and sometimes re-enactors visit the collection in uniform. When this happens it is like an extension of the display.
Tony currently has around 100 vehicles which he can supply to film production units. The film vehicle fleet is split with about one third classic historical vehicles for period productions and the remainder are for use in more modern productions. Tony will accept owners wishing to register their vehicles with him for the chance of using their vehicles in films or documentaries. His son Mark Oliver is in charge of that side of things and he can be contacted via the Website (www.historyonwheels.co.uk) or telephone either 01753 862637 or 833833. On application to register a few simple questions will be asked such as type of vehicle, age and condition. A few photographs are required to see the vehicle and that is it, job done. However, as Tony pointed out, do not expect work to come in straight away. He said the first job could come in within days or it could take months. On being approached by a production company Tony or Mark look through their database and then work out all the details and the price for vehicle hire. They will contact the owner and make the necessary arrangements. It is a question of being patient and sounds like a good way to try and make some money for fuel to travel to events or pay for maintenance and spare parts.
The History on Wheels Museum is open for visits every last Sunday of each month, but on some Bank Holiday weekends the openings are extended. To avoid disappointment it is best to check the Website for details and confirm by telephone. The actual display may not be huge but it contains a lot of very interesting and unusual items and in order to see everything properly it is best to allow at least two hours for a visit. If you decide to stay longer there are refreshments available provided in the style of the NAAFI and there are items on sale including reference books and hand-painted models.
I extend my thanks to Tony Oliver for allowing access to his collection and taking time to show me round and explaining many things to me.
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