I was sad to hear of the death of Bob Watson yesterday. As one of the UK’s best-known independent Porsche mechanics, Bob Watson Engineering was for many years based in Middle Aston, which is where I met him and went on to spend quite a bit of time with him.
Born in March 1950, Bob’s Porsche life began in March 1975, when he took a job with Maltin Car Concessionaires in Henley-on-Thames. Owned by Chris Maltin with partners Rod Turner and Charles Holdsworth-Hunt, the business held franchises for Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. I can imagine the twenty-five-year-old Bob rolling up for work at Maltin surrounded by seventies exotica – it must have been fantastic.
Back then, Porsche did all of its training at the factory. Three or four times a year, Bob and his UK colleagues would be sent to Stuttgart for one week studying engines and doing rebuilds, the next week’s visit would cover transmissions, then a week on brakes and suspension and so on. The training continued up to 1982, so it was no surprise to find that Bob was very hot on standard Porsche models from ’75-’82 including the Carrera 3.0, 911 Turbo 3.0/3.3 and, of course, the 3-litre 911 SC. He built some amaing cars, including Steve’s 3.5-litre 930 (below). But I’m jumping ahead of things here.
In September 1984, Bob decided to call it a day with Maltin and headed off to work for John Greasley at Dage Sport in Aylesbury. Greasley’s now famous Blue Coral-sponsored Porsches were a big deal in motorsport and Bob was well into racing. That brought him up the country and also put him at the back end of 935s, as Greasley was running a pair of them: one left hand-drive genuine car and a right-hand drive replica so the real one wouldn’t get damaged.
Porsche racing was a big deal in the mid 1980s. Though the Porsche Club was smaller than it is nowadays, the club was a big force in racing and the Giroflex-sponsored series drew big crowds and big name drivers. Many of the UK’s leading air-cooled specialists made their names around this time: Bob enjoyed a great rivalry with Neil Bainbridge’s cars in the Porsche Club series and other famous races including the Oulton Four-Hour Endurance.
Racing continued to be very important when Bob struck out under his own name. Photos hanging in Bob’s offices showed racing from all over Britain and of course at Le Mans (Bob also raced until the mid 1990s). From his workshop in Bicester and later Middle Aston, Bob Watson Engineering became a big name in UK Porsche. A quick search for Bob online will show just how many 911s he laid hands on: all sellers were delighted when they found Bob Watson history in an air-cooled car.
Bob took to Motec Engine Management early on and used it very successfully on a number of Porsche builds and others: I once watched him tuning a V12 Jaguar E-Type which he had fitted with Motec. The fastest air-cooled Porsche I can remember being driven in was a naturally aspirated 2.8-litre Motec-equipped 911 ST, which Richard Tuthill took me for a run in sometime during 2010/2011. Even on rock hard dampers and tyres, this was absolutely the quickest car: you simply would not believe a 911 could move that fast uphill. Not until I rode in the 997 GT3 Cup R-GT rally car on a wet tarmac stage was I so impressed again, and that’s not rose tinted glasses. Bob also built the famous hillclimb 911 of Roy Lane: another incredible Porsche.
I can’t remember when I first went to Bob’s, but it was early in my Porsche life, as he was only half an hour from my house. Back then, I had a 911 SC Cabriolet and had started writing for various Porsche magazines. I knew Bob had a dyno as Tuthills used it quite regularly: Francis would be clicking fuel pumps up and down notch by notch in typical Francis fashion, while Bob would shout above the fans: “for f**ks sake Francis, give it half a turn”, trying to speed up Fran’s progress. No one has ever succeeded in that, but Bob always gave it a good go. I took my SC down there for Bob to have a look and we spent an hour or more chatting, even though he had plenty of other stuff to do.
There was always a bit of craic going on at Bob’s and I don’t remember one conversation with him where I didn’t learn something. He was a font of knowledge so I organised an ImpactBumpers.com group visit to Bob’s one year – the only Porsche specialist we have ever visited as a group if I remember correctly. We spent so much time talking whenever I saw him, it is only now I need a photo of Bob that I realise I don’t have any: I have used a pic of Alan’s S on Bob’s dyno pending better photos (email me a pic).
Many air-cooled 911 owners were delighted to have Bob fettle their cars on the dyno. Including me, as Bob sorted me out with a run just after I got bought my Carrera 3.0 Coupe in 2007 and did a first dyno run elsewhere which suggested it was lean at the top end. He spent an hour with me on the rollers and wouldn’t take a penny for his trouble. He gave me great advice on what to do next – “just drive the nuts off it” – which of course I followed religiously.
Bob’s dyno was the benchmark for PCGB racing and for years he served as Technical Consultant for the 930 Register. Alan Drayson at Canford Classics was a big fan of Bob’s work and would tune all of his new engine builds on the Bob Watson dyno, including the stunningly restored RHD 911S we did a feature on together. When a partnership at the Middle Aston unit eventually went sour, Bob upped sticks and went to work down south with Alan. After that, we lost touch.
In recent times, he had returned to Oxfordshire and was still booking work until he passed away last weekend. Yesterday, I heard he almost came to build engines at Tuthills last year, but they had just taken a new engine guy on at the time. It would have been good to see Bob over there every week.
People who knew Robert Bailey-Watson much better than I did will write great tributes to Bob in the Porsche press and I urge you to read them. Bob had his detractors (don’t we all), but I always found him excellent company and being around someone with so much Porsche knowledge, shared with unstinting generosity, was a genuine pleasure. He only worked on my cars twice, but he made them better both times. RIP Bob: you will be missed.