Leo Villa

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Leo Villa
Born Leopoldo Alfonso Villa
(1899-11-30)30 November 1899
London
Died 31 January 1979(1979-01-31) (aged 79)
Cause of death
Lung cancer
Occupation Racing mechanic
Employer Sir Malcolm Campbell, later Donald Campbell.
Spouse(s) Joan (m. 1924, d. 1978)

Leo Villa (November 30, 1899 – January 18, 1979) was the long-serving mechanic of Sir Malcolm Campbell and Donald Campbell. He was born in London, of Italian and Scottish parents.[1]

Birth and early career[edit]

Leo Villa OBE was born in London to an Italian father and a Scottish mother amongst his early jobs was one working as a page boy at Romano’s restaurant on the Strand in London, a job he was fired from for throwing ink over the hall porter. A gifted artist Villa drew many pictures of an automotive nature and through his uncle he found employment as a riding mechanic with the Italian racing driver Giulio Foresti who held the British franchise for the Italia automobile. Between 1915 and 1922 Villa and Foresti were lucky to escape serious injury after a number of serious incidents when motor racing, however during preparations for the French Grand Prix at Strasbourg in which Foresti was to drive a French Ballot Villa’s luck ran out when he was seriously burnt when a generator exploded. After a period of convalescence in England Villa found himself on the shelf after Foresti had taken on another mechanic in Villa’s absence.[2]

Record breaking[edit]

Not so long after Villa had an offer that would set the path of his career for the rest of his life. The then Captain Malcolm Campbell owned the franchise for Ballot in England and raced one of its models at Brooklands and was considering buying a new model for a Grand Prix campaign so Foresti and Villa were despatched with the car that French star Jules Goux had driven in the Grand Prix Villa had missed. Campbell was so impressed with Villa’s manner and ability he offered him a job and though he was very much so Campbell’s employee Villa was be a key part in Malcolm Campbell’s 9 land and 4 water world speed record attempts. Not long after by then Sir Malcolm’s death on New Year's Eve 1948 Villa was approached by Sir Malcolm’s son Donald Campbell with a proposition, the junior Campbell had heard that the Americans were planning an attempt on his fathers world water speed record and the fiercely patriotic Campbell wanted to push it out of their reach before they even got started. The older and wiser Villa wasn’t against such an idea he did however advise that record breaking wasn’t as easy as Campbell thought it was and once Campbell got started he would be addicted for life. The headstrong young Campbell wasn’t to be dissuaded and so Villa found himself again playing chief mechanic to a Campbell’s many record attempts. However this time round far from being just an employee Villa’s relationship with the young Campbell was on a much more even keel having watched Campbell grow up and having covered for him on numerous occasions so as he didn’t suffer the wrath of Sir Malcolm he was held in great affection by Donald who regularly referred to him as Unc. After a somewhat rocky start to record breaking with Sir Malcolm’s old boat Blue Bird K4 and a considerable investment by Campbell and others they managed to get their first world water speed record as a team on Ullswater in 1955 with a jet engined hydroplane called Bluebird K7. Campbell proved to be as adept at record breaking as his father and he went on to set no fewer than 7 world water speed record and 1 world land speed record with Villa being instrumental in every one. It was a successful partnership that was only broken upon Campbell’s death in 1967 whilst attempting his 8th world water speed record.[2]

Leo Villa and Donald Campbell conducting early engine tests for K7 (c.1954)

Later life and death[edit]

After Campbell’s death Villa spent his time at home in Reigate in Surrey with his wife Joan where he took up gardening. He received an OBE in June 1976 for services to land and water speed records, Villa was also granted The Freedom of the City of London and he went on to write 3 books about his record breaking career 2 of them written with Kevin Desmond. Villa died in January 1979 from lung cancer 8 months after the death of his wife Joan.[3]

Publications[edit]

  • Leo Villa (1969). The Record Breakers, Sir Malcolm & Donald Campbell, Land and Water-speed kings of the 20th Century. Hamlyn. 
  • Leo Villa and Kevin Desmond (1976). The World Water Speed Record. 
  • Leo Villa and Kevin Desmond (1979). Life with the Speed King. London: Marshall Harris & Baldwin. ISBN 0-906116-06-6. 
  • David de Lara, Kevin Desmond and Leo Villa (2007). Leo Villa's 3D album of the Bluebirds. London: Transport Bookman Publications. ISBN 0-85184-071-X.  Period 3D photographs taken by Leo Villa on a Stereo Realist camera given to him by Donald Campbell.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Villa, Life with the Speed King
  2. ^ a b Donald Campbell: The Man Behind The Mask, David Tremayne, Bantam Press, London, 2004.
  3. ^ Leo Villa's Bluebird Photo Album David de Lara ISBN 97808518407110.