W. Jay Milligan grew up in South Buffalo, the adopted son of a Buffalo milkman and a New York telephone operator. Milligan discovered the allure of automobiles as a lanky high school student in Hamburg when he drove his mother’s two-door 1934 Chevrolet Master to school. When he was 19, he participated in his first demolition derby.
He was 31 in 1963 when he produced the first demolition derby for the Erie County Fair. And in 1974, Milligan figured prominently in the making of a stunt car scene in James Bond’s “The Man With the Golden Gun.”
Today, Milligan is 84 and his JM Productions brings demolition derbies to 60 state and county fairs throughout the Northeast. Drive by his sprawling shop on Southwestern Boulevard in Hamburg, the one marked by a display of checkered flags. Chances are you’ll see his current set of wheels, a 2015 Ford Expedition. Next Sunday, Milligan will produce two demolition derbies at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. for the Erie County Fair. The father of three grown children, Milligan lives in Lake View.
People Talk: What kind of a kid were you?
W. Jay Milligan: I wasn’t a very good student. I was always working on lawn mowers or the neighborhood’s farm tractors. The principal always said that I could get an award for the most miles on my books – in the backseat of my car.
PT: What is it about cars?
WJM: It’s the No. 1 business in the world, a fascination with history back to the 1890s in the United States. I’m a hobbyist and I want to share the experience of the automobile with the world.
PT: What do people find appealing about demolition derbies?
WJM: If you have ever been sitting at a traffic light and the light turns green and the guy behind you lays on the horn, what would you like to do? Some people may want to take a hammer to the car. That’s what demolition derby is for. When a driver enters a car in the derby, 10 of his best friends come to see him win. Five enemies also come to see him get his butt kicked.
PT: What does it take to win a demolition derby?
WJM: The winner will be the driver with the wherewithal to be cautious and not to have his car hit in the front end, and yet always have a competitor as a target. So he’s got to be cagey and smart with some mechanical skills under the hood. For example, he would cover his distributor cap with Saran Wrap, so if water from the radiator got on it, it wouldn’t stop the engine.
PT: There’s nothing like an old-fashioned thrill show.
WJM: They started in the 1940s. It was kind of an accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where a driver by the name of Earl Teter came up with the hell-driver concept. “Lucky Teter” went to the Hamburg fair and jumped a bus lengthwise with a car back in the ’30s. I was there on my father’s shoulder. Lucky Teter was killed in Indianapolis the day before he was drafted doing that same jump.
PT: Where did the thrill show lead to?
WJM: My car stunt went into a James Bond movie after I was asked to jump a car over water in Bangkok, Thailand. I said, “Of course.” We got together with Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory and built a car for the movie. The movie came out in 1974. I was elated. When does an adopted kid from West Chester, Pa., ever have the opportunity of being a stunt director and driver of a James Bond car?
PT: How fast have you gone in a car?
WJM: I drove a pace car 100 mph for the Indianapolis 500 the day before the race. I was working with “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” at the time, and a cameraman wanted to get the correct angle for his straightaway shots. I did the same thing at Daytona.
PT: Who taught you how to stage a demolition derby?
WJM: In 1951, I drove a car in Civic Stadium (War Memorial Stadium) in what they called a Wreck ’em Race. There were just 10 cars and we tipped each other over. And then I was drafted in the Army, where I was a vehicle test engineer. Then I was invited to be a part of Lancaster Speedway. I was one of the original stockholders and builders.
PT: Anything else?
WJM: People have accused me of being strict, difficult, exacting. And I would say to you that my life is in direct proportion to my commitment to excellence. My car out there gets washed every other day. It’s not the most expensive but it suits me.
PT: What’s your favorite all-time car?
WJM: My 1910 Stanley Steamer car only because it’s different. It runs on steam, and it’s still a 50 mph car. How do you think they launch all the airplanes off aircraft carriers? Don’t underestimate the power of steam.