It is perhaps worth reflecting that historic motor racing in the UK – or at least those who pay to enjoy it – lost one of the sport’s unsung heroes when Mervyn Garton died on September 30th 2013. It was he who created and managed the many and varied off-track attractions which supported the original International Historic Festival at Silverstone, thus creating the die from which today’s Silverstone Classic, Goodwood Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival were cast.
Although his early life was filled with enthusiasm for high speed – of which motor sport and aviation were foremost – it was only at the age of 40, during a colourful career in banking, that Mervyn indulged his passion to the fullest.
Becoming a member of the Silverstone-based Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ Club, Mervyn raced at Silverstone and Snetterton alongside the likes of Daily Express sports editor Ken Lawrence and the vivacious and speedy Sue Dutson, now a doyenne of Italian motor sport after more than 25 years of domestic bliss with Piercarlo Ghinzani. Later he became an instructor, teaching Land Speed Record holder Richard Noble how to go around corners, among many others.
Branching out from amateur racer to racing instructor, by the late 1980s Mervyn’s commercial background was also being brought to bear in the Silverstone arsenal. At this stage, historic motor sport in Britain was still very much a club-level activity focused upon the participants having a good weekend’s racing.
If people wanted to come and enjoy seeing some famous old cars racing that was fine – but there was precious little else to occupy them. There were support races at contemporary British Grands Prix but when Silverstone decided to try and establish something like the Nürburgring’s established Oldtimer event, it called upon Mervyn to create the off-track activities and entertainment… which he did with gusto.
Immediately he established a framework for marque clubs of all denominations to have their own bespoke display areas, allowing owners of classic cars the chance to become part of the show itself. Whether it was the Renault-Alpines, the Droop Snoot Group or the Jowett Jupiters, all were made to feel as though the Festival was their own annual jamboree and created an 800-acre sea of polished bodywork stretching to all points of the compass.
Filling the circuit with cars and owners was one thing, but entertaining spectators was quite another. A gigantic outdoor shopping mall of automobilia, intended to rank alongside the Beaulieu Autojumble, was also among the early additions to the Festival experience.
Activities for those with wider interests than old cars soon followed. Live jazz and big band music, craft areas and children’s entertainment were added. So too were vintage aircraft, motorbikes, trucks, buses and tractors. A steam-powered vintage fairground sat atop the Copse runway and of course there was the social heart of the event – the Scarf & Goggles bar – which became the epicentre of the social scene.
Each year the Festival – initially sponsored by Christie’s and later Coys of Kensington – would have a theme, such as British Racing Green or Italian Racing Red, for which Mervyn would diligently create display areas and schedule autograph sessions. Auctions were staged, as was the Louis Vuitton Concours d’Elegance.
Finally there was the addition of the Garton-designed Retro Run as the ultimate hands-on experience for those taking their own classics to the Festival. Routes included stops at such sites as the former RAF Twinwood, from which Glenn Miller flew off never to return, and the Bridego railway bridge, where the Great Train Robbery was perpetrated – always ending with a parade lap of Silverstone in its pomp for the ‘Runners’.
The BRDC was always happy to give Mervyn carte blanche to create all of this, with Andrew Marriott handling the PR and John Fitzpatrick linking in with the on-track action. In 1993 the Club also provided sufficient budget to support a full-time assistant – who appeared in the form of James Beckett, the driving force behind today’s celebrated Walter Hayes Trophy weekend.
It is a measure of the Festival’s success that when Lord March was looking to create the Festival of Speed as a precursor to restoring motor racing at Goodwood, he asked Mervyn to jump ship. Although he remained at his Festival post until the event was shelved, Mervyn became a great supporter of Goodwood’s growing prominence on the calendar and thoroughly enjoyed the early Revivals.
When not submerged in Festival business, as he was wont to be for many months of the year, Mervyn relaxed by driving trucks for fun. Taking priceless cars over to Italy for the Mille Miglia, carting the star cars from James Bond movies from set to set or taking the Group 4 prototypes around the countryside only added to the appeal.
After almost a decade in retirement in Lincolnshire, Mervyn fell foul of long-term illness two years ago and died peacefully in St. Barnabas Hospice leaving a tremendous legacy. The revived Festival, renamed the Silverstone Classic, together with Goodwood’s main events and such newcomers as Chris Evans’s CarFest can trace the sum total of their participatory appeal to the pioneering work begun by Mervyn almost a quarter of a century ago.
He was also my father, and he will be profoundly missed by all of our family.