A brief history of British motor sport: Part 1 – 1896-1916

Given the somewhat chronic condition in which British motor racing currently finds itself, the S&G has charted the history of the sport through the landmarks that have been reached at home and abroad for the past 120 years.

It appears as though Silverstone is to be reinstated on the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar with an August date for 2018, which is good news. Hopefully the Royal Automobile Club will maintain the Tourist Trophy’s presence at the event – and perhaps even make some good use of its unique stature in the sport!

This series is not intended to be definitive in describing every race or innovation, nor list every adventure and misadventure – merely to provide some landmarks for those who may seek to go back and realise why it is we do what we do. Ours is a sport whose story is ripe with brightness, bravery and joie-de-vivre that has inspired countless millions around the world.

A fact that is all-too-often overlooked today, when the financial comings-and-goings of Formula 1 are all-too-often considered to be the sum total of the sport.

Race on, dear readers. Race on…

1896

  • The Royal Automobile Club hosts the Emancipation Run from London to Brighton, celebrating the British motorist’s freedom to travel faster than walking pace.

1902

  • Dunlop begins producing specific tyres for racing based upon the experience and observation of international racing events.
  • Scottish Automobile Club organises the Glasgow-London non-stop trial
  • Selwyn Edge wins the Gordon Bennett Cup, held on the public highways between Paris and Innsbruck, on a Napier. This becomes the first British success in competition.

1903

  • As the champion nation, Great Britain hosts the Gordon Bennett Cup on a circuit of closed roads in County Kildare, Ireland.
  • City-to-city races are abandoned in continental Europe after a spate of fatal accidents during the Paris-Madrid race.

1904

  • The Isle of Man hosts Britain’s Qualifying Race for the Gordon Bennett Cup on a closed road circuit.
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Edinburgh Trial
  • The inaugural Blackpool Speed Trials is held on the Promenade

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1905

  • The Isle of Man hosts the inaugural Royal Automobile Club RAC Tourist Trophy, won by John Napier on an Arrol-Johnson.
  • Shelsley Walsh holds its first hillclimb event.
  • Napier employee Miss Dorothy Levitt sets a record for ‘the longest drive made by a lady’ when she drives an 8hp DeDion from London to Liverpool and back, accompanied by an official observer, her pet Pomeranian dog DoDo and a revolver. She covers 411 miles at an average 20 mph.
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Land’s End Trial
  • The inaugural Brighton National Speed Trials take place on a specially-constructed stretch of road which later becomes known as Madeira Drive. Miss Dorothy Levitt wins the award for fastest lady at the event, her 80 hp Napier setting a speed of 79.75 miles per hour

1906

  • The inaugural Grand Prix de l’ACF is held at Le Mans, replacing the city-to-city events with a closed road course. No British manufacturers enter after The Motor magazine declares that the event is being organised to glorify French motor manufacturers at the expense of international rivals.
  • Charles Rolls wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Rolls-Royce.
  • Shell begins advertising its Motor Spirit using success in motor sport as its unique selling point – starting with fuelling two successive wins in the RAC Tourist Trophy
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Exeter Trial
  • Construction begins on the Brooklands motor circuit near Weybridge.

1907

  • The Brooklands Automobile Racing Club is formed and Brooklands hosts its first event: a successful attempt on the 24-hour speed record by Selwyn Edge.
  • Shell opens the first purpose-built fuel and oil station for motor racing purposes at Brooklands.
  • On Saturday, July 6, Brooklands holds its first open race meeting. The only racing model available for creating a format for the event is that of the Jockey Club, with drivers being identified by their coloured smocks. Selwyn Edge wins the first major race for Napier, the Marcel Renault Memorial Plate, and claims a prize of 400 sovereigns in front of a crowd of 13,500 people. A total of 500 motor cars is estimated to have driven to the race.
  • Ernest Courtis wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Rover.
  • V. Herman becomes the first British driver killed in a motor race, when he fails to negotiate the Members’ Banking at Brooklands
  • Mr. V. Herman becomes the first driver killed in a motor race, when he fails to negotiate the Members’ Banking at Brooklands
  • Harry ‘Rem’ Fowler wins the senior twin-cylinder class of the inaugural Isle of Man TT on a Norton with a Peugeot engine. Charlie Collier wins the single cylinder class for Matchless.
  • At the end of the first Brooklands racing season, the motor manufacturers are graded according to prize money won – with the result being Mercedes in first place then Fiat, Daimler, Napier, Sizaire and Darracq.

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1908

  • Willy Watson wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Hutton-Napier.
  • Harry Reed wins the Isle of Man TT twin cylinder race on a Dot Cycle, Jack Marshall wins the single cylinder class for Triumph
  • F. Newton sets a new record of 120 mph at Brooklands on his Napier-Samson

1909

  • Brooklands hosts the successful 1km Land Speed Record attempt by Victor Hémery, raising the record to 125.9 mph in a Benz
  • In an all-comers entry for the Isle of Man TT, victory is taken by Harry A. Collier on a 6hp Matchless
  • French aviator Louis Paulhan becomes the first airman to base himself at Brooklands, having been given a roller to flatten out part of the infield to make a runway

1910

  • Louis Coatelen reveals the Sunbeam Nautilus: a Land Speed Record car that paves the way for a succession of Sunbeam racing cars.
  • Cyril Snipe wins the Modena Sprint on an Italian SPA motor car.
  • The Isle of Man TT is won by Charlie Collier, brother of the previous year’s winner Harry, heading home a family 1-2 on Matchless 5hp motorcycles.
  • Victor Surridge takes the one hour motorcycle speed record at Brooklands.
  • Brooklands ends its regular season by hosting the first Inter-Varsity meeting for motorcycles and cars entered by Oxford and Cambridge students
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Harry Collier and his Matchless

1911

  • The Isle of Man TT is split into Junior and Senior categories on the new Mountain Course, with the former being won by Percy Evans on a Humber and the main event falling to Oliver Godfrey, making American make Indian the first overseas winner of the race, claiming the top three positions. Victor Surridge is the first rider to be killed at the event.
  • While taking the Grand Prix-winning Peugeot L76 on a tour of British dealerships, Dario Resta stops off for dinner with Sunbeam chief engineer Louis Coatalen and the car is stripped by Sunbeam designers and engineers, who study, sketch and reassemble it by the time that Resta continues on his way. A dark green Sunbeam grand prix car duly appears soon afterwards, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the French car.
  • Brooklands hosts its first air race to Hendon and back. Thereafter air racing and motor racing often share the bill in the course of the regular racing season.

1912

  • Sunbeam finishes 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the Coupe de l’Auto.
  • British driver Cyril Snipe wins the Targa Florio in Sicily at the wheel of the Italian SCAT motor car.
  • The Cyclecar Club is formed at Brooklands to organise races for small cars and motorcycles.
  • Frank Applebee wins the Isle of Man TT senior race on a Scott motorcycle, W.H. Bashall winning the junior race for Douglas
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Sunbeam’s team lines up for the Coupe l’Auto

1913

  • Craigantlet hillclimb holds its first event.
  • Percy E. Lambert becomes the first man to drive 100 miles in one hour, setting the record at Brooklands on a 4.5-litre side-valve Talbot.
  • Scott wins its second Isle of Man TT senior race in the hands of H.O. ‘Tim’ Wood. Hugh Mason on a NUT wins the junior race. Frank Bateman becomes the second rider killed competing in the TT.
  • Percy Lambert is killed in the last race meeting of the season at Brooklands.

1914

  • Brooklands hosts the successful 1-mile Land Speed Record attempt by Lydston Hornsted, raising the record to 124.09 mph in a Benz.
  • Second inter-Varsity race meeting held for students of Oxford and Cambridge
  • Kenelm Lee Guinness wins the RAC Tourist Trophy in a Sunbeam Grand Prix car.
  • Cyril Pullin wins the Isle of Man TT senior race on a Rudge Multi and Eric Williams wins the junior race on an AJS. Fred Walker is killed whilst taking avoiding action after spectators crowd onto the track to greet the winner.
  • Brooklands is closed to the public upon the declaration of war, becoming a major production centre for Vickers aircraft and a research and development centre for independent aircraft factories working in tandem with the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough.

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1916

  • Away from the battlefields of World War 1, British driver Dario Resta wins the sixth running of the Indianapolis 500 in a 1914 Peugeot L45 grand prix car.
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As war raged in 1916, Dario Resta won the Indianapolis 500

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Beyond the British Grand Prix

This week’s announcement that the British Grand Prix is to cease in 2019 is not a surprise. Although it was the first country in the world to build a permanent circuit for motor racing, Great Britain has had a dysfunctional relationship with the sport right from the outset.

In the 1890s, the advent of internal combustion caught the imagination of brilliant engineers in continental Europe and North America – but not so Britain, whose Empire was built using iron, steam and the old school tie.

Johnny Foreigner’s preoccupation with noisy, unreliable new inventions became the subject of amusement in polite society.

While all but a few British folk scoffed, however, it was through competition that Johnny Foreigner refined motor cars and achieved the dream of powered flight.

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Passions were aroused on the continent: eyebrows were raised in Britain

The great city-to-city motor races at the turn of the century inspired engineers to travel further and faster, tearing off into the distance while British motoring was pegged back to walking pace – literally, with the legal requirement for a man with a red flag to walk 60 yards ahead of ‘horseless carriages’, lest they scare the horses or interfere with the good order of the railways.

It took the legal test case lodged by Farnham engineer John Henry Knight in 1895 to release British motorists from this constraint. He successfully triggered the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, which increased the speed limit for “light locomotives” under 3 tonnes to 14 mph.

To celebrate this boundless new freedom, the ‘Emancipation Run’ was organized for motorists to drive from Whitehall to Brighton – an occasion later commemorated through the Royal Automobile Club’s annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. While the 33 intrepid Britons tiptoed down to the coast, however, the Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade scampered the 1710 km from Paris to Marseille and back to win the biggest race of the year.

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Good order was enforced upon British motorists – with a flag

A few of the more enterprising British motor companies, such as Arrol-Johnson, Wolseley and Napier, began to dip a toe in the water of the European events. They soon discovered that there was much to learn not only about car design but also ancillaries such as tyres and spark plugs if they were to compete.

Thankfully, some were determined to learn, improve and win.

In 1902, the British-built Napier of Selwyn Edge triumphed in the Gordon Bennett Cup, winning the honour of hosting the race in 1903. The birth of British motor sport did not greatly interest the nation or its politicians, however, who grudgingly permitted roads to be closed in the wilds of County Kildare for the occasion.

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Britain belatedly came to the party – but soon mastered the art of motor racing

A year later, the Isle of Man was selected to become the new home of motor racing in Britain. The Gordon Bennett qualification race of 1904 gave rise to the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy in 1905, the world’s longest-running motor race whose place on today’s FIA World Endurance Championship calendar warrants not a mention in the press.

The Isle of Man was and remains a mystical place to go racing but the rest of the British Isles were still subject to a blanket 20 mph speed limit.

The British motor industry needed somewhere to drive fast and it found a benefactor in the form of Hugh Locke King who, egged on by the likes of Napier and its great showman Selwyn Edge, constructed the Brooklands motor circuit – the first permanent track in the world – and almost ruined himself in the process.

It was only after World War 1 that Brooklands became a success. Many young Englishmen – particularly the aviators – found that excitement and esprit de corps in the face of danger had become addictive. Racing around the great white bowl near Weybridge offered them blissful release from the hum-drum world of peacetime, and the ‘right crowd’ flocked to witness the thrills and spills.

Brooklands was the crucible from which sprang the Bentley Boys, John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and the first gilded generation of British racing motorists. Le Mans was conquered and Grands Prix were won. A decade later, these pioneers celebrated the rise of a second generation, including Dick Seaman and A.F.P. Fane, who punched above their weight in small but potent cars from Riley, MG and ERA.

The ambitious Fred Craner turned leafy Donington Park from a provincial motorcycling track into an amphitheatre for the Silver Arrows; hillclimbs and sprints flourished and the Tourist Trophy grew in stature to rival the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours in status.

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Brooklands, Bentley and Birkin – landmarks in British racing

Despite all this success, despite the fervour that surrounded motor racing as a spectator sport and despite the quality of engineering that had gone into every component of the cars, there was little recognition.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the body charged with promoting the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad, prohibited the British manufacturers from bringing their racing cars to the Motor Show because it believed that they were ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

Only in the aftermath of World War 2, when the next generation of racers flourished and British motor racing sat at the top table of the sport worldwide, did the entire nation take notice.

The defining moment came at Silverstone in 1950, when His Majesty George VI and Queen Elizabeth led a quarter of a million people to Silverstone for the Grand Prix d’Europe, the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Motor racing hit the tabloids and the elitism of Brooklands was replaced with the grassroots movement from which produced raw young talent both at the wheel and at the drawing board.

The workmanlike bomber training airfield at Silverstone hosted its first Grand Prix in 1948. Meanwhile on the south coast the Westhampnett fighter station at Goodwood provided a more convivial atmosphere for the old ‘right crowd and no crowding’ set to party on in the grand old manner.

They were joined by more former airfield venues – from Boreham to Croft. The parkland circuits followed – Oulton, Cadwell, Brands Hatch – and Aintree set out its stall as the ‘Goodwood of the North’ with its blast around the fabled Grand National racecourse.

For the next 30 years, British motor sport expanded into a bona fide industry – and a successful one at that. Even the press took notice – The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Times were all sponsors of races and teams in all categories. Right through to the 1980s, they reflected the public’s passion and sold the sport with vigour.

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The triumph (and tragedy) of motor racing folklore: Hawthorn and Jaguar in action

When the British Grand Prix’s financial troubles began, the industry in this country was still riding high in strength and depth, interest and involvement across the board. British teams not only dominated the Formula 1 world but also every international discipline.

Moreover, pretty much every Indycar, F3000, F3 and junior category chassis was designed and built in Britain by Lola, Reynard, March, Ralt and Van Diemen. Meanwhile, young drivers from around the world had to come and compete in Britain if they wanted to make a name for themselves – driving the reputations of the specialist teams who ran their cars.

 

Yet over the past 20 years, most of that thriving industry has been burnt as fuel in order to keep the British Grand Prix shunting along towards the buffers. We watched it happen. Some of us reported on it happening and warned of the outcomes… but many did not.

The prevailing attitude of “I’m all right, Jack” has indeed meant that the seven UK-based Formula 1 teams have prospered – although all but one is now under foreign ownership and remain here only for as long as it is financially and logistically beneficial to do so.

In the meantime, pretty well every major manufacturer team outside Formula 1 has migrated to Germany – and that includes the Japanese and the Koreans. The notional ‘motorsport valley’ that is claimed to nestle half way up the M40, from where it pumps billions to the British economy, hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense for years. Brilliant businesses are there – but in many ways to their detriment.

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Britain is one big ‘motorsport valley’, apparently

In 2013, a rescue plan was put forward by the Welsh government. It was a dedicated hub for the high-tech motor sport sector in a Tier 1 Enterprise Zone where their utilities would be subsidised, salaries funded up to 50% and every wind tunnel and laboratory would be built for them.

Such a stiff resistance was put up by the British Grand Prix lobby and the ‘motorsport valley’ brigade that the only issue upon which press and the public could fixate was the Circuit of Wales, adjoining the technology hub. What was the point of building a circuit when there was Silverstone? Who would travel to Wales for the British Grand Prix?

The fact that the Circuit of Wales was never designed for Formula 1 did not matter. Nobody wanted to understand what the project was about and now the idea has died. The proponents of the ‘motorsport valley’ myth believe this to have been a victory – but they are deluded.

If you want to buy a single-seater or sports car chassis these days, you don’t call ‘motorsport valley’. Most likely it will be a Tatuus or Mygale from France or an Italian Dallara.

Formular-E

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Fleets of one-make series cars are now built overseas

Young British drivers, if they really want to get ahead, must plan to hop out of their karts and straight into European championships if they are to stand a hope of getting noticed – increasing their annual budgets by up to 50% and reducing the strength and depth of the talent pool by a similar factor.

And of course the well of talented young foreign drivers following in the footsteps of Piquet, Senna, Häkkinen and Magnussen has dried up completely, seeing teams close down for the want of talent and funding to employ them.

The Scarf & Goggles celebrates the ripping yarns of earlier eras, but it exists in the here and now. The spirit and the achievements of those times have been betrayed many times over in the name of preserving the unworkable British Grand Prix and, as a result, the ‘motorsport valley’ myth.

Perhaps the final, belated loss of the Grand Prix will be the jolt that knocks a bit of sense into people. Facts must be faced and plans must be made. We hope that, finally, they might at least be valid ones.

We still have the Tourist Trophy. We still have the Isle of Man. Goodwood is thriving. The British touring cars are still wowing people and nobody holds better rallies, rallycross or short track races.

The landscape is changing but the most valuable bit of real estate in any sport – that of historic racing and our motor sport heritage – keeps going from strength-to-strength. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is not the end.