Racing cars in a park in London? I think I might have been dreaming… Motorsport At The Palace relives the glory days of auto racing at the Crystal Palace circuit in South London: its focal point is a competition time trial, backed up with a convention of car clubs. The event is now in its third year, and the 2012 edition provided another spectacularly eclectic range of cars trailing smoke as they left the line to take on the 740m sprint course.
Outside this weekend, most of the people enjoying a stroll through the parkland will have no idea of the history of the place: Crystal Palace first hosted a motor race in 1899 and was one of the first ever closed-course tracks in the UK. Just before the Second World War a larger, more permanent track was in use which comprised a rough rectangle with an infield – when racing resumed in 1953 just the outer perimeter was recommissioned, and races were held at the track up until 1972.
Motorsport At The Palace brings the howl of racing engines back to the London venue – and what a range of engines there were.
Over the weekend, multiple classes of cars took part in morning practice followed by three timed runs in the afternoon: the classes were defined by age as opposed to engine capacity to make things more visually coherent, and but it still meant that one minute you’d be watching a 1971 Chevron sports prototype and the next a mid-70s 1300 Honda Civic. The latter was only six seconds slower, by the way…
The event is organised by the Sevenoaks And District Motor Club, one of the largest MSA-affiliated clubs in the UK (the MSA is the organisation that oversees racing in Britain), and over half of the 80-plus cars taking part came from that club. It may be organised primarily for entertainment, but the majority of cars were aiming to win their class at the least – and some to take the FTD if possible: the Fastest Time of the Day. Peter Vlasak in the #108 Subaru Impreza set a best time of 38.59s, the fastest time by almost a second in Class 6 for cars from 1977 to the present day.
The paddock for the competing cars nestled under the trees in Crystal Palace’s ample woods – though saying ‘paddock’ is overstating the fact. Goodwood’s minimalist approach has been further pared down, and here the various classes of cars were arranged around the edges of clearings in the trees. It gave a serene location for the cars to be housed and worked on in-between runs and perfectly suited the low-key, unpretentious nature of Motorsport At The Palace.
Of course the start-line was one of the most popular vantage points. Here the crowd got the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere as the cars lined up to take their runs.
Even the most unexpected cars could provide plenty of entertainment off the line, though sometimes it wasn’t always clear where the smoke was coming from…
For pure grunt and visual panache, a real favourite was the Metro 6R4 rallycar. This Group B Metro was owned by Colin McRae, and is now driven by Aled Williams – a former British Moto-Cross champion.
Watching the four-wheel-drive Metro squat down on acceleration and throw itself up the track was one of the many pleasures of the day, as was the sound of its 3-litre V6.
Another car with a unique sound was the Road Runner 2 Chapparal replica: the stunning result of a long build project. Owning the car would be reward enough, but owner Ian Wright also won Class 17 with a time of 38.84 seconds.
Although the chassis and bodywork are only 15 years old, the throbbing 5.4-litre Chevy V8 gives it authenticity and the gearbox is an original Colotti unit – now 47 years old and still working just fine.
There were six categories competing, each with various sub-classes below them broken into age ranges: Road-going production cars (A), Road-going specialist production cars (B), Modified series and specialist production cars (C), Sports Libre (D), Racing cars up to 1600cc (E) and Alternative fuel cars (F). As one category’s class of cars finished and made their way back to their holding area, so another group would trundle across the grass to form up near the start-line.
The course itself utilises several stretches of the original track – now mostly represented by a narrow strip of tarmac where once a proper-width racing track lay. This is a Marcadier ‘Can Am’ sports prototype that ran in Category D, Class 17 (1947-1976).
Most cars had vertical wedges mounted to the noses for triggering the timing beams at the start and finish lines. The competition is taken as seriously as it deserved to be, and each car was lined up with careful accuracy on the line by the group of officials at the start.
The start lights would be triggered and the red LEDs would turn to green: then the launch was in the hands of the driver. Nail the throttle when you’re ready, break the beam and you’re away! Acceleration and those initial gear changes would mean the difference between a good time and being nowhere in your class. It was the first year of competition for Paul Oliver driving this Class 5 Triumph TR6, which had been imported from the USA as a lefthand-driver and carefully restored. The TR6 had a straight-six engine running on twin SU carbs, producing a handy 150hp.
The opening run to the first corner at Pond Hairpin is a sweeping uphill left – not really a straight at all. Here’s the rather garish twin-turbo 4.3-litre Lotus Esprit run by long-time competitor Andy Webber firing off the line. The Esprit’s current block is a Rover V8, and the pressure charge blows through quadruple Weber downdraft carbs to make period-style noises. The colour? It helped keep the purchase price down!
Pond Hairpin is a heavily obtuse-angled left with a rising exit: it needs a late apex combined with a little bit of grass cutting – but minding the tyre stack. This Escort Mk2 has been driven in the past by Ford World Rally Championship driver Marko Martin – who also signed the roof! Strangely, it currently has a Vauxhall engine…
The exit is then all about putting the power down for the short blast to the next shallow right. The driver of the #85 1968 Escort Mk1, Roy Edwards, has been competing since the ’60s: he’s owned this car since new, and won the 1964 British Autocross and 1967 British Rallycross Championships.
The downhill right-hander is taken as fast as possible, and the braver the driver the more corner they cut. Opposite on the exit is a ribbon of steel to greet you should things go awry… There were a pair of Renault Clio Cup 200s taking part, both setting times around the 41-second mark.
If there’s a Cosworth connected to your right foot, then you cut a *lot* of corner… William Hunt had brought his Sierra Cosworth to all three Motorsport At The Palace events and would set a sub-40s time just a second off the Class 6 winner – but importantly he’d beat his brother, the appropriately-named James Hunt, by just 3/10ths! James was competing in a BMW 2002 Touring in the older-period Class 5 group.
After the kink the cars would be flat out until the braking area for the Big Tree Bend 180-degree hairpin. Imprezas were very much the thing for Class 6: they’d fill the first three positions.
Next up the cars would run on what is one of the few remaining sections of the original circuit, Terrace Straight, as they passed the stone platform of the original Crystal Palace building and flew down to the chicane. This is a rare 1963 Jenson C-V8 MK1 at full tilt.
There’s a slight right kink followed immediately by a hard left, which meant that the tourers and smaller saloons three-wheeled their way through. The driver of this Mk1 Fiesta, Matt Brewerton, is a designer for McLaren by day and sprinter in his spare time: his Fiesta is mounted with an 1800cc Zetec engine and a Quaife straight-cut gearbox.
Out of the chicane it’s again about traction and acceleration for the uphill-curving long right of North Tower Crescent, the first corner for the 1960s version of the track.
Next to the start, this is the most open part of the course and the spectators lined the high ground to drivers’ left. Buzzbox Imps were mainstays of touring car racing in Britain during the early ’70s – they won the fore-runner to the British Touring Car Championship three years in a row from ’70-’72.
Cars flashed through the trees as they approached the tightening final part of this section which led to the finish line. #46 was another Mk1 Escort – this one an RS1600 model that put in a sub-40s time.
This final short blast past the rhododendrons is lined with modern armco: it’s the only section that is, as it runs down a narrow tree-lined path. This Honda Integra R was one of many showing some serious grip as it piled through the last corner before the finish.
Across the timing beam and it was hard on the brakes, through a straw-bale chicane and then a gentle roll through a couple more corners of the old track before returning to the paddock. A clutch of pre-war time-triallers took part, including two Wolseley Hornets and this Riley Special.
The only thing that remained for drivers would be to check the all-important time. Fast cars would put in times of around 38-40 seconds.
The fastest three lightweight racers on Saturday all dipped into sub-35 second runs: an Ensign LNF3 Formula 3 car, a Stohr sports prototype and a bespoke Megapin single-seater.
It was difficult not to keep coming back to the Road Runner. It was like a UFO from the front… What a profile!
Stripped of its bodywork you can see how relatively simple the car’s construction is. As all Can Am cars should be, it’s merely a container for an enormous engine.
The Marcadier running in the same Sports Libre category was built by a small-volume company in France during the late ’70s, and had a space-frame chassis, fibreglass body with mostly Renault running gear and a Hewland ‘box mated to a well-developed Gordini 1600cc engine.
The interloper in this group was this Ford Cortina MkII. That made it clear that this was no ordinary Cortina: it’s the famous Super Saloon ‘Fraud’ Cortina raced in the UK between 1969 and 1974. It’s a Crystal Palace veteran, having raced in period when the track was still operating. It’s had a new engine installed: a 350-cubic inch Donovan alloy V8 replacing the original Climax Godiva.
A newer sports prototype ran in Class 18: the Pilbeam MP43 BMW was a dedicated hill climber from the 1980s and would be the fourth fastest car at the end of the first day, putting in a 35.93-second run. Perhaps not surprisingly as it has a 480hp, five-litre BMW M5 V8 in the back of a car weighing just 540kg.
One of my favourites was this jalopy: a GN Spider from 1923. This was a dedicated hill-climber of the time, built to take on all-comers at the famous Shelsely Walsh Hill Climb. Not only did it take the competition on, it often beat them as well – setting the first sub 50-second climb in 1927.
As we saw in an earlier picture, appearances can be deceptive! This Spider holds a whole host of records and FTDs – it can sprint 50 yards in less than three seconds thanks to its 1,486cc V-twin engine and virtually non-existent weight. It’s all down to how fast the driver can operate the external gear-lever…
There was also a strong line-up of classic racers to admire, even if some of them weren’t one hundred percent original as was the case with the Jaguar Proteus C Type Replica.
The engine bay was beautiful nonetheless: this C now mounts a 3.8-litre engine, replacing a previous 4.2-litre installation and features Jaguar running gear.
Another faithful replica was this GT40, a recreation of the Le Mans-winning car from 1968/69. It’s got an authentic small-block Ford V8 producing 450hp in a car weighing under 1,000kgs, so it was looking quite a handful around Crystal Palace’s tight sprint course.
And finally a 4.2-litre Jaguar D Type: another gorgeous ’50 racer.
This Austin Healey Speedwell Sprite saw plenty of action rallying in Ireland during the early 1960s: to make up for original shortcomings it’s since had modern upgrades that have transformed it into a handy proposition. The 1.3-litre Sprite only just lost out to the class-winning #85 2-litre Escort Mk1.
#121 was a 930cc Sunbeam Imp Sport – an uprated version of the original Hillman. There was also a Singer Imp taking part, one of the final cars sporting the Singer name.
Alfa Romeo were well represented, with this Alfa Romeo 75 backed up by older and newer sisters: a pair of 147 GTAs and Guilias plus an Alfasud Sprint and beefy GTV6.
Like the Fraud Cortina, Vauxhall Vivas also saw action at Crystal Palace in period: this is a recreation of the Dealer Team Vauxhall Viva GT famously raced by the legendary Gerry Marshall at the track in 1970. The car has been built up from a rusty road car; the original GT was written off during the 1970 season.
Of course, there was also a horde of Minis, also Palace veterans, though none more extreme than this Special Saloon-class version – a rebel with a cause.
To close, there was also the quietest and most modern of racers: an electric-powered, carbon-fibre monocoque Nissan Leaf Nismo RC, which was very strange to see wagging its tail out of corners with no sound coming out. It’s unnatural. But still, it was fast! A 42-second time proved it was no battery-powered slouch.
The previous year’s times took a pounding in the hot sun, and eventually the FTD was set by Gary Thomas in a Force PT single-seat hillclimber with a 33.8 second run on Sunday. All these cars – and within a bus-ride of central London? It doesn’t get better.