From the archives with Doug Nye

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Motor sport takes off…

No one wanted to build a race circuit after WWII, but redundant aerodromes dotted the country

Before 1939 most significant British motor race meetings had been organised by one of only three enthusiast clubs, all operating under the overall auspices of the RAC. These organisations were the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club (the BARC of that period), the Junior Car Club (JCC) and the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC).

As Great Britain struggled to regain some semblance of normality in the immediate aftermath of war – come 1945 – these organisations all proved completely unable to resuscitate the sport due to the most tremendous practical, financial and bureaucratic obstacles. Brooklands was the worst case, irretrievably damaged and in effect occupied territory under the absolute control of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Overgrown and rhododendron-clogged Crystal Palace, with its frost-heaved and crumbling Tarmac surface, posed a real headache for the London County Council.  Donington Park had been turned into the Army’s Breedon Depot – the country’s biggest military-vehicle service and storage centre. It was just jam-packed with thousands of rusting and redundant army trucks, jeeps and armoured vehicles of all kinds, most awaiting the scrap man. The Ministry of War could not contemplate any speedy return of the once-beautiful Derbyshire parkland to its 1930s use – as a motor racing venue.

The situation, so far as the enthusiast was concerned, was that Britain was not a noted motor sporting power. Its major manufacturers were a bunch of dullards who largely ignored the sport. In effect, motor racing had always been too expensive to encourage mass participation, and support. That’s what motivated the Bristol Motor Cycle & Light Car Club into devising low-budget racing. The CAPA group of Dick Caesar, Aldrich Price and Adrian Butler, plus like-minded friends, had competed in stark self-built Austin 7-based specials. Caesar turned his attention to motorcycle engines as being lighter and simpler, yet simultaneously more powerful. 

The group pictured a common class levelling the playing field between a wealthy racer and a CAPA-type impecunious enthusiast who just longed to go racing. The Bristol Aeroplane Company’s in-house motor sports club at Filton famously took up the idea, and members created a category for 500cc motorcycle-engined lightweight open-wheeled racing cars. 

Even more to those pioneers’ credit is the fact that they not only created a new class of ‘poor man’s motor racing’, they also – from as early as 1943 – agonised over what circuits might be available postwar on which to race at all. At an early ‘noggin and natter’ meeting in a Bristol pub, the possibility was raised of using hard-surfaced military aerodromes that would plainly become redundant once peace returned. Could permission be obtained to race on them? This was an inspired idea. The club members pictured the scene, read the war news, and dreamed…

But come peace in 1945 and any attempt to revive motor racing in Britain looked not just frivolous, but impossible. Rationing and controls were more severe than at any time during the war itself. Ironically, however, military experience with motor vehicles had left the civilian British public of 1946 more motoring-minded than ever before.

Sales of specialist magazines like The Motor, The Autocar and indeed our own Motor Sport all boomed. Fans old and new read avidly about motor racing restarting on the war-torn Continent.
If racing could resume in shattered France, Belgium and Italy, why not here?

Ultimately it was university undergraduate fervour and sheer cheek that signalled the way ahead. It is now 70 years since the Cambridge University Automobile Club wangled permission to run a race around the aerodrome runways of RAF Gransden Lodge near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. This pioneer aerodrome race meeting took place on June 15, 1946. Crucial support came from the RAF’s Air Commodore David Atcherley CBE, DSO, DFC who simply declared “This sounds a jolly good idea” and signed the permit – never mind ‘The Men from the Ministry’. He, incidentally, was the night-fighter-pilot twin brother of the better-known Air Marshal Sir Richard ‘Batchy’ Atcherley, winner of the 1929 King’s Cup air race, and Schneider Trophy world air speed record star… 

Subsequently, on June 7, 1952, AVM David Atcherley would take-off solo in a Gloster Meteor PR9 twin jet from RAF Fayid, south of Ismailia, Egypt, bound for RAF Nicosia, Cyprus. Two minutes after take-off he radioed a request for a weather check at Nicosia, but thereafter was never heard from again, his disappearance over the Mediterranean becoming another of so many enduring aviation mysteries… 

However, in happier times – as Bill Boddy described in these pages – he had flown himself into Gransden Lodge that rainy June day in 1946 in “a Miles monoplane” to join the spectators. The Bod judged the meeting “Excellent – incidentally proving wrong those pessimists, the RAC included, who suggested than aerodrome runways and perimeter tracks would be too rough for serious racing. A bigger difficulty was found to be picking out the corners, with no hedges or trees bordering the course”. He then observed “The organisation was generally very good – the weather most foul. A large hangar formed the ‘paddock’ so that, although the noise and fumes became somewhat deadly, there was full protection from the British summer.”

Circuit length had been finalised at 2.13 miles, and in Britain’s first three-lap aerodrome race “Le Strange Metcalfe’s Balilla sports Fiat building up a fine lead, to win from [Harry] Lester’s PB MG with [Joe] Lowrey’s HRG third.” There were a dozen races run, several spins, and at least one minor collision, but the grand finale was a five-lapper for the six fastest cars present – Reg Parnell’s 16-valve Maserati 4CL, David Hampshire’s Maserati 6CM, R V Wallington’s ex-Bimotore Alfa-Aitken special, George Abecassis’s Type 59 Bugatti, Peter Monkhouse’s 2.3 Bugatti and George Bainbridge’s ERA. 

Both Abecassis and Wallington went off on the last corner of the first lap, trying to outbrake one another, leaving Parnell and Monkhouse first and second. ‘Gorgeous George’ in the Type 59 was back into second place after only one more lap. The Bod: “After three laps Abecassis went past the Maserati going into the top corner, but Parnell got away on acceleration, only to immediately run out of fuel – very hard luck, sir.

“Monkhouse still held off the Alfa-Aitken, but at the top corner, after lap 4, his Bugatti got into a nasty slide, missed hitting the Alfa, was held on full lock still sliding, Peter’s mouth wide open, all but clouted the pylon on the apex of the corner, and recovered with little loss of time. However, that let both the Alfa and Hampshire’s Maserati through…”.

George Abecassis won the race, but immediately after finishing he “was enveloped in steam and nearly swerved into Wallington when he received scalding water in his face… The thermometer ‘blew up’ well and truly, even its glass coming out. The Bugatti averaged 73.85mph, the course now soaked again with torrential rain…”

A British motor racing precedent had thus been set – in more ways than one. And in fact Christopher Le Strange Metcalfe’s win in that first aerodrome race at Gransden Lodge would prove to be a book-end, the other emerging on July 2, 1966 – 50 years ago – with the veteran driving his later Lola-Climax Mark 1, when he also won the very last frontline-era Goodwood aerodrome race.  Funny how these things work out…

Seeds of greatness…

…but where is the photo evidence of an important day?

As early as 1945, in Italy, Mr Ferrari famously commissioned out-of-favour Alfa Romeo engineer Gioachino Colombo to design for him the post-war high-performance car to carry his name. Colombo had become a victim of a communist witch-hunt at Alfa to eject prominent former Fascisti. He had been suspended until cleared in the subsequent inquiry, but no way would Mr Ferrari have been deterred by an employee’s blind loyalty to a dictator… and in fact he was providing badly needed financial support for Colombo’s family when it was sorely needed.

On May 11, 1947, the new Colombo-designed Ferrari 125 with its 1500cc V12 engine made the new marque’s racing debut at Piacenza, 70 miles north-west from Ferrari in Maranello. According to Colombo, and as confirmed by the factory’s internal contemporary documentation, two new 125s were taken to Piacenza, one fitted with all-enveloping, slabby Spyder bodywork (above) which would actually start in the race itself, and the other carrying a comparatively crude Sigaro Competizione body style, with cycle-type mudguards. 

These new Ferrari 125s were to be driven by 44-year-old reliable veteran Franco Cortese, and by 40-year-old superstar Dr Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina. Colombo recalled that Farina crashed the Sigaro Competizione mildly, and so did not start. However, Cortese himself would later reject any idea that a second 125 had been available at all, insisting that only the enveloping-bodied Spyder car ran at Piacenza that May weekend. 

Ferrari’s original internal report – a copy of which survives today in Ronald Stern’s magnificent private collection – settles this matter. Plainly, two cars practised at Piacenza, each tried by both drivers. Farina completed six laps in race number 1, his fifth and fastest being timed at 1min 54.6sec, while in four laps with no128 he got down to 1min 52.2sec. Cortese did a 53.0 and a 53.6 during his five practice laps in no1, but then his five laps with 128 saw him clock 51.2 on his third lap, and 51-dead next time round.

The internal report reads: “We were present from 9am to noon on 10 May with two cars, a Spyder and a Competizione, without having decided who would drive which one.

“The Spyder was numbered 128 and given to Cortese, and the second was numbered 1.

“Finally, Farina drove car number 1 again. After a first lap with a standing start and finish in which he achieved a time of 2:33, he did three consecutive laps in 1:56:8, 1:54.8 and 1:54.2. During the fourth lap, on the Barriera Farnese bend, he drove too fast and hit the hay, causing minor damage to the front of the car, which was subsequently fixed.

“On the next morning Cortese was given the Spyder and Farina the Competizione. Farina refused to drive this and asked for Cortese’s, so we decided to use a single car driven by Cortese…” 

Just imagine – it must have been a sizeable row between Farina and Ferrari, which the short-fused Dottore plainly lost. Driving the lone Ferrari starter in this race, Cortese then “remained in third place until the 20th lap because of oil cavitation” [fluctuating oil pressure]. Angiolini was in the lead with a Maserati.

“Cortese’s car returned to normal and did a series of fast laps… He took the lead after a collision between Angiolini and Barbieri… and maintained this until… during the 27th lap, on the straight after the finishing line, his engine stopped…” due to fuel pump failure. 

Now in all my years of Ferrari research, I have never seen a photograph of Farina driving that Sigaro Competizione cycle-fendered Ferrari that weekend at Piacenza.  Can anybody point us towards one?