Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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METROPOLITAN MAYHEM

A new closed-roads bill allows a London Grand Prix to go ahead – as long as you drift back to the Twenties

At last – a Road Racing Bill allowing competition on closed British roads. Topical, but not a comment on the recent act that should soon bring us the sort of Tarmac racing and rallying we love to see on Sicily and around Pau. No, this sentiment comes from almost 90 years ago in the pages of The Autocar. If you don’t recall seeing this event in your racing histories, that’s because it didn’t happen. But in December 1929 the magazine spent a few happy pages imagining the first London Grand Prix – which nine decades on remains a fantasy unfulfilled. In 2004 a Formula 1 demonstration drew big crowds to central London, and as I write there are talks about a repeat before this year’s British Grand Prix, but although it’s on Chase Carey’s wish-list an actual race remains in the air. 

Imagination knows no limits, though, so in 1929 the author of the story, identified only as ECL, decided there had been what he called “the Second Emancipation Bill” (the first being the 1896 raising of speed limits, which triggered the London-Brighton run), leading to this city-centre fantasy. Was he inspired by the inaugural Monaco event only months before? Perhaps. To illustrate this non-event the magazine set to work with prints, scissors and paint, the ancient equivalent of Photoshop, producing the gloriously unconvincing pictures seen here. The scissors must have been as blunt as Sir Les Paterson’s diplomacy as in places the cars float above the road or balance on their noses – easily candidates for the period equivalent of Great Photoshop Disasters, a favourite website of today’s magazine designers.

Still, as a bit of Christmas entertainment it was harmless fun.

ECL’s circuit couldn’t have been more central: pits at Hyde Park Corner, a flat-out “seven furlong” blind down Piccadilly (long before the underpass), swing right at Eros and plunge down Haymarket to a sharp left into Trafalgar Square, streak past the National Gallery and howl through two right-handers round the square under the eye of Nelson on his unsurpassable vantage point. Then ECL let his competitors pick their own gap through Admiralty Arch, surge down the Mall to bend right up Constitution Hill, then around Hyde Park Corner once more – 2.9 miles of kerb-ridden, lamppost-lined streets, much of it cobbled. (My Slovakian minder tells me that back home cobbles are known as ‘cats’ heads’. I like that.)

At the time these were the accepted hazards of road racing faced without thinking twice at Ards, the Isle of Man and all over the Continent, so the whole idea can’t have seemed implausible to our author or his readers. Sadly The Autocar’s artist couldn’t find any hay bale photographs to soften accident impacts, but thoughtfully for the spectators who line the route he has drawn in some rope to protect them. “From all quarters they came,” muses the text about the gathering crowds, before continuing rather bathetically “from Bayswater and Balham,
from Maida Vale and Millwall…” International sports tourism was still a long way away.

Talking of Ards, ECL tells us archly that “the race was by a remarkable coincidence contested by the identical cars and drivers” who competed in the Ards TT that summer, which simplifies both pictures and story of the fictional race. It therefore involves Rudi Caracciola, Glen Kidston and Giuseppe Campari – and had this been a real event no doubt these would indeed be on the entry list. They mix in with a fleet of Bugattis, Amilcars and Austro-Daimlers. By another unlikely coincidence, the story of the London race is broadly the same as the actual TT, with Caracciola’s 7-litre Mercedes S the fastest machine, challenged by Kidston’s Bentley 6½ and Campari’s Alfa Romeo, but all three chasing a brace of tiny Austins which have started on handicap with fewer laps to cover. It’s a Le Mans start, too, drivers having to put hoods down on these road-equipped cars before driving off in a mêlée of clanging mudguards.

Although the starter is ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite, famous Brooklands handicapper who flags the runners away from the top of Hyde Park Gates, ECL forgets to inform us that this is a handicap race, but let’s assume it follows the TT principle since our author includes the heavy rain that fell at Ards and Bernard Rubin overturning his Bentley – in this case against the Victoria memorial outside Buckingham Palace. ECL isn’t at all worried about damage to the historic surroundings – he cheerfully tells us cars have “chipped large portions off the unoffending Admiralty Arch”.

He really would be completely unable to comprehend today’s world, where even jokes like that can upset people, let alone conceive the immense safety measures demanded today or entertain the idea that there could be moral and environmental arguments against a city-centre race burning fossil fuels. 

But his cloud cuckoo land was set in an era that in some ways looks like motoring paradise to us – minimal parking rules, a fraction of today’s traffic numbers and, a year after this article, the removal of upper speed limits. Almost impossible to imagine, isn’t it? Yet in the same issue of the magazine a solicitor is quoted as saying “these days a motorist is the most harassed person on the road; because of one regulation or another he can hardly drive in peace”. He shouldst be living at this hour…

Our ECL could have imagined a British triumph to end his tale, but after 300 bumpy metropolitan miles he sportingly allows Caracciola’s huge German machine to repeat its TT victory, with Campari next and Archie Frazer Nash trailing red, white and blue fumes in his little Austin Seven. 

Even though it didn’t happen I wish I’d been there to see Caracciola flinging the long white Mercedes broadside through Piccadilly Circus.

Fobbed off with keyless cars

It’s meant to be convenient but one technology strand could leave you stranded

Recently I’d arranged to meet another motoring journo and his wife for a pre-cinema supper. She arrived saying her other half was just parking his current test car and we chatted. For quite a long time. Then the respected journalist steamed into the restaurant looking hot and worried. “Quick! You’ve got the key and I can’t lock it! That’s a hundred grand sitting out there wide open!” 

Luckily no one had interfered with the shiny supercar, unlike the time a friend and I returned to his replica 289 Cobra and found some kind passer-by had emptied a bottle of pickled onions into the footwell. That thing reeked of vinegar for months and running with the hood up could cause rapid blackout.

My colleague’s supercar was safe, but it pinpoints a problem with keyless cars – many keep running without the key. And if you don’t actively have to plug it into a socket on the dash it’s easy for the tiny transmitter to lurk in the passenger’s pocket or bag. If they jump out and walk away, once you switch off you’re immobile. Which you won’t know until too late. Now you can’t leave the car as it’s unlockable, and in my case you can’t operate windows, radio or anything else electric.

Some vehicles warn when the key goes out of range; many don’t. It’s quite possible to jump in your car in Chester, drop your partner at work, drive to Leeds, park – and realise your other half has the key. Worse, if you stopped for fuel the filling station staff aren’t going to be happy with a car stuck at their pumps.

Maybe it’s my own household inefficiency but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in the car yelling “it must be nearby – I can switch on!” while someone searched for the key in jackets, bags and garage shelves. And if the key is in range, a thief can open your car outside your house. Once they’re inside, starting up can take a mere 20 seconds via the diagnostic port. Would the insurance pay up?

My car doesn’t even have a parking place inside for the slippery little keypod – I Velcro it to the dash so I know where it is. Crude but practical. The designer would be horrified. 

Truly I fail to see a real advantage in keyless entry. If your hands are full you can’t open the door anyway, and I would never feel confident in the passive lock option (when the car locks itself as you walk away). Just give me plain remote central locking. That is useful.

Don’t jump to brand me a Luddite – I’m a major fan of adaptive cruise control and I can’t wait to experience night vision cams and a GPS-linked autobox. Technology has much to offer drivers. But please give me the option to switch off keyless starting.