Veteran to Classic

Another facet of motor racing history, the first British dirt-track car race meeting, took place in the summer of 1928. It was run by that great and ambitious Junior Car Club, the popular JCC, which had pioneered the 200-mile race for cars of up to 1½-litres at Brooklands in 1921, introduced easy-to-understand handicapping, by turns instead of time, at its long-distance International Trophy races at the Track and had had competitors’ cars running down the famous Test Hill in its One Hour High Speed Trial that managed to bring a modicum of road racing to Brooklands as early as 1925.

So, with the success of motorcycle Speedway racing very evident, why not try it for cars? This the go-ahead JCC did at the Greenford trottingtrack in Middlesex. It was all a considerable gamble. The motorcycles would lean over at seemingly impossible angles as their intrepid riders skidded round the corners showering out cinders, a thrilling spectacle. Indeed, Speedway was to develop into a popular spectator sport, on football-league lines, the specialist riders heroes in their own right, as they battled for points under the floodlights at stadiums and courses at Wembley, Lea Bridge, Catford, High Beach, etc.

The Brooklands crowd might have preferred real speed, at BMCRC races, and here I can insert a story against myself. Going for the first time to a Speedway meet with John EasonGibson, and with Brooklands very much in mind, I saw the dirt-track bikes circulating and said in a loud and scornful voice “Call that racing?” At that moment a flag fell and they opened their throttles and roared away in close proximity: I had not realised that what I had been watching was a rolling-start! But in the minds of the JCC Committee must have been thoughts of would the cars seem sufficiently spectacular to those accustomed to Speedway? Would entries materialise? How many would come to watch? It was an experiment, no less. But all was well. The stands filled to near capacity; as someone said “Brooklands enthusiast jostled confirmed dirt-track fans and those who had come just to see what it was like, even to the ‘vultures’ hoping for mishaps”. The latter, by the way, were disappointed. There was plenty of dust, but no mishaps. Incidentally, races were run clockwise, over the half-mile oval, the reverse of how the motorcylists rode it.

The first item on the programme was a Junior Scratch Race, in two heats and a final. Only two cars came out for the first event, confined to those of up to 1100cc, J Dingle’s GE Cup Model Austin 7 and A Marshall in a GN with an Akela ohc engine. The GN expired after a lap with a stuck carburettor-needle, perhaps dislodged by the cinders, so W E Humphreys’ Amilcar was substituted. It won by 150 yards, at 36.73 mph, with not much skidding for the anticipatory onlookers. Heat 2 was between Vernon Bails’ Amilcar with Eldridge radiator-cowl, the GN, and Spero’s Brooklands’ A7. The last-named had a spluttering fit, but the others scrapped on the corners and in the end Balls won by 1½ lengths, at 37.5 mph. The Final was a contest between the two Amilcars, which gave the hoped-for skidding displays as they fought for the inside line on the bends, Humphreys winning by a declared 25 yards from Balls, followed in by the GN.

Moreover, the pace was hotting up — the race average was 40.72 mph, even if it was all over in well under three minutes! Yet it was catching on, for the main grandstand was full and people were being turned away at the gates. The ever-cheery “ArchieFrazer-Nash, wearing a motorcycle-type crash helmet like the others, and a face mask, had brought the Plus-Powered Frazer Nash “Rikki-Tikki” out of retirement and he drove it steadily, to lead all the way from H J Aldington’s sports Frazer Nash, W J Pearson’s Frazer Nash third. He won at 43.26 mph, by 50 yards. That Senior heat over, the spectators were entertained by a race between the one-legged sidecar rider “Flow” Taylor (he had described in Motor Sport the stunts he did on his machine at country Fun Fairs) and Humphreys’ Amilcar. The bike was a 400cc Coventry-Eagle. Starting from the inside, the race like the previous heat now being run anti-clockwise, the wily Taylor got away after a neck-and-neck lap, plastering Humphreys with dust and winning at 40.63 mph. Indeed, in the tree-lined grass paddock the drivers found their eyes streaming, their faces unrecognisable, and may well have thought longingly of Brooklands concrete.

But the Senior Heat 2 went ahead, between the Frazer Nashes of R L Bowes and W Scott, Ball’s Amilcar and J Taylor in one of the old Wolseley “Moths”. Bowes’ ‘Nash was the saloon of legend, even if the top looked either partially demolished or unfinished; it had been at a Brooklands’ High Speed Trial the weekend before and now won unchallenged, at 41.66 mph, from Balls and Scott. The three ‘Nashes then dominated the Senior Final, in the order Frazer-Nash, Aldington and Bowes, “Archie” winning by 30 yards, at 43.69 mph. This inspired “Archie” to challenge the sidecar outfit to a match-race (he was now the wily one who started from the inside!) but Taylor stopped with clutch slip. Later they did it again, Taylor now on the inside but Nash got by, before the sidecar outfit again packed up.

The Greenford crowd got its money’s-worth, for apart from a Frazer Nash race won by Aldington at 43.90 mph, fastest of the day, and a few duels that fizzled out, “Archie” Frazer-Nash broke the sidecar lap-record, setting it to 44.12 mph, and then set the car lap-record, at 46.15 mph. The cinders could not have done the Frazer Nash’s transmission much good and when Dick Nash set a lap record for the Crystal Palace cinder-track many years later he used oiled silk to keep the dust out of the chains and dogs of his Frazer Nash Union Special. However, the JCC did not, I think, see much future for car dirt-track racing and abandoned the idea.

It was not until 1934 that I met the Americanised Canadian Alvin “Spike” Rhiando (in company with the two Conan Doyle brothers, a lively trio!), who was talking of resurfacing and reviving the Greenford track and racing big cars there, and who ran an A7-GN on the Crystal Palace dirt-track. Greenford failed again; as did midget-car cinder-track racing at around the same time. But it’s a little bit of history that seems worth recalling.

To round off this Greenford saga, here are the winners of the revived meeting held on May 5th 1934, under the auspices of the Automobile Racing Club, the Committee of which comprised Denis and Adrian Conan Doyle, C S Dickson-Geertez, H Dawson, Higham, and G R Gahaghan, with Alvin “Spike” Rhiando as Technical Adviser. First 5-lap race: A Baron (Bugatti). Second 5-lap race: A Baron (Bugatti). Third 5-lap race: V Derrington (Salmson). Fourth 5-lap race: A Mazengarb (Lea-Francis). Fifth 5-lap race: Allendale (Austin 7). 30-lap Placemens’ Race: T P Cholmondeley-Tapper (Bugatti). 10-lap Non-Qualifiers’ Race: Sulman (Sulman Special). Lap record (half-mile course): A Baron (Bugatti), 61.3 mph.