Having just read Guy Edwards’ book on motor-racing sponsorship (to be reviewed shortly) I feel there are a few minor loose ends to be tied up. Quite when racing sponsorship began is a nice one for historians to ponder over. The RAC did not sanction advertising decals on top-rank racing cars until 1968. Today, as Edwards so ably explains, sponsorship is very big business indeed! Not only the cars but the advertising round the circuits and the labels on the drivers’ overalls make this blatantly evident. You cannot baulk progress, and motor sports now lean heavily on such publicity, although one shudders that it may spread further, to classic and vintage racing, which would spoil the idea of trying to recapture the past, of reliving the history of these cars and how they were raced originally. If you don’t want to participate in that, why race such cars?
The last part of Guy Edwards’ book touches briefly on motor racing history and, incidentally, he drops a clanger. (I hear mine ring all too loudly, sometimes.) He has it that after Marcel Renault was killed in the tragic 1903 Paris-Madrid race which was stopped at Bordeaux the winner was his brother Louis. But after a courageous drive, Gabriel in the Mors was first home in that fateful event. Louis Renault won the Light Car Class, and was three mph slower.
Guy rightly points to the advertising on Barney Oldfield’s Christie racer as early as 1910 and says sponsorship erupted at Indianapolis by 1929. That was when names were painted on the Millers, like “Simplex Piston Ring” and “Marchese Special”, etc. In England this was not permitted in those pre-war days. Indeed, it now seems rather droll that in the mid-1920s all the cars in the JCC 200-Mile Races were required to be entered as “Specials”, in case it was misconstrued that they were production cars, which must have seemed quaint to the entrants of a pretty standard Fiat 509, the sports-based A7s, and some others. . . The book refers to the Hitler and Mussolini support of GP cars from Germany and Italy in Grands Prix immediately prior to WW2, although I am not certain whether Nazi Party sponsorship was actually financial help or was in the guise of orders for aero-engines and military vehicles for the forthcoming war. A government investigation into the German racing teams resulted in a published document on the subject.
Although visual advertising on the cars was not allowed here until 1968, one of the first to run his motor racing on business lines was the American driver Whitney Straight, who hired his cars to others. He left Cambridge and in 1933 formed Whitney Straight Ltd, buying three GP Maseratis, and three transporters for them, opening a workshop in Milan, and employing several mechanics under the famed Giulio Ramponi. Dick Seaman gained his first experience of serious motor racing when he entered into a contract with Straight to drive an MG Magnette. Later Seaman ran his own racing on business lines. After falling out with ERA and letting Ramponi prepare the 10-year-old 1 1/2-litre GP Delage for his future racing, Dick not only obtained free as many components and supplies as he could, but he offered paid-for advertising space on his Dodge van. It could be said that sponsorship is almost, but not quite, as old as motor racing itself.