The Crystal Palace

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To any enthusiast living in London or the Home Counties in 1936 there was news to make them very excited. Motor racing was flourishing at Brooklands track, and had been going for a long time, as had the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in Worcestershire, while in the Midlands Donington Park was well underway. But all these things were far beyond the compass of a pedal bicycle, and if your parents did not own a car or could not afford to pay for train fares the possibility of seeing some actual motor racing round a circuit was pretty meagre. It did not stop our enthusiasm for motor racing.

In 1936 it was announced that a motor racing “Road Circuit” was to be built in the grounds of the Crystal Palace exhibition grounds at Sydenham, in S E London. Real joy, because it was a short bicycle ride from my home, and even shorter by bus, but if necessary I could walk there, even though it was all uphill!

Needless to say I was one of the first spectators to pass through the new turnstiles on Saturday 24th April 1937, spending all my pocket money, still being at school, and even saved One Shilling (5p today, and today’s programme would be £5) for the programme, which I still have. The circuit was exactly 2 miles to the lap, and the average speed was barely 55 mph, for the beautiful tarmac road was very twisty with only two short straights. Today we would call it “Mickey Mouse” and there would be moaning about “nowhere to pass…” In 1937 we were enthralled by the spectacle and the noise and the exciting cars, ERAs, Altas, Maseratis, MGs, Rileys, with Raymond Mays and Patrick Fairfield in the ERA factory team, and Billy Cotton the band-leader in an MG.

I was probably among the last of the spectators to leave that Saturday evening, but I knew I would be back and already had the feeling that when I left school I was going to have to be involved in motor racing, somehow. That first year of the Crystal Palace circuit saw me at all four car race meetings that were held, but don’t ask me where the money came from, for I cannot remember. It wasn’t important that pocket money and “financial gifts” from aunts and uncles was all “wasted” on motor racing; I just had to be there.

By 1939 I was a hardened Crystal Palace motor racing fan and just one of many thousands of regular spectators. In 1938 there had been five meetings and in 1939 four major events were planned, with some additional minor club meetings. At the first meeting, on 20th May 1939, among the spectators was a Mr Wells, with his 8-year old son Tom, clutching his father’s hand and no doubt trembling with excitement.

Mr Wells was a nearby Ford Dealer, and went to the Crystal Palace in a Model 68, with 30hp V8 engine, a car that was rewriting the motoring standards of the day on the matter of instant acceleration, winning all the “traffic lights Grands Prix races” with an impressive 0-60 mph performance.

Tom Wells recalls drivers such as Prince Bira, Arthur Dobson, Percy Maclure and Peter Walker, and ERA cars, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos. The Sydenham Trophy was won by Bira in his ERA. with Arthur Dobson second and Hans Ruesch, the Swiss driver third. Mr Wells probably had little idea about what he had started, for they went to the next meeting in July, and then to a vast Gymkana-cum-Race meeting at Brooklands put on by the Ford Motor Company for its customers, naturally going in their Ford V8 saloon.

By September 1939 motor racing was finished all over Europe while people fought each other for six long years, and young Wells probably wondered what it was all about. Enthusiasm was re-kindled after the war and the first British GP at Silverstone was attended, and by 1950 young Mr Wells was a keen reader of Motor Sport, and still is to this day. In 1972 Tom Wells took his eldest son, then aged 4 years, to the Crystal Palace for the “Farewell to Crystal Palace” meeting on Saturday September 23rd. The meeting was sponsored by the Daily Mail and there were 186 names in the entry list, most of the cars being “Historic” and many having been at the first Crystal Palace meeting in 1937. Certainly the ERAs were at that 1939 meeting that Mr Wells was taken to by his father in their Ford V8, when he was 8 years old. Like father, like son, the 4 year old member of the Wells family was as fascinated as his father was. It was just a sad fact that it was the last meeting to be run on the Crystal Palace circuit.

In 1937 it was the London County Council, owners of the Crystal Palace Exhibition grounds, who made it possible for the newly-formed Road Racing Club to organise that first meeting. By 1972 the LCC had become the Greater London Council and they permitted the Aston Martin Owners Club to organise this last meeting. The ever increasing noise factor (twenty years ago!) and the safety factor of the spectators, plus the cost of upkeep all went against the retention of the circuit and persuaded the GLC to call it a day. It was a sad day for Mr Tom Wells, now living in Winchmore Hill in North London, and for many more enthusiasts and competitors.

It had never been one of the “great” circuits, but that doesn’t matter, it provided some very good racing for a long time and many thousands of motor racing enthusiasts welcomed it right on their own doorstep. Not many capital cities in the world can claim to have had a permanent road-racing circuit within their boundaries and almost in sight of the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps it was really too good to be true, but those who were able to enjoy it have many happy memories.

A number of other readers have written in with memories of their first sight and sound being at “the Palace” so I picked out Mr T A Wells’ letter at random. D S J