No, not that palace — the Crystal Palace, London’s only motor racing circuit which has never been as well documented as Brooklands or Donington. It all started in 1927, with motorcycle racing in the extensive grounds of the one-time great glass palace at Sydenham in SE London. This was organised by two entrepreneurs, F E Monkford and C L Smith, starting that May. The narrow winding course with five hairpin bends was then only a mile to a lap, yet some 10,000 spectators turned up, to see TT-rider Gus Kuhn (Velocette), George Hole (Raleigh) and others take part in mainly three and five lap races.
So restricted was the track that solo riders had to be started in pairs, sidecars on their own, results being based on lap times, as in the TT, with lap speeds as low as 30 mph. This did not deter the onlookers and for the second 1927 meeting, in August, the course had been widened, permitting four solo machines to start together, safety barriers had been erected (to hopefully prevent the sort of accident which had marred the opening meeting, when a sidecar outfit ran into the crowd and injured several people, resulting in questions in the House of Commons) and there was now a public address system.
These motorcycle events prospered, until the rival attraction of dirt-track racing took away some of their appeal. This cinder track sport had surfaced at High Beech in 1928 and by that May had been instituted at the Palace. By 1929 it was a dangerous rival to the “purer” form of racing but the Palace compromised by having road racing on Saturday afternoons and dirt track from 7pm on the same evening, admission to the former costing 1/6d (7 1/2p), children 6d (2 1/2p).
In 1937, perhaps encouraged by the success of Donington Park, motor racing came to the Crystal Palace, organised by the Road Racing Club, with Harry Edwards the Clerk of the Course. (I used to watch these London races and, living then off Tooting Bec Common, get home to a late tea on a No 49 bus. Later I went there in my A7 Mulliner coupé, which, until it had been endowed with a four speed gearbox, needed a push up the slope out of the Paddock, often holding up the vans containing famous racing cars…)
The first car races were run in Coronation Year 1937, on April 24th, some 30,000 spectators arriving, equal to a good day at the smaller Brooklands meetings. The lap distance was now two miles but the slow twisting section of the course past the lake at North Tower Crescent remained. The first heat of the 20 lap Coronation Trophy Race was for 1 1/2 litre cars, with seven starters. After Charles Follett had opened the course in a Lammas-Graham, the official Triumph had been parked, a veteran Rover had chugged about advertising future meetings, and the Antifyre Vauxhall firetenders had got into position, Edwards dropped the Union flag for a Continental type start. At first three ERAs dominated the field, until Ian Connell, today’s Brookland Society President, retired R6B with a punctured oil tank. This let Charles Brackenbury in Rayson’s Maserati into third place behind Scribbans in R9B and Fairfield in R12C, the standing-start lap at 51.3 mph. Humphrey’s 750cc MG retired with back axle failure and Scribbans’ exhaust pipe came adrift. There were no real pits but he stopped on Terrace straight to try and tie it on, holding it in place with a piece of rag, finishing too late to qualify for the final. So Fairfield won at 52.63 mph, 21 sec ahead of the Maserati, the Hon. Peter Aitken’s Shelsley-type Frazer Nash third, Maclure’s unblown 1100cc Riley 4th.
Racing was not fast, but it was exciting, the noise reverberating off the solid wall before the grandstand. The next heat was won by Raymond Mays’ Zoller supercharged R4C ERA at 52.55 mph, from the ERAs of Arthur Dobson and Peter Whitehead with Wilky Wilkinson’s unblown Riley 4th. Before the 60 mile final was contested Dick Nash and Cecil Clutton drove “demonstration” laps, in the 1912 15-litre GP Lorraine Dietrich and the 1908 12-litre GP Itala, these newly discovered giant Edwardians even more exciting than they seem today. It looked as if Mays would win the final but engine and brake maladies saw him out after only seven laps, leaving Fairfield victorious at 53.77 mph, from Dobson and Robin Hanson’s Maserati, Fairfield also setting the record for the circuit, at 54.59 mph. Earl Howe presented him with the Jack Barclay Coronation Trophy and £200. Motor racing had come to London — in a most satisfactory way . . .
The second 1937 meeting was held on July 17th, with the impressive title of the London Grand Prix. In fact, as before, short heats and a final were contested, on a group handicap system based on engine size, up to 1500cc. Dobson was very quick in practice, lapping at 56.43 mph. In the first heat Mays in the black ERA was in fine form, getting past Goodacre’s A7 and gaining a 16 sec. lead — it was stirring stuff on the twisty circuit, getting past the smaller front row starters adding to the excitement. On the last lap the ERA’s back axle broke. However Mays coasted home to win at 52.53 mph, half a second ahead of Connell’s ERA, Maclure’s unblown Riley third.
Between the heats Major Gardner demonstrated the 140 mph MG Magnette and there was a sidecar race. “Bira” won heat 2 in ERA R2B by 1.9 sec. from the tail-sliding Dobson, Reg Parnell’s MG third. Mrs Eccles overturned her Rapier Special and Bolster ran “Mary”. The Final was won by “Bira” at 54.36 mph from Connell and Maclure, Mays’ axle going again, after his mechanics had worked hard to repair it. “Bira’s” best lap was at 56.47 mph.
Rain at the August Meeting, which was devoted to cycle, motorcycle, sidecar and the 15 lap group handicap Crystal Palace Cup Race, caused a savage drop in attendance. Entries were good however, “Bira” driving the 3-litre Maserati, Lord Austin sending twin-cam and sv A7s for Hadley and Kay Petre and the usual ERAs and Maseratis joining in. Moreover the finish was very thrilling, for as “Bira” got within sight of Hadley in the leading A7 on the last lap, the Maserati slid round at Ramp Bend. He restarted but was beaten by 24 sec, the Austin winning at 49.83 mph. Parnell in the MG Magnette was third, ahead of Maclure’s Riley and Mrs Petre, the rest flagged in. Connell retired, with trouble with R6B’s twin Arnott blowers, as had Monkhouse’s Amilcar. (It was all rather enjoyable; I recall how, during practice for the second meeting, what was left of the fire-destroyed Palace was brought down, during a thunderstorm, the noise probably blamed on the cars, and of running to avoid Esson-Scott’s out of control long-tailed Bugatti, not only to escape injury but because I had no pass, this having been confiscated temporarily because a young lady had persuaded me to let her drive her A7 into a prohibited area. Today she drives an 1100 HRG) . . .
The final 1937 meeting was run to the earlier format, for the Imperial Trophy. Maclure’s 2-litre Riley took heat 1, Count Trossi’s 4CM Maserati heat 2, the Final being won by “Bira” in R2B ERA at 57.80 mph, from Dobson (R7B), who put the lap record to 58.63 mph, and Goodacre’s little Austin. The dual for first place in the Final was fine to watch and the appearance of Trossi, Lurani and Villoresi of the Scuderia Ambrosiana, bringing their cars in OM vans, was a tribute to Edwards’ popularising of the London circuit. Mays would have competed had the 1100cc engine for R4C not expired in practice. Edwards was no doubt studying the proposal for a 9 1/2 mile £250,000 circuit outside Scarborough with interest; like those described last month, this came to nought.
So much for the first season of London’s motor racing. At the last meeting Seaman had demonstrated a 1937 GP Mercedes Benz in company with a 1903 Mercedes 60 (for the TV cameras). It boded well for 1938, although Edwards apparently needed 70,000 spectators to make the place pay. Nevertheless, the second season opened well, although a clash with the Boat Race and Clubman’s Day at Brooklands detracted from the attendance at the April meeting. Heat 1 of the Coronation Trophy started at the civilised hour of 3.30pm. It went to “Bira” from Wakefield and Hadley — ERA, Maserati 6C, Austin. The next heat saw Dobson win in his ERA from Dodson’s A7 and Smith’s MG Magnette. Incidentally, the surface of the course was slippery but the programme explained that it would improve with every car that ran on it — imagine the RAC accepting that, in 1990! Baron de Graffenried had arrived too late to drive his Maserati but Buddy Featherstonhaugh bravely deputised for Hans Ruesch in the 3.8 V8 Maserati, making its tyres smoke under acceleration.
In the final “Bira” showed his mastery. He beat Wakefield, Dobson, Hadley and Maclure averaging 57.83 mph. Many well known faces graced the Paddock and this time the circuit car was a Delahaye coupé.
The 1938 season included a Composite Meeting in August when the 30 mile Crystal Palace Cup Race was won by George Abecassis in a twin-rear wheeled 1 1/2-litre Alta, which was followed home by the ERAs of Tony Rolt and Johnnie Wakefield. After a motorcycle race, Edwards put on a 20 mile group handicap Sports Car Race. It was won by Arthur Dobson’s business-like four cylinder 1 1/2-litre Riley, in which he had driven to the circuit, at 50.49 mph, Abecassis’ blown 1 1/2-litre Alta second, Aitken’s 328 BMW third. Rain did not marr the closing 1938 racing which included a Match Race between “Bira” and Dobson, the joint lap-record holders, in their ERAs. It was started by Dick Seaman; Dobson won after “Bira” had had the n/s rear tyre deflate. “Bira” found the Roots-blown “Romulus” better suited to the slow circuit than the Zoller-blown “Hanuman”. However, having won one heat and Dobson the other heat, it was the Alta of Abecassis that vanquished “Bira” in the final, now over 32 miles, George averaging 52.08 mph. Eugenio Minetti’s Maserati 6C was third, ahead of Rolt and Beadle in another Alta. The onlookers also saw a Le Mans-start Sports Car Race, Fane’s 328 BMW winning easily at 46.78 mph from Abecassis’ Alta and an MG PB. The London Grand Prix had been another “Bira” benefit, ERA R2B winning at 55.81 mph, from Dobson and Cuddon-Fletcher in an MG.
War cut short the 1939 season but on the eve of hostilities on August 26th Lord Austin must have been delighted with Bert Hadley’s fine win in the Imperial Trophy Race, which the green twin-cam Austin won by 73.9 sec, after having a start of seven seconds a lap. Dobson’s ERA was second, after Mays had a tyre puncture, but the little Austin actually lapped Maclure’s Riley and K D Evans’ Alfa Romeo. The Imperial Plate, for sports cars, went to Abecassis in the ex-Cowell 2-litre Alta (I expect DSJ was in attendance) by three seconds from Leslie Johnson’s Frazer Nash-BMW, and for the second time the Vintage Cup went to RGJ Nash’s big GP Lorraine. Even before this Hadley had managed second place to Mays in ERA R4D at the CP Cup meeting, “Bira” third, the Bourne car averaging 59.93 mph, the lap record up to 60.97 mph.
That is a brief account of pre-war happenings at the Palace. If the programmes sometimes catered more for the Metropolitan “gate” than for dedicated enthusiasts and one commentator was so hysterical that I once hurried to his corner, only to find things normal and the action all in his mind (voice?), the London circuit does not deserve to be forgotten. It survived the war, with the lap distance shortened to 1.39 miles, the New Link having been put in, cutting out the difficult infield loop past Big Tree Bend. However it remained a tricky course, with corner following corner and that formidable wall by the start rising from the trackside.
During this period the BARC and BRSCC ran short races there for cars of many kinds, up to F1 calibre, as the table shows. However I recall waiting for the gates to open and wondering how long local residents, whose houses were so close to the course, would tolerate the noise, which was pretty horrendous, even to me, as practice went on. In the end that, and the GLC’s development of the site as a sports complex, closed racing down with a Club meeting in 1972. The winner of the final race was Gerry Marshall’s 3.8 Lister-Jaguar.