Doug Nye: 'Motor racing's most remarkable trophy'

“The most admirable trophy was the ‘Floatile’ for the Can-Am series”

Motor racing trophies embody an enormously wide range of aesthetic, commercial and cultural taste. How often has one seen an eye-popping podium presentation of some garish oversized fridge magnet to a momentarily dumbstruck driver? Still occasionally a ‘proper’ classical gold cup, like the British GP’s Mervyn O’Gorman Trophy, introduces at least a belated note of well-founded values. An adequate racing trophy can still confirm this is an old-established sport of genuine stature.

Of all the racing trophies I recall, for me the most admirable in its concept and appearance was the remarkable ‘Floatile’ presented by Johnson Wax for the original Can-Am Championship series, launched in the US and Canada in 1966.

John Surtees and his Lola-Chevrolet T70 emerged as the first winner, followed of course – for five consecutive seasons – by Team McLaren, 1967-71. Johnson’s donated ‘Floatile’ was itself a truly remarkable piece. It comprised a lightweight magnesium and aluminium ‘nacelle’ tethered to a hefty base, above which it simply floated like a gas balloon, thanks to magnetic repulsion. Its creator was Venezuelan-born sculptor Alberto W. Collie, who specialised in such surreal levitating forms. As a trophy it was attractive, intriguing, innovative and active. When picked up by the base, that floating nacelle would drift and judder – wonderfully well-suited for a high-tech competitive activity.

In contrast was the OTT splendour of trophies presented for success in the Angola GP sports and GT race around Luanda. The colonial Portuguese’s spectacular yet very practical taste in trophies was matched by their approach to racing problems. During one practice session, drivers were confronted by work gangs welding in the middle of the track. This spark-showering hazard was to weld shut every manhole cover a competing car might dislodge and throw into the path of another.

When a friend earned a minor Angola GP placing he was astonished by the colossal trophy, recalling: “It appeared to be a chromium-plated Jeep crankshaft – sprouting vertically from a solid granite base”. The excess baggage charge to fly it home evidently persuaded him to leave it there, as graciously as he could…

But while recently studying a collection before me of historic old racing cups, plaques and bowls, I came across one presented for the 1953 Coronation Trophy race at London’s Crystal Palace circuit that Whit-Monday. That meeting – 70 years ago – marked the postwar revival of the pre-war circuit, where in 1938 another Coronation Trophy race had been run, won then by Prince Bira’s ERA. The surviving ’53 trophy bears the attractive white and blue emblem of the donating London County Council, whose Chairman A.E. Middleton had accompanied Earl Howe in opening the shortened – now 1.39-mile – circuit in an Allard Palm Beach. All this in glorious sunshine, before a gigantic crowd, estimated at anything from 60,000 to (an unlikely) 100,000, but such was the enthusiasm of people then just to enjoy any sporting spectacle.

“Alan Brown and ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett failed to leave the line”

The Coronation Trophy race was run in two 10-lap Heats plus a 10-lap Final, but it was sound, colour, excitement which counted – not duration. Lance Macklin led Heat 1 initially in an HWM, from Tony Rolt’s Rob Walker-entered Connaught A-Type and Ken Wharton’s comparatively puny-looking Cooper-Bristol Mark II. ‘The Major’ (Rolt) soon disposed of Macklin, then “…very calmly and efficiently led thereafter to the end of the 10 laps. In Heat 2 it was again an HWM – Peter Collins’ – which led initially, while Alan Brown (Cooper-Alfa) and ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett (Cooper twin) failed to leave the line, the former with fuel pump failure, the latter with a broken chain”. Different times indeed.

Peter Whitehead in his Cooper-Alta displaced Collins to win, and an hour later the two pre-war old hands Rolt and Whitehead lined-up with Macklin and Wharton on the front row for the 10-lap Final. The latter led into the first corner but Rolt caught him quickly; “…pulling right up to his tail and slipstreaming down the straights. Lap five and he’d done it, the Connaught was leading. Eight laps saw Rolt comfortably ahead… 10th and last lap and Rolt won the race, his fine victory acclaimed by much clapping, cheering and waving of programmes… It was grand to see those two highly-skilled drivers Rolt and Whitehead taking ‘firsts’. Fastest lap of the day, 72.73mph, was achieved by Rolt both in his heat and the Final – an increase of 12mph over Raymond Mays’ pre-war circuit record”.

My late friend Cyril Posthumus’s race report didn’t explain that the shortened course deleted a slow infield loop, but today – in this Coronation year – it was nice to handle that gleaming trophy…and to sense what satisfaction it must have given to entrant Rob Walker – and to former Colditz PoW, Major Tony Rolt, MC & Bar. Mind you, three weeks later he won Le Mans for Jaguar alongside Duncan Hamilton, which surely trumped it. Autosport magazine had run a feature on ‘The Elizabethans’, the then broad generation of British racing drivers. Will one appear today acclaiming ‘The Caroleans’? I doubt it. But handling such trophies certainly instils a frisson within those who understand. Will, one day, a modern ‘fridge magnet’ do the same?

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s