Motor Racing on Film

Anyone who works in motor racing journalism becomes a little jaded from time to time. Love for the sport brings you into the game in the first place but when it becomes a job, it can become just that, a job.

The great thing though is that the feeling is always transitory because there are so many enthusiasts around. You meet them among dealers, among marshals, collectors, drivers, mechanics, everywhere. The enthusiasm is infectious — and it is good.

Every so often, though, you meet someone who stands out and such a man is Paul Meale. Paul is a salesman with a frozen seafood company who became hooked on the sport when passing Brands Hatch one day. He went into the circuit, it was mid-week and there were just a couple of racing school cars going around but it was enough. It led him to racing and rallying a Mini and a Mk1 Cortina GT with his brother John and, having the surname “Meale” led naturally to the “Meales On Wheels Racing Team”.

Eventually Paul found himself supporting his brother and in 1981 he bowed out of active racing after a crash at Silverstone. Selling his car, he invested some of the money in a video camera with which he’d film his brother’s racing and other events. Before long he was asked to present a 30 minute video at a club’s evening meeting and he laboriously edited his footage using a couple of domestic VCRs. One day during a lull in a London Car Club sprint at Goodwood, Paul and some friends began wondering about the history of the place and where all the films were. That idea fired him to begin what is generally called the “London Car Club Archive.” The club lends its name but the effort’s largely Paul Meale’s.

Now he has a well-equipped studio and something like 500 hours of motor racing history on tape. It’s been done from love and he has been able to rescue an extraordinary amount of professional and amateur film. Some is familiar, for it comes from the film units of Shell and BP (the Esso library remains tantalisingly out of reach apart from a few reels). It contains gems like the time that Prince Charles drove an F3 Chevron at Silverstone, a mint copy of the 1929 Ards TT; 500 cc cars at Brands Hatch in the days when the circuit ran anti-clockwise: an evening in Paul’s studio is an astonishing experience.

Of this important archive 95% is bound by copyright and promises that he will not exploit his copies. To make this constraint clear: if the Aquaplane Tyre Company made a film for promotional purposes in 1960 with the intention of loaning it free of charge to clubs, then everyone involved in the production, from the director to the third fiddle in the band playing the incidental music, agreed on a standard payment. If Paul wished to break that original agreement and exploit his collection commercially (and so make it more widely available) he would have to re-negotiate every single contract at every person involved in the production of the original.

It’s a constraint which means that when he presents a show, such as the monthly filrn shows he gives for the London Car Club at the “Packhorse And Talbot” pub in Chiswick, he may ask for contributions to fund his work but not charge an admission fee. He’d like to lend his collection to clubs as well, but it’s so easy to pirate a copy of a video tape that he will not take the risk of allowing them out of his direct control.

Paul is an ordinary enthusiast doing something extraordinary. Giving his word to Ford that he would not commercially exploit the company’s film archives if he were allowed to copy them, gained the company’s trust. When he approached Ford he began at the top, with Sam Toy, Shell and BP sent him videos of their films. He struck lucky with Firestone during a move of headquarters when it was discovered that someone had forgotten to throw away a crate of irreplaceable film in the move.

He has copies of many of Rivers Fletcher’s films but will not show them while Rivers is still delivering his shows. Paul s ambition is to record all of Rivers’ commentary, “I find it frightening that future generations will not be able to enjoy his films and commentaries. It’s part of our motor racing heritage”

The video company, JVC, has assisted by allowing use of its facilities in return for the JVC logo being displayed on the films which have been copied for posterity. Unfortunately not every company has been so accommodating. Paul has been unable to get much joy from Austin Rover, for instance, or the National Motor Museum. Perhaps these bodies have become so used to beating off the wide boys and time wasters that they cannot recognise the genuine enthusiast.

On the other hand, many amateurs have entrusted their 8mm and 16 mm film to the archive. The deal is simple: you loan the film for copying onto videotape, no footage is too short, and if you would like a copy for yourself, you pay the cost of a blank tape. If anyone has any such film then he should contact Paul Meale at 6 Atwood Road, Hammersmith, London W6 OHS tel 01-748 69791. The film will be preserved for the future and the donor will receive a tape at a fraction of the cost of having the material transferred through commercial channels. — M.L.