Oulton park has had a chequered history since it was built by enthusiasts in 1953. For Bill Boddy, it holds many memories
Although by the 1950s Britain was endowed with a number of very good motor racing circuits to compensate for the criminal loss of Brooklands, — for example, Silverstone, Donington Park, Goodwood, and the tight little Crystal Palace course —the keen members of the Mid-Cheshire Car Club decided in 1953 to create one of their own at Oulton Park, near Tarporley in Cheshire.
It became a very well known and liked venue, and the scene of fixtures contested by the top drivers, as well as being well suited to all manner of vintage and historic cars. This year it will host the RAC British Touring Car Championship on May 26 and the British F3 Championship on June 22, and the VSCC will hold its usual meeting there on June 28.
Oulton Park’s origins as a race circuit go back to early 1953, when members of the Mid-Cheshire CC asked for volunteers to help clear the site and mark out the proposed course. MOTOR SPORT helped by publishing this appeal and work went ahead progressively so that, by August 8, the new track had been created, the lap distance then a sinuous 1.504 miles.
Oulton Park was the property of Sir Philip Gray-Egerton, Bt, and the Cheshire Car Circuit Ltd was formed to control events there. The course lay in delightful parkland and, as Chester was the closest large town, good attendances were expected. The Mid-Cheshire club knew it was inexperienced in running race meetings, so the British Automobile Racing Club started things going. I remember these early days because the Cheshire Car Circuit chairman Maurice Falkner invited me to sample the circuit in February 1954. By this time an extra loop was in hand to increase the lap distance to 2.23 miles and cut out the tricky corner called Range Turn, which was rather too close to that picturesque lake which is a landmark feature of Oulton Park. The invitation was opportune because I had at last been able to prise a road-test Frazer Nash out of AFN Ltd. It was the 1951 prototype Targa Florio Turismo (AMC 2), with the 100hp Bristol engine, a car that had been the works hack, Aldington’s demonstration car and then one of the press roadtest fleet if AFN ever had such a thing!
It was quite the right sort of motor car for the job and I had a good time meeting Mr Falkner (a noted Aston Martin driver who had competed with Reggie Tongue at Le Mans in 1934, with Tom Clarke in 1953 and in two Mille Miglias, etc) and driving around the circuit in the ‘Nash, using all the road at Lodge Corner. The course went from the Paddock straight to the right-hand bend into the Cascades, then to Range Corner beside the lake and uphill through a fast left-hander to Druids, and then to the longest straight which led to Lodge Corner, a right-hand curve bringing drivers back to the Paddock straight.
As an aside, this was an enjoyable outing for me, but not for our photographer who, for domestic reasons, liked to get home as soon as possible after an assignment. On this occasion, having picked him up at my place in Hampshire, we drove to Derby to sample the V8 Harker Special, spending the night at a hotel in Chester. The next morning we went on to Hoylake to spy out an ancient Darracq and after lunch in Tarporley, presented ourselves at Oulton Park where a group of Mid-Cheshire CC personalities awaited us. The photographer was hoping for a fast return home to London. But Mr Falkner kindly invited us to tea at his house, to which we followed him in his Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Here, his man-servant asked us to remove our shoes, proffering slippers, which trapped us from an early departure into the foggy evening. It was thus necessary to spend another night in an hotel, The Crown at Stone.
On Monday morning the cameraman had hoped to get home around lunch-time, but, as we were going through Wolverhampton, I decided to call at the Kieft factory to catch up on what they were doing. Eventually the Frazer Nash was pointed homewards after I had sent a wire to say I would be there for dinner.
Alas, after averaging 56mph over wet roads, I called at The Phoenix at Hartley Witney, where an enthusiastic motoring crowd, Jenks included, insisted they try the ‘Nash `up the road’. Much later I did rejoin the photographer with his car. On another occasion, the chap came with me in a Ford Prefect to a 1953 750 MC trial. We intended to return by lunch-time but I was told I could compete, and it was tea-time when the trial ended. Back in Fleet, the man swallowed a scalding cup of tea and dashed to his car, a well-worn Type 34 FN-BMW. A jolly evening indoors merged into night when someone heard a faint clicking sound coming from the garden. It emanated from the chap’s car which had a flat battery; he had been cranking it for hours. A push and he was away, to whatever domestic nonbliss might await him. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the poor chap had emigrated to Australia…
To revert to Oulton Park, it quickly became a major circuit and the accompanying list (page 60) of some of its earlier races shows the high calibre of cars and drivers it attracted. It was proposed to charge 4/- to 6/- (20-30p) entrance fee and spectators on foot were provided with six exits. It was a lot less easy to leave in cars. I recall the delays as they emerged from parks on either side of the Paddock road and had then to negotiate a narrow Bailey Bridge over the track, although exits using the course helped to alleviate congestion after a well attended meeting.
I used to enjoy my drives to Oulton Park, on the A44 and A488 to Knighton, then over the hilly backroute via Clun with its packhorse bridge, to Shrewsbury, over Welsh Bridge and along beside the river, to take the interesting B5476 through Wem and Press and join the busy A41 to the outskirts of Whitchurch. Here it was right at the roundabout (where Jenks would insist that I should have gone straight on!) and over the fast road to Tarporley where some of the drivers stayed. Care here to find a right turn out of this little town, for the last fast bit to another right turn and the wooded roads to the track entrance.
The place had a splendidly spacious aspect, the Paddock a big grass field (where, on a VSCC day, Kenneth Neve’s picnic, which rivalled Pomeroy’s, would usually be taking place beside his Phantom Rolls-Royce which had towed the 1914 TT Humber). Another large field constituted the dispatch bay, cars leaving for the start and the clockwise lappery by the wooden pits, returning after a race by a gate at the end of the pits.
You could walk round the entire circuit and eat in a civilised restaurant, and often there were sandwiches for the press… The less said about the press box the better, however. It had a wall on the right without a window, which made the first corner from the start invisible, you could scarcely see the cars taking Old Hall and the pit roof obscured most of the starting grid. I write of the circuit in its earlier days, of course.
It was developed very quickly, the lap distance increased to 2.761 miles only a year after its opening, by August 7, 1954.
With such a `driver’s course’ and good management, it is not surprising that, within the first four seasons, those of the calibre of Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Tony Brooks, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Innes Ireland, Reg Parnell, Roy Salvadori and other greats were competing there. Or that the Vintage Sports Car Club annually held its Richard Seaman Memorial Trophies Vintage and Historic meetings there from 1956, and where it was possible to see those improbable aero-engined giants, the 18.8-litre 350hp Sunbeam, the 21.7-litre Fiat Mephistopheles and the 24-litre Napier Railton driven remarkably well and courageously by, respectively, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Peter Gresham and the Hon Patrick Lindsay.
A leading annual fixture was the International Gold Cup race, stretching eventually over 202 miles, and run under various formulae, including the 2-litre and 1 1/2-litre F1 and sports car rulings. Also, the BRDC used Oulton Park for its British Empire Trophy race from 1954 to 1959. It is impossible to recall all these, but I remember the 1954 Daily Dispatch International Trophy Meeting when Stirling Moss, with the ex-Villoresi Maserati, won both the 100-mile Formula One and the 55-mile F2 races from Reg Pamell’s Ferrari and Bob Gerard’s CooperBristol, setting the lap-record for the 2 1/4-mile course with the new `Karussel’ loop around the lake at an average speed of 85.4mph. To round this off, Moss also won the opening 25-mile F3 race from Jim Russell’s Cooper “by miles”, with Francis Beart’s Cooper-Norton.
Another meeting I recall was the 1955 Gold Cup when Jenks and I were relieved to see in the Paddock the Lancia-Ferrari transporters; we were not convinced that these V8 pannier-tank cars would arrive because it would be their first appearance here. But arrive they did, with Mike Hawthorn and Eugenio Castellotti to drive them. With Stirling Moss and Luigi Musso in works Maseratis, two Vanwalls, two Connaughts and a four-cylinder BRM for Peter Collins, Oulton had really and truly arrived. Four red cars on the front row of the F1 grid!
The race was again sponsored by the Daily Dispatch – who says Fleet Street ignored motor racing? Moss was master, as usual, winning at 85.94mph this 54-lap F1 race from Hawthorn and Desmond Titterington’s Vanwall, as well as lifting the lap record to 87.81mph. The onlookers also saw a so-called production saloon car race which Naylor’s Porsche Super walked away with, leaving behind Tony Brooks in a DKW, a dice for the production sports cars in which a Morgan Plus-4 beat two AC Aces, and a Formula Three event which was won by Boshier-Jones’ Cooper, from Colin Davis, son of the great Sammy Davis, in the Beart Cooper.
I remember concluding my report of this fine meeting by saying: “We came away from Oulton Park very impressed with the excellence of the circuit and the arrangements.”
The above memories refer to Oulton Park in its early years, of course, not as it is today, when it continues to be a top British circuit.
Incidentally, fate got its revenge on me for the times I made our photographer late home when I later went to interview Mr Falkner. He suggested I should come to dinner, so I set off from Wales after tea, for Cheshire. Found the house, lurking at the end of a truly impressively long drive. Ring door-bell. Man-servant opens the door, and looks puzzled. “Is Mr Falkner expecting you sir?” Heart misses a beat as I consult my diary. Date OK. Am invited in and put in library with a caged and talkative minah bird for company. Being shy, I did not respond.
Time passes. Man comes in: “Mr F is very forgetful sir. He had a most important meeting last month and I laid out his evening clothes but he never came back.” Thus warned, and with the fog thickening, after an hour or more I got up to go. At that moment a key was heard in the door and man-servant’s voice: “Mr Boddy is in the library, sir. He arrived some time ago. Dinner is not up to much now, sir.” I stayed, got a most interesting interview and left in dense fog for the drive home… Oulton Park does indeed hold many memories.