The Tourist Trophy

A proper motor-race

One thing about a long race is that it gives you time to take stock of the scene and the 3 ¼ hours of this year’s RAC Tourist Trophy at Silverstone, held in sunny weather, provided a very pleasant day in which it was possible to circulate right round the track, watching from all the excellent vantage points and get back to the pit area before the race was half-run, by which time a pattern had started to emerge. Watching at Stowe corner or Club corner I could not help being intrigued by the variety of cars that were passing, if it was not a Chevrolet Camaro it was a Ford Escort or a Vauxhall, all cars that bore a resemblance to those in the car parks, and even a Volkswagen Passat was going round. The multi-coloured advertisements plastered all over the cars detracted a bit from reality, for people do not drive on the public roads decorated like that, and the phoney aspect of advertising was all too apparent, for watching the cars go by you did not really try and read the advertising that covered them.

While watching all this I cast my mind back on the chequered history of the RAC Tourist Trophy race and looked at the ups and downs it has suffered over the years. Although it goes back to 1905 it was not until 1928 that it took some tangible form, when it was held on the Ards circuit outside Belfast, for catalogue model sports cars. My first personal contact with it was in 1933 when I had my car glued to a primitive wireless set and heard the glorious sound of Nuvolari’s supercharged K3 MG Magnette winning at 78.65 m.p.h. after nearly six hours of racing round the superb road circuit in Northern Ireland. In 1936 the last TT was run on the Ards circuit, for a Riley crashed disastrously into the crowds and the RAC had to look elsewhere for a venue. Bentley, Lagonda, Riley, MG, Singer, Delahaye, Bugatti, Aston Martin, BMW and many other makes were taking part in the TT at the time and they nearly all bore close resemblance to cars you saw on the roads, in fact, one of the 1934 Lagonda TT cars is still in regular use on the road, proving to be a delightful road going sports car, as I know from personal experience.

With racing on the public roads not allowed in England the RAC took their Tourist Trophy race to Donington Park, the nearest approach to a natural road circuit, and it was held there in 1937 and 1938, the war putting paid to the 1939 race. Catalogue sports cars were still the order of the day, though some one-off specials were beginning to sneak past the scrutineers, just as they were at Le Mans, where sports car racing standards were being established. The French had been routed from Grand Prix racing and were concentrating on sports car racing, with Bugatti, Darracq, Delahaye and Delage, and they had little trouble in winning the two TT races at Donington Park, not unlike the situation today with Matra-Simca winning all the sports car races while everyone else is involved in Grand Prix racing.

After the war the Tourist Trophy returned to Northern Ireland, to the magnificent Dundrod circuit to the west of Belfast. It was a more spectacular road circuit than the Ards, but not as fascinating for it did not traverse villages and built-up areas, being well out m the country, but it was a challenging circuit to drive round. Catalogue sports cars or competition versions thereof were still the order of the day and Jaguar and Aston Martin had their day, but in line with what was happening in Europe the scene changed to very thinly-disguised Grand Prix cars in the shape of Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, Lancia D20, Maserati 300S and so on, the production based D-type Jaguars and DB3S Aston Martins being hard put to keep pace. Another unfortunate series of accidents put paid to the TT at Dundrod in 1955 and after a two-year break it was revivea as an airfield race round the Goodwood perimeter track course, but It was never quite the same, being just another race on the Sussex circbit. Grand Toun113 cars were the wear, sports coupes from Ferrari being almost unbeatable, and still being recognisable as road-going cars; indeed, one of the winning 250GT Ferraris is still in use on the road. In common with the rest of sports car racing the thinly-disguised Grand Prix car began to creep back and in 1965 the RAC removed the race from the roundy-round of airfield racing and took it to Oulton Park, the nearest approach to a natural road circuit that we had. By this time the Special Builders had almost taken over all forms of racing and the TT degenerated into “just another British club race” with Brabham and Lola cars winning. There was no way you were ever going to see any Brabham or Lola production cars in use on the road or in the car parks, so the Tourist Trophy had lost all its identity, which was a pity because the OuIton Park circuit was first class, not in the same category as the Ards or Dundrod, but very much like Donington Park had been. After five years of degeneration the RAC had a re-think and tried to get back to the right sort of cars, but they chose the wrong circuit, taking the race IQ the Silverstone airfield circuit. The winning Chevrolet, Ford and BMW of the next three years came from manufacturers who produced somewhat similar road-going cars, but the International rules were allowing them to get rather far removed from catalogue models, so this year the TT reverted almost back to square one with Group One, or standard saloons, but in the interests of development and progress a degree of latitude was allowed to a sort of Group .11 stage, but fundamentally the cars were the same as you can buy, and even if you cannot actually buy a Triumph Dolomite Sprint like the Broadspeed cars, you can buy a Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

This year’s race ran for over three hours, necessitating refuelling stops. driver changes for some cars, tyre changes, and a reasonable degree of reliability. Even in three hours, gearboxes, rear axles and brake systems were found wanting, but any team that finished the Tourist Trophy race felt they had done a proper motor-race and done something wroth-while. There was a lot of support, directly and indirectly from the manufacturers and the industry, so it looks as though the RAC have got the Tourist Trophy back on the right lines, even if it is not back on the ideal circuit.-D.S.J