A visit to Douglas, on the Isle of Man, is like a time warp to a bygone age. A still-grand town, that has seen better days and is sitting uncomfortably with the 1990s — all seedy colonnaded Victorian hotels, arched walkways, tacky seaside shops and amusement arcades. Douglas is perhaps a dowager Duchess waiting for the chauffeur to remind her of her youth, only to find that he has driven up in an XR3i . . . .
The patina of the inter-war years made it therefore a very evocative venue for the second running of the Manx Classic, held over three days in mid-September. What after all could be more evocative than walking down a sea-front promenade with such a backdrop, past ranks of Riley specials, Jowett Javelins, C type Jaguars and Healey Silverstones? You kept expecting to bump into the shades of George Eyston or Reg Parnell — an expectation vividly made flesh when you came upon Rivers Fletcher chatting happily to onlookers as he leaned against his Alvis Speed 20 — a car that he has owned since 1934 and for which he designed the special sports coachwork.
What makes the Manx so unique is that it is unlikely that any similar event could be held elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For instance, the Birmingham Superprix needs a special act of Parliament — and it was a similar Act in 1904 that allowed the racing of “light locomotives” on the open roads of the island.
The week is clearly intended to be Britain’s version of the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio retrospectives — and to evoke memories of the British Empire Trophy and Tourist Trophy races held intermittently between the start of the century and the early 1950s.
As such, it was a very brave effort and for an event only in its second year, one which shows great promise for the future. The organising Manx Motor Racing Club shouldered the responsibility for the running this year, having had the bulk of the work done in 1989 by the VSCC who apparently only see the format as a bi-annual one. As one club member observed though, to have done that would have meant starting from scratch every time and so the Manx Club decided to press ahead on their own for an annual event.
As well as enjoying the willing co-operation and help of the RAC, the Manx Police and the TT and British Motor Racing Marshals Clubs and numerous corporate sponsors, the organisers’ principal asset seems to be the infectious enthusiasm of all of its members. They all badly wanted it to be a success — so it was jolly-well going to be!
The large and varied entry of sports and racing cars, attracted mainly from the HSCC and JDC and split into several classes by age, specification and engine size, assembled on Douglas Promenade on Thursday, for the timed sprint events. Unfortunately the spectacle of the event was limited by the rather thin midweek crowd and the necessity of running only one car against the clock at a time, because of the narrow width of available tarmac — the rest being crisscrossed by tramlines. Further frustrations had to be endured when the sprints were limited to 440 yards, instead of the planned half mile, because of the thin rain that started to fall during the lunch interval, persisting throughout the rest of the day.
Nevertheless, Phillip Bennett driving a “Knobbly” Lister Jaguar managed to cross the timing beam at the end of the standing quarter mile in just 14.86s, to record ftd. In a plethora of sub-twenty second runs special note should be made of David Ellison who booted his 1934 Riley Brooke Special down the Prom in 16.66 seconds during the very wet first session, to win the pre-1941 racing car class handsomely.
Friday and Saturday were taken up with what most of us had come to see — circuit racing on the old Willaston Empire Trophy Course. This indeed was a hairy chested road-racing circuit in the old tradition. From the TT start by the grandstands in Glencrutchery Road the road dropped down to the hard right-hander at Parkfield and out to another hard right at Willaston and up the hill past the council estate onto the blind sweepers that approach the hairpin at Cronk-ny-Mona. From here the cars kept climbing until just before the blind, adverse camber, high-kerbed Signpost corner, scene of many incidents during the two days, as inexperienced or unwary pilots lurched over the brow, missed their turn-in and either ended up in the outside tyre-wall or shot off down the escape road towards Onchan.
This escape road in fact was part of the old Willaston circuit, but was considered so hazardous, even by the standards of the rest of the course — with its violent descent to the Manx Arms — that a relatively safer shortcut to Governor’s Bridge was substituted (with no overtaking allowed). At the bridge another tricky right took the competitors on to the long straight back to the grandstands.
All the races were actually run as individual time trials, but naturally, as the fields closed up, dicing became the order of the day, with drivers competing energetically against each other as well as the clock. Nevertheless, the actual results of the week are largely irrelevant in such a format, but several images stick in the mind.
There was octogenarian Cecil Clutton wrestling his 1908 12-litre Grand Prix ltala round an overcast Cronk-ny-Mona, faster apparently than some of the more modern machinery buzzing around him, flagging perhaps towards the end but still able to record a best average lap of 51 mph.
I will remember “Babs” — the Parry Thomas Land Speed Record car resurrected by Owen Wyn Owen and standing proudly outside the faded, but still elegant, Douglas Gaiety Theatre, looking for all the world as she must have done at Pendine in 1927. Her owner took the old lady for a demonstration run along the Promenade and after several abortive attempts the 27-litre V12 Liberty crackled down the half-mile with a mud-spattered Wyn Owen hanging grimly onto the wheel and a six foot plume of water shooting out of the valve gear.
Or how about Barry Williams in a road-trim MGA, hopelessly outclassed by the full-race Cobras and Healey 3000s, deciding to enjoy himself anyway and opposite-locking his way round Signpost with one fist in the air? I think it was the first time that I ever heard a motor racing crowd laugh with such genuine spontaneous pleasure.
The standard of driving was on the whole good, though some drivers exposed weaknesses in driving technique which were not apparently tempered by caution or an awe of their surroundings. There were a number of potentially serious incidents, which can only be described as racing accidents, but the RAC seemed pleased with safety arrangements and in all cases the marshals and emergency services reacted with commendable speed and skill, so that the worst damage was a number of bent cars and the apparently common injury of cracked ribs and a bruising for the unfortunate drivers.
Organisation of the 1991 Classic has already commenced, with September 25th-29th pencilled in as the provisional dates and the MMRC hoping that the RAC will allow them to open out the entry to more modern machines with improved safety devices . . . . now there’s a thought, Porsche Carreras and Ferrari 512Ms at Signpost, or the Honda CRX Challenge boys hustling through Governor’s — a vague hope I suppose, but my mind has started boggling already. IB