The circuit that never was

In the summer, we carried a letter proposing the use of the title ‘Scottish Grand Prix’ to bring a second Formula One race to the UK. The writer, Ian Scott-Watson, went on to recall attempts to develop a new race circuit in Scotland in the 1960s, which prompted a response from a reader who was involved at the time — Professor Christopher Riley, the Liverpool architect who was engaged to produce outline plans for one such circuit. This is how he recalls the project:

“In 1963, if I remember correctly, Motor Circuit Developments who then owned Oulton Park, Mallory, Snetterton and Brands was approached by a group from Scotland consisting of Lord Bruce, Jim Clark and Ian Scott-Watson to consider a site at Polkemmet, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

In fact, according to Scott-Watson, the instigators were Lord Bruce (later the Earl of Elgin) and David Murray of Ecurie Ecosse; Clark and Scott-Watson were later asked for their technical input. The aim was to replace Charterhall, the Borders airfield circuit, whose doubtful safety was proven when two spectators died there. It was also a loss-maker: there may have been a crowd of 20,000 but, with no fencing, only a quarter of them might have paid.

Riley continues: “Rex Foster, manager at Oulton Park, was asked by MCD to undertake the work, and I was asked by Rex to act as consulting architect through my practice in Liverpool. The site, virtually alongside the yet to be built M8 motorway, had been the former home of Sir Gawaine Baillie’s family, but, as at Oulton, the old hall had gone.

“Jim Clark and I walked around the pegged-out line of the proposed track, and Jim advised which trees should stay and which be removed. Remember, this was before Armco, and I recall Jim defending the retention of trees which I and others felt were in dangerous positions — “part of the drivers’ confidence and skill to get it right”!

“It was to be called the Scottish National Motor Racing Circuit, and planning was well advanced by early 1964. Maybe it did not go ahead on financial grounds, but I do remember Rex being extremely disappointed, and also saying that negotiations with the Coal Board who had mines in the area had something to do with its abandonment. It would have made a quite splendid track with superb viewing.”

Indeed, Riley’s plans show an interesting wooded setting; imagine an Oulton Park crossed with Brands Hatch. With its narrow infield area, most of the parking and viewing was on the outside of the track, minimising access difficulties; tunnels gave vehicle and pedestrian access to the paddock inside the west loop. Particularly novel was the pits arrangement: the working area was to be raised several feet above track level, reached by ramps at either end and protected by a concrete retaining wall. At a period when at some circuits the pit lane was still separated from the track only by a white line, let alone Armco, this would have represented a significant safety improvement. Prompted by the natural slope at this point, this layout provided covered garage space underneath the pit lane, with access from the rear. Such provision would have been an advanced feature for the time; but as Riley points out now, teams would soon have tired of having to run cars down the pit lane ramps and round to the back entrances. It remained an idea stage in the evolution of today’s pits complexes.

But the circuit was under two miles long, and plans to extend the track into nearby fields to reach Grand Prix standard merely intensified local opposition. The roads authority was worried that the racing would distract drivers on the new motorway, and worse, the Coal Board, which had used the hall as a training centre, retained the mineral rights to the land, and would not rule out future workings.

On top of these physical problems, the financial questions had simply not been answered. Things went as far as asking the construction firm Wimpey to start work, but their checks indicated that, not surprisingly, the backing was not there, and Polkemmet faded quietly away.

Graham Gauld, friend and biographer of Jim Clark and later involved in Ingliston circuit, confirms that the threat of mining meant that the Polkemmet proposal could never really have worked, even if the financial picture had looked good; “it was just the flicker of an idea — but you have to have ideas. . .”

With Charterhall in its last season in 1964, there was suddenly nowhere at all to go motor racing in Scotland. Realising that an all-new circuit was a long way off, Scott-Watson swung into action in August, and by October work had started at the Ingliston showground outside Edinburgh to thread a tight but exciting circuit around the various show-buildings. By using existing infrastructure such as the actual show arena and grandstands, the new track was able to pay its way. It remained the only Scottish circuit until Knockhill was built, although in 1966 Scott-Watson, working with racing driver Angus Clydesdale, later the Duke of Hamilton, drew up an ambitious project for a GP-standard circuit near the town of Hamilton. It combined racing facilities far ahead of Silverstone or Brands with water sports and athletics provisions to make it a multipurpose venue — but it would have cost just too much. — £600,000. It got to the detailed planning stage, but went no further.

Riley (who incidentally still hillclimbs a Lotus XI and runs an Esprit Turbo) adds an interesting footnote about Oulton Park:

“Rex Foster was approached by the film people who made Grand Prix to build a one-mile straight for filming purposes. We produced proposals for this showing this extension coupled up to the existing long circuit. It would have made a quite superb track. I was not present at the financial negotiations but sadly the project did not proceed.” Like Polkemmet, and Hamilton.