Crystal Palace

One London Suburb reverberated to the sound of racing engines until 1972. Paul Fearnley takes a leisurely drive through a park that boasts a fast past

Whit Monday, 1964. Top deck of a Routemaster, the windows rattling in sympathy with its faithful Gardiner’s lumpy idle. Down those curving stain two at a time, one more bound and out the back. The bus hasn’t come to a dead stop and the conductor shouts something. What’s his problem? Hasn’t he heard the ‘Stones or the Beatles? Hey, I’m the future, mate. ‘The white heat of technology’ and all that Outta m’way, grandad.

Dive across Anerley Road, through the traffic and turnstiles and across the footbridge from Low Level Station. The new National Sports Centre is down the hill to the right — hugging the inside of Ramp Bend, to be exact — but who cares? Athletics is way too slow. Some reckon the Centre’s arrival might affect the racing, though. Now that would be serious.

Straight into the gravel paddock. The place is packed. Abuzz. There’s Graham Hill. And Jim Clark. Denny Hulme. Pete Arundell. Alan Rees. And that must be the New Bloke. It wasn’t a big piece in the morning papers, but it had huge significance. You just don’t do that: buy a single-seater, grab pole for your third race with it, ahead of Jimmy Clark, the world champion, on a track you’ve never seen before. The opening meeting of a new season at the Palace is a must but, because of what happened yesterday at Mallory Park, this one is going to be special somehow.

He looks pretty cool. Bit like Lennon. Broken nose. Just 22. And boy, can he pedal. Rees, an acknowledged track expert, tries all he knows but can’t get past the opposite-locking New Bloke in the second heat. Can’t wait for the final. Hill’s John Coombs Cooper leads it but soon begins to struggle with understeer. The New Bloke makes his move and whistles by the former champion. And wins. He looks bushed in the paddock, nursing a sore hand lots of gearchanges here in a 1-litre Formula Two car but he’s happy. Knows now he hasn’t been kidding himself. Knows now he’s got a great future.

The papers go bananas the next day: Unknown Australian beats Hill at Crystal Palace, screams one. Idiots!

Jochen Rindt’s sensational win in the London Trophy was the apogee of the Crystal Palace circuit’s 35-year history. The National Sports Centre did affect the racing and, at the start of 1972, Greater London Council’s Arts and Recreation Committee announced that motorsport would cease for good at Crystal Palace at the season’s end. Rising speeds were a major cause for concern Rindt broke the 100mph barrier in 1970but this was a drop in the ocean compared to the projected 1,250,000 bill for the safety revisions suggested by Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert.

The bottom bottom line, though, was that there was simply no room for manoeuvre, for expansion. Crystal Palace was the crazy golf of motor racing a track hemmed in by trees, bandstands, lakes and life-sized dinosaur models. Unyielding sleepers and concrete walls were separated from the track by the width of a painted white line. It couldn’t go on.

But that’s no reason to erase it. Our series of Track Tests has proved that old circuits receive short shrift: Monza’s banking and Reims are crumbling fast; Rouen has been emasculated. It might be concrete and unlovely but the National Sports Centre is Listed and safe. A national treasure, apparently.

The racetrack? Well, if you squint hard at the retaining wall which loops around the Centre’s south side you can just make out a faded painted Dunlop sign. The ramp from the old paddock survives too, and the car park it connects to is known as the Car Park Paddock. But that’s it: no pits, no stands, no barriers, no scoreboards, not a trace. We’re not saying that the picnicking families, cyclists and rollerbladers ought to know chapter and verse about this racing heritage, but one or two of them might be interested to know, given the chance. A plaque here or there is surely in order.

The main straight is grassed over, a gate blocks the 1-in-8 New Link section and speed bumps abound in a bid to dissuade boy racers from boning around in their hot hatches, but even though we are restricted to walking pace for the sake of these photographs, the challenge provided by Crystal Palace moves sharply into focus. This was not a place to get it wrong. The park is green and soft; its tack is hard and unremitting.

‘Crystal Palace was the crazy golf of motor racing – hemmed in by lakes and life-sized dinosaur models’

‘Armco to the inside, retaining wall to the outside, the flat right can’t have been a comfortable place’

Stand at the site of the later start/finish line on North Terrace it was shifted from the other side of the circuit when work on the Centre began in 1960 and the track curves trickily into a 130mph left before disappearing under trees. Turn one, North Tower Crescent, is an awkward, tightening, in-the-shade, double-apex right which spits you out downhill through an off-camber left, The Glade a heavily wooded section with a particularly stout tree standing right on the `sailing-off’ point.

Through the quick right at Park Curve and over the stomachagainst-diaphragm crest of the New Link. With a steep approach, Armco to the inside, high, stepped retaining wall to the outside, the flat right at the bottom cannot have been a comfortable place, especially astride a cranked-over bike.

Along a straight and into Ramp Bend, an inviting uphill right Up Maxim Rise, a left-right-left which could be straight-lined (almost), then hard on the brakes for the 90 right of South Tower Bend. And back to the start. A breathless 48.4sec if you got it right, like Mike Hailwood’s Surtees TS10 did in the final F2 event (May ’72) to become the lap record holder in perpetuity. The track could have been designed for the smaller formulae cars. What it was like wrestling a tennis court-sized Galaxie around is a different matter. Good if you were out front, one imagines.

It was the biggest blazer London had seen in years. Sixty fire appliances rushed to the scene, but a lack of water pressure at the top of the hill meant a famous landmark was doomed. Rivers of glass lava-ed down the main road and all that remained in the morning was a massive, forlorn, twisted iron skeleton. Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s masterpiece, home to the 1851 Great Exhibition, tourist attraction ever since, had gone, on 30 November, 1936. Krupps of Essen bought the wreckage for scrap, Lloyds coughed up £110,000 and the proposed new attraction was needed more than ever. Efforts were redoubled.

The first sod was cut on Thursday 3 December and, despite a wet winter which caused several mudslides, the project was completed (just) in time for its April ’37 curtain-raiser. Builders’ rubble lay strewn around, still-warm roadrollers were parked up side roads, and workmen leant on their spades to watch the action — but it was ready. London’s racing circuit was ready.

Thirty feet wide except at the start/finish line, where it was 20ft wider, and covered in Panamac — ‘durable, dependable and non-skid’, according to its producer, Bituminous Surfacing Ltd of London and Manchester — it wound, twisted and plunged for two miles. Richard Seaman, the leading British driver of the day, paid it the highest compliment of likening it to a Continental track — and all just a few miles from the seat of Parliament.

Carshakon MCC provided the marshals at the inaugural meeting, St John Ambulance and Antifyre Ltd the safety measures, Mecca Cafes Ltd the light refreshments. For a one-shilling return fare from Victoria or London Bridge spectators could step off the train and walk directly into the circuit. There were nine bus or trolleybus routes to chose from, too, and plenty of car parking space for the more affluent. Motor racing brought to the people. Brooklands”The right crowd and no crowding’ attitude held no sway; Crystal Palace, for all intents and purposes, was a theme park — churning turnstiles and the Next Big Thing were the keys.

The Next Big Thing in 1927 was Path Racing, the brainchild of eagle-eyed promoters, Fred Mockford and Cyril Smith. Under the guise of their new London Motor Sports Ltd they approached the Palace’s trustees in January. Just five months later, potholes filled, bends tarred, trees padded, 10,000 spectators watched their first ‘bike race. It was a great success. But ever the opportunist, Mockford was soon on to the next Next Big Thing: speedway. An incredible 30,000 people attended the new 440-yard cinder track’s maiden meet, and this sport took precedence thereafter.

‘Crystal Palace, for all intents and purposes, was a theme park, the next Big Thing was the key’

Even this waned, though and, in the middle of the ’34 season, ‘the Glaziers’ upped sticks to New Cross. By which time talk of a Donington Park for London’ had begun. It was the turn of cars.

In 1936, Harry Edwards of the International Road Racing Club and secretary to the BRDC, with support from racing driver Bill Everitt, drew up a plan and put it to the now motorsport-bereft trustees. Architect CL Clayton’s layout included a complex infield section which was bypassed after WWII. The action began on Thursday 22 April, 1937, with practice for the Coronation Trophy. The event itself was given a Continental feel with the two-heats-and-a-final format favoured by the lesser French and Italian races. It was felt this would give the spectators better value for money. That showmanship thing again. Pat Fairfield’s ERA won the first heat and the 30-lap final. Thereafter it tended to be a Bira-versus-Arthur Dobson battle (both in ERAs) for early Crystal Palace honours, the tiny Siamese Prince usually holding the upper hand. ERA founder Raymond Mays also got in on the act, while the Alta of George Abecassis, and the ideally suited Austin Twin-Cam gem of Bert Hadley, broke up the Boume marque’s hegemony in 1938-39.

It took eight years for racing to resume at the Palace, now shortened to 1.39 miles, after the cessation of hostilities. Not everybody was delighted; an injunction raised by local residents would limit the track to just five days of racing per year until the end of the ’60s. Over 40,000 others, however, were over the moon as they watched Tony Rolt win the first race of the new era, the track’s golden era, for the Connaught concern.

In the ’50s and ’60s, London became the capital of motorsport — Cooper at Surbiton, Lotus at Homsey, Aston Martin at Feltham, HWM at Walton-on-Thames, Vanwall at Acton, McLaren at Colnbrook — and the Palace became their special day out, their showpiece. The races were invariably on a Bank Holiday, the crowds commensurate, the atmosphere all of its own — urban, more blue-collar than most, but intensely knowledgeable and appreciative. For the competitors, the facilities were better than most, the meetings compact, and metropolitan London was on the doorstep for those celebration parties. A win at the Palace was special: just ask Parnell, Moss, Hawthorn, Collins, Brabham, Salvadori, Clark, Ickx, Fittipaldi, Stewart and Scheckter.

Dragsters (last seen heading towards North Tower Crescent, parachutes hopefully unfurled), saloons, karts, RAC Rally and London-Sydney Marathon all converged on Crystal Palace in the ’60s. But the lights soon went out in the 1970s. And stayed out — the oil crisis and three-day weeks saw to it.

Sat behind a Routemaster, its trusty Gardiner still vibrating away. Not sure what the future holds. Doesn’t seem so rosy now: mortgage, kids, commuter belt, rat race. The last meeting at Crystal Palace was a must, though. Had to go. Look at those kids jump off the bus. Idiots!