The National Motor Museum Film and Video Department ensures our motor racing history will never fade. Stephen Vokins is the man charged with looking after both classics and oddities
Words: Rob Widdows. Photography: Phil Starling
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu has a fine collection of cars and, if you ignore the more touristy aspects, is a worthwhile day out for the enthusiast. But hidden behind the museum, over a bridge and through the trees, is something of even greater importance and fascination.
From outside, among the coaches disgorging the day trippers to the museum, the John Montagu Building doesn’t look too promising. And once inside the excitement is well under control. Until you step into the snappily titled National Motor Museum Film and Video Department.
This is where history lives. Stacked on shelves, in files, in cabinets, on film, on tape, and piled on the floor or spread around the walls is the history of motoring and motorsport. If it’s worth keeping, it’s here.
Manager Stephen Vokins, clutching a dented film can containing a rare interview with Graham Hill, shows me into his lair. The radio is playing oldies from a long-forgotten hit parade, the wall calendar is open at May 2006 and the clock on the window ledge reads 06.50. It is in fact 11.05 on a hot August morning. We are going back in time. The Film and Video Department is a repository for the stewardship and safekeeping of the complete history of motorsport, and Stephen Vokins is the man challenged with keeping it up to date. It looks like a mammoth task.
“It is,” he says. “And we are running out of space. We are constantly rushing off to save another piece of history from the receivers or the auction room. Our budget is small, but we’ve saved a lot of important stuff during the years.”
A good, and recent, example is the library of film maker Patrick Uden, the expert director who made some memorable documentaries for Channel 4 about the Williams team when it was called Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Recent history yes, but motor racing moves so fast.
“Archive sounds so dusty, but our business is all about saving the past, and the present, for future generations to enjoy,” says Vokins. “I am a bloodhound, paid to sniff out important material, preserve it and then make sure it gets shown. There’s no point in saving all this stuff if nobody ever sees it. So we have film shows, we make programmes and DVDs and we are working on a website.”
Lord Montagu established the Department in 1979 with the sole purpose of rescuing films and documents that were in danger of being thrown away or buried under piles of office clutter, never to be seen again.
Valuable footage has been brought to Beaulieu for safekeeping. The jewels in the collection are the films that Ford made in the 60s and 70s such as Nine Days In Summer, the story of the 1967 grand prix season, Target 200 and This Time Tomorrow, telling the story of the Ford GT40 at Le Mans. Then there’s the film about the 1907 French Grand Prix, or Reach for the Skies, an extremely rare colour film from the early ’40s about Howard Hughes and his Spruce Goose aircraft project. There are films from Castrol, Shell and BP, the entire Top Gear series, thousands of other video tapes and the original cut of The Power and the Glory. And there are more than one million stills in the picture library along the road.
“People despair of me as I never throw anything away, I never erase anything. But it’s a huge responsibility to be the guardian of the history of motorsport,” says Vokins.
The Department means that the legends of our sport will be kept alive. Vokins feels that it’s been a privilege to have lived through the Michael Schumacher era. “To me, he’s the greatest of all time,” he says. “It’s vital that we capture this era and then in decades to come people can watch the way he drove, the way he raced. Just as we can delve into the archive right now and bring out films about Stirling Moss, watch his style and listen to him talk. We are simply safeguarding the sport, then passing it on for future generations to decide who was, or wasn’t, the greatest.”
Favourites of mine are a lap of Monaco with Graham Hill talking us round, a rally film featuring Michelle Mouton’s first win in the Audi Quattro – every slip, slide, yump, bang and pop of the turbo recorded in glorious technicolour, and of course that famous battle between René Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve at Dijon in 1979 when they raced side by side, passing and re-passing all the way to the flag.
“If you are truly passionate about the sport you’ll need to be aware of the history, and that’s why we allow visitors here by appointment,” says Vokins. “The people who come are passionate, even if it’s the Swedish Vauxhall Owners Club just wanting to soak up the A to Z of the Vauxhall Cresta.”
The Department has a rare piece of cinematic technology, too: a telecine machine that enables the transfer of old film onto digital tape or DVD. Using this, collections of movies and stills can be saved onto a format that can be preserved and easily viewed without degradation of the original film stock.