Motor Racing at Crystal Palace


In 1926 motorcycle enthusiasts led by Fred Mockford and Cecil Smith, formed a group called London Motor Sports Ltd, and having identified Crystal Palace Park as a racing venue, were eventually allowed to run a meeting on May 21st 1927 over a 1 mile course of the parks paths. Over 10,000 people turned up to the meeting each paying 1 shilling plus 2d tax (approx. 6p). Following an incident during the meeting, several spectators were injured by a sidecar and questions were asked in Parliament about the incident. By the second meeting £500 had been invested in crash barriers, widening and general improvement of the circuit. Some 16,000 attended this meeting and the scene was set for racing to rival cricket, football, and greyhound racing at the venue.

Towards the end of 1927, Lionel Wills (of WD&HO Wills Tobacco) approached Mockford and Smith with a suggestion to try the new Australian sport of speedway at Crystal Palace to supplement the path racing. The football stadium, home of Corinthians football club, was refurbished to provide an oval track at a cost of £5000, and some 30,000 people turned up for the first meeting and within a year some 70 tracks had sprung up throughout the country. In 1929 a league was formed and The Glaziers finished 4th, with Stamford Bridge being champions. By 1934, crowds were falling and having been refused floodlights for evening meetings, Mockford and Smith moved the team to New Cross, and the track fell into disrepair. Speedway was revived in 1937 for the new second division, but they could not recapture the glory days of the Glaziers, or match the 71,311 attendance of the 1930 Easter Monday meeting, and as the war loomed in 1939, speedway came to an end.

Rumours in 1935 told of a Donnington for London, but it wasn't until December 1936 that work actually began on a new 2 mile circuit, laid with the new "Panamac" non-skid surface, only 3 days after the disaster which saw the Crystal Palace burn down overnight. The circuit was duly completed in only 5 months, despite being constructed in one of the wettest winters on record this century. The circuit was duly described as "resembling a miniature Nurburgring" by The Motorcycle magazine.

The first meeting held at the circuit was on April 24th 1937 and 20 cars were entered in the Coronation Trophy, including the ERA of Raymond Mays plus MGs, Maseratis, Rileys, and Fraser Nash. 3 weeks later motorcycles converged on the Palace, with the first race won by the Norton of Maurice Cann. Cycle racing also arrived in June 1937 with a 100 kilometre International Cup race for professional cyclists including top riders from the continent. On July 17th the London Grand Prix was held and Prince Birabongse appeared in his Romulus ERA R2B eventually winning with a lap record in his heat of 56.47 mph. During the meeting of October 9th, the BBC televised the first ever live motorsport at the International Imperial Trophy meeting which Bira duly won along with a prize fund of £150. At the same meeting Richard Seaman demonstrated the awesome 645 bhp Grand Prix Mercedes Benz W125.

Motor racing had arrived and flourished, but with the onset of the war in 1939, the final race was run on 26th August 1939 and was won by Bert Hadley in an Austin. The outright record for the circuit was finally held by Raymond Mays ERA at 60.97 mph

After the war, the park fell into a state of decay and it wasn't until 1951 that the LCC decided that it was time for racing to reappear, however local residents obtained an injunction restricting events to 5 per year. This would remain in force through until the late 1960's.

The first event held was organised by BARC on May 23rd 1953 on a revised and faster circuit which saw the inner link disappear, and be replaced with a new link formed near the lake. Amongst the entrants at this meeting were Roy Salvadori (Connaught), Pete Collins (HWM), and Stirling Moss (Cooper Alta), and the 42,438 paying spectators saw the new lap record increase to 72.73 mph around the 1.39 mile circuit.

Motorcycles returned on 27th June 1953, and saw a 19 year old John Surtees (Jr) debut at the circuit, but he retired in one race, and non-started in a second. Subsequently he went on to notch up a record 31 wins at the circuit, and the rest is history.

The final meeting of the year was on 19th September, and saw Stirling Moss win an F2 race in a Cooper Alta. Other entrants on the day included Tony Ralt (Connaught), Bernie Ecclestone (Cooper Bristol), Jim Russell (Formula 3), and Colin Chapman in his own side valve Lotus. One of his mechanics, Graham Hill, later raced at the venue in a Lotus Climax, and Touring Cars, notably in an Austin A35 modified with tuning equipment from his own company "Speedwell", and these cars were capable of 100mph along the main straight. Other Touring Car "aces" included Les Leston (Riley 1.5), Bill Blydenstein (Borgward Isabella), plus many other models of the day, preceding the large budget formula of today.

As early as June 1955, following the huge Le-Mans disaster, and subsequent banning of motorsport in Switzerland, there was an increasing concern about, not only Crystal Palace, but motor racing generally. Apart from the noise aspect, the circuit with it's tight confines, was less well placed than many other venues to deal with this change in attitude, and as the decade came to an end, plans were announced that in 1960 work would begin on the new National Sports Centre, which with all of it's facilities was bound to be in conflict with motorsport. Several landmarks of the track soon disappeared, including in 1961 the start line which was moved up onto the top straight. These major changes probably began the end of motorsport at the park.

The first event of 1960 saw 30,000 spectators turn up to see rising star Jim Clark drive a Lotus in an F2 race. He was however unable to start and his place was taken by Trevor Taylor. Les Leston led the saloon race in a Volvo 122S and the Speedwell entry on that day was the new 848cc Austin Mini Se7en.

When the National Sports Centre eventually opened in 1964, the year saw the arrival of Jochen Rindt, virtually unknown in this country, but after racing a Simca in Touring Cars, and a Formula Junior Cooper, he bought an F2 Brabham at the Racing Car Show, and after coming 3rd at Mallory Park behind Jim Clark and Pete Arundal, and after winning his heat at Crystal Palace, he won the main event ahead of Graham Hill and Alan Rees. Also that year at a meeting run by the Jaguar Drivers Club, was the GT race for the Pontin Trophy and featured the AC Cobra of Jack Sears, and Frank Gardner, but many fans had come to see the E-Type Jaguar driven by the up and coming Scot Jackie Stewart.

The London County Council changed to the GLC in 1965, and many changes were forced on the organisers, although this was not evident on the track. British bikes were being more and more out-classed by foreign makes, notably Honda, Bultaco, and Yamaha were appearing in the 350 class. The first car races included the London Trophy for F2 and was supported by many of the top GP teams of the day including Jack Brabham in his 1 Litre Honda, also Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Pete Revson, Mike Spence, and Jochen Rindt, amongst others were due to race.

World Champion the previous year for Ferrari and Palace favourite was John Surtees entered in Ken Tyrell's Cooper BRM alongside Jackie Stewart, and the GT race was won by Jackie Oliver's Lotus Elan while Roy Pierpointís 5 litre Mustang won the saloon car race from the Lotus Cortinas of Jim Clark and Jack Sears.

Up until 1970 just about every top driver, rider and machinery from most racing categories appeared at the venue, and the decade was rounded off with Tony Trimmer winning the first Formula Ford race at the venue and 98 cars started the London-Sydney marathon rally from the circuit. At the event, Graham Hill lapped the circuit in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and drove demonstration laps in the Lotus 49. By 1970 big budget racing was setting the style at the Palace at International meetings, and the days of the private entrant were numbered.

Other changes were also on the way. The GP Drivers Association led by Jackie Stewart, were calling for more driver and spectator protection and Crystal Palace could not escape this attention which was going to cost a lot of money, and as most meetings were run at a loss and crowds were dwindling, this was to prove an insurmountable problem.

Racing continued however, and 1970 saw Jochen Rindt become the first driver to lap the circuit at over 100mph in an F2 event. A silver plate was made for him, but he was killed at Monza before it could be presented.

The court injunction in force since 1953 expired in 1970 and the number of race days was increased from 5 per year to 14. The final event in October was immortalised by the BBC when the Formula 3 final was won by Dave Walkers Lotus, but this was overshadowed by James Hunt climbing from his car and knocking out Dave Morgan in the middle of the track after a last corner incident. Dave Morgan was later found guilty of reckless driving by the RAC, and was fined and banned, while everyone knows what happened to James Hunt.

An extra event was laid on 2 weeks later by the British Kart Club and saw some 260 drivers lap at up to 80 mph and provide a race every 12 minutes. Notable entries on that day were Tony and Tim Brise, Martin Hines and Nigel Mansell.

A few weeks before the beginning of the 1972 season, the GLC announced that at the end of this season the circuit would be closed. Many reasons were cited, but it was obvious to most well informed observers, but nevertheless was a sad turn of events for the Palace enthusiast.

The final International meeting in May 1972 saw the 5th round of the European F2 Championship, and local hero John Surtees return as driver/constructor with Mike Hailwood in the Matchbox Surtees. Also at this event alongside Jochen Mass in the second STP March was Niki Lauda, plus Graham Hill, John Watson, John Pierre Beltoise, and Vic Elford in a works Chevron. Hailwood set the fastest lap and recorded the outright lap record of 103.39 mph despite coming second to Jody Scheckter.

The final car meeting was on September 23rd 1972 and run by AMOC, and the final race, a Historic Sports Car race, featured the final winner, Gerry Marshal, who led home in a Lister Jaguar, however the final meeting ever was held by the British Kart Club in October.

The venue continued to be used for club meets, particularly the Alvis Days up to 1974, and in 1977, The Southern Car Club Happy Eater Southern Rally held a short stage there, as did the 1989 Tour of Britain, however this event didn't live up to it's reputation and only 25 cars used various bits of the pre-war roads and car parks as stages in the event during May of that year.


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© R Salter, 05 Jan 2002 Hit Counter