Inside Revolution: Memories of Crystal Palace
In this month’s edition of Revolution, a look at the past and potential future of a legendary venue. September 9th marks 50 years since the last race around ‘London’s own circuit’ at Crystal Palace, once the realm of F1 favourites and film stars.
“After the last champagne cork had settled on the grid, it was sad to look into the fading light and reflect that never again would these whitewashed sleepers and golden trees echo to the roar of un-channelled exhausts,” said the closing report in Motoring News, after the final race at Crystal Palace in September 1972.
Far from fading out with a whimper, the event had drawn in the crowds just like ever before. However, for a venue that had graced all the big stars and future names in UK Motorsport, from Sir Stirling Moss to Nigel Mansell and everyone in between, the time was up.
Succumbing to ‘modern’ health and safety constraints, the circuit was consigned to history and the dust had barely settled on Gerry Marshal’s blistering final victory before the bulldozers came in. Despite the passing of years, however, much of the track can still be seen, and fifty years on many legends remain.
London Grand Prix
According to historians, competitive motor races were first run in the Crystal Palace area at the dawn of the motor car, way back in 1899 – making it one of the first racing venues in the word. These ad-hoc events led to the construction of a permanent racetrack in 1927, with the first race for motorcycles that same year.
The track, which initially comprised of hard-packed gravel straights and tarmac corners, was just a mile in length and followed existing paths through the park. In 1935, just a few days after a fire tragically destroyed the Palace, plans were hatched to double its length and lay the entire route with tarmac.
In early 1937, the new venue was completed and in June that year a field of 17 cars entered first ever London Grand Prix, an event that was hailed a “considerable success” by Motoring News thanks to a unique new format to top level racing that involved short races, no pit stops and high-speed duels.
The event began with torrential rain hitting the Thursday practice session and causing trouble for all but two drivers, with one crashing straight on into an earth bank. That drama paled into insignificance, however, when a demolition crew decided to blow up the remains of the Palace ruins during the session!
The main races were run as heats, with a female driver in a Rapier Special, named only in the press as ‘Mrs. Eccles’, taking the early lead in one event but then overturning her car on lap four after duelling a rival. It was clearly no holds barred racing, as another driver later retired with a dislocated shoulder.
In the final, legendary racer Prince Bira led until lap 11, when he was passed. However, as Motoring News reported of the new leader: “In the excitement of doing so, he overdid the loud-pedal stuff and spun round at Big Tree Bend to smash his tail against the wall of the lily-pond. He took it swimmingly…”
In the end, Bira won easily, finishing more than a minute ahead of the pack with a time of 33 minutes and 3.7 seconds. Motoring News concluded: “This Crystal Palace racing is excellent, and the short races ensure some very exciting duels.” Just two years later, however, war broke out and the military took over.
After the Second World War, motorsport grew fast. The F1 World Championship was inaugurated in 1950 and, in an era where the top drivers in the world not only competed at the pinnacle, but also in everything from sportscars to lower category single-seaters, Crystal Palace became the place to be.
The layout was shortened to 1.39 miles, keeping to the outer perimeter rather than using the snaking inner circuit. The first race after the war, held in 1953, drew in an impressive 40,000 spectators. Racing was popular, and the ease of access meant most events attracted big numbers – and big names.
For star drivers of the day, it was the perfect place to hone their skills. In the years before Monaco became the go-to place to live for F1’s finest, having a race circuit on London’s doorstep was very appealing. Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Ickx, James Hunt and Jochen Rindt all raced there.
In June 1962, the Crystal Palace Trophy, a non-championship F1 race, was run over 36 laps of the circuit. It was won by Innes Ireland, with Roy Salvadori second and Bruce McLaren, fresh from winning the Monaco Grand Prix the weekend before, completing the podium in third.
The following year, the circuit celebrated its 10th anniversary. On his website, F1 journalist Peter Windsor recalls the event. “Thirty thousand people flocked to the Palace for the afternoon’s racing – entrance: five shillings for adults, two for children – enticed by the presence of reigning World Champion Graham Hill, Jim Clark, the best Mini racers in Europe and Roy Salvadori.
“Jim made a better start than Salvo, but the 2.7 litre Cooper-Climax ate the 1.6 litre twin-cam 23B for an early lunch as they hit the longer gears. Jim fell into second place but inherited a win when Salvadori’s Cooper lost its gears with ten laps to go.
“The Minis were outstanding. Sir John Whitmore won the blast but the tyre smoke and the door-handles were what the crowd took home: Paddy Hopkirk pushed John all the way – as did the deliciously fast Christabel Carlisle. Then came John Rhodes and John Fenning – outstanding talents both.
“Jack Sears won again with the big Galaxie, from Roy Salvadori and Graham Hill; and Denny Hulme continued his run in the Formula Junior race. Other drivers in the FJ race: Peter Revson, Chris Amon, Richard Attwood, Paul Hawkins, and Mike Spence. So much talent; so much fun.
Less than ten years later, though, it was all over. The final international meeting took place in 1972, a Formula 2 race featuring John Surtees, Niki Lauda, John Watson, and Graham Hill. There were a few club events after, but with increasing speeds and a quest for improved safety, the Council was forced to shut the doors.
Over time, parts of the circuit were taken back by nature or built upon with new facilities, such as the running track. The parts that did remain lay preserved but dormant. That was until someone mentioned to the Sevenoaks and District Motor Club that the 25th anniversary of that final race in 1972 was coming up.
Former Club Chairman Colin Billings takes up the story. “Philip Parfitt, who had written a book about the circuit, put it out that it might be rather nice if the anniversary were marked in some way,” he recalls. “So, we decided to run a Sprint, initially as a one-off event.
“We incorporated as much of the original track as we could use, because big lumps of it had been built on and covered over, but all the running of the Sprint was on parts of the circuit that existed over time, although not necessarily all the final circuit, because it went through several evolutions over the years.
“The first event was quite low key, very much a Clubmans Sprint. We did have a bit of a show that ran alongside it. We likened it to a village fete of motorsport. That was the atmosphere we were looking to get at the time, and I would say we were reasonably successful at doing that.
“In later events, the show became a bit bigger because we wanted people to have something else to come and look at as well, so that developed, but in 1999 we got the news that a Millennium grant had been awarded to the park and the venue would no longer be available for future running.
“Bromley Council was planning to spend a lot of money in the park to try to take it back to its original state, narrowing the track back to pathways and putting slightly more friendly surfaces in, which made it not useable for motorsport. That was it. It was very sad, but these things run their natural course.”
Fortunately, however, that was not it. Not all the works were completed, and in 2006, when the London Development Agency (LDA) was seeking ways to promote events in London, they came calling. The history of racing at the Palace had been recognised, and the Council wanted to put it back on.
“I received a phone call back in 2006 from the LDA and they asked if we would be interested in running the event again,” recalls Billings. The answer was a resounding ‘yes!’ Billings became the Event Director, and it was all hands on deck to bring the track back to life.
It took a few years, but Motorsport at the Palace was up and running in 2010, having secured sponsorship from a local car dealership. Although the LDA had kick-started the thought process, by the time the event was put on they had backed out, so it was entirely down to the club to organise.
“The London Borough of Bromley was really helpful, and we were very lucky because two of the senior park keepers had been juniors when we ran first time round,” recalls Billings. “They knew we were professional in how we ran events, so they were very supportive and the people in charge of the park got onboard.”
However, although it had only been a little more than 10 years since the previous event, things had changed dramatically, and significant investment had to be made to bring the track up to modern standards of health and safety, particularly when it came to circuit infrastructure.
“When it came back, the course was the same, but regulations had changed,” says Billings. ”There were also areas of the track which previously had a few saplings next to them that were not a problem, but by now they were quite substantial trees. So, overall, our level of safety had to go up quite a bit.
“We had to resurface parts of the track and we put in a lot more Armco. All that had to be demountable because the park didn’t want it there for more time than they had to, so we invested a lot of money getting the post holes sunk and temporary covers put over them.
“When the event finished and everything was cleared away, you would never have known anything was going on apart from the odd black mark on the tarmac. The next year, the contractors would go in, find the holes, put the Armco back in and get the event on again.”
All that hard effort was worth it. The new event built on its previous incarnation, creating a family friendly picnic party vibe that attracted people from around London and showed them what motorsport was all about. Racing engines rattled through the park once again, and pretty much everyone loved it.
“We were running up to about 120 cars per day,” says Billings. “We were limited on single seaters up to 1,600cc, based on the license we were given because of the nature of the track, but we did have dispensation by prior arrangement to run a few other things that were a bit bigger on a demonstration basis.
“One of the earliest cars we had was from 1903, which took ages to go around but it was a lot of fun, and everyone really enjoyed it. And we went all the way up some impressive modern machinery. We even had one of the first electric cars to go motor racing with a Nissan Leaf.
“We really aimed it at getting the local families into the park and getting them to have a look and have a first hand experience of what club motorsport can be. It was just great to see mums and dads with kids in pushchairs, sitting out having a picnic. Just brilliant.”
The sprint event continued to thrive until the global pandemic put a stop to pretty much all motorsport. Since then, it has been on hiatus for several reasons and plans for a 50th anniversary celebration this year were, sadly, unable to go ahead. However, the track remains, ready and waiting.
Although the engines currently no longer rev on the Palace grounds, motorsport fanatics who are happy to explore its history without the on-track action can still see the old Crystal Palace circuit. None of the original infrastructure remains, but traces of the track are still there to be followed.
A pile of soil, dug out during the Millennium build project, now sits just in front of the start line on the later track layout, but if you stand on that mound the original track – albeit resurfaced – stretches out in front of you at its original width. Even a touch of the old tarmac remains.
In a beautiful feature, found on speedhunters.com, writer Jonathan Moore takes up the tour down memory lane.
“[After the start] cars would have been charging through a shallow left kink two and three abreast before braking for the North Tower right-hander.
“North Tower was a tricky, tightening uphill: perfect three-wheeling territory for saloons. There are now trees and bushes up to the edge of the path, but you can still see how it originally looked. Even when the track was active, this section of track plunged through a tunnel of trees, a right-left kink through The Glade.
“On the exit of Fisherman’s Bend the track splits; ahead is the New Link, but the old track follows around to the right. This was a tricky combination of uphill, off-camber kinks of Fisherman’s Rise taking drivers back up towards the top of the circuit. Pre-war, there weren’t even concrete barriers.
“The exit of the first right-left led directly into another similar wiggle and then there was a short blast up to the Pond Corner: a sharp left-hander with a blind apex. This is the first corner on the modern sprint course, and now as was then, is slow and tricky with the need for a very fast exit.
“It leads down a chute to Big Tree Bend, which was a hard left that returned the track to the lower part of the park. The left-turn that would have been here wound down New Zealand Hill – but a modern link road now continues straight ahead, and where cars once hammered downhill are sports fields and buildings.
“[The route] returns to Fisherman’s Bend and the 1953 layout. What was the original start-line on the Stadium Straight is now a parking area for the athletics stadium. After the long straight, Ramp Bend loomed up with zero-run-off. This was an unforgiving corner, and plenty of cars smacked into the retaining wall.
“Anerley Ramp led into the blind, off-camber Maxim Rise. This is [now] where the main entrance to the sports complex is; left of the track is the low-level railway station entrance – now long-closed – and a high-level station was at the top. A low bridge originally crossed the track at this point, bringing the hordes of Londoners to the circuit’s infield.
“Finally comes South Tower Corner, so-called because of the two enormous water towers that flanked the original Crystal Palace. All that was left was to hit the throttle hard for the run to the line, past the spectators packing the terracing, and to start another lap. Motor-racing at its finest, all within a bus-ride of the centre of London.”
Is there a future?
Could this really be the end? There is clearly no doubt the heydays of the 1950s-70s are long gone – in this modern age, contract-bound racing stars rarely compete anywhere other than their primary series. Equally, health and safety and environmental issues related to high-octane motor racing in the centre of a city do not suggest a rosy future.
However, Crystal Palace has been down but not out many times before. The fact that some of the infrastructure remains, and a modern event, tailored to modern safety criteria, was held only a few years ago, means there could always be the chance of another comeback.
Although it would probably now take a professional external events company and a lump of sponsorship funding to deliver, Sevenoaks and District Motor Club chairman Chris Judge believes hope remains. “Some people say once you stop an event it never gets going again,” he says. “But I am of the view that there is a resurrection of anything, and it heightens the interest.
“We had to cancel the last one due to COVID, but had it run in 2020 I think it would have been a good success. Running it as a club is challenging takes a lot of effort, however, and many of the organising team have been running it since 1997, so some are a bit tired! The workload is considerable – it takes four days to set up and run and take down again – and it cost nearly £80,000.
“We are still always doing work behind the scenes in relation to the event because there is a love for Crystal Palace. There is a lot of development going on there, but they have always told us that we should be okay to run our event because of where it is, and we don’t use the whole of the circuit.”
London’s Mayors have been increasingly positive about motorsport events in the Capital. Regent Street ran an F1 festival in 2004 and Formula E hit Battersea Park in 2015. It did not take long before that circuit closed, but it has now found a new home at the Excel Centre. Meanwhile, although mutterings of F1 hitting the city’s streets appear to have faded, they never seem to die down.
The Crystal Palace Sprint events provided something rather different, though. Billings explains: “They really were a fantastic showcase for motorsport. People see the British Grand Prix, but they don’t see all the other events going on around the country every weekend. Crystal Palace did that, and that was fantastic.”
The temporary nature of Motorsport at the Palace made it costly to set up and run – but given the venue’s incredible heritage and that a decent length racetrack remains on its grounds, within a stone’s throw of the city centre, it really is unthinkable that somebody, somewhere could not make use of such an opportunity.
People who attended in the past have described how the event felt like London’s mini Goodwood. Indeed, how much fun would it be to see some of those classic cars of yesteryear pounding around Crystal Palace again with crowds watching the action and picnicking in the park, giving children the chance to experience the sights and sounds of motorsport on their doorstep?
“It would take a real professional approach from a company that runs things like big pop concerts or equivalent, but we would definitely support it,” says Judge. “We would need sponsorship, but we have a number of irons in the fire on that, so if we had someone to run the infrastructure and deal with the attendance then there is a possibility for the event to come back. We would never say never…”
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