A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Hooptedoodle #163 - The Grand Prix at Aintree

I’ve been very busy with the dreaded Real Life for a couple of weeks, a situation which is likely to persist for a little while longer, so I have done no painting and there has been no progress with the ECW campaign. None of this is a problem – it was all expected and planned, and the sector of Real Life I have been busy with is something I am very enthusiastic about anyway. There is a wargames-related development shaping up in the form of some forthcoming figures I have commissioned, but I’m not allowed to say anything about that yet.

Things should get back on track in February in the Campaigning and Blogging Dept, but, to avoid the Prometheus saga shrivelling up altogether, I decided to publish a rather long nostalgia post which I drafted up some weeks ago for my own amusement. Here goes.

The Grand Prix at Aintree

The Grand National - one of the smallest fences
A little while ago I was sorting through some folders of my photographs, and I found some pictures that I took about 10 years ago, on a visit to Aintree racecourse.

As I have mentioned before, I was born and raised in Liverpool, a large and workmanlike industrial city and port in the north-west of England. To its children, and to people who have grown to love the place, it possesses a certain vigour, not to say charm, but I grew up when it was still extensively wrecked from the air raids of WW2, when there was not enough money to get on with rebuilding it properly and things were, to use a fashionable term, austere.

There was not a lot of organised fun about life in Liverpool at that time – I think we had a couple of active theatres, we had a very famous orchestra which was resident at the rebuilt Philharmonic Hall, we had two so-so football teams whose glories were mostly in the past, and there were a number of other attractions, but nothing really to write home about (assuming that home was somewhere else). The relative boom time of the 1960s was still mostly in the future.

What we did have, though, was the Grand National, at Aintree. For the benefit of non-British readers, the Grand National is a very old, very famous horse race, run over very large, permanent fences, of the type which in Britain is known as a steeplechase. This was a mighty event, run every year, which attracted huge crowds and lots of money to our humble corner of the Provinces. The racecourse and the event, at Aintree, on the northern edge of the city, were owned by the very wealthy Topham family – I think the chargehand of the day was Mrs Mirabel Topham, an impressively large and strong minded lady. Though her horse race brought a great deal of welcome money to the city, she seems to have spent a lot of time arguing with the City Council. One of the areas of contention was Melling Road.

Mrs Topham
Melling Road, you see, was a public thoroughfare which ran right through the middle of the racecourse area, and the track crossed it at two points, which required the road itself to be closed whenever the track was in use and turf and straw to be temporarily laid on it to provide a continuous surface for the horses.

Modern aerial view, North at the top. You can see Melling Road splitting the
area into two, and that the links joining the two portions of the road circuit have gone
Sometime around 1953, someone in the Topham empire had the brainwave of constructing a race track for motor cars alongside the steeplechase course. It was a flat and rather uninspiring circuit compared with the great European tracks, to be sure, but, since racing on public roads – even closed public roads – was illegal in the UK, a track on private land provided a much-needed venue, it was at least as interesting as the perimeter tracks of retired WW2 airfields (which provided most of the British venues at that time, for a sport that was growing rapidly in popularity) and – spectacularly – it could share the very substantial grandstands and spectator amenities built for the Grand National, which was a very attractive proposition indeed. At the time, it was announced as “the Goodwood of the North”, which seems odd now, but the idea of a combined horse and car racing facility on private land (as had been built by the Duke of Richmond, near Chichester, in Sussex) was very appealing. Naturally, race reports and films of the day refer sniffily to the unattractive nature of Liverpool itself, and the “throat catching stink” of the British Enka works next door. Monte Carlo it certainly was not.

Start of the 1962 Aintree 200 (by this time the race was 200 Km, not miles),
showing the impressive grandstands

Just to prove they weren't really monochrome cars, here's Bonnier, the Swedish
driver, in a factory-entered Porsche at the 1960 "200" race - his car was, erm, silver...
The Aintree circuit had a 3-mile “Grand Prix” version, which utilised the big Grand National facilities and required closure of the Melling Road, as discussed. The Council may just about have been prepared to close it for a big honey-pot like the country’s biggest horse race, but motor racing was a different proposition altogether, and a sniping war between the city’s elected and the Tophams was a feature of the period. There was also a smaller, “club” circuit which did not need the road to be closed, but which therefore did not use the main pit building or the big grandstands. It did, however, allow crowds to stand on the romantically named Railway Embankment, from which you could see almost all of the track (if you had remarkable eyesight).

The first motor race meeting was long before my time, and the cars ran anti-clockwise – I think this was simply because it was the same direction as the horses. Afterwards, the racing was always clockwise, which is more normal for cars (for some reason). Mrs Topham was thinking big right from the outset – she obviously had designs on hosting the world championship British Grand Prix at Aintree, and – location apart – the venue had some very obvious attractions. She got her way very quickly – in 1955 the British GP was held there, in very hot weather in July, and it was a huge success. There was mixed feeling about the German Mercedes team finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the big race, only 14 years after the Luftwaffe had been busily bombing the port of Liverpool into ruins, but the German team were smart enough to arrange for young Stirling Moss to win the race, ahead of his great team-mate, Juan Fangio, so everyone was very happy.

Moss wins the 1955 GP, from Fangio
And again in 1957, this time for the Vanwall team
Of course, there was more politics behind the scenes. The organising body of the British GP at Aintree was the Royal Automobile Club, and they made it a huge spectacle, rather upstaging the previous efforts at Silverstone, a converted airfield in Northamptonshire, where the organising body was the British Racing Drivers Club (a lot more blazers and moustaches at Silverstone, then). The rivalry produced a short-lived compromise whereby the respective organisers and venues took turn about to host the British GP. The Aintree “200” (200 miles) race was an international event held each year before the start of the world championship season began in earnest, and this quickly became established as a major event on the calendar each Spring. Aintree had its turn of staging the Grand Prix itself in 1955 (when Moss won his first world championship race, as mentioned), in 1957 (when Moss went one better and won in the Vanwall, thus becoming the first British winner of a Grande Epreuve in a British car since Henry Segrave’s exploits with the Sunbeam in the 1920s), in 1959 (when Brabham won in a Cooper-Climax – a rear-engined car – on his way to becoming world champion that year), in 1961 (when I was there, as I shall describe shortly) and – out of sequence and for the last time – in 1962 (when Jimmy Clark won it in a Lotus). Thereafter the British GP was triumphantly taken back to its “rightful” home and the blazers at Silverstone, where it has been held – apart from a few years at Brands Hatch, in Kent – ever since.

I was taken to the “200” meeting in 1959 by my “Uncle” Duggie, a family friend. It was a very long day out, and I was very young, so I think that, since I have no recollection of seeing Jean Behra, the French driver, win in a works Ferrari, we may have left before the end of the main event.

After that I went to the “200” race each year, on my own or – sometimes – with a school chum. The fact that nobody ever went with me a second time suggests that already, at that age, my obsessive brand of enthusiasm was a difficult thing to be subjected to for a complete day out! It was a real adventure. I would set off from home at around 7am on the Saturday morning, wrapped in my warmest clothing, with an old gas-mask satchel containing a day’s supply of sardine sandwiches and Penguin biscuits. The number 61 bus would take about an hour to get me up to Walton, in the north end of the city, and then the best bet was just to walk to Aintree and the circuit. I would get there around 9:30 to 10, I guess, and the public address system would be playing the BBC’s Saturday morning programmes – including the legendary “Uncle Mac” and his children’s musical request show. If I ever hear any of those novelty tunes from that time I can still see Aintree racecourse on a shivery, grey morning, with the odd sports car warming up on the track and the grandstands slowly filling up as the wealthier ticket-holders arrived.

Typically, a day’s racing would have events for Formula Junior (single seaters with production engines of about 1 litre – this was regarded as a great training ground for the future GP stars), sports cars, saloon cars and GT (Grand Touring) cars as well as the big Formula 1 event, so it was a long, long day. I used to get into the (cheap) public enclosure, and go to the top of the Railway Embankment, where I would sit on my plastic raincoat, armed with my plastic binoculars. You were a long way from the cars, but you could see a lot of the track, and the fastest part ran past the embankment. You could get closer to the action by going to the bottom of the bank, of course, but the cars were still the other side of the Grand National track, and the big jumps on the horse track meant that you only got a glimpse of the cars as they whizzed between two adjacent jumps. Up at the top was best – it was windy, and it was uncomfortable, but it was the place to go. Sadly, I did not have a camera, and I lost my treasured souvenir programmes years ago – they probably fell to pieces, in fact.

I only once attended the Grand Prix – in 1961. That was a very exciting season. The international body which ran the F1 championship had changed the rules so that the engines were reduced to 1.5 litres. The British had just started to become successful under the previous rules, and so did what the British always tend to do – they wasted the two years notice period protesting about the rule changes. The Italian team, Ferrari, of course, just got on with developing new cars for the new rules, so that by the time the 1961 season got under way the British teams were all using bought-in 4-cylinder Coventry Climax engines, developing around 145 bhp, while the Ferraris had nice new V6-cylinder jobs developing about 185 bhp, and increasing to around 200 bhp later in the season. The season should have been a walkover for Ferrari, but they had a team of drivers which was probably their weakest for some years (good enough drivers, but no real stars – they had two Americans, Phil Hill and Ritchie Ginther, and a German nobleman, Count Wolfgang Berghe von Trips), and also Stirling Moss produced some real virtuoso performances in his underpowered Lotus at Monte Carlo and at the German Nurburgring, and he really punched well above his weight. For a while, it looked as though he might be able to offer a heroic challenge for the championship title.

Lord, didn't it rain... here is the start in 1961, with the shark-nosed Ferraris to the fore
When I went to the British GP at Aintree in July, Von Trips, Phil Hill and Moss had already each won one race, and things were looking set for a real thriller of a season. Race day was awful – torrential rain of monsoon proportions was a feature of the main race. I was absolutely soaked through. In the early stages of the race, Moss took advantage of his ability in the tricky conditions and harrassed the more powerful Ferraris, but eventually he was forced to retire, and Von Trips, Hill and Ginther finished in line astern in the first three places, well ahead of the rather breathless opposition. After his retirement, Moss took over  the new, experimental, 4-wheel drive Ferguson car which had also been entered by his team, and circulated very quickly in the wet conditions. Of course, he was not challenging for the race lead, but I believe that I can thus claim that, in the Ferguson on that day, I got a glimpse of the last front-engined car ever to run in a Grand Prix.

Von Trips led for most of the race
Moss chased the Ferraris for a while...

...and when the rain was at its heaviest he got up to second place, but his car didn't last
So he had a shot in the experimental 4WD Ferguson, last front-engined GP racer
ever. In the background is the Railway Embankment, with the weather
gradually improving - I was somewhere near the top middle, soaking wet
So Moss didn’t win, and his world championship hopes slid further. With the fickleness of youth, I decided that if my British hero could not win then I would also support the Ferraris, the handsome young German nobleman seemed a suitable back-up hero, and the most likely favourite for the championship, so I transferred at least part of my allegiance to Von Trips.

Von Trips looks subdued at the end of the race. Perhaps he was as
cold and wet as I was. He was now the strong favourite for the
World Championship, but he was dead within six weeks
A few weeks later, Moss won brilliantly in the German GP, but the next race was at the very fast Monza circuit, for the Italian race, and no-one was expected to get close to the Ferraris. My new hero, Von Trips, was killed very publicly and in very gladiatorial fashion when his car crashed on the second lap at Monza and he was thrown out onto the track. Phil Hill won the race and claimed a joyless championship for Ferrari. I was appalled by the accident, but recovered sufficiently to take an interest in the start of the 1962 season, for which the British teams had new engines and were expected to be competitive. For reasons which have never been explained, Moss crashed in the Easter Monday race at Goodwood, before the championship season commenced, and was seriously injured. His life was in the balance for a while, but he recovered, though he never raced at the top level again.

That did it – I gave up on motor racing. It was 1980 before I started following F1 racing seriously again, and it was 1985 before I attended an international event again. As is the nature of things, those boyhood heroes were bigger and brighter, their cars more spectacular, their exploits more hair-raising, though in reality the racing of the early 1960s was a brave but feeble effort compared to the modern sport.

When I was in the 6th Form at grammar school, I once “sagged off” during a free study morning, and, just for old times’ sake, took the old 61 bus up to Walton, trekked up to Aintree, climbed through the gates at Melling Road and walked around the old Grand Prix circuit in the rain – I think I gave up before I got back to the grandstands, but I waved to the empty Railway Embankment as I passed.

Here are a couple of the nostalgia visit pics from 2004 which kicked off this
reminiscence - here are three British Grand Prix cars from the 1950s, from
left to right, the green cars are a 1952 HWM, a 1953 Cooper-Bristol and a
1955 B-Type Connaught - all before my time!

A much more competitive car - this is a Maserati 250F - quite a low, late one
- maybe 1957
The Club Circuit still exists – there are races there, but none of them involves the full track, and they are all minor events. In 2004 I went down there with a friend to visit a special open day which featured guest appearances by Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Roy Salvadori – British stars from Aintree’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a bus trip around the track, which was fun, and there were a lot of old cars on display. We also signed a massive petition objecting to a planned redevelopment which would permanently destroy what was left of the old Grand Prix circuit – housing and new grandstands near the old Melling Crossing. In fact the fund-raiser and the petition gave the fleeting appearance of being a faint scam, since it seems that the planning permission for the development had already been signed off, and the changes were not up for negotiation. I imagine the Topham family had lost interest in international motor racing long before this date also.

The circuit is mostly still there – the TV camera car drives along it to film the horse racing at Aintree – but the old Melling Road now has to be closed only for the horses, which is traditional and is probably as it should be. The upstart RAC British Grand Prix in the North is long gone, as is the 12-year-old with the sardine sandwiches, but it is still a little sad to think that the asphalt track where Fangio and Co raced is just a service road now.


  1. A couple of quick footnotes - I am informed by Cyrus M, who is a motoring historian, that racing on public roads was only illegal in mainland Britain - there were, and in some instances still are, races on public roads in Jersey, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland (Dundrod).

    Cyrus also tells me that the Topham family (who originally were horse breeders from Yorkshire) sold Aintree and its race to property developers in 1973, which started an immediate decline in the fortunes of the Grand National, as the admission prices more than doubled and every possible cost-cutting ruse was explored. The last use of the full GP motor circuit was in 1984, I understand.

  2. I quite enjoyed this post. A wonderful tribute to youth and to fond memories. I don't much car for auto racing. I attended some Formula 1 -type event in Toronto in the 1990s and found it head-splittingly loud, but the cars of that era have a heroic quality about them.
    A very fine piece of writing.
    Curious to hear about those commissioned figures!

    1. Thank you Michael - very self-indulgent, this post (like many of the others...).

      Heroic quality - indeed - the cars were built as light as possible, the tracks had no safety measures at all. The drivers drove around as fast as possible in cars which were basically a bathtub full of petrol, with extra tanks over their knees and down the sides - oh, and no safety belts - this was a deliberate oversight - on balance, it was felt that you stood more chance if you got thrown out than if you were trapped in a bonfire. The parallels between racing drivers of the 50s and 60s and fighter pilots of the 40s are many and uncomfortable...

    2. "no safety belts - this was a deliberate oversight - on balance, it was felt that you stood more chance if you got thrown out than if you were trapped in a bonfire"
      Crikey! Now I'm reminded of the racing scene at the end of the original B&W film On The Beach, where Fred Astaire (I think it's him) goes out in a blaze of glory.

  3. I remember a Scalextric set in my youth ('60 ish) which had a red shark nose Ferrari, and high back British racing green car..... happy days, and a rather good post.... very evocative....

    1. Hi Steve - ah, Scalextric - I never had a set, though I secretly bought a car - a model of a front-engined BRM, and used to take it round to my mate Russell's house - he and his brother had a huge layout - it is possible that playing occasionally on someone else's Scalextric was ideal - when my own kids had a set they used to get bored with it very quickly, and the game degenerated into arranging the biggest crash possible. In passing, and a propos of absolutely nothing, a am reminded that a couple of years later this same mate Russell had a girlfriend who was to become famous as Edwina Currie MP - she used to cause widespread scandal in the rather reserved Childwall district of the city by sunbathing topless in his garden - but that is quite another story, and I never witnessed it, to my eternal regret.