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Circuit History

Crystal Palace – London’s Own Circuit


Until 1972 Crystal Palace was a hugely popular motor racing venue, attracting iconic drivers like Jim Clarke, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart, all keen to prove themselves on the fast narrow circuit among the trees.


Smooth and narrow, with fast sweeping bends, the Palace offered a unique challenge to the drivers, who treated the circuit, and in particular the infamous North and South Tower bends, with considerable respect.


As Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams, one of the top drivers of his day recalls: “It was a hell of a challenge because it didn’t suffer fools gladly. You didn’t dare make a mistake because you were into the barriers or the wall and those railway sleepers [that lined the track] didn’t give way easily!”


Barrie and his contemporaries battled it out on the final variant of the course, built in 1953, but the venue itself had hosted motor races since the late nineteenth century. In fact, Crystal Palace can lay claim to being the very first purpose-built motor racing circuit in the UK, and perhaps the world.

The beginning


No-one knows when the very first motor race took place, but you can bet it was about 30 seconds after the first two cars chanced across one another on whatever constituted a road back then. Certainly, it didn’t take long before the owners of these new-fangled automobiles decided they needed somewhere special to race their vehicles; so, one Saturday in May 1899, a group of enthusiasts gathered by the River Thames and set out in procession to the famous Crystal Palace in Upper Norwood. Once there, they outlined a rough circuit and, for the first time in the UK, they raced on a closed course. British motor racing was born.


For the next four years competitions were run over various courses in the park, which quickly became a solid fixture on both the racing and social circuit, as would the nearby Brooklands race track in years to come. But while Brooklands would appeal to high society, with its motto of “The right crowd, but not crowded”, Crystal Palace aimed to bring motorsport to the masses; its logo “London’s own circuit” a direct snub at the pomp of Brooklands.

In 1928 a new layout was constructed, especially for the Glaziers motorcycle speedway team. A quarter-mile oval, it ran around the perimeter of the sports field and regularly attracted crowds in their tens of thousands, many dressed in the black and orange colours of the local team.


As time passed by, and particularly following the Great Depression, the public began to loose interest in the sport, and for a while, the Palace became a place for enthusiasts only. However, that was about to change.


The 1930s – A fine spectacle

In the mid 1930s, rumours began to spread among the motoring press of a ‘Donington’ for London. Donington Park had become something of an iconic venue among Europe’s racing drivers and the idea was mooted of re-designing the Crystal Palace circuit to bring it on par with the much-loved Midlands track. Architect C. L. Clayton was brought on board and devised a two and a quarter mile course that skirted the edge of the park, but also included a sinuous inner loop around the maze.


The new layout was a success, and following the inaugural race in April 1937 - won by Pat G. Fairfield driving a works ERA – The Autocar magazine ran the following story, full of praise for the track:


“If the Crystal Palace can continue to hold public imagination as it did last Saturday, a new phase in the history of racing has begun. The whole thing was a fine spectacle; the roars of racing exhausts seemed to sound from every direction at once. Crowds excited by the cornering, spent a hectic time running up a bank to see one group of turns, running back again, the better to observe another.”

Sadly, the onset of the Second World War brought a premature end to racing at the park, but not before Crystal Palace had claimed another ‘first’ when Dick Seaman, one of Britain’s first motor racing superstars, completed a televised demonstration run in his Mercedes W125. The event, held in October 1937, was the first time a motorsport event had been broadcast live on TV.



Post war and into the 60s


Crystal Palace after the war was a very different venue. The circuit lay dormant until 1953, when motorsport finally made a return. And what a return!


Motorsport in general was riding a wave of popularity, spurred on by the post-war bravado of Boy’s Own comics and national pride. Great names like Jim Clark and Graham Hill were emerging onto the scene, and all cut their teeth on the tight, twisty parkland circuit among the trees.


For the next two decades huge crowds and superstar drivers would bring glamour and excitement to this small borough of south London. Photographs from the time depict legends like Jim Clark, serenely drifting his Lotus Cortina around the circuit, and future F1 stars Clay Regazzoni and Jochen Rindt, flat out along the Terrace Straight. Rindt in particular forged his reputation at Crystal Palace during the London Trophy meeting of 1964. That year the then unknown Austrian left spectators gasping as he dominated the Formula Two meeting at the park. Driving his own private Brabham-Ford, he beat Clark and Hill to the chequered flag in a classic encounter still talked about by those lucky enough to have been at the Palace on that hot Monday afternoon.


The Palace was in its heyday; the little circuit in the heart of London was now an extremely popular and permanent fixture on the European motor racing scene. Its relatively short, narrow character made it ideal for the smaller engined British cars of the 1960s, notably the charismatic little Minis, which could exploit their superior handling over the larger American muscle cars that regularly out-paced them in terms of straight line speed. Gordon Spice, another racing legend of the day, explains why the circuit was so unique: “I hold Crystal Palace in great affection. It was ideal for the Minis. We’d get blown away on some other tracks, but Crystal Palace really suited them. The only way you could get the Minis round the corners was to really chuck them in; we could do that at the Palace and it was very satisfying.”


The 1970s - A fond farewell


Sadly, the halcyon days of motor racing at the Palace could not last. The narrow confines that gave the circuit its unique character now made it ill-suited to the new safety requirements being imposed on the great race tracks of Europe. Vast run-off areas distanced spectators from the action, while convoluted chicanes would eventually dampen the high-speed challenge of great tracks like Monza, Spa and Silverstone. Crystal Palace required heavy investment to maintain its status in this new safety-conscious age, and unfortunately, it was not forthcoming.


With its demise now a certainty, Crystal Palace sought to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, and in doing so, gave fans some of the classic moments of 1970s motorsport. The epic battle between Gerry Marshall, Mike Crabtree and Martin Thomas in the 1971 Osram Saloon Car race, won by Marshall in the his Vauxhall Viva GT, is the stuff of legend, while future British Formula One world champion James Hunt made a name for himself in 1970 by climbing from his car and punching rival Dave Morgan in the middle of the track after a final corner incident. Also in 1970, Jochen Rindt became the first driver to lap the circuit at over 100mph - sadly Rindt was killed at the Italian Grand Prix before he could receive his trophy acknowledging this feat.


It’s one of the great tragedies of the sport that Crystal Palace had so much more to offer race fans, when it finally closed for good in 1972. A Motoring News article captured the sombre mood of the time: “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 white washed sleepers and golden trees echo to the roar of un-channelled exhausts”.


1990s and onwards - A new era


Motorsport did return briefly to the Park between 1997 and 2000, driven - as was originally the case - by enthusiasts. However, the approaching millennium, and the associated celebratory events in the park, brought an end to the project. However, thanks to the tireless work of Sevenoaks and District Motor Club, the sound of racing engines is once again echoing across Crystal Palace Park.

A comprehensive racing history of Crystal Palace can be found in the excellent book, Motor Racing at Crystal Palace - London’s Own Circuit, written by S.S. Collins and published by Veloce Publishing.


Thanks to Kevin Turner, freelance writer/editor and author of: Bonjour! Is This Italy? - A Hapless Biker’s Guide to Europe and From Crystal Palace to Red Square - A Hapless Biker's Road to Russia www.haplessbiker.com