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The "intimate" London parkland track where F1 aces thrilled – Autosport

The rise of FIA Formula E and other electric genres has brought world-class car racing to city streets globally. Conversely, closed-circuit racing in the outskirts of capitals is a fading commodity. Crystal Palace, which hosted its final meeting 50 years ago last month, offered just that and a tourist attraction for the Greater London Council.
Seven miles from London’s Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament), situated in parkland on a high point to the south-east of the conurbation boasting panoramic views, the much-missed venue first reverberated to the beat of motorcycle engines in 1927. Ten years later Siam’s Prince Bira (ERA R2B ‘Romulus’) won the London Grand Prix on a metalled two-mile circuit.
Alas, Sir Joseph Paxton’s extraordinary pre-fabricated iron-framed glass pavilion for which it was named – built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, then transplanted to the Penge Place estate at Sydenham, where it was reopened within three years – burned to the ground in 1936. An event your scribe’s mother, then five, remembers!
Speeds continued to rise on the two-mile circuit, where Bira and Raymond Mays reset the lap record on 1 July 1939, two months before the start of the Second World War. The genial Mays, founder of the English Racing Automobiles marque with Peter Berthon, holds it in perpetuity having averaged 60.97mph in R4D, the works development car equipped with a potent two-litre supercharged engine.
Racing resumed in 1953 – after the war had wreaked destruction on much of London – and from 1967-72 ‘The Palace’ staged European Formula 2 races (sometimes championship rounds) on a 1.39-mile outer-ring derivative of the old circuit. From stellar entries, Jacky Ickx (Matra MS5), Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart (Brabham BT23C and BT30), Emerson Fittipaldi (Lotus 69) and Jody Scheckter (McLaren M21) won the contests, organised by the British Automobile Racing Club, although there wasn’t one in 1969.
Tony Rolt set the inaugural record on the post-war layout at 68.8mph in Connaught A3, and F2 racers Roy Salvadori (Cooper T53) and Henry Taylor (Lotus 18) pushed it below the minute mark in 1961. Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, John Surtees, Rindt and Stewart were among the sport’s great champions who held the honour. Rindt (Lotus 69) claimed the first 100mph record in 1970, his mark supplanted a year later by F2 star Ronnie Peterson, Tim Schenken and Emerson Fittipaldi among a group of five!
The original two-mile circuit was popular with spectators. This photograph is from 1939
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Grahame White, who organised the events as British Automobile Racing Club competition manager, was clerk of the course and also race starter, remembers Crystal Palace fondly: “I joined the BARC in 1962 and the F2 meeting was actually an enjoyable experience. Our office was in central London, so it was just down the road. Our arrangements were made with [landowner] the Greater London Council and I have to say the people were all very good and professional. They didn’t assume they knew everything [about racing], so we worked well together.
“Rather than a circuit manager, we dealt with the team which maintained the park. They had all the right kit, including road sweepers, and plenty of keen people, so setting up [the venue] was not as difficult as you might imagine. I used to get an amount of money from the GLC to be able to pay starting money, which attracted top teams.
“In those days Formula 1 drivers were very happy to race in F2 on weekends when they weren’t doing grands prix. But first I had to negotiate with the likes of Team Lotus and Bernie Ecclestone [who was managing Jochen Rindt] to attract them. Everything was written down in a little book…
PLUS: The 10 greatest F2 races contested by F1 drivers
“The viewing facilities were superb and because the venue was so accessible by public transport [buses and trains to Anerley with an enormous catchment area], huge crowds turned out to watch F2 in particular. From the terracing high above the pitstraight, racegoers looked down into the cockpits of the cars on the grid and the atmosphere as they raced away was terrific. When I started the races [with a Union Flag] I was standing beneath them on maybe four sleepers beside the track, which [with a full grid of high-revving engines] was fantastic.
“Crystal Palace was a very intimate little circuit and spectators could get closer to the race cars there than anywhere else. Next to the track was a strip of grass, then wooden [railway] sleepers which stopped cars pretty quickly. The lack of runoff areas did remind me of Monaco. Anybody who went off was likely to whack a bank, as many did. Because the circuit was so short cars came round very often, and it was both challenging and fast.”
Mike Hailwood’s ultimate lap record of 48.4 seconds – set in a Surtees-Hart TS10 en route to winning the second heat of the Greater London International Trophy feature on 29 May 1972 – erased the 49.2s set by Surtees (TS10), Patrick Depailler (March 722), Carlos Reutemann (Brabham BT38), John Watson (Tui BH2), Jean-Pierre Beltoise (BT38) and Vic Elford (Chevron B20) in the opening heat.
These were the days of hand timing, where skilled people would each keep track of four or more competitors using a bank of Heuer chronographs and fast arithmetic. Car-mounted transponders make it so much easier today!
Hailwood set the circuit lap record in a 1972 Formula 2 race during the circuit’s final season of racing
Photo by: Jeff Bloxham
Nine-time world motorcycle racing champion Hailwood – “A lovely man”, recalls White – went on to win the F2 title that year, by the end of which ‘The Palace’ as a circuit was no more. Brilliant on two wheels and four, ‘Mike The Bike’s’ name was still in the statutes from records he set on his motorcycle debut in August 1958!
Pressures had been building on the venue and everybody knew the sad day was coming, even if they did not want to believe it. Just four meetings were scheduled for its swansong season, but only two ran. Two split-capacity counters towards the Wiggins Teape Paperchase (as the British Saloon Car Championship was branded) supported the F2 race, won by Jonathan Buncombe (Austin Cooper S) and Australian Brian Muir in the Wiggins Teape-backed Ford Capri RS2600 respectively.
The BARC returned to run the Hexagon Trophy meeting on 9 September, when Mike Walker (Iberia Airlines Team Ensign LNF3) won both his heat and the final of the F3 feature and Russell Wood (STP March 723) the other heat. Clearly undeterred by a previous life-threatening shunt at Crystal Place, Walker raced 10,000rpm F3 screamers and won in F5000 before returning to the now 1600cc F3. Looking 20 years younger than his age, he returned to 1000cc Historic F3 after a 51-year sabbatical and still races a Brabham BT21 spiritedly at 76.
Other winners that day were Brian Henton (Crossle 24F) in Formula Super Vee – he would have to wait until 1980 to win the European F2 Championship after a close call in 1979 – Ray Calcutt (Hillman Imp) and Gerry Marshall (DTV Vauxhall Firenza) in the Forward Trust Special Saloon championship, Martin Raymond (Chevron B21) in the Motoring News/Castrol Special GT race and Chris Bruce (Cooper S) in a 1300cc counter.
Two weeks later, the curtain finally fell with the passing of the Daily Mirror Historic Meeting, on which the autumn sun obligingly shone. Along with the opportunity to see cars of yesteryear in action, reflecting the circuit’s past, spectators saw George Abecassis, Mays, Stirling Moss and 1959 Le Mans winner Roy Salvadori take part in a parade before the Aston Martin Owners’ Club’s eight-race programme commenced.
The first of two Vintage and Venerable grids opened the show with David Llewellyn (Bentley 3/8) scoring a comfortable win. Andy McLennan (later of Austin A35 and Colt Starion note) took the sequel in his MG N-type Magnette. The Seven Seas Fellowship trophy featured no fewer than nine ERAs, still in their thirties, on the Pre-1940 grid. Martin Morris in R11B ‘Humphrey’ won from Sir John Venables-Llewelyn (R4A), Hamish Moffat (R3A) and The Hon Patrick Lindsay (R5B ‘Remus’). Brilliantly, R3A, R11B and R5B finished first, second and fifth respectively in this month’s Goodwood Trophy race at the Revival, driven by Mark Gillies, David Morris (Martin’s son) and Paddins Dowling respectively.
Neil Corner (ex-Lex Davison three-litre Aston Martin DBR4) narrowly beat Charles Lucas (Maserati 250F) in the Historic racing car set, while Willie Green took Cussons Trophy Classic GT gold in a Ferrari 250 GTO. Trevor Scarratt (Brabham BT18) won the Monoposto thrash in which future champion Alan Baillie, who this summer completed 60 continuous seasons of racing, finished eighth in his Viking.
Without runoffs, the track was unforgiving as 1971 Escort Mexico racers Mike Hibbert (14) and Stuart McCrudden discovered
Photo by: Jeff Bloxham
The deciding round of the JCB Championship sportscar finale was split by engine capacity. Peter van Rossem headed the points table on arrival with the Lotus-Bristol Mk10 that first owner Cliff Davis had raced there in 1955, and he finished third in an adventurous drive behind Chris Warwick Drake in the ex-Mike Anthony sister car, but neither could catch 1961 East African Safari Rally winner David Beckett’s younger and more agile ex-Bluebelle Gibbs 1100cc Lola-Climax Mk1. Ironically, those rakish Lotuses finished second and third in the recent Madgwick Cup race at Goodwood, driven by Malcolm Paul and promising 19-year-old Oliver Marcais.
Bringing a remarkable era to a close after 19 seasons on this circuit – the same as Goodwood’s from 1948-66 – the larger JCB contenders assembled for one last hurrah. Nick Faure led in Hexagon of Highgate boss Paul Michaels’s ‘birdcage’ Maserati T61, from team-mate Marshall in the spaceframe Lister-Jaguar Costin, Richard Bond (in Robert Cooper’s Lister-Jaguar) and Green in Sir Anthony Bamford’s T61.
Crowd favourite Marshall, who had started racing in 1964 with a Mini, seized the opportunity to move ahead of Faure at half distance and took the chequered flag, 1.4s clear of Green with Faure on his tail. Long back in its original Peter Lumsden/Peter Sargent 1963 Le Mans coupe guise, the winning Lister was runner-up in the Tourist Trophy Revival 50 years later.
Formal racing ended at Crystal Palace half a century ago, with no possibility of going back to the popular layout once the building housing the Olympic-sized salt-water swimming pool was constructed on top of the hallowed track, adjacent to the National Sports Centre’s athletics stadium that opened in 1964. Sevenoaks & District Motor Club continued to promote sprints on the surviving sector, however. Those speed events, like many of the race meetings in its golden era, were largely populated by weekend warriors who cherish happy memories of their visits to the Palace.
As White vividly remembers: “I raced a Mini there a few times and the bit I enjoyed most was haring down through the Glade [towards Park Curve]. It is rather exciting to head into a blind corner flat-out, not knowing what you might find hidden by the trees!”
If you missed out on Crystal Palace magic, the BBC’s One Hundred Great Sporting Moments series on YouTube immortalises some fine battles at a wonderful venue.
The circuit’s fast, flowing layout was popular with single-seater and tin-top racers alike, and is fondly remembered 50 years on by those who attended events
Photo by: Jeff Bloxham
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