Goodwood Revived The Legends Of 1950s Grand Prix Racing With Period-Correct Perfection
Photography by Will Broadhead
Everyone has that car from their childhood; the machine that captivates your imagination like no other, the one that can transport you back to another time and really make you feel like you are five years old again. It’s not so much nostalgia that drives this, it’s more like a piece of your DNA. It is what makes you, you. It is ingrained and unchangeable. Only us petrolheads really understand this when it comes to cars or bikes, and only we know how impactful that defining first encounter really was, when our eyes were opened. Only we know which machine, or group of them, gave us our first awakening and can now take us back to that zero point.
For me, it was the Grand Prix cars of the early ‘90s, and in particular anything that rolled out of the Williams factory, which is based in my hometown. But I know it goes much deeper than that, as there is always an influence underlying our favorite things—rarely do we come to these desires on our own. In my case the catalyst for my love of racing cars and bikes came from my father, as I’m sure it has for many of us. As soon as my interest was piqued, my education could begin in earnest, and it went back to history first, and in fact right back to my old man’s own childhood heroes.
I was schooled on the marques of Maserati and Ferrari, those ferociously formidable European constructors that dominated Grand Prix racing during the ’50s. Drivers like Juan Fangio, Jack Brabham, and Mike Hawthorn captivated my young imagination as they had my father’s. These men belonged to a different generation, and I would listen to stories of their feats and triumphs and disasters alike, enthralled by tales of the monstrous machines they commanded.
In the days before the Internet, all I had to feed my imagination was the stories I was told and a few grainy photographs in books. Despite attending contemporary racing and seeing more modern machines on the track, the spectres of old remained just that, stories of a bygone age, ghosts of a past I was born too late to call my own. But, if they were better than the modern racing that I had already fallen in love with, as I had been taught, then they must really be good I figured. So, it was with great excitement that I headed down to the Goodwood Revival last weekend, knowing that they had a class just for the ’50s Grand Prix cars my dad had taught me so much about.
Sure, I’d seen the odd demo of these now ancient forefathers of modern F1, but I’d never seen them actually race each other. I’d never been able to get up so close and personal with such an amount of them in one paddock. And more than that, Goodwood had arranged a special dedication to the 1957 British Grand Prix, which was a definitive moment in the power struggle between the marques of the time. Along with this, they also had Fangio’s championship-winning Maserati 250F, and the British Vanwall that had, on a particular day in 1957, started to alter Grand Prix history. These were the mythical cars that had filled my head as a child, the cars of my dad’s infancy and my upbringing. This was to be something truly special indeed.
The first thing that strikes you about these top-level race cars of the era, is their size. They are colossal, even when sat next to the grand prix machines of the next decade. These are huge, front-engine beasts with 2.5-liter straight-six and “V” formation motors lashed to tubular chassis and sprung between narrow wire wheels and tasked with delivering the 200 to 300-odd horses to the ground. This was an age when drum brakes were still the norm, discs being under development. Drivers grappled with large steering wheels to point the things in the right direction, whilst selecting the right gear in largely lumpy, five-speed manual boxes. The engineering might be rudimentary by today’s standards, but my goodness are they beautiful things to look at in motion and at rest. They look fast stood still, and on track, they positively dance. I still remember my dad’s descriptions of these cars drifting around corners, and he was certainly right; the way the back of the cars twitch as they enter and exit bends is quite something to see, as not weighed down by a heavy motor back there, the tail end tends to go light quickly. It is spectacular to watch, and then there is the noise. The growl. The roar of these mighty animals. Unshackled and un-silenced, the exhaust note of these old racing motors is pure aural pleasure. I defy anyone to hear the orchestral beauty that plays from the pipes of these machines and not get goosebumps. If they say they don’t, they’re lying. With a relatively low redline of around 7,500RPM, the exhaust note is a deep, raspy bark, and I could listen to it all day.
Back to that particular day, in 1957, at Aintree, in Liverpool. There was something of a changing of the guard as far as Grand Prix machines went. Up until that point the decade had been dominated by Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and Maserati. The Italians commanded nearly every race it seemed. Indeed, a British constructor had never even won a race, let alone a manufacturers title. That year would see Juan Manuel Fangio, arguably the greatest driver there ever was, win his fifth world title. But it was his last. It was also the end of the Italian stranglehold on the manufacturers’ crown, and it marked the demise of front-engine cars as well. But back again to that day in July, when on a circuit held within a stone’s throw from a race course just like the Goodwood track that hosted the cars last weekend, Vanwall came to the fore in an epic competitive effort.
The British team, set up by industrialist Tony Vandervell and featuring the engineering genius of Colin Chapman, would that day secure their first championship win. Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks were the team’s drivers that day, both in four-cylinder, VW5 cars. Moss however had issues with his, and had to retire with misfires a quarter of the way into the race. His selfless teammate, Brooks, still suffering from an accident sustained at Le Mans, pitted and gave up his car to Moss.
Rejoining in ninth place, the British driver in the British car fought his way through the pack and late in the race passed Stuart Lewis-Evans for what he thought was third place. This was not the case though, and despite a pit-stop in the dying laps, Moss went on to win. At the Revival just passed, these very cars could be seen duking it out and delighting the fans all over again.
Indeed, Tony Brooks himself was back behind the wheel of the same Vanwall that created history 60 years ago. Sadly, there is no Fangio with us anymore, but his Maserati was placed in good hands with Sir Jackie Stewart behind the wheel.
With the backdrop of the Goodwood circuit and the thousands of fans in period dress, you could be forgiven for thinking that it really was 1957 here. For me though, hearing the roar of those engines and seeing the cars maneuver on track takes me back not just to my childhood, but also, in a way, to that of my father’s. Despite all of the other precious metal on display, I am smitten. The emotion and adrenalin unlocked by these cars will not be topped by anything for quite some time to come.