Watching My Childhood Matchbox Collection Come To Life In Belgium
Photography by Will Broadhead
Like most young boys, I had a tub full of Matchbox cars, seemingly endless in variety. Porsches, Ferraris, BMWs, F1 stuff, Le Mans prototypes—everything was represented in my bin of miniatures. They would race each other around fictional circuits of my own creation, negotiating all of the obstacles a bedroom could throw at them. The grids were vast and varied, and—in my mind at least—the racing was fierce. Somewhat sadly though, this was only alive in my imagination, for such a diverse grid couldn’t exist in 1:1 scale reality, could it?
It’s actually not impossible as it happens, for the Peter Auto Classic Endurance Racing series for GT and prototype cars from between 1972 and 1981 at the Spa Classic did a pretty prime job of recreating those childhood competitions. I will admit, it didn’t include Formula 1 cars like my grids did, but one can’t be too greedy!
What it did display was one of the most magically diverse grids I’ve ever had the pleasure of photographing. Porsche 935s facing off against Ferrari 512s, wedge-shaped BMW M1s from the late 70s bullying the prettier and more curvaceous Porsche 930-based creations. There were prototypes as well; a handful of Chevrons joined Lola T298s buzzing in and out of each other’s slipstreams, sporting BMW M12 Formula engines, as well as earlier T290s and T280s that a young Patrick Head had a hand in designing. It’s a brilliantly interesting mix of aerodynamic design and power plant engineering, and these powerful cars going at it around one of the greatest race tracks in the world—Spa—trumped anything I concocted on the carpets of my youth.
Endurance racing has always been a mixed bag of machines, and the inter and intra-class battles of yesteryear have canonized some of the circuits and road courses that are synonymous with so many “golden eras” of the sport; the Targa Florio, the Mille Miglia, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, of Spa, of Daytona.
There have been many stars over the generations as well—looking at you, Audi R8—but there is something about the cars from the ’70s and early-‘80s that just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a bit taller. The Group 5 cars in particular are a fabulous visual spectacle, the big body kits of these silhouettes are somewhat ungainly, with their mix of chunky aero and cooling ducts, but for my money they still offer up some of the greatest views in racing.
Even the Ferrari 512s in race-guise have somehow become boxier than their road going counterparts, as if injected with some sort of illegal growth hormone that trades saps beauty for brawn. Of course, opinions will be split on whether the transformations these cars have gone through from street car to race car makes them more attractive or less, but when these monsters are duking it out on the track there’s little denying the function that results from such changes.
Another thing nobody can rightfully disagree on is the soundtrack: a violent, staccato score full of intake noise, popping exhausts, and the whir of hundreds of horsepower coming to rest when the throttles are briefly closed. That said, as a rule there aren’t many highly-tuned race cars that I don’t like to listen to! These are just some of the best.
When you couple such sounds and images together they feed off each other, and when you add in the variety of cars on the track, the different engine configurations, liveries, wings—the parade of power coming down the length of the Kemmel Straight makes me almost fearful as I stand in position, waiting for them to negotiate the right-left-right of Les Combes and Malmedy.
The sharp cracks of downshifts make me wince slightly, as engines bang out flames on the over-run and then spin up again as the drivers steal what inputs they can from the accelerator. Curbs are ridden and loose tails are corrected with counter steer as the thin line between chaos and control is trodden and occasionally lost. The suspension compresses as the load on the cars transitions from one side to the other through this quick chicane, and even the oh-so-low M1s find some downward travel from somewhere, scuttle-shaped front splitters scratching the asphalt and rumble strip beneath them as they go.
The prototypes are the fastest of course, with those in Lola-badged machines taking most of the bragging rights through practice and qualifying, but the racing is still tight up front. In fact, after an hour’s competition, only four seconds split the top three cars, and the first over the line in the end is the TOJ SC 303 of Marc Devis (the black and green machine below).
With the rest of the field following the late-‘70s German chassis and its Cosworth mill, the crowds at the circuit were treated to some great mid-pack racing. It’s a shame it’s all over so soon, although I’m sure my ears are thankful for the chance to rest a bit. This class is proof that big and bold can certainly be beautiful, although I wouldn’t fancy getting into a ring with any of these cars. As life-size toy boxes go, this was a pretty good collection. The sticker emblazoned on the back of one of the 935s sums it up really: “Toys for Big Boys.”