It was an early start, and I hate early starts. After a sleepy coffee and accidentally waking the dog on the way out of the flat, I pulled myself into my Renault, nipped at by the morning cold. Dawn was breaking over London, and my body sullenly questioned what it was doing. But as I typed a destination into my sat-nav, I felt the first prickle of excitement. My destination was Goodwood Motor Circuit. I was going to my first Breakfast Club.
If you’re non-plussed, here’s a bit of historical context. Goodwood Motor Circuit, near Chichester, West Sussex, is one of Britain’s most famous and important motor racing venues. The racetrack sits on land belonging to the Goodwood Estate, the home of the Dukes of Richmond for over 300 years, and follows the perimeter of what was formerly RAF Westhampnett (now Goodwood Aerodrome), which served as a relief airfield in WWII. The land for the airfield was donated to the war effort by the 9th Duke of Richmond, Freddie March, who was also responsible for the first motorsports event to be held in or near Goodwood, a hill climb for a group of Lancia enthusiasts in 1936.
Now dear Freddie wasn’t just some toothsome aristocrat with a penchant for cars. He was an engineer, a serious motorsports fan, and something of a domestic amateur racing hero, having in 1930 won the Brooklands Double 12 (a 24h race split across two 12 hour day sessions) against some of the finest racing drivers of the time.
WWII was a somewhat inconvenient interruption for the flourishing British motorsports movement in the late 1930s not least because it led to the closure of Brooklands, the birthplace of British motor racing, in 1939. So when it was suggested to Duke Freddie after the war that the Goodwood aerodrome perimeter be developed into a racetrack, he seized on the idea. Not long afterwards, Goodwood Motor Circuit was opened to the public in September 1948, hosting the UK’s first professionally organised post-war motor racing event with huge crowds attending. It also became the new home of the British Automobile Racing Club.
Racing at Goodwood continued until 1966. By that time improvements in technology meant that modern racing cars were just too fast for the track. Due to safety concerns and the reluctance to change the fabric of the track, it was closed to racing (but remained open for vehicle testing). It was only in 1998 after a painstaking historical restoration that the first Goodwood Revival was held, celebrating the 1948-66 golden era of racing, and the track re-opened to historical race meets by Duke Freddie’s grandson. 50 years to the day since the opening of the Goodwood Motor Circuit, the present Earl of March drove a lap in the very same Bristol 400 sports car that his grandfather had used for the same purpose in 1948.
Perhaps the Uber driver who almost swerved into me on the Marylebone Road that morning had sensed my excitement as I mulled over this story, and felt impelled to give me a kind reminder of the visceral thrill of early motorsport. Following a vigorous exchange of the international victory salute, he zoomed off and I settled down into the two hour drive to the circuit, occasionally squeezing a bit more out of each gear than was really warranted by the tight London roads and my Renault (peace be upon it). I was alert for fellow Breakfast Clubbers, but aside from a suspiciously small and loud red motor car which zipped past in the vicinity of Putney, my progress was lonely and impatient.
You’re wondering what happens at a Breakfast Club. It’s very simple. There is a theme chosen (be it Japanese cars, V Power, or hot hatchbacks), and the owners of the vehicles turn up and park them up in a static parade on the circuit’s home straight and down into the first corner. Then ravenous hordes of the admiring public descend to look at, photograph, and (occasionally) touch the cars on show.
There is also a significant display of vehicles in the paddock area behind the pit garages. This is all fuelled by a lot of coffee and bacon sandwiches, and the whole enterprise, which kicks off at about 7am (hence my crushingly early start), usually winds up by about 11am. The theme on 5 August 2018 was Classic Car Sunday.
I had at this point seen naff-all classic cars on the endless grey track of the A3, so I took a turn off, and with a jaunty optimism plunged down the snaking B-roads towards the circuit. After a few minutes I suddenly spied a sleek, low car emerge from the morning mist in front of me, with unmistakeable curves, chrome wire wheels and bumpers and slit-like rear lights. It was a living, breathing Jaguar E-type, the first of the day.
I decided to keep it company, naturally.
Not long afterwards, our two vehicles were swooping and diving together through sleepy local villages. Occasionally I’d look out of my side window and see tendrils of mist snaking up off the warming fields; then I’d plunge back into a tree-covered tunnel, chasing the Jaguar’s snarl. At one point we hit a hillclimb flanked by cinematically tall pine trees; I cycled through the gears with enthusiasm. Sunlight was arcing between the trees and glinting off the side of the Jaguar as it lithely surged up the road. As we crested a wooded hill, I heard another engine, then saw a blue-white flash of an Austin Healey appear and roar past us, taking the lead of the convoy.
I thought it couldn’t get any better. And then it did – a modern Caterham appeared behind me, bug-eye lights glimmering, and so low I had trouble seeing it through my rear view mirror. I slowed slightly and with a blast of noise and acceleration it tore past us all in a flash of orange and racing stripe. “Yes boys!” I giggled, drumming my steering wheel excitedly like some deranged child, “…yes!”.
I arrived at the circuit, parked up and walked through the entrance. The first thing I saw was the black race position boards and white clock tower cast brilliantly against the blue sky. Below this, on the home straight, sat a 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4 Mark I. Not a bad start…
Before long you could hear the sputtering engines of classic cars turning up on the track. I promptly joined the crowd of onlookers who would greet every new arrival by swarming it like schoolchildren. Occasionally we’d be rewarded with a cheeky rev of an engine or even being asked to help push a priceless classic into its spot. Along with some veterans on deckchairs, I set myself up at Woodcote corner to watch.
The outer edges of Woodcote are littered with pieces of tyre rubber. It’s a testament to the countless battles Goodwood has seen. The skid marks slicing across the track surface at crazy angles just after the turn belie thrilling overtakes that just about worked, as well as pant-wetting misjudgments followed by skin-of-the-teeth rescues. You can almost feel the heat-haze of adrenaline rising from the tarmac.
This wasn’t lost on a few of the arriving drivers, who took the opportunity to give it some while approaching the display area. To the cheeky chap who kicked out the tail of his priceless Mercedes 300SL just for fun in front of the Super Shell barn, risking countless thousands of pounds of repairs – respect.
There were a number of lovely motors displayed on the track which stuck in my mind: the Mercedes 300SL, the litany of shining, glorious Jaguar E-Types, a rare white De Tomaso Pantera, a beautiful Austin Healey 3000 Mk III in powder blue, a number of Ford GT40s, and a luminous yellow BMW Alpina 3.0 CSL.
The home straight on the other side of the pits was lined with Aston Martins, with DB hood scoops for miles. In the sunshine you really get to admire the artistry of the bodywork of these hand-finished vehicles flowing around the frame of the car.
There were some great cars in the paddock too – a heap of rare models and badges including Porsches, Triumphs, Abarths, Ferraris and Bristols jostling Bugattis, Corvettes, Mustangs and AC Cobras… it was almost too much to bear with a hot sun and cloudless sky.
My guilty paddock favourite? A squat 1969 TVR Tuscan, which I am reliably informed won the 1970 Modsports Championship in the hands of Dr Rod Longton and was painstakingly restored to period accuracy after languishing in a garage for many years. The signs of wear and tear accrued over decades of racing only added to its roguish charm: chipped paint, cracked rear windscreen, and a Noel Edmonds Castrol GTX sticker (an aftermarket extra which is rumoured to add 15bhp to any car it is affixed to).
I stuck my head inside and was met by the distinctive smell of worn-in leather, petrol and high velocity swear words. I had a brief flashback to white-knuckled childhood car trips with my uncle, who considered himself something of a racer. But his Fiat wasn’t a patch on this little beast with its ludicrously deep rear rims, huge tyres, and a brute of a Ford Capri engine upfront proudly bearing the words “Essex V6”. (If you’re interested, there are some more fantastic images and history of the car here and here).
The owner had not-so-casually left a replica copy of a 1970 newspaper in the front describing the feats of the car in competition; a reminder that motorsports of the Goodwood variety (including the Festival of Speed and the fully retro Goodwood Revival) is often as much about history and culture as it is about the engineering.
As I walked through the ranks of cars and looked at the crowds, it struck me that the average age at this sort of event was quite high. Of course that’s not surprising – young people by and large can’t afford to buy or run vintage race cars, and this is a hobbyist pursuit after all.
But it moved me to think about the culture Goodwood represents in a wider context – one in which petrol engines are being phased out, electric cars are becoming increasingly normal features on our roads, and the idea of how automotive transport fits in to daily lives is undergoing dramatic change.
I wonder whether the automobile will, for millennials and a younger generation, be as much of a symbol of independence and freedom, a medium for childhood heroes (Stirling Moss, Senna, Schumacher, etc.), and a determining factor for a hobbyist culture as it was and is for the passionate owners who frequent these events. Can this specific sort of car culture be sustained into the future with fervour by people for whom vehicles are increasingly just a way of getting form A to B, and the great motoring era of the late 20th century is quite literally a lifetime away?
This kind of thinking certainly wasn’t lost on the attendees. As I took in the beauty of a rally-spec vintage Porsche I overheard one group of enthusiasts discussing the future effect of autonomous cars, and whether ‘Silicon Valley’ was an indirect threat to the classic car world and motorsports in general. Some of them seemed quite sure that the raw thrill of racing and driving would always attract people; others less so, given that the sound of a screaming naturally aspirated combustion engine was an increasingly rare pleasure.
It’s an interesting question to ponder. You sometimes hear that younger people do not value cars in the same way, that we are all much keener on autonomous electric vehicles and leaving the hard work of driving and navigation to some artificial intelligence. I’m not so sure – it’s one thing to live in an urban area and request robot taxis, and quite another to come to a racetrack like Goodwood and feel the excitement of human competition in the air, and to be inspired to have a go yourself. Perhaps you can have both.
Oh dear – my train of thought had turned into one of those slightly thinky motoring voiceovers. Clearly the heat was getting to me – it was absolutely scorching on the track and a trickle of expensive vehicles had begun to merge into the surrounding roads from the circuit. I’d run out of space on my memory card and there was no more bacon to be had. It was time to go home.
As I walked towards the exit I saw a young boy bouncing up and down behind the wheel of a V12 E-Type, jerking the wooden steering wheel from side to side and giggling loudly as his flustered mother tried to extract him from what was clearly not the young gentleman’s vehicle. As long as we have that sort of attitude, I thought, we will probably be alright, whatever powers these four-wheeled contraptions in the future.
Driving back to London I found myself following the world’s most laconic Porsche Carrera S on a fairly empty B-road. At one point it began to speed off, and in the heat of the moment and with a banger on the radio, I tried to keep up with it, like a pound-shop Niki Lauda gunning for the F1 world championship.
I was quickly reminded, not least by the surge of adrenaline which accompanied the unpleasant wallowing and mild loss of traction of my loyal Renault, that this wasn’t a good idea. Better keep that sort of thing for the track, I thought.
Guess I’ll be back soon.