From Acorns to Oak Trees

by Keith Gough C Eng. FI Mech E.

Whilst the history of the 500cc racing car class has been written about by various authors, its earliest days were only briefly described, concentrating on the later stages when it became commercialised and embryonic star drivers began to catch the public eye; Stirling Moss was one of these. The early days are worth recording.

Before World War 2, a group of motoring enthusiasts in the Bristol area had an idea for basic, cheap amateur racing. They brought, cheaply, second hand Austin Sevens, Morris Minors, M type MGs, Riley Nines etc., stripped the bodies off, did a mild amount of tuning and raced around a track made in the grounds of the estate in which the family home of the Fry family of chocolate fame, at Lulsgate Bottom, near where Bristol Airport is now situated. The younger Fry generation, of whom Joe achieved some fame in his V twin powered “Freikaiserwagen” (and gave the prototype Arengo it's first win - ed) until, most unfortunately, being killed in an accident at Blandford.

The group called itself CAPA an acronym derived from a combination of their Christian and surnames: (Dick) Caesar, Aldrich, (David) Price and Adrian (Butler). Some of the group began to think that it would be a good idea to have rather better and faster cars but still of relatively low cost. A simple chassis with, say, a motor cycle engine of, probably 500cc. A few of the more commercially minded thought they might make and market basic kits which could be bought and finished off as customers wished.

These enthusiasts were also members of, among others, the Bristol Motor Cycle and Light Car Club and some of them worked at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. When the war came, many members were called up and the clubs were shut down for the duration. Those members continuing to work in the Company formed the Bristol Aeroplane Company Motor Sports Club, the idea being to keep the spirit of motor sport alive even if competitive events had to stop. The writer was involved in this, then working at the Company, and we had lectures, film shows etc. and social events. Such personalities as Laurence Pomeroy, Roland Cross (of rotary valve fame) and George Hack of Rudge Whitworth come to mind as lecturers. The war also, of course, put an end to CAPA’s activities.

When the war was over, we organised what we believe to be the first post-war competitive event which was a speed trial along the airfield runway. Quite a number of the then famous drivers turned up including Bob Gerard in his ERA. It was quite a day after six years without any competitive events.

In the Autumn of 1946, we held an AGM, but so few turned up that it seemed farcical to continue the Club. Previous enquiries had revealed that, the war being over, members wanted to revitalise their old clubs, meet friends who had returned from the Services, and regarded the BACMSC as having served its purpose. A resolution was passed by those present to wind up the BACMSC and found a new club to pick up the threads of what CAPA members had been thinking about before the war started.

The Marwyn at Towcester 25th October '47

It was called the 500 Club and, to start off, the final balance of the BACMSC funds were transferred to it. In a matter of months about half a dozen cars had been built to a general specification prepared by the Club. The problem soon arose of where we could run the cars competitively and one of the members came up with what appeared to be a happy solution. He said he knew the farmer who owned the land on which Silverstone airfield had been created. The farmer was sympathetic to clubs using the perimeter track and several, including the BDC were already doing so. A date was fixed (October 25th - Ed) and we set off, with cars on makeshift trailers in convoy, one Saturday morning.

We arrived about 11 am, dismounted the cars, started them and prepared to do a few practice laps. Before long a large chap riding a bicycle came up to us, panting somewhat, and demanded to know what we were doing. We gave the obvious explanation, emphasising that we had the farmers permission to be there. He countered that the airfield still belonged to the Ministry. He was the caretaker and the farmer had no right to give us permission to be there; we must leave at once.

Millington's Iota, the Milli-Union at Towcester

We stood our ground until the man said he would call the police to evict us and pedalled off. We took no notice and carried on with what we were doing but the police, a sergeant and constable, duly arrived in what was then the traditional police car, a black Wolsley respondent with a chromed bell on the front, accompanied by the caretaker furiously pedalling alongside. The sergeant, give him his due, seeing we were a reasonably respectable bunch, listened to what we had to say and virtually pleaded with the caretaker to stretch a point and let us stay, even emphasising that we had saved our petrol rations to come all the way from Bristol and we would do no harm by driving a few laps around the airfield. But the caretaker was unmoved; we must go. Then he looked at his watch, jumped on his bike and pedalled off. It was noon.

The sergeant then said “What a pity you didn’t leave it a bit later to arrive, the caretaker always finishes at noon sharp on Saturdays. The other clubs come here in the afternoons and we, indicating the constable and a space near the gate, often park over there and watch, thoroughly enjoying it!” He went on to say, however, that as the caretaker had asked them to evict us they had no alternative but to do so, although he had a helpful suggestion to make. If we went to Towcester and called on Lord Hesketh (father of the current Lord who founded the Hesketh Formula 1 team - ed), he felt sure he would find somewhere for us to run the cars in the grounds of the racecourse. We thanked him and set off.

Three of us, Committee members, went to the Hall and rang the bell expecting a butler to answer it. Imagine our surprise when Lord Hesketh himself opened the door, having on several leads yapping French poodles. We explained the situation and he said “Come in dear boys, let’s have some sherry and talk about it.”

This we did and after a most enjoyable conversation he said we could use a hilly part of one of the roads adjacent to the racecourse and organise a speed hill climb. After thanking him suitably we did so and were pleased that he came out later, still with his poodles, and appeared to enjoy watching. After a successful afternoon we set off back to Bristol, glad that we had salvaged something out of the day and created a small piece of motoring history – the first ever 500cc event. Little did we know then to what it would lead.

Bruce Mardon in Stromboli

John Cooper is in the cockpit of the original prototype car. Keith Gough is wearing the cap and we think the gentleman on the far left is Mr Giron but we do not know who the lady is. Do you? Photo by Edward Cannock.

Keith Gough is an Honorary Member of the 500 Owners Association in recognition of his contribution towards the formation of the original 500 Club. Our thanks to Keith for the article and Edward Cannock for the photo.

The list of adventurers on the Silverstone trip includes W/Cdr Frank Aikens, who left before the move to Towcester, Eric Brandon and John Cooper, in their Cooper Prototypes, Clive Lones, George Hartwell with the Monaco, Lord Strathcarron with his Marwyn, the Cowlan of RL Coward and Geoff Lang, Bruce Mardon and Adrian Butler in Stromboli, Gerald Spinkand Gerry Millington plus a coach party of supporters.

Here is how Iota reported the adventure: