The roots of the 500 movement go back to before the war when two overlapping groups of enthusiasts built and competed in cars based on similar principles to those of the 500 Club, namely simple, light weight cars, using relatively small capacity engines and aimed at the amateur.
The roots of the 500 movement go back to before the war when two overlapping groups of enthusiasts built and competed in cars based on similar principles to those of the 500 Club, namely simple, light weight cars, using relatively small capacity engines and aimed at the amateur.
The first influential group consisted of a number of racing enthusiasts in Bristol who set out to enjoy themselves with some low budget motor sport. They formed a club which they called CAPA (after the initials of the five founding members: (Dick) Caesar and (Franklin) Coombs, (Keith) Aldridge, (Bobby) Price, and Adrian (Butler). The members also included Joe Fry (who allowed members to compete on his estate at Lulsgate), his cousin David Fry, Keith Steadman, and others. The CAPA cars were mainly based on Austin Sevens with body work removed and a mild tune.
Start of a CAPA race
The second group is usually referred to as Shelsley Specials, simple chassis cars with all unnecessary parts removed and highly tuned engines used for competing in hill climbs, notably Shelsley Walsh. One good example is the Wasp of Jack Moor. He built three cars prior to the war for this category and later took over the Freikaiserwagen 500 of David Fry which he further developed into Wasp IV, one of the most successful and long serving 500 specials. The other great example was the original Freikaiserwagen itself, built by David Fry and Hugh Dunsterville in 1936 around a GN chassis and V twin Anzani engine, a highly successful car.
Three classic specials, Wasp, Spider and GNat
The outbreak of War in 1939 put a halt to all active motor sport. Many members were called up for military service and the clubs were shut down for the duration. Some CAPA enthusiasts were also members of, among others, the Bristol Motor Cycle and Light Car Club, and continued to meet socially.
Then in late 1944 enthusiasts working for the Bristol Aeroplane Company decided to form a Motor Sports Club in preparation for a post-war resumption of motor sport. A few of these had been Bristol MC&LCC or CAPA members pre-war, notably Dick Caesar, or special builders such as Jan Brever and Walter Watkins.
When these groups met, the subject of developing more low cost motor sport was raised. Caesar’s plan was to evolve a formula to which all cars would conform, thereby preventing the wealthier racer from having too much of an advantage over the CAPA type of constructor. In 1945 Kenneth Neve convinced him of the idea of using motorcycle engines as the power plant for racing cars. His argument for this being that they would be available, cheap to buy, and would enable a good power to weight ratio.
Once the war had ended, the Bristol Aeroplane Co. MSC decided to take the intiative and organized meetings at Filton on 10th December 1945 and 25th March 1946 to evolve such a new racing car formula. These meetings are described in more detail here: 1945-46 Bristol 500cc Formula Meetings.
In addition to producing a set of regulations for the new 500cc formula, the meeting on 25th March also highlighted the need to set up a dedicated national club to administer them, so a new ‘500 Club’ was duly launched in Bristol on 21st August 1946.
Although it had been the intent of the Bristol Aeroplane Co. MSC to continue with its broader motorsport activities, in practice, with several prominent members such as John Siddall, Jan Breyer and Mike Nedham being heavily involved in the new 500 Club, and others leaving the Company, there was less interest in the BACMSC and in the Autumn of 1946 it was wound up, with the balance of its funds transferred to the fledgling 500 Club to help it on its way.
In a matter of months following the publication of the regulations, about half a dozen cars had been built and competition began, intially on the hills as that was all that was available to them. A key part of the concept was the encouragement of individuals to construct their own cars and, in this, the Club was highly successful. Colin Strang dominated 1946 but other key names began to appear in the results; Clive Lones in his Tiger Kitten and, most importantly for the future of motor racing, the Coopers of John Cooper and Eric Brandon.
Such was the interest that, in early 1947, the 500 Club began publication of its own magazine “Iota”, named after the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. This in itself was a triumph in view of the austerity of post war Britain. Iota was published for six years before merging with “Motor Racing”. The Club also organised its first event, albeit informal and to some degree clandestine, at the “White Hart” in early May.
The 13th of July 1947 was a significant milestone for British motor racing as the first official post war race was held at RAF Gransden Lodge. Nearly all competing cars were pre war but the 500s were invited as the only “modern” class. It helped that they already had some friends in high places, S.C.H. Davis and Laurence Pomeroybecoming vice presidents and Earl Howe, a patron. Moving from short sprints and hill climbs was a big step up and most of the cars fell by the wayside allowing an easy win for Eric Brandon in his Cooper Special. On the hills, Colin Strang began to face stiff competition, as well as the two prototype Coopers and the Tiger Kitten, a series ofIota based cars appeared; Stromboli and Milli-Union, plus the Monaco, Frank Bacon‘s special, Buzzie, Squanderbug and Laurie Bond’s car. Later in the year, we even see the first production car, the Marwyn.
Circuit racing was still proving a frustration for all clubs but slowly the British Government began to release some control of the many airfields, built for Fighter Command, Bomber Command and the USAF. The perimeter roads and runways were ideal and various groups made attempts to organise unofficial events with varying degrees of success, see From Acorns to Oak Trees for an amusing anecdote about the 500 Club’s first attempt to race at Silverstone.
At the end of 1947, members chose to move the Club’s headquarters from Bristol to London and at the first AGM in December, held in Surbiton, Surrey, a new committee was elected which reads as a who’s who, including Earl Howe, S.C.H. “Sammy” Davis, Laurence Pomeroy, Raymond Mays (of ERA and, later, BRM), John Cooper and Dick Caesar. They also endorsed certain changes to the technical rules including making bodywork mandatory and braking on all four wheels, aimed at creating “proper” racing cars.
1948 began with a significant milestone for the racing car industry when the newly formed Cooper Car Company built its first batch of twelve cars, know as the Mk II. Twelve cars were planned as an evolution of the prototype car, and customers paid £500 each for the privilege. They included Sir Francis Samuelson, Stan Coldham, Curly Dryden, Peter Page, Spike Rhiando, George Saunders and a youth by the name of Stirling Moss. Later in the year, Peter Collins would also acquire a Mk II. There was no grand plan of course but an industry had quietly been born. The hills and sprints continued, but with Coopers now well to the fore, Eric Brandon leading the charge but with occasional fastest times for John himself. Moss immediately made his talent known with an FTDs at Stanmer Park, Bouley Bay, Prescott, Great Auclum, Boscombe and Shelsley.
A full season of circuit racing was still unrealistic but racing occurred at Brough in July and Goodwood in September, Stirling winning both. In October, 1948, the RAC organised it’s first major International Race for Grand Prix cars at the new Silverstone Circuit and the National 500 Formula was chosen for the supporting race. Over 26 cars arrived, a staggering achievement in the circumstances, though only 8 finished. The race was significant in a number of regards; Many people were surprised by the small difference in lap times between the 500s and the Grand Prix cars, Stirling Moss was one of the leaders until mechanical problems forced him out and (ominously for the future) Cooper cars took the first four places with John Cooper himself finishing second. Larger than life, Spike Rhiando was the winner in his “Flying Banana” Cooper. This single race provided a real showcase for the 500 Club and gave international exposure to the movement.
By 1949, the 500 Club was firmly established both on the hills and circuits with nearly thirty events, many involving heats or classes. Highlights included Goodwood at Easter and the Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone in May. Over 100,000 spectators attended and the 500 race was great success, this time seventeen cars finished. Moss won from Ron “Curly” Dryden with Bill Aston third. Coopers, many being the updated Mk III, took the first ten places, with Charlie Cooper himself taking tenth. In July, they returned to Silverstone for the first 100 Mile Race. Naturally there were still some doubters as to the ability of these little cars to stage “proper” races but there was a determination to prove them wrong, notably Commander Yorke RN. Five races were run that day, including for production cars and specials. Winners included Eric Brandon, Curly Dryden and Jack Moor but the star of the final was Peter Collins in his Cooper Mk III. A big increase in length, it was obvious that even with enlarged fuel tanks the cars would still need at least one fuel stop. The Collins family had other ideas and had Charlie Smith prepare a detuned Manx Norton engine to run on petrol-benzole, reckoning the greater efficiency of the fuel might avoid any stops. With Peter at the wheel, the car was fast anyway, and Collins battled with Don Parker for the lead. When Parker stopped for his first fuel stop (having not even fitted larger tanks), Peter romped to victory with John Cooper in second and Don, third. In August they returned to Silverstone for a 50 Mile Race, this time, Brandon beat Moss and the top six were Coopers with Don Parker in hisParker Special limited to seventh. A week later, the Club turned up in force at Blandford Camp in Dorset where “Curly” Dryden won from Ken Carter (later to become Club Secretary) and Alan Brown but the race is better known for a curious incident when the Cooper of Major Peter Braid was launched from the bus shelter, demolished by a previous accident, to land intact on the Guardhouse roof, its driver unhurt!
With international exposure and success came recognition and for 1950, the FIA adopted the 500 Club’s National Rules, with only minimal modification, to create a new International Formula 3. The 500 Club was leading the way but they were far from alone, the Scandinavians had already adopted 500 cc competition with a number of events though 1949 in Sweden,Finland and Denmark and cars such as the Effyh, Swebe and KG Special. In Germany, the 750cc Kleinstrennwagen Formula had been underway since 1948 in the West with a wealth of “Eigenbau” and the successful Scampolo production car, here they moved to mixed class racing as they adopted the new formula. A four round championship also started in East Germany during 1950.
Here is the grand announcement from Iota November 1949
The creation of a new Formula 3 was big news, here’s the Motor Sport editorial from January 1950, the launch of the new BRM taking second stage to the little cars. A significant boost also came in August 1950 with the appearance of the weekly Autosport magazine which gave good coverage of the 500s and sponsored the national championship for several years.
Circuit racing in England received a huge boost from the new formula with three events at Goodwood, five at Silverstone and races at Castle Combe, Brough, Lulsgate, Blandford and Gamston. The club were instrumental in developing the Brands Hatch Circuit, with the Inaugural Event in April. Ken Gregory, then Secretary of the Club as well Moss’ manager, took control of proceedings and six events would be held here during the year, each involving numerous heats and class races. As a result Brands became the spiritual home for 500s for the next decade.
At the end of the year the Club formally changed its name. In fact, this was forced by the existence of another 500 Club for theatrical types. Allegedly, a number of our members were making full use of the other club’s plush premises in the West End of London, much to the disgust of it’s members! The First meeting of the directors of The Half-Litre Car Club Limited was held at Lower Grosvenor Place, London, in December 1950. The stars of 1950 were Moss, Alan Brown, Ken Carter, “Curly” Dryden, Peter Collins, Alf Bottoms, Paul Emery, Bill Whitehouse, George Wicken and Don Parker.
Numerically, Coopers dominated the results but they certainly didn’t have things all their own way. Don Parker in his Parker Special challenged regularly and Frank Aikens upset the form book by winning the Royal Silverstone Grand Prix d’Europe Race in May, driving an Iota. The most consistent challenge would come from the new JBS, Alf Bottoms taking nine wins in total plus a number of podiums.
With the Formula well and truly established, 1951 brought a crop of new talent to the cockpit with drivers such as Charlie Headland, Ken Wharton, Bernie Ecclestone, Stuart Lewis-Evans, Bob Gerard, Ninian Sanderson and Don Gray but a sea change had occurred to the cars. The 500 movement may have been aimed at the “impecunious enthusiast” and many of the cars home built during the previous decade but by ’51 it was production cars that dominated. Only Jack Moor in his Wasp and Ken Smith’s Smith-Buckler seemed able to regularly stay with the manufacturers. The use of the Manx Norton engine was a particular blow for the privateers due to it’s high cost and restricted availability, the Manx was not sold as an engine so wealthy drivers purchased complete motorbikes for stripping. Cooper introduced their Mk V, with its distinctive pannier tanks, for the works team drivers, Ken Carter and Bill Whitehouse and the semi works Ecurie Richmond team of Eric Brandon and Alan Brown. Eric would ultimately win the championship from Alan but Coopers faced challenges on two fronts.
The first came from steel magnate Cyril Kieft. Having acquired the remnants of the Marwyn company and built the first Kieft car, Cyril employed Stirling Moss to attack a series of records at Montlhéry in November 1950. Kieft invited Moss to drive for him but he was unconvinced by the car’s abilities. Instead, Ken Gregory approached Cyril and persuaded him to bankroll a new car to be designed and built by Ray Martin to Stirling’s specification. Kieft agreed and drafted in Dean Delamont and John A Cooper (of the Autocar). Moss, still only 21, and Gregory became directors of Kieft Cars. Statistically, the new CK51 had limited success, partly because of its late arrival but also because Moss was now very much in demand by this time. However, when they did race, the combination proved more than a match for the latest Cooper Mk V, winning handsomely at Goodwood in May, the Grand Prix race at Silverstone in July and Brands Hatch in October, with Ken Gregory finishing second in the Silverstone 100 Mile Race. Significantly for the future, Don Parker tried the first car and was immediately impressed but it was Charlie Headland who broke the Cooper ranks first and took a series of wins and podiums in the final few months of the year in his new CK51
The second serious challenge came from the JBS concern. Alf Bottoms having proved the car’s credentials the previous year, now built around twenty cars for some established regulars and new boys including “Curly” Dryden, Les Leston (Les’ car later receiving a Ray Martin swing axle to become the Leston Special), Frank Aikens, Don Parker, Jack Westcott, John Coombs, Peter Collins, André Loens and Dick Richards. Between them, they racked up over 120 podiums including a 1-2 in the Earl of March Trophy in March for Bottoms and Dryden, wins for Don at Brough, twice at Brands and Gosport, Peter Collins at Altcar, Dundrod, Winfield, Ibsley, Gamston and Silverstone and Leston in the Silverstone 100. All in an excellent performance for a new car. Sadly though the year would also bring tragedy to the fledgling manufacturer. Firstly, Alf Bottoms was killed in practice for theLuxemburg Grand Prix in May then Ron “Curly” Dryden would lose his life at Castle Combe on 6th October. Understandably the family lost interest in the project and we can only wonder what might have been.
The Ecurie Richmond Coopers of Eric Brandon and Alan Brown would win the 1951 Autosport Formula 3 Championship with the JBSs of Peter Collins and Don Parker in third and fourth and Charlie Headland, fifth. The Brands Hatch Junior Championship went to Bernie Ecclestone with Jack Moorand Ken Smith taking the non production class.
At home, growth continued in 1952. Coopers introduced another new car as was their practice, the Mk VI. Though visually very similar to the outgoing Mk V, the chassis was completely different, gone was the Fiat Topolino derived ladder frame which traced its roots back to the original prototype to be replaced by a four tubular longerons, two upper and two lower, tied together by pressed steel ties. Other new cars included the Arnott, Mackson Mike Erskine’s Staride and Reg Bicknell’s Revis, the later enjoying considerable success for a one off car. New drivers included Dennis Taylor, Cliff Allison, Ken Tyrrell and Ivor Bueb. Stirling Moss, though well established as a Grand Prix driver, continued to drive Formula 3 on an occasional basis, though not always in the Kieft, he won the Earl of March Trophy in April and the Grand Prix race at Silverstone in July in the Kieft but in the later part of the year, he appeared several times in a Cooper.
The real star of 1952 was Don Parker, now in his Kieft which he bought as a kit and built to a meticulously high standard, Don won over twenty races. Good reliability also contributed to a host of podiums to help him take the Championship. Les Leston, having learned his trade the previous year, came to the front in ’52 driving the modified JBS Leston Special and a Cooper with wins at Castle Combe in May, Brands Hatch in June, Prescott in July and September, Silverstone in September to come home second overall. Others to make progress were Stuart Lewis-Evans with wins in the International Trophy, Silverstone and at Brands Hatch in July and John Coombs with a win at Thruxton in August and the Commander Yorke Trophy at Silverstone. Reg Bicknell dominated the non production championship in his Revis and the evolutionary Cooper had not been enough of a step forward.
Coopers introduced yet another new model, the Mk VII for 1953 but it featured only minor updates from the previous year. A more significant step forward came from engine tuner Francis Beart, his special built with sufficient cooperation of the factory to be christened the Mk VIIa. The car was significantly lower and the fuel tanks moved inboard to reduce frontal area. The Beart Cooper was driven by Eric Brandon and Alan Brown and occasionally by Stuart Lewis-Evans and Stirling Moss in ’53. Don Parker again dominated the championship winning 30 races from 44 starts and on the podium in a further 12. Les Leston finished second again in the Leston Special and his Cooper and Ken Smith took the non production class in the Smith-Buckler. Others to put in good performances were Lewis-Evans and Ken Tyrrell. A new boy this year who would later make his mark was Jim Russell, the Downham Market garage owner. Other notable events included the Inaugural weekend at Oulton Park in August, Les would take the win from Don on this occasion. The season featured a truly incredible number of Formula 3 events, many races have up to four heats plus junior and senior races and sometimes dedicated races for non production and production cars.
The real battle for the championship was fought out between Les Leston and Don Parker, Les netted eight major wins, including the Earl of March Trophy plus numerous podiums and heat wins and took the British Formula 3 Championship, by a whisker, from Don’s Kieft, at the final race of the year on Boxing Day at Brands Hatch! The pendulum had swung back to Cooper but only just and it had taken the early introduction of the following year’s Mk IX to do it. Other marques rarely got a look in as far as outright wins were concerned but Charlie Headland, now in a Martin, managed a few as did the Staride, usually in the hands of Dennis Taylor or Ninian Sanderson. Reg Bicknell’s Revis, this year running with aerodynamic bodywork, continued to buck the trend as one of the few successful specials, others had to make do with the occasional heat or junior race win. Graham Hill make his debut at Brands Hatch on Easter Monday in a Cooper Mk IV. Graham finished second in his heat for the Junior Race and fourth in the final, a most respectable result for a car that was past its prime. In June he finished fourth in the Junior Final at Brands, this time in a Kieft and took third in the Junior Final in July. Graham was introduced to Colin Chapman at Brands and the rest is history. Once again Moss raced on an occasional basis, in Beart’s Mk VIIa, when his Grand Prix commitments allowed. He still managed to win the Daily Express race at Silverstone and the Opening Meeting at Aintree in May, the Grand Prix in July and finally at Aintree again in October to close his 500 career, signing for Mercedes for the following year.
Jim Russell and Ivor Bueb were promoted to Cooper works status for 1955, the new Mk IX representing the ultimate in 500cc racing car development. Between them, they would dominate the championship, with Jim coming out on top by a single point. Ivor, now firmly established as a top line driver, could console himself with his victory at Le Mans with Mike Hawthorn. Parker’s Kieft was by now showing its age but Don still managed 10 wins over the year.
Other notable performances came from David Boshier-Jones who also switched to a Cooper Mk IX achieving numerous good placings and some outright wins including Silverstone in June, Oulton Park in July, Cadwell Park in August. At the Commander Yorke Trophy in September, he won his heat and finished second in the 100 mile final, followed by a win at Oulton Park at the Gold Cup meeting. Cliff Allison and Dennis Taylor, also now in Coopers Mk IXs, also showed their potential. Star new boy was Henry Taylor in his Cooper Mk VIII. He set some very respectable overall performances but really showed his talent in the JAP only races to take the Clubman Championship and Autosport Trophy.
The Cooper Mk X of 1956 was in fact unchanged from the Mk IX, indicating just how much the marque were now dominating the category. Even Don Parker abandoned his Kieft to join the ranks. The championship would still be hotly contested with Jim Russell, Don Parker, Stuart Lewis-Evans, Tommy Bridger, Ivor Bueb, Cliff Allison, Colin Davis, Henry Taylor, David Boshier-Jones, George Wicken, Jack Moor, Ian Raby, Jack Westcott, Trevor and Henry Taylor plus many more in another bumper season, though by now it was staring to become something of a one make series. Jim Russell would take the title for the second year with Henry Taylor again winning the JAP Championship.
It was normal practice at that time for the best drivers to continue in Formula 3 even after establishing themselves at the highest level. Moss had set the trend for this and Ivor Bueb had already won Le Mans. By 1957, Stuart Lewis-Evans and Ivor was driving in Grand Prix for Connaught and Vanwall, Jim Russell was racing Formula 2, sports cars as well as setting up his driving school. Jim, Stuart, Trevor Taylor, Peter Proctor, Tommy Bridger and, of course Don Parker would still battle weekly in the 500s. Russell would clinch his hat trick by the end of the year.
While the 500s had been the major category of racing at Brands Hatch, its home circuit, in the early 1950s, members interest in other classes began to develop and in September 1954 the Half Litre Club became the British Racing and Sports Car Club to reflect this diversity. The BRSCC is still one of the major race organisers in Britain.
Motor Sport’s slightly sarcastic reaction to the proposed name change!
From 1958, Formula 3 began to decline at the international level, Formula 2 was now established as an international class and the new Formula Junior began to attract drivers and constructors. At a national level, things continued though perhaps not quite the number of events of a few years earlier. The key protagonists continued to be Don Parker, Tommy Bridger, Gordon Jones, Jim Russell and Stuart Lewis-Evans, though Jim and Stewart were firmly establish in senior classes. Trevor Taylor would take 10 victories to clinch the championship. Promising new boys included Jack Pitcher and Jack Lewis. By 1959, many of the established drivers had moved on, in many cases to Formula Junior, if not Grand Prix cars. Don Parker stayed on and took his third title, at the age of 50, before retiring for good. Jack Pitcher came to the fore and Tommy Bridger and Gordon Jones put in good performances as did new boys Philip Robinson and Geoff Gartside. Jack would dominate the 1960 season with Gordon and Geoff taking the occasional win. Mike Ledbrook appeared in 1961 to take the championship from Jack with Michael Rogers in third, Rogers turned the tables to take the final championship in 1962. Ironically, in other parts of the world things were only really getting going just as England was moving on. In the United States, the late 1950’s proved to be an indian summer with racing continuing into the mid 1960s and the Russians ran championships until 1963
And that was it, 500cc racing was over. Cars continued to compete on the hills through the 60’s but many were heavily modified, laid up or scrapped.
In January 1968 a group of enthusiasts, led by Peter Kendal, John Turner, Edie Silk and Tony Griffin joined forces to preserve the cars and formed the 500 Owners Association. The first newsletter was published to 50 new members in October and the first formal meeting held in November. Circuit racing was but a dream but they continued to compete on the hills and in sprints and, most importantly they provided a focal point to help keep track of cars and, wherever possible, try to prevent their loss.
As interest in historic motor sport grew during 1980s so cars began to reappear on the tracks. A small number of stalwart drivers were able to race their cars but only in one or twos. In the 1990’s the burgeoning Formula Junior Historic Racing Association included 500cc Formula 3, as a class, as did the 750 Motor Club in their 750 Trophy races. Finally, drivers had an opportunity for a proper race and grids began to increase.
Buoyed by the success of the Festival of Speed, Lord March introduced the Goodwood Revival Meeting in 1999, at the circuit whose rise and fall mirrored that of the 500cc Formula. This provided a showcase and interest in 500cc Formula 3 increased with a new generation of drivers, many too young to remember racing in period, restoring cars for competition. From around 2000, 500cc Formula 3 has seen significant growth and there are more cars competing regularly than for many years. Every year a few more cars are restored and made ready to rejoin the fray and interest at an international level is growing.
For more on the early days of the 500 movement, See Keith Gough’s article “From Acorns to Oak Trees” or Perspective to help understand the significance of the 500 movement in the development of motorsport in Britain.
For more on the 500’s involvement with the development of the Brands Hatch circuit, see “Brands Hatch“