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The Crystal Palace as a motor racing venue



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Richard Seaman


Mercedes W125


Crystal Palace, Sydenham


Demonstration run at the Imperial Trophy (9 October 1937)


The famous Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park, London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, an event conceived to symbolize the industrial, military and economic superiority of Great Britain. Designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and taking advantage of the latest technological achievements, this remarkable glass and steel construction, the largest of its kind ever constructed, measured 1,848 feet (563 m) in length, 408 feet (124 m) in width and 108 feet (33 m) in height. The floor area was about 990,000 square feet (92,000 m²) and there were more than 8 miles (13 km) of display tables on the floor and galleries.

Between 1 May and 11 October 1851 more than six million visitors attended the Great Exhibition. Thereafter the Crystal Palace was taken apart and then reassembled in a park at Sydenham Hill, south of London. An artificial lake with fountains was built in the park and on the beaches of the lake stood models of the prehistoric monsters who had been recently discovered, making the word "dinosaurs" known to the British public for the first time. For many years the Crystal Palace became the site of shows, exhibitions, circus, concerts, football matches, and other entertainment.

In the 30s the Crystal Palace became very closely associated with the development of television when Baird Television Company built four studios in the Palace with the south tower serving as an aerial. Initial tests were done during 1935-1936.

Motor racing started at Crystal Palace on 21 May 1927 when a motorcycle race was held on a one mile course in the park. A speedway track was built in the football stadium and used between 1928 and 1934. In 1935 plans were made for building a two mile Grand Prix track in the park. Then, on 30th November 1936, Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire. It was in fact a turning point for the park and after that the area lost much of its focus and began to decline. The remains of the towers were demolished in 1941 because they were potential landmarks for the German bombers.

Incredibly in early December 1936, only three days after the fire, work began on a Grand Prix track with a new "Panamac" non-skid surface. Called a "miniature Nürburgring" by the British motor press the twisty circuit was completed in 5 months and the first event, the Coronation Trophy, was held on 24 April 1937, the event being won by Fairfield (ERA). Then both cycles and motor cycles had competitions on the track before car racing was back on 17 July with the London Grand Prix, in which Prince Birabongse took victory in his ERA "Romulus".

The European 1937 season ended with three British events, the Donington Grand Prix on 2 October, the Imperial Trophy at Crystal Palace on 9 October and the Mountain Championship at Brooklands on 16 October. Plans were made to have Britain's new Grand Prix star Richard Seaman present with his Mercedes-Benz in all three events but in the end no German car was seen at Brooklands. There had been some rumours that Mercedes-Benz should challenge Cobb's lap record, but the German team found it impractical to provide their GP car with the compulsory silencer and also wasn't too impressed with the bumps on the old Brooklands track.

The Donington Grand Prix proved to be the end of a long but successful racing season for the Mercedes-Benz team. Caracciola had secured his second championship three weeks earlier at Monza and von Brauchitsch had had a victory at Monaco and several second places. Lang, who had achieved two victories before he got a bad influenza that had developed into a kidney inflammation and destroyed the later part of the season, was looking forward to a long holiday.

Dick Seaman was looking forward to spend a few days at home for the first time since April. A full story on Seaman's career is published here. It is enough to say here that his first season as a Mercedes-Benz driver had its usual ups and downs.

The season had begun badly with a broken knee-cap after a crash during a test at Monza in April. Seaman had then made his debut race for the Team at Tripoli, finishing 7th. He was 4th at Avus with his standard GP Mercedes against the streamliners, and he became an early retirement at the Eifelrennen after fuel feed problems.

The highlight of the season for him had been the Vanderbilt Cup, where he actually had led for some time and later been able to challenge the leading Rosemeyer until the Mercedes-Benz run out of fuel and he had to settle for second. After that came the worst moment of the season at Nürburgring, where he and von Delius crashed with fatal results for the Auto Union driver and an injured nose and broken finger for Seaman. He had to miss the Monaco GP due to his injuries and was a non starter at the Coppa Acerbo after having destroyed his car when he run into a house during Friday practice. He took over Caracciola's car during the race and finished fifth. Seaman was a non-starter at the Swiss GP and then finished fourth both in the Italian GP at Livorno and the Czech GP. In the Donington GP, Seaman's final race for 1937, he retired after a collision with Müller's Auto Union. Then the last task of the season for him was to take Lang's car to Crystal Palace and make a demonstration run for the spectators there.

The International Imperial Trophy Race would be the decider between "B Bira" and Mays for the BRDC Gold Cup. The race would be significant as it was to be televised by the BBC. It was the first ever live TV outside broadcast of motor sport. Coverage began with 30 minutes at 2:25 p.m. and then with further transmissions at 3:15 and 3:45 with the final 45 minutes at 4:15. Commentator was FJ Findon, editor of Light Car magazine

The impressive entry comprised of 21 cars and drivers including the whole British elite plus the Scuderia Ambrosiana, which had sent a full team with Maserati 4CMs for Count Piero Trossi and Count "Johnny" Lurani and a Maserati 6CM for Luigi Villoresi. Private Maseratis were driven by Robin Hanson (6CM), Peter Aitken (6CM) and Archie Hyde (8CM). They were challenged by six ERAs of Raymond Mays (1100cc), Arthur Dobson, "B Bira," Ian Connell, Peter Whitehead and Charlie Martin. There were two works Austins for Bert Hadley and Charlie Goodacre and MGs for H. Stuart Wilton and J. H. Smith. Percy Maclure raced a 2 litre unsupercharged Riley and the rest of the field consisted of Brooke (MG-Riley), Leitch (Bugatti), Nash (Frazer Nash) and Sinclair (Alta).

During Thursday practice Mays blew the 1100 engine on his ERA, becoming a non-starter.

The race was run in two heats plus a final and raced as a handicap event with Hyde with his 3 litre Maserati starting from scratch, the 1.5 litre Maseratis and ERA's having a 10 seconds advantage and the Austins, MGs and the MG-Riley having a 50 seconds advantage. Winner of the first 10 laps heat was Maclure (Riley) followed by Dobson (ERA), Lurani and Whitehead. Villoresi retired with an engine problem. Trossi (Maserati) won the second heat after a tough fight with Martin (ERA) and "B Bira" (ERA) who finished second and third with Goodacre (Austin) fourth.

Between the races Seaman got into the Mercedes-Benz W125 and driving extremely carefully he made several laps in some 2 min 4 s, about the same speed as the cars had done during the heats. Many of the spectators must at least have heard stories about the spectacular show by the German cars the week earlier and were as thrilled by the speed, wheel spins and noise from the Silver Arrow as the Donington crowd had been.

Twenty cars started in the 15 laps final to fight for the £150 first prize. The race became a great duel between ERA drivers Bira and Dobson who left the rest of the field behind. Bira won the event by half a car length while Dobson received the Jarvis Trophy for the fastest lap. Goodacre's Austin finished third. The Scuderia Ambrosiana cars were unable to challenge for the lead with Trossi an early retirement and Villoresi and Lurani having problems to follow the ERAs. Villoresi finally finished in fourth place.

After having done his demonstration run Seaman had been directed to the roof of the BBC television van where he had been interviewed. The idea was now that the race winner should some way be brought to the van where Seaman should introduce him to the television viewers. But Prince Bira got stuck somewhere in the enormous crowd and Seaman found himself alone and forced to make an impromptu speech about motor racing in general. Finally came the relieving words, "Now we are taking you back to the studio" and Seaman sighed loudly, still on the air: "Thank God for that!"

With Mays a non-starter Prince Bira had won the BRDC Gold Cup with 73 points from Mays' 70. Seaman received a special distinction from the BRDC, as he was elected a member of the Committee.

The Mercedes W125 went on display at the Mercedes-Benz showrooms in Park Lane, as was Rosemeyer's car at the Auto Union showrooms, and Seaman went home. Incredibly he would not be racing again until the German GP in July 1938!

Racing continued on Crystal Palace until the war, the last pre-war event being held on 26th August 1939. In 1953 international racing continued on a rebuilt track and went on until 1972.