THE ARRIVAL OF THE MIDGETS Mar 27, 2009 12:18:34 GMT 1
Post by administrator on Mar 27, 2009 12:18:34 GMT 1
MIDGET Car racing hit the British motor racing scene at the old Crystal Palace in south London at Easter 1934. The speedway has long gone. It was last used by the bikes at Easter 1940 when the Australian star Bill Longley and South African veteran Keith Harvey dominated proceedings.
Earlier, the track was one of the pioneer venues for speedway, opening in 1928. At the end of 1933, speedway moved on to another south London venue, the then newly-built New Cross After being used by the army during the 1939-45 war years, the old Palace speedway track was redeveloped and is now the base for the international athletics track at the National Sports Centre.
In 1934, midget car racing was making rapid inroads in the affections of motorsport fans in the USA and there were hopes that it would prove a hit in Britain. Previously, there had been some small car track action on a track at Greenford in west London. And, in 1934, there was a fleeting bid to popularise midget car racing there a few weeks after the Palace opened.
Midget car racing made its British debut at Crystal Palace on Good Friday, March 31, 1934. It attracted great interest, as did stock car racing on its British debut at nearby New Cross Stadium 20 years later. Roads into the Crystal Palace area were blocked and an estimated 10,000 people saw the opening meeting.
Among the drivers was Tommy Sulman, an Australian who was later to be a top mechanic for various Australian grand prix drivers in the 1950s and 1960s. Another starter was Victor Gillow, who was a well-known competitor in motorcycle TT races in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. There was Jean Reville - later to design the first ‘proper’ midget car, RG Nash (who was linked to the Frazer Nash racing car team) and Leon Marrett.
Because of the width of the old Crystal Palace speedway, there were only three cars in a race. Most of these were driven to the track, then modified to start in races which were clasified according to the size of car engines. Races had rolling starts and it sometimes took several laps before the cars were properly lined up and the start signal was made. The opening featured a team event between Crystal Palace, Wimbledon Park and Wembley Park.
In its report of the meeting on April 4, 1934, the South London Press said, “Midget car racing lacked the thrills of motorcycle speedway. There were lower average speeds of 37mph compared to the 42mph of the bikes. The fastest speed was 40.81mph by RG Nash in a 1500cc Anzini Nash. Palace won the match from Wembley Park and Wimbledon Park.
“FM Barradell starred for the Palace with a win and two seconds, while in a series of match races Leon Marrett defeated Georges Provost (Wembley Park) and Sulman (Wimbledon Park). In a third match race, Gillow (Wembley Park) led home the Palace star Barradell.”
Despite the disappointing opening meeting, midget car racing continued throughout 1934 at Crystal Palace and provided some more interesting fare than the opening meeting.
Publicity was stepped up. For the meeting on Saturday, April 14, the feature was to be a first appearance by Cyclone Clerk who, it was claimed, held all the half-mile records in Jamaica. He never appeared, but at later meetings a Cyclone Cecil did start racing at the Palace, presumably it was the same driver.
The first purpose-built midget car was the Palmer Special, which later became the ‘Gnat’ and was driven by the Palace star Reville. He eventually formed a company to promote midget car racing in Britain.
Of some inconvenience for its driver was the fact that the exhaust pipe passed between the driver’s knees. As with the later Skirrow midgets. it ran with a JAP ohv Vee-twin 998cc engine. There was no gear box and the ‘Gnat’ was front-wheel drive. These were driven by a motorcycle chain. With its 4ft 8in wheelbase, the ‘Gnat’ weighed 4.5 hundredweight.
A supporter of the period, Jack Davidson from Chessington, Surrey, recalled, “I remember the Palmer Special driven by Jean Reville. They were built in a garage near the old Nelson Hospital in Kingston Road, Merton. I used to go to the Palace to watch them race. I travelled with two friends who used to push start the cars at meetings.
“While Reville’s car was fitted with a JAP engine, there were plans to build another midget running with an Austin-seven engine and a self-starter to get over push starts.”
There are sketchy records available for the 1934 season. Consequently, details are in a diary-style for the historic first season and, unless specified, all meetings are at Crystal Palace.
Whitsun Saturday, May 5: Crystal Palace defeated Victor Gillow’s team. Cyclone Cecil made his debut, crashing into the safety fence and injuring his hand. Worsley improved the track record to 35mph.
May 5: Greenford in west London is opened by Spike Rhiando.
Saturday, May 26: Crystal Palace stage the first round of the British Indivual Championship in which Victor Gillow beat Jean Reville 2-1. A second leg was set for Wembley on May 31. Gillow won a handicap race using a the Riley car he had competed in at the Isle of Man ‘Round the Houses’ race.
June 9: Woman speedway rider Fay Taylour turned to car racing and set a woman’s track record of 37.02mph. In a best pairs event, Jean Reville and Leon Marrett 20 points finished ahead of Hagborg and Talbot 17, Gillow and McClure 13. In the first race, Reville beat Gillow by 12 yards, setting a new lap speed record of 39.92mph.
June 16: Crystal Palace staged an international championship billed as featuring drivers from France, USA, West Indies, Sweden, England and Australia. Gillow became a Frenchman for the meeting. Results - heat one: Gillow, Hagborg. Heat two: Wills, Rhiando. Heat three: Talbot, Raynes. First semi-final: Gillow, Raynes. Second semi-final Hagborg, Talbot. Championship final: Reville, Hagborg, Raynes.
June 23: Crystal Palace beat Autodrome 32-19 in a team match. Victor Gillow drove a car specially designed for speedway tracks. Mick (Billy) Murden made his debut. He had two crashes and wrecked his car. Spike Rhiando hit a bump and went over Hagborg’s car, smashed into the fence but escaped injury. Hagborg won six races.
June 30: Gillow did a double somersault after skidding and hitting the fence. Fay Taylour improved her four-lap flying start speed from 37.02mph tp 38.35mph. Crystal Palace beat Lea Bridge 30-24 in a team match.
July 7: Gillow defeat Reville 2-1 in the British Individual Championship. Fay Taylour defeated Dot Oxenden for the British Ladies Championship. Crystal Palace defeated Speedway Racing Club 28-22.
July 14: Gillow in a 1100cc car set a lap record of 40.28mph. Race winners were Gillow, Murden, Marrett, Mason and Raynes. Palace won a triangular match with 20 points from Lea Bridge 19 Dagenham 12.
July 28: England beat France 20-16. In the league, Palace won 32-18 against Speedway Racing Club. Whitby wrecked his car after hitting the fence and rolling twice.
August 6: Crystal Palace had a crowd of 15,000. The feature was a 10-lap race with 12 cars, won by Gillow.
August 12: Talbot won the 850cc championship while Reville was winner of the 1100cc championship.
August 13: Lea Bridge opened with a 2,000 crowd. Reville was the star as his Palace side lost 28-23 to the Bridge.
August 19: Crystal Palace lost 27-25 to visiting Lea Bridge - with Reville driving for the winners this time.
September 1: Les White and W Cope scored 19 points to win the Crystal Palace Park Championship. In a team match, South London defeated Thames 5-1. Each side had four drivers on track.
September 15: The Crystal Palace season ended with the home side beating The Rest 27-26.
(c) John Hyam 2009