The history of Crystal Palace is studded with intriguing activities and endeavours, the common theme being that they tend to meet ignominious ends. A vast cast-iron and plate-glass building, originally constructed in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was transplanted to Penge Common in 1854; its colloquial ‘Crystal Palace’ nickname now refers to the whole surrounding area. But it burned down in 1936. The Crystal Palace Transmitting Tower, a 719ft-high South London landmark, often called London’s Eiffel Tower, was the main TV transmitter for the Greater London area since 1956, providing countless hours of entertainment for generations. But that had its very analogue purpose diluted and disregarded by the digital switchover of 2012. Ah, and motor racing… Crystal Palace Park once throbbed with V8s, screamed with V12s, and yelped with piercing crossflows as the motoring heroes of yore jinked, bobbed, swerved and slid between the trees. The circuit was officially opened in 1928 (although the UK’s first motor race on a closed circuit took place there back in 1899), running along existing paths through the grounds – the corners were tarmacked, but the straights were initially just packed gravel; the track was lengthened and fully tarmacked in ’36.
The BBC’s first ever televised motor racing was broadcast from Crystal Palace in this era. The park was appropriated by the Ministry of Defence in World War II and racing didn’t return until 1953, but thereafter the circuit played host to Formulas One, Two and Three, Touring Cars and a great many other series. Jochen Rindt set the first 100mph-average lap in 1970, and it was increasing speeds that killed the venue – it was felt that driving through a London park at over a ton wasn’t all that safe, and the circuit officially closed in 1972.
However, let us not be downhearted. The Sevenoaks & District Motor Club couldn’t let Crystal Palace lie dormant, and worked hard to bring the sound of singing pistons and the smell of Castrol R back to the SE19 postcode. A series of sprint events ensued in the late nineties but the curse of Crystal Palace endured, and proceedings were curtailed by park redevelopment work. However, since 2010, historic parkland thrills for the discerning petrolhead have been available in the form of Motorsport at the Palace – an event which comprises a static show as well as a sprint. A showground for club stands and exhibitors glints in the sun below the celebrated terraces, while the motorsport paddock resides in the gorgeous dappled light beneath the trees. The event took a temporary hiatus in 2018 due to a major sponsor pulling out, but we were overjoyed to find MATP returning for 2019 as we’ve been enjoying this one for years – it’s a really chilled out show, never overcrowded (indeed, they could probably do with promoting it a bit more, as it’s never hugely busy), and a perfect family day out. Take a picnic, lay your blanket out in the paddock, and enjoy a pork pie while old Escorts and Mustangs buzz around you! It really is great fun. And here’s an eclectic selection of what we saw this year…
This is one of the coolest cars you’ve quite possibly never heard of. AMC didn’t think to put any AMC badges on it either, which makes the bold Ambassador nameplate seem even more imposing. This particular car, with its super-cool over-under headlights, is a fifth-generation model, which was built for the 1965-66 model year. This was the car that company CEO Roy Abernethy wanted to ditch the brand’s perceived budget image and really go after the Big Three: it was impressively large, and came with a choice of 232ci straight-six, 287ci or 327ci V8s, as well as power brakes, bucket seats, and all the fancy trimmings. Was the gambit successful? Well… how many AMC Ambassadors have you seen lately?
Like all good car companies, Welsh outfit Gilbern was named after its founders Giles and Bernard. The Invader was the company’s swansong model, launched in 1969, which had MGC front suspension and a 3.0-litre Ford Essex V6. This particular Invader is a Mk1, belonging to veteran racer and motorsport guru Chris Dennis (who began his competitive endeavours in a Moskvitch 412, of all things, back in 1976). The car is no. 72 out of the 78 Mk1 Invaders built – given that they only made around 600 Invaders of all generations and there aren’t many left, it’s very pleasing to see Chris wringing its neck.
Veilside Evolution III-R GT-R
Bit of a unicorn, this. The R32-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R has always been a fan favourite – the generation nicknamed ‘Godzilla’ because it was essentially unbeatable in Touring Car racing and most probably ate whole cities, it’s passed into the modern-classic territory and started to command silly prices. But this car is no ordinary R32 GT-R – this is the UK’s only Veilside Evolution III-R GT-R. What’s that? Well, Veilside is a tuning outfit founded in 1990, who found enormous popularity thanks to their high-quality, big-power builds (as well as Gran Turismo, then The Fast and the Furious…); this limited-run special GT-R they devised features the Evolution III-R bodykit along with a fully forged engine, HKS cams and pistons, vast HKS turbos, mighty fuelling, and plenty more power mods – it’s been hugely detuned to a safe 555bhp simply to stop it knocking the Earth of its very axis.
Vauxhall Viva GT
What’s sexier than a contemporary Escort? Colin Robbins’ period-perfect Dealer Team Vauxhall Viva GT is an absolute stunner. It’s actually a replica – a fastidious and obsessive one built up from a spare Viva shell he had lying about (as one does); he even sourced the original mould for the DTV cars’ wide arches to fabricate his own. This car packs a 2.3 slant-four on twin carbs, eagerly fettled to deliver around 200bhp, and the rear wheels are a frankly bonkers 10” wide. It’s an astonishingly clean car too, it’s almost surprising to learn that Colin campaigns it with such vigour… until you see it in action, that is, when all becomes clear. It’s a moving masterpiece.
A machine that probably shouldn’t have ever existed, the MG SV was impossibly exotic. Based on the Qvale Mangusta and crafted in Modena, its lines were penned by McLaren F1 designer Peter Stevens, and its carbon fibre body panels housed a 4.6-litre Modular V8 from Ford – or, in X-Power SV-R guise, a Roush-tuned 5.0-litre cammer V8. The reason you don’t see these cars very often is that they cost over £200,000 each to build, and MG sold them for about £70k – fewer than 60 were made before MG Rover collapsed, at which point only one had been sold…
This SV, chassis 103, was the second production car, used as a Works test bed and promo car; Sir Jack Brabham drove it up the hill at the 2003 Goodwood Festival of Speed, and then it went to Janspeed for exhaust homologation development – who then seized it when the company went bust! It was subsequently sold on, and now enjoys a life competing in the MGCC Speed Championship and does a lot of hillclimbing. Which is rather gratifying.