At the Goodwood Revival, the world's most eccentric car show

Neal Pollack

"You Are Now Leaving The American Sector," the sign at the entrance read. That's for sure, I thought, as a guy wearing a World War II-vintage East German policeman's uniform shouted, "please have your papers ready for inspection. Anybody who does not will be shot!" Shoeshine boys wearing plaid knickers were buffing spats. A fat Cockney-accented washerwoman walked alongside all manner of mods, rockers, and dandies, not to mention countless beautiful women wearing polka-dotted dresses and bright-red lipstick. Sock-hop standards and the roar of vintage motorcycles assaulted the ears and the smell of fish and chips and hard cider attacked the nose. This was Saturday morning in an England of a different vintage. The Goodwood Revival had begun.

Just down the street from the Rolls-Royce Factory on the personal grounds of Lord March, The Earl Of Richmond, Goodwood has been held every year since 1998. It celebrates the golden age of British motoring, which began after World War II and went into the late 1960s, a glorious time before big technology and big media transformed race car driving from a gentleman's sport into another corporate business. Goodwood is kind of a car-themed Renaissance Faire, except that, despite all the costuming, artifice, and cheeky good fun, it's actually real. There's a track on site, and it's of the highest quality. At Goodwood, the cars race, and they race fast.

The first thing I saw upon entering: A row of spotless 1956 Jaguar D-Types, the first race cars ever to run with disc brakes. You can buy quality replicas of such cars for $100,000, but these were genuine articles, the ones that actually won at LeMans and went 170 mph in the early '60s. Alongside those sat a majestic collection of Shelby AC Cobras; guys wearing grease-stained vintage mechanics' overalls were pounding on all of the Cobras, banging their knockoff wheels with mallets. These Cobras were going to go hard today.

I wandered the racing pits, nearly drooling, like a drunkard cut loose in the world's greatest winery. It was the car equivalent of stumbling into Jurassic Park, seeing beasts once lost to time, some of which had the potential to lop off human limbs. There was the 1960 Dolphin-Ford, a one-off recently restored, racing this weekend at Goodwood for the first time in 52 years; a 1936 Jaguar SS100, dubbed "The Grey Ghost"; an Aston Martin Ulster which had finished eighth at LeMans in 1935; several groovy-looking 1959 Stanguellini Fiats; a 1964 McLaren Chevrolet M1A; a Lola T70 Spyder; a 1960 Ferrari 246 F1 Dino; and a beautiful 1959 Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcage. All of that took up maybe a third of one staging. I had many more paddocks to inspect.

Two ruddy-faced guys wearing tweed and driving caps walked past me.

"It's only got a certain number of gears on the bottom drive," one of them said. "It hits a different tooth on 27 turns."

I was tempted to follow them to find out what they were talking about, but the sight of Sir Jackie Stewart, surrounded by a phalanx of mustachioed men wearing vintage RAF uniforms, distracted me. They were admiring a row of gleaming red '60s Ferrari GTOs, each one worth more than $20 million. Madness!

Now I must practice full disclosure. Subaru had a good year in 2012, or so it claims. To celebrate, Subaru's PR staff took a select number of press favorites to England for a week. We drove manual Subaru BRZs around the Lakes region and spent a rare afternoon at a private hill-climb racecourse in Yorkshire. Then we traversed the whole of England and landed in Brighton, on the south coast. The next morning, we drove our excellent BRZs to Goodwood, and parked them there forever. This will in no way influence our opinions on future Subaru vehicles.

Subaru had booked us a private table in "the Mess," a cavernous private hall far from the madding crowd, which, festival organizers estimated, numbered 150,000. To get to The Mess, we had to walk across a plastic runway through a desert landscape dotted with vintage Jeeps, guys dressed as British Army officers, and other guys dressed as T.E. Lawrence-vintage Arab sheiks. There were also, inexplicably, two pretty young women dressed in 1950s flight-attendant uniforms, posing for photos with two healthy-looking Bactrians. "I can't believe we managed to get real camels this year," one of them said.

Then we walked through a recreation of a Battle Of Britain war room, complete with people clacking away on teletype machines and women moving model ships and planes around a strategy board. We went into a cavernous dining hall, where I immediately passed Rowan Atkinson, the famous Mr. Bean, who was walking by wearing tweed knickers and carrying a plate of smoked salmon and paté. The hall was festooned with enormous Union Jack flags and "Keep Calm And Carry On" posters, and it opened onto a fabulous view of the racetrack. I was immediately treated to a view of Ewan McGregor, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, wearing black leather and leading a demonstration lap of 1950s motorcycles. Meanwhile, overhead, a squadron of Spitfires amazed the crowd with a series of nostalgic aerial loops.

All afternoon, I alternated between the paddocks and the racetrack. I saw an awesome exhibition drive celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Ferrari GTO, and some extremely strange laps from a collection of 1930s-era Mercedes "Silver Arrows," the sonic sardine supercars that had once heralded the rise of Hitler's Nazi war machine. Then it came time for the day's best event, the "Shelby Cup," a 45-minute, two-driver race featuring the AC Shelbys that I'd witnessed earlier. All of them had appeared on the circuit between 1962 and 1966. "Carroll Shelby, who died in May, would have been proud to see this lineup," said the track announcer. And the lineup was extraordinary.

These were 1,800-pound machines that carried at least 600 hp apiece. All of them were maintained and engineered better than when they'd originally run for money. When the Cobras took off at the gun, they made a tremendous roar, and the crowd in the grandstands stood as one, gasping in appreciation. The Cobras had no traction control, just pure power, slipping all over the road. Veteran drivers like to race at Goodwood, but for this event, they bring in younger guns. The AC Cobras are tough packages to handle.

I watched the race for about 15 minutes, but then the fast cars started to lap the slow ones. When they pulled into the pits for their driver changes, I completely lost track of what was going on. With two minutes left in the race, I wandered back out to the Cobra paddock, hoping to intercept the drivers as soon as they returned. Car number 25, a beautiful 1964 Shelby American Cobra Daytona Coupé, was already waiting for me. This surprised, because the car had been ahead for at least half the race. But then it lost oil pressure, the mechanic told me, and had to pull out. "Not a good day for us," he said dejectedly, and refused to talk any more.

But it was a glorious day for car number 2, a 1962 AC Cobra owned by one Ms. Erica Austin. It roared to victory in the last lap, piloted by Rob Hall, a professional race-car preparer from Lincolnshire. He and his co-driver, another preparer named Andy Wolfe, were thrilled. They'd done a lot of racing together, and had won their share, but never before at Goodwood. This was their Olympics, and they'd triumphed.

"It's been a long time coming," said Erica Austin.

"This is the cream on the cake, this one," Wolfe said.

"The atmosphere, the crowds," said Hall. "Everybody was up on their feet during the lap when we won. It was fantastic."

They placed a laurel wreath on the hood of their AC Shelby Cobra. A bottle of Veuve Cliquot popped. Hall and Wolfe toasted each other.

"On the wagon, my ass," Hall said.


Three hundred years ago, King Charles II took a French mistress, who bore him a son. Charles banished the bastard to Scotland, but years later, the young man was invited to hunt in the south of England on an estate called Goodwood. He was so enamored of the property that he came to live there. His son built a horse track, and his grandson built a golf course. The Duchy of Richmond, Goodwood, became an enthusiast's paradise.

Decades later, in the hour of Britain's greatest need, the Royal Air Force asked Freddie, the current Duke of Richmond, to turn over part of his property as a parking lot for its planes. Of course, Freddie Richmond did his part, and Goodwood became an important staging ground for the effort to vanquish the Luftwaffe. The RAF built 32 concrete "blisters" and paved a path among them. Between missions, the pilots raced one another on that path in old MGs.

After the war, a Canadian pilot asked Freddie Richmond to build a proper race track at Goodwood. Europe was just beginning to get on its feet again when Richmond inaugurated the track on September 18, 1948, with a demonstration lap in a Bristol 400. Sir Stirling Moss ran his first race — and, many years later, his last one — at Goodwood. Jackie Stewart was discovered there. On Saturdays and Sundays, British racing fans would put on their finest and come out to the track, basking in a new, prosperous Europe, where the Germans and Italians were their enemies on the track alone.

But racing outgrew the estate. There were serious accidents at Goodwood, an eccentric route unsuited to the new breed of supercar. The races shut down in 1966. Goodwood became a test track, used less and less often as the years progressed.

In the early 1990s, Lord March, Freddie Richmond's grandson, was "called back to the estate," which had fallen into a state of financial emergency. Reading through the Goodwood archives, Lord March had the idea to bring back his grandfather's racing culture. A serious hill race, the "Festival Of Speed," launched in 1993, and five years later, the Goodwood Revival began. That first year, 60,000 people came to watch the cars they'd once loved roar around the track anew. But by the Revival's 15th anniversary, Goodwood had turned into something else — a celebration of postwar British culture, complete with guys in Beatles costumes, women in hot dolly-bird outfits, and all manner of Britannia kitsch.

Goodwood isn't just a show for upper-class toffs and their fancy toys, though there were certainly many of both. I spent dinnertime my first night hanging out with a group from the London suburbs, eating savoury pies atop a double-decker food bus. They were part of a 1940s and '50s dance troupe that had come to groove on the revivalist vibe and the decent rockabilly music. They didn't pay to enter the festival grounds and never saw a car other than the one they drove in to get there.

Goodwood reminds British people of a time before new-money tossers ruled London, when England banded together under common purpose. "It's characteristic of the British," said a guy in tweed jacket, who I met while admiring a record-setting speedboat from 1938. "We are a nostalgic race. And this just pushes all the buttons, doesn't it?"

That said, the drivers are still center stage at Goodwood, as they should be. Sir Stirling Moss was around all weekend, looking spry into his 80s and always trailed by gaping admirers. The most moving part of this year's Revival, though, came Sunday when the gathered paid tribute to American racing legend Dan Gurney, who, in his golden-boy heyday, celebrated the first-ever champagne podium ceremony after winning at Goodwood. After a stirring tribute from Lord March, Gurney, now a little old man who's not in the best of health, gave some short remarks.

"Imagination is what has created a weekend like this," he said, "but putting it together with reality at Goodwood is what's amazing to me."

They presented him with a winner's garland, a magnum of champagne and a cigar.  Gurney popped the magnum and sprayed a bunch of pretty girls who'd gathered in front of the podium. Then a royal marching band played "The Star Spangled Banner" and Lord March helped Gurney down. Gurney got into a 1966 Ferrari that he and Tony Brooks had debuted at Goodwood in 1966. Brooks was behind the wheel.

Together, Gurney and Brooks joined a tribute parade, featuring all the still-living cars that Gurney had raced during his glorious career. These included a Lotus-Ford 29, an Eagle-Westlake T1G, a Ford Mustang Boss 302, a Jaguar E2A, a Porsche 804, a Ford Galaxie 500, and various other singularly impressive vehicles, including a rare Buick called "Ol' Yeller," one of only nine cars ever designed by an American eccentric named Max Balchowsky. Ernie Nakamatsu, a Los Angeles dentist who's a good friend of the Gurney family, now owns Ol' Yeller, and he took it around the track, bringing up the parade's aft.

Gurney half sat, half-stood, beaming, like Willie Mays at a Shea Stadium Old Timers' Game. He took off his cap and waved it at the crowd. This would likely be the last time he saw the track at Goodwood, and the crowd cheered its love. "The British fans have been second to none all my life," he'd said, and you could see why.

In the paddock, it was nearing sundown at Goodwood, and another year of British dress-up fantasy car camp was coming to a close. The air was thicker than usual with melancholy nostalgia. I passed by a couple of drivers, who were enjoying each other's company post-race, wearing their soot-stained vintage one-piece racing costumes.

"Did you enjoy it?" one of them asked.

"Oh, I loved it," said the other one.

"Different, right?"

"Nothing like it in the whole world."

"And how about that car?"

"It only has oversteer," said the second driver. "No understeer."

They laughed together.

"I'm lucky to be alive," the driver said.

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