Hidden History of Motor Racing on Film

Hidden History of Motor Racing on Film

Date: 07/07/2016 12:28

With the British Grand Prix taking place this Sunday at Silverstone at 12:30, drivers hitting speeds of up to 204 miles per hour, it’s hard to imagine the slower races of bygone years, with ladies in long dresses walking up to inspect cars and drivers. Northern Ireland has a rich history of motor racing, and though it may not be as splendid as the British Grand Prix it has all the drama of victory and tragedy.

The first ever motor race to be officially filmed, the Gordon Bennett Cup, was held in Ireland in 1903 and you can see the footage below. The race took place on the 2nd of July, on public roads, on the Athy Circuit. Teams from Germany, France, the United Kingdom and United States competed in teams for the cup.  Each team can be identified by the vehicles they are driving. The Germans raced in Mercedes, the French in Panhards, the team from the United Kingdom drove Napiers and the U.S. team drove Winston and Peerless cars. The beginning of the film features the advanced safety technique of cyclist escorts for each car while it was passing through ‘control zones’ in towns. This practice may have slowed things down a bit but it helped avoid accidents like the one at the Tourist Trophy in 1936. The race was won by German team member Camille Jenatzy. Along with the cars this film is a remarkable document of the fashions of the time as the few ladies present at the race hold up their long dresses to keep them out of the mud.


Particularly remarkable is the Ulster Tourist Trophy Ards Circuit race that began in 1928, grew to staggering popularity and then came to a tragic end in 1936. The circuit ran through the countryside of County Down and through the villages of Dundonald, Newtownards, and Comber. This film shows the 1930 race that was dominated by Alfa Romeos as they took the top three spots and the Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari came in first place. See the crowds gathered on along the raceway and a slick on the road, a dark foreshadowing of what was to come just 6 years later, when Jack Chambers would lose control of his Riley and crash into bystanders, killing 8 and injuring as many as 40 more. The 1936 TT also marked the year that women were allowed to join in, (not causing any crashes). Due to Chambers' crash the Tourist Trophy was discontinued until 1950, where another round of fabulous racing and heartbreaking disaster ensued. Motor racing has remained a popular activity in Northern Ireland, with a slower and safer pace. 


The WWII airfield at Long Kesh offered another venue for motor racing enthusiasts and in this film you can see all manner of vintage as well as sports cars. Wonderful 1960, 16mm colour film brings to life the dynamic (and safe) races, where the focus seems to be more on the car than the speed at which it can travel. This entertaining race was put on by the Ulster Automobile Club as part of the Circuit of Ireland Retrospective Trial and is an enjoyable look at cars from all decades.