Twenty years ago, historic motorsport was known only to diehard lovers of old racing cars. A niche within a niche. Then something happened. The car-mad Earl of March had a garden party where some old racing cars were allowed to sprint up the road that passes the front door of Goodwood House. He called it the Festival of Speed and it caught the public’s imagination in a way not even His Lordship could have predicted.
Last year more than 185,000 people visited the 20th Goodwood Festival of Speed, every ticket sold in advance. That’s more than attended the Grand National or Derby and, measured in average numbers of visitors per day, Wimbledon too. In UK motorsport – putting British Grand Prix aside – its next closest rival is its sister event, the Goodwood Revival, which pulls in more than 146,000 spectators. Nothing else on four wheels even gets into six figures.
Where once historic racing existed on the fringes of British motorsport, restricted to poorly attended club meetings at windswept airfield circuits, now it could hardly be more mainstream. There are now vast historic festivals held over three-day weekends at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Donington too. At last year’s Silverstone Classic, more than 1,000 racing machines from skinny-tyred prewar contraptions to relatively recent Formula One cars competed on a card 24 races long.
The draw for the spectator is easy to see. The cars are beautiful, and never more so than when seen in the environment for which they were designed. They sound fabulous and with entrants drawn from over 100 years of racing, the variety is such that anyone with an interest in any form of motorsport will find their passion indulged.
For the owners of these cars, the incentive is not so clear. If a car is raced regularly, it is a certainty that sooner or later it will be damaged. And values can be unimaginable. The combined worth of all the Ferraris, Aston Martins, Jaguars and AC Cobras that took part in the TT Celebration race at the 2012 Goodwood Revival was conservatively valued at £100m.
In 2011 former F1 driver Martin Brundle raced Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s Ferrari 250GTO, an example of which recently sold for £23m, the highest price ever paid for a car. Mason’s instructions to Brundle were to race it as hard as he could with the sole request that “I try not to turn it over.”
Even this attitude might be understandable were racing cautious, but it is not. With fields often full of former F1 stars or other professional racing drivers, they’re in it to win.
Not that this puts off the owners. Martin Hunt, a co-founder of Winton Capital, races two Frazer-Nashes, an Austin-Healey and an AC Cobra. He is aware of their investment potential but says this is not why he has them. “I got them because I think they are wonderful, beautiful things and wanted to race them. People call them non-interest-bearing investments, but they are: I take out my interest in enjoyment.”
Another owner with an outstanding stable said, “It’s strange how my follies have always come to the rescue of my investments. I’ve had more fun racing old cars than anything else I’ve done in my life, and it turns out to have made me more money too.”
Besides, the downside of racing a million-pound motor car is perhaps not as severe as you might think. According to Tim Samways, a renowned preparer of such cars, “In fact the repair bill is usually small beer compared to the value of the car. However big the smash and whatever the car is worth, there’s not much that can’t be rebuilt for £300,000.” In reality only exceptional accidents cost more than £50,000 to put right – very little for a car worth many millions. It means that unless the car catches fire and is reduced to ash, these cars are actually impossible to write off.
The only thing no amount of money can repair is the damage to a car’s history, which is why some owners of extremely important racing cars choose no longer to let them race. They’re afraid not of the bills, but of compromising originality. But these are the exceptions. As Hunt puts it: “The question is not why do I race them, but why anyone who bought one might not. They are not paintings designed to hang on a wall, they are racing cars designed to be raced. How else are they to be enjoyed?”