It is extraordinary to think that the Thetford Park race track does not rank alongside Silverstone, Goodwood, Crystal Palace et al in the pantheon of post-war British motor racing. Over a period of almost ten years from 1953 to early 1962, the track held dozens of Grands Prix and annual International Easter, Whitsun and September meetings. It played host to all the great drivers of the decade, from Moss and Fangio to Hill and Clark (who holds the lap record for posterity) and witnessed all the classic cars – Maserati, Ferrari, B.R.M. Cooper and Lotus – yet few will recall even hearing of such an iconic venue. Perhaps the answer lies in its geography: a one hundred square feet plot in the top right hand corner of a suburban garden near Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey.
It seemed such a simple idea at the time. Following our first visit to a motor race – the 1952 August Meeting at Boreham – my brother and I had each been given one of the new range of Dinky Toy racing cars. The inevitable arguments ensued as to which car (enthusiastically pushed) was fastest. Father, with the wisdom of Solomon, erected a ladder on the back of a kitchen chair, laid a strip of Linoleum over it and released the cars from the top. Result? My brother’s car reached ground level well before mine and was declared the winner. Furious thought led to oiling the axle channels on my Maserati and the result was reversed. The oil ruse having been quickly spotted, my brother disappeared into Father’s studio (he was a stained glass artist) and re-appeared with his car now considerably faster than mine. Close examination revealed a sheet of heavily hammered lead glued to the baseplate. Battle was now truly joined, and my Father decided that a permanent site was needed for a more sophisticated layout at the top of the garden. After ten years development, the result, when the family moved to the country and the track was left to genteel disuse, was an 80 foot long concrete banked track, starting some 8 ft above ground and ending almost back on itself and some 3 feet below!
By late 1953 the new track was up and running. The old ladders were replaced by a timber superstructure carrying overlaid sheets of lino curved to a half- moon section and starting some six foot above ground. This starting straight met ground level and continued through a gentle right and left down to the pit straight. This led to the spectacular sweeping right hand curve of “the Glade” (so called after miniature oak trees planted above the rim of the heavily banked bend). The track then widened to a gentle finishing straight. The whole track surface at this time was still laid with cast off lino.
The cars were beginning to be heavily modified. The chassis plate of the original Dinky was removed and axles were held in place by wire washers, enabling the empty body to be filled with even more lead. Bodies were continually modified to represent the current Grand Prix cars – streamlined Mercedes competing against Lancias (correctly fitted with separate side tanks), Ferraris, H.W.M. s and Maserati 250Fs. Careful use of the hacksaw and copious amounts of Plastic Metal – later Plastic Wood – meant that almost any current car could be modelled.
By 1956, all current Grands Prix were re-enacted a week later at Thetford Park. Real life entry lists were followed faithfully including drivers overall and helmet colours and any changes in bodywork from race to race altered accordingly. This would create much anguish during the 1960 season as the Lotus works team appeared for one G.P. with extended nose cones and a long air intake, only to revert to standard for the next. Home work was abandoned whilst the necessary changes were made!
The 1956 season saw more events added to the calendar. An Easter meeting reflecting the Goodwood meeting; plus sports car, 500cc Formula 3, Formula 2 and Libre. Cars were getting more sophisticated, with much work on axle channels and tyre permutations from a huge stockpile. The cars were so far removed from the original Dinkys that new races were added for Historic cars, with Bugattis, ERAs, Rileys and Amilcars making an appearance.
In 1959 a huge technical breakthrough revolutionised the track. We discovered that by fusing the rear wheels to the axle a flywheel effect was created, vastly increasing the speed down the circuit. This extra speed meant that the track had to be extended, the finishing straight now gaining an extra ten feet to make a total distance of some 50 feet. The track from ground level was now surfaced with concrete and a car park and pits complex created. By 1960, cars were now sporting silver steel axles and aluminium rear wheels and more lead was forced into the body cavity. Qualifying tyres with less tread were introduced and a strict technical code instigated. Formula 1 was limited to 41/2 ounces and a I inch wheel and tyre diameter, Formula 2, 31/2 oz and smaller wheels, Formula 3 lighter still. An unlimited ‘Specials’ formula was created where we could give our imaginations free rein with often spectacular results! As a result of all these developments a further upgrading of the track was necessary.
In the Spring of 1960 the starting straight was re-laid with hardboard and the track was extended yet again with a short hill leading to a new 30 foot right hand curve bringing the track almost back to the start and almost 2 feet below ground level. The whole was now re-surfaced with a super smooth cement surface treated with floor paint.
On the track the cars were now even quicker and the new extension soon gained a new hill to stop the fastest cars ending in the Sump (needed to sweep water and debris from the track). At this point the new era of rear-engined cars meant that any resemblance to the original Dinky Toy had disappeared. Essentially the body was sliced horizontally above the axle channels and a new body built on top – even the driver lost his arms to the new straight arm position. Melting the lead meant that it could be mounted lower within the body for stability and more sophisticated treatment of axles and the channels they ran in meant that development had reached its peak.
It is fanciful to think this might have been a contributing element to the family decision to move further afield in early 1962. A valedictory meeting was run at Easter ’62, after which the track was left to the ravages of time until the house was sold. What the next owners made of the curious structure at the end of the garden is not recorded, but it remained a wonderful testament to a magical childhood for one family and friends.
In accordance with the rules of the TPMRC, (Thetford Park Motor Racing Cub – Father, my brother, his close friend David and myself) Grands Prix were run a week after the actual event and all entries reflected the real life line up. Cars established grid positions in practice; the final ten feet of track was marked off to represent second intervals to make ‘times’ realistic. The races were run by releasing the first three cars from a starting barrier – the first two establishing their position for that lap, the third racing against the fourth and fifth for the next position and so on lap by lap. As mentioned in the text, rules were introduced to limit weight and tyre diameter; this led to a number of acrimonious incidents when racing in the rain, where tyres swelled and failed the post- race tyre test. This was resolved by re-testing the next day with dry tyres! The evolution of the track and club over the years proved an excellent grounding for the youthful participants in diplomacy and working within a social environment – and it was of course enormous fun.
MARTIN LEE IS A HIGHLY-REGARDED ARTIST WHO CAN OFTEN BE FOUND AT OUR COFFEE & CLASSICS EVENTS DISPLAYING HIS WORK. GET IN TOUCH IF YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT COMMISSIONING A PIECE