It’s All Good at Goodwood

If you love old cars and racing, then you really must make the trip to Goodwood in England in September for the Revival meeting. It’s easily the best vintage car race meeting in the world, one that makes the Monterey Historics look tame for any number of reasons.

First, the cars are of better quality, in every field. The pre-1954 single-seater entry featured no fewer than nine great Maseratis; six ERAs; and an Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta, among others. In the pre-1966 GP car race, there were four P261 BRMs, a Lotus 33, two Lola-Climax Mark 4s, three Climax-engined Brabhams, and six Lotus 24s. The TT celebration had the Aston Martin Project 212 and a DB4GT, six Jaguar E-types, three Ferrari 250 GTOs and two 330LM/Bs, and a host of AC Cobras. Every field features great cars, and every year you see something new or different.

Second, the racing is superb. Sure, there are drivers who aren’t that talented running around at the back, but the majority race hard, actually using the machinery in the way the makers intended. Occasionally, this leads to panel damage, but the attitude is an antidote to Steve Earle’s overly protective approach at Laguna Seca, which can lead to races looking like parades. The cars are the stars at Monterey, sure, but where is the thrill in seeing a great car driven badly?

Third, the event is magical because it transports you back in time. The circuit looks just like it did in the 1960s. Any modern vehicles inside the circuit are hidden from sight. Spectators are encouraged to dress in period garb, while access to the paddock is denied to men who aren’t wearing a jacket and tie. There are fabulous air displays from a selection of warbirds, and a number of old planes form props on the airfield that lies within the track’s boundaries.

Every year, the Earl of March changes some of the races, so you don’t see exactly the same cars, year on year. The formula is obviously successful, because spectator numbers have improved since the inaugural event six years ago, to the point that 91,000 people attended the three days this year. The only motor race in Britain that competes with these numbers is the British Grand Prix. (The Goodwood Festival of Speed exceeds both.)

For the 2003 event, I was lucky enough to be invited to drive not one, but two fantastic old Maseratis belonging to Rodney Smith—his 1939 4CL and 1955 300S. So, I reasoned, why not arrive at the track in a modern Maserati? The car in question was a new Coupe fitted with the Cambiocorsa sequential manual transmission.

On British roads, the Maserati works quite effectively. The engine is superb, providing masses of power all the way up to 7500 rpm, at which it sounds amazing. In manual mode, using the steering wheel paddles to shift, the transmission works nicely, but the automatic mode is clunky and unrefined. I’d always opt for the six-speed manual instead, although very few buyers do.

Compared with a Mercedes SL or a Jaguar XK8, the Maserati is more aggressively suspended, and is great on twisting secondary roads. Turn in is crisp, grip is prodigious, and the only dynamic fault is steering that’s initially vague and lacks linearity. Over expansion joints, the stiff chassis can become tiresome, yet the car rides the dips and crests of British minor roads really nicely.

The cabin is beautifully appointed, most of the surfaces being swathed in leather: it’s nice to get into a car where the designers avoid wood, which has no functional value nowadays. The rear seats are almost totally worthless, however, and the trunk just isn’t big enough to justify the car’s grand touring pretensions. Overall, the Coupe is a really nice car with a distinctive sporting edge that will appeal to anyone who thinks Porsches and SLs are just too common. Is it a better car than a 911? No, but 911s aren’t going to turn too many heads.

The old cars I was racing certainly show that Maserati has great breeding. Goodwood is an old-fashioned racetrack, in that it’s very fast. Cars that have excellent high-speed handling and the ability to cope with bumps go well there, so both the 4CL and 300S qualified and raced well. The 4CL was built in 1939 to contest voiturette racing—one step below grand prix cars, using supercharged 1.5-liter engines—and is at its best on long, open corners. Conversely, it doesn’t like slow bends, where the lack of low-speed torque from its high revving 16-valve, dual overhead cam, in-line four-cylinder engine shows up against the older ERAs that were its rivals then and now.

In the Goodwood Trophy race for pre-1954 single seaters, the 4CL qualified fifth, behind a 1952 Connaught grand prix, car, ERA R4D—which has a 2.0-liter engine developing at least 280 hp—a Maserati 6CM, and the glorious Alfa Romeo 158. In the race, the ERA lunched a piston early on, the Alfetta lost a driveshaft, and I finished third, just behind the 6CM, which uses a 1.5-liter six-cylinder engine that makes a bit more power than the 4CL. The 4CL would have revved to 8000 rpm in its day, but I stick to 7000 in anger in deference to old engine parts (and the owner’s checkbook), which reduces top end grunt.

The 300S took part in the Sussex Trophy for 1955 to 1960 world championship sports cars. Lining up tenth on the grid was pretty special because the cars ahead of me on the grid were a 1960 Ferrari Dino 246S; an Aston Martin DBR1; two Lister-Chevrolets; a Lister-Jaguar; a Tojeiro-Jaguar; a Birdcage Maserati; an incredibly fast D-type Jaguar; and a Scarab. That little lot is worth as much as the GDP of some Third World countries, but that doesn’t stop them being driven really hard. With a few retirements I ended up sixth and first drum-braked car, chasing the Birdcage and a Lister-Chevy for most of the race. The scary part was the 300S lap speed: nearly 95 mph, even with a slow second-gear chicane.

At the driver’s briefing, Simon Taylor of British magazine Classic and Sportscar calls the Goodwood weekend the best of the year. He’s absolutely right, particularly if the weather is wonderful. From the competitor’s point of view, it’s amazing to see packed stands and crowds five deep all around the track: only professional drivers in the world’s top series will perform in front of more people, and I’ll bet that this crowd is more knowledgeable and appreciative about the sport. A great weekend indeed.

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