The Goodwood Estate is nestled in the rolling hills of the south downs near the town of Chichester in West Sussex, England. It is a staggeringly beautiful corner of the country, rich in history (Jane Austen’s house is in the nearby village of Chawton) and is renowned for the wonderful sweeping roads that have made the area a magnet for motoring enthusiasts for years, much to the annoyance of many of the locals. For those who really want to go fast, Goodwood has its very own motor racing circuit. Built on the ex-military airfield RAF Westhampnett (which was an active Battle of Britain air base during World War II) the circuit hosted many famous races until it was closed in 1966. It was finally re-opened in 1998 after a sustained campaign to overcome local opposition by the current owner of Goodwood House, Charles Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara. Or as he’s more commonly know, Lord March.
I personally know the Goodwood circuit quite well. I have driven cars and ridden motorcycles around the circuit during the many track days in which I survived largely without incident — a minor sojourn into the long grass on my motorbike trying to avoid a rider who dropped his bike on the apex of the notorious left hand corner St Marys counts as my only “off.”
I’m also rather familiar with Goodwood House’s front drive too — though that is hardly any grand claim to fame, so do a great many people. The drive is the central feature during the annual Festival of Speed which is currently in full swing this weekend. The FOS (a hill climb for classic and modern racing cars and motor bikes) has been held annually on the Goodwood Estate since 1993. During that time, it has become arguably one of the most important and prestigious motoring events in the world. But it didn’t start out that way.
In 1993, I was still living in the UK (where I was born) and freelancing as a sports photographer for the Sunday newspapers. On one typical overcast day in early spring, I was among a handful of journalists who’d been invited to Goodwood by Lord March to attend a small press preview for the first ever FOS that was scheduled for June of that year.
Lord March also invited a number of motoring enthusiasts he knew and asked them to bring their cars down for the day. Among the group were Tony Smith (manager of the rock band Genesis and seated on car 42 in the group shot) and Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson (standing center with motorbike no 112), the famed navigator for the racing legend Sir Stirling Moss in the 1955 Mille Miglia, took some of us by surprise by bringing a very loud and rickety looking classic motorcycle on which he proceeded to ride up the hill at a rather alarming rate.
But for me, the highlight of that day wasn’t Goodwood House and its gorgeous grounds, the tea served from silver teapots down at the start line, nor even the wonderful lunch in a grand room of the house. It was swaying a little precariously in a cherry picker that raised me about 20 feet into the air so I could take a photograph of some of the rarest and most fabulous cars I had ever seen in my life. If the value of those cars was extraordinary back in 1993, they’re truly priceless today. A Ferrari 250 GTO, the same model as the one owned (and driven) by Nick Mason, the Pink Floyd drummer (that sits in the bottom left of the group shot above), sold for a record $38,115,000 in 2012.
Back in 1993, there weren’t that many opportunities to see such a fabulous collection of iconic classic cars together in one place. Being invited to that press day was like being given access to a private view of an art exhibition featuring some of the most beautiful (and the loudest) racing cars ever made. I think it’s that kind of proximity that is the single most important factor behind the success of the FOS over the years. Having worked as a photographer at many different kinds of motor sport events (F1, rallying, Le Mans), I can personally attest to the fact that few come close to offering the kind of access found at Goodwood, with or without a photographer's pass.
Returning to Goodwood in 2016 for the first time in well over 15 years, I have to admit I didn’t find the FOS quite as up close and personal as I remembered it, which is hardly surprising considering just how big it has become. The entire area around the estate is overrun by miles of car parks, connected by a network of metal “roads” to help prevent turning the grounds into a quagmire in the rain. In front of the house, there is an enormous, vertiginous sculpture (the design of which changes each year) while the lawn and fields beyond are full to bursting with manufacturers stands, rides, hospitality units overflowing with guests, and numerous grandstands running alongside the drive to seat those members of the public who are happy to pay a little extra for the privilege. It is like a small town randomly decides to de-camp to deepest West Sussex and bring its entire population with it.
There are a lot of people. Even when it rains (which isn’t often: Goodwood has a reputation for being rather lucky when it comes to avoiding the often inclement British summer weather) people still arrive en masse, complete with their wellies if they remembered them, or plastic bags if they did not. The very active paddock area is engulfed by a sea of motoring enthusiasts of all ages who gather around the rare and exotic (and occasionally downright bizarre) cars and bikes like ants around a discarded jam sandwich. When moving their vehicles down through the paddock, drivers have to gently part the waves of people before them. Crowds of spectators watch giant screens displaying the action while sitting on the lawn in front of the house, or get up close and personal with the concours condition classic cars the Style et Luxe display outside the old stables — where somewhat surprisingly, no one seems to mind small children pawing at near priceless vintage Rolls Royce or Hispano Suizas with ice cream covered fingers.
On an overcast day with brooding clouds before the start of last year’s festival, I sat down with Lord March in his office — full to the brim with motoring memorabilia — to have a chat about how much the event has changed over past 24 years. Considering how huge it has become (around 150,000 people attend each year), I wondered what he had expected the attendance to be like when he first planned that very first FOS back in 1993?
“We were told we’d get two and a half thousand people for that sort of event if we were lucky,” he told me, “We never knew how many we got actually because we couldn’t really give them tickets, and they all broke in through the fence anyway. We got about 25,000 people and we were, well, overrun.”
But it isn’t just the number of spectators that has grown considerably since 1993. The number of entrants has as well. Every year, the entry list only seems to get longer and encompass an even more eclectic range of cars and motorcycles: from the very earliest days of pre-war days of motoring; through the classic racing marques of the 50’s and 60’s; to the latest Formula One cars and car concepts for the future.
All in all, it’s a far cry from that informal intimacy of 1993. “Those people who came that first year were mostly people we knew, or friends of friends,” Lord March recalls. “It was a pretty relaxed affair. The highlight of the party was standing up and getting a bowl of rice on the Saturday night. And now we seat 1600 people and have an absolutely massive show!”
But looking forward, there has to be only so many spectators and so many entries that the festival can fit in. Where does the FOS go from here? After all, the millennial generation seems to have a very different attitude to cars compared with those of mine. Interest in car ownership has decreased significantly while enthusiasm for car sharing and car hailing services are very much on the rise. Electric cars are gaining traction with the public and who knows, maybe hydrogen will be next? Even the wide world of motorsport seems to be suffering some kind of an existential crisis. The organizing bodies of both Formula 1 and NASCAR are looking for new ways to boost their declining viewing figures. Though there is some hope that Formula E and Robo Racing may offer a small respite, it is not going to be easy. There is clearly a need for the car manufacturers and racing organization bodies to have some strategic conversations about the future.
It turns out that some of those conversations are happening at Goodwood. Lord March has actively cultivated a central role for the festival by bringing together the various interested parties to ask and answer the billion dollar questions about what exactly is coming next in the rapidly evolving world of cars and transportation.
“We have this seminar this weekend called Nucleus,” he explained to me, “We have the major CEOs of the big manufacturers and a lot of guys from technology. We have guys from Facebook, Uber, SpaceX, big designers here. The idea is to try to use the FOS as a brainstorming platform to talk about mobility: what’s happening around the world; why kids aren’t driving; and how the manufacturers are responding.”
Project Nucleus seems like a very smart move. The fact that CEOs of major car manufacturing companies — as well as titans of technology — are seeing the FOS as increasingly important both in terms of future strategy and business opportunity will only strengthen the events continuing growth in terms of stature.
Lord March has not only managed to develop an entirely new stream of income for the Goodwood Estate, he has raised the status of the FOS to such a height that some of the relationships being formed here are shaping what we will, or maybe won’t, be driving in the very near future.
But despite this well deserved success, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for that grey morning in 1993, when I watched enthusiastic owners fire up their near-priceless classics and race them up the hill. I’m not nostalgic for those early years when it seemed that there was just a one or two straw bales separating me from some vintage racer being driven over the edge, but for how I used to feel about sports cars and motorbikes. Visiting the FOS in 2016 made me realize I just don’t feel the same.
Though I still appreciate classic racing cars, the truth is that I’m not the insatiable enthusiast I once was. I was incredible fortunate to be driven up the hill at last year's FOS in a Ferrari 488GTB driven by an extraordinary driver. It was exhilarating. But even though there’s no denying that the car was a technological marvel, gorgeous beyond measure and beautifully made, I found myself thinking that I was glad I would never own one, regardless of whether I could afford the $245,000 asking price or not (I most absolutely, definitely can’t).
The reason is that I don’t like the kind of attention these kind of cars garner in the real world. They just scream “look at me” in a way would make me feel rather uncomfortable if I were sat in the driver’s seat.
These cars are simply not my cup of tea anymore. Instead, I’m fascinated by the potential for autonomous, driverless vehicles and the mass adoption of electric cars; I hanker after a Tesla, not a Testarossa. My interest in transportation is focused more upon the very real societal challenges that self-driving trucks and cars will bring rather than the exquisite lines of the latest sick Lambo. Had I been fortunate enough to attend this year’s FOS, I’m sure that I’d have spent most of my time ogling the new Roboracer which has a cool factor well below sub-zero and is featured in this year’s new FOS attraction: Future Labs.
Lord March on the other hand, seems far better than I am at balancing his passion for classic marques and the latest hypercars with his fascination for what the future may hold. Project Nucleus and Future Labs both show his commitment to ensuring that the FOS remains relevant to both the car manufacturing industry and the paying public.
But one of the things we may have more in common is a belief that it is possible to love a cheap car, even a bad car. When I asked Lord March what was the first-ever car he owned, he lit up and told me that it was “a Morgan Three Wheeler.” His parents gave their blessing to discourage him from buying a motorbike, “I bought it for £200 pounds in Middlehampton. It was absolutely dreadful, and far more dangerous than any motorbike, actually. But they are lovely things.” He told me how he drove it everywhere, despite the fact that it had no roof and that one of the wheels once fell off while he was driving.
I too have a love of cheap cars. I may have made my home in the US and become an American citizen, but I still love my quintessentially British 1991 Range Rover which has holes in the carpet, dents in the bodywork and no window in the back because the tailgate crumbled with rust and fell apart. Even though it is probably only worth $5,000, it’s definitely a classic, but not one that would pass muster at the Goodwood Festival of Speed I fear.
A kind thank you to everyone at Goodwood House who helped track down scans of my original photography from 1993 and 1995
Photography by James Bareham / The Verge