The history of Britain’s leading role in the motorsport industry
Historically, when people were asked to think about Britain’s manufacturing sector, the companies they mentioned first were often those associated with motorsport: Aston Martin, Lotus, McLaren, and so on. In recent years, as the wider sector has struggled, attention has moved elsewhere. Still, British businesses continue to play an important role behind the scenes, and it’s good to look back and appreciate some of their most impressive achievements.
Dominating the market
In the early years of car production, Britain was a dominant force, thanks in part to the co-invention of the Daimler engine by British engineer Frederick Simms. Between 1932 and 1995, Britain was Europe’s biggest car manufacturer. As these were the years when motorsport first began to become popular it’s not surprising to learn that British engineers were also heavily involved in designing for the track. The fact that the first dedicated track was created in Britain made it a world centre for vehicle technology.
Early motor races were carried out on open roads, often involving a contest to see who could get between cities most quickly. The development of Brooklands in 1907 began to change all that. Situated just south of London, this expansive site was used for racing cars and motorbikes and even for testing early aeroplanes. In the 1920’s and 30’s it began to attract huge crowds, and motor racing as a spectator sport was born.
Even in its early years - when the fastest most drivers ever travelled was 15 mph in a speeding horse-drawn carriage - cars at Brooklands were doing over 100 mph. It’s easy to imagine how thrilling this was to watch. Though the sport died out in the war years, when engineers were encouraged to focus their talents elsewhere, by that time it had launched a swathe of engineering companies. As a result, there are more than 4,000 operating in the area today.
When considering Britain’s place in motor racing history it is impossible to underestimate the influence of Colin Chapman. His dream of creating a new marque of sports car started to come to fruition in 1952 when he founded Lotus Cars. The range of cars that Chapman eventually designed and manufactured included the Lotus 7 and the 1958 model the Elise, with its revolutionary fibreglass monococoque body. Chapman’s sport cars are now a part of Britain’s motoring history.
Chapman didn’t stop there as he went on to develop some of the most successful Formula 1 and 2 cars of his day. His association with the legendary Jim Clark, arguably the best British racing driver of all time, was a very successful one with many victories for Lotus. Clark also thrilled UK motor sport enthusiasts with his performances in the Lotus Cortina. Seeing Clark corner in the Lotus Cortina with tyres smoking was an unforgettable sight for fans. Sadly, the association between Clark and Lotus ended tragically with Clark’s death while driving a Lotus car at the Hockenheim circuit in 1968.
The Lotus name is carrying on today under foreign ownership still operating from its base at Hethel in rural Norfolk. Cars are still being produced but a lot of Lotus’ work is in the sophisticated design and engineering field for other manufacturers.
Other notable cars
The designer Alex Issigonis launched the front wheel drive Austin Mini into the world in 1959. Tuned versions were soon being raced on British tracks, usually hotly pursued by another famous British car, the Hillman Imp.
In 1961, Jaguar announced the E-Type. This stylish sports car became an icon of its time and celebrities of the day clamoured to own one. Many enthusiasts regard the E-Type as the most beautiful British sports car ever produced.
In modern times the famous names of Aston Martin and McLaren have come to the fore with success on the track and in the world of selling supercars to the lucky few that can afford them.
Clean, green machines
British ingenuity once again became central to motorsport at the start of the 21st Century, when environmental concerns collided with the weight versus speed equation in a push to make fuel use more efficient. Numerous small innovations helped to reduce waste, and work also went into producing cleaner fuels. Recently, the kinetic energy recovery system developed by Northamptonshire’s Flybrid Systems has begun recovering energy that would normally be lost when the brakes are applied. This means cars can now go further on less fuel. This new innovation highlights the sport’s role as a driver of clean technologies, with inventions developed for racing going on to benefit the wider population.
A bigger, faster future
If you regularly watch video from Max Mosley, you’ll know that he has played a pivotal role in bringing about recent changes to the regulations governing engine size. As a result, we’re now seeing new, much more powerful engines delivering exciting results on the track, and the race is on to make further advances in engine technology. We can be confident that here, too, Britain will be taking the lead.