History of The Classic

At the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, there were few major events dedicated to historic racing cars - the' Oldtimer' Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, the L'Age d'Or meeting at Montlhéry and Steve Earle's Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca were already established, but in England, the world centre of historic race-car preparation and ownership, there was nothing to compare. However, back at Silverstone, the home of British motor racing, BRDC director and a former TT winner on both two and four wheels, Stuart Graham, had been considering ways in which Silverstone could expand its portfolio of events in order to broaden the base which supported the British Grand Prix, upon which the circuit was heavily reliant. He realised that there was wide support at home for his idea of a Silverstone Historic Festival and, through his valuable contacts in the historic racing world, he secured the support of successful racer Peter Hannen and, through him, the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association. The HGPCA had been formed by a number of influential owners of historic single-seaters, and had been involved in two highly successful historic car races at the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix and at the 1980 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. Supported by the legendary Jimmy Brown, 'Mr Silverstone', shortly before his death in 1988, Stuart's proposals were approved by the BRDC board and it was agreed that a two-day meeting would be held a fortnight after the 1990 British Grand Prix. This would have the added advantage of being able to use much of the infrastructure already in place for the grand prix.

The highly-respected name of Christie's, the international auction house, was secured as the 'blue chip' sponsor for the new historic festival, the head of their motor car department being Colin Crabbe, a well-known driver and collector of historic racing cars and the man responsible for bringing Ronnie Peterson into Grand Prix racing. The BRDC were the organisers and promoters, the majority of race meetings at Silverstone in the early 'nineties being organised by them, so they were the obvious choice at what was their home circuit, although other organising clubs such as the Historic Sports Car Club and the Aston Martin Owners' Club were invited to bring races from their roster to help flesh out the programme. 

Photo credit: John Colley

From the outset, it was planned that the Festival would be more than simply a series of races, which had been the form for all UK historic race meetings up until that point, and considerable thought was given to activities and attractions away from the track in the hope that the event would attract motoring enthusiasts and families beyond those who would be satisfied by the race programme alone. To this end, the late Mervyn Garton was appointed to mastermind the off-track activities and it was anticipated that car clubs would be keen to attend if they were allocated dedicated spaces in which their members could meet and display their cars, and so it proved, with the car club feature building in popularity from modest beginnings at the inaugural meeting when 21 groups were represented, until 2019 when a staggering 145 car clubs and motoring associations registered to attend. Mervyn's fertile mind also oversaw the creation of trade and automobilia malls which, again, have grown considerably in size and scope over 30 years, and, by the time of the third Festival, another of his innovations appeared in the shape of the 'Scarf and Goggles' bar, which became a very popular social hub close to the paddock, and somewhere where racegoers could enjoy a convivial atmosphere and meeting place during and after the racing. The ‘Scarf and Goggles’ bar made a celebrated return to the Classic in its silver anniversary year and continues to be an integral part of the event. Two Scarf and Goggles Awards are also now awarded at the event each year as a nod to its founding fathers: Stuart Graham and Mervyn Garton.

Initially, clubs and traders were located outside the circuit, behind the grandstands on the old start/finish straight while the southern section of the infield was reserved for historic aircraft, aircraft fly-ins and driving tests. The revolutionary formula created by Mervyn has been adopted at all other large-scale motoring events since, including Goodwood's Festival of Speed and Revival meetings, while the live jazz which entertained enthusiasts in the early days has burgeoned into full-scale concert evenings featuring leading bands and solo artists, and bringing in a new audience.

In its debut year, the Christie's Historic Festival featured twelve races, the three principal categories being for Historic Grand Prix Cars, International Supersports Cup (the Thundersports of today) and 1950s Sports Cars were allocated two races with the rest of the programme featuring a 1-hour FIA Historic Touring Car race, Historic Formula Junior and Formula 3, HSCC 2-litre sports cars, Austin Healeys, AMOC Inter-Marque Challenge and an HGPCA race for Pre-'65 Grand Prix Cars. For the first ten years, racing was confined to one and a half days, as Sunday morning was given over to circuit parades by car clubs, concours entrants, and air displays and throughout the history of the event demonstrations featuring the heroes of yesteryear as well as selected racing marques, have always been popular on-track features, as witnessed by the demonstration by Neil Corner and John Surtees in ‘Silver Arrows’ Mercedes W154 and D-Type Auto-Union which was a headline feature  of the opening festival, and the first time that both marques had appeared on the same circuit since 1939.

The 1990 Christie's Historic Festival won universal praise from all sections of the motoring press, and by the second year, 'Motor Sport' magazine was heralding “...we (the UK) now have a meeting which can be regarded as the flagship event in the world of historic racing - and it has only taken two years to achieve that status" - a testament to the vision of Stuart Graham and his colleagues at the BRDC, who had found the right formula from the outset, and created a template against which the success of all future historic festivals would be measured.

Such has been the popularity of the Festival in its various iterations that it has received unstinting support from those in the historic racing world to such extent that a number of the drivers who took part in the 1990 Christie's Festival are still to be found in the entry list for the Classic each year. Duncan Rabagliati, continues to campaign his bright orange 1959 Alexis HF1 Formula Junior car, John Pearson and David Cottingham continue to race in the 50s Sportscars grid, while Ian Nuthall is still a mainstay of Historic Grand Prix Cars, and Simon Hadfield is a regular on track with the Under 2-litre Touring Cars.

That modest opening 12-race timetable has now expanded to encompass 22 races, plus demonstrations, for 15 separate racing classes. In 30 years the scope of historic racing has widened to include classes which were front-running categories in contemporary racing at the time of the first Historic Festival and there are even some categories - such as Masters Endurance Legends - that post-date the original game-changing event. History after all never stands still.

Christie's bowed out in 1992 when the mantle was picked up by rival auctioneers, Coys, who continued Festival sponsorship until 2000. Support had been waning as, buoyed by the Festival’s success, other events emerged onto the calendar and, in 2001, the Festival was taken over by Octagon Motorsports as part of their partnership with the BRDC, which included a 15 year lease of the circuit.

However,  management difficulties led to the Historic Festival being shelved until 2005, when it was re-born as The Classic, under which guise steady growth has seen it develop further to become the world's biggest classic motor racing festival. From an estimated attendance of 20,000 and a seemingly modest 426 racing entries, the Classic now has an attendance of 109,000 while attracting over 1,000 entries in the racing and high-speed demonstrations; all records are set to be broken as it celebrates its delayed 30th  Anniversary in 2021.

Photos 1,2,3,4,& 6: Credit John Colley.

Original words: Credit Alan Cox (updated for 2020)

Rocking & Racing

Live music line-up on Friday and Saturday evenings included  with all tickets