May 1955 – The British motorsport industry

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Today, the UK is home to the one of the world’s most vibrant motorsport sectors. Made up of around 4,5000 companies and turning over approximately £6 billion per year it makes a huge contribution to the economy and underpins the wider automotive industry.

But it hasn’t always been the case. And in May 1955, the success of Stirling Moss in Italy’s Mille Miglia road race, prompted The Engineer to take a critical look at an area of UK industry that was lagging behind its continental competitors. 

Moss’s achievement  – which came months before his first Grand Prix victory  – was pretty remarkable. Driving a 3-litre Mercedes, he covered the 992 mile-long route across Italy and back in just 10h 7 minutes at an average speed of 97.8mph. It’s hard to imagine many of today’s cosseted F1 celebrities doing anything comparable. 

But while The Engineer celebrated Moss’s success in what it describes as ‘the most difficult race in the international calendar’ it also bemoaned the relatively lowly status of Britain’s motorsport sector.

Dismissing what was an apparently widely-held notion that motorsport was irrelevant to the wider automotive industry, The Engineer wrote that ‘it has been argued that the results of racing are not necessarily conclusive ..that experience gained in this way is hardly applicable to standard production cars – but even the strongest advocates of the rig-test method will hardly deny that the real crucial test for road vehicle is quite naturally the road test.’

‘Italian and German firms have been using this policy….not only to further the technical development and the performance of their  cars, but as one of the most effective forms of industrial propaganda. It is regrettable,’ opined The Engineer ‘that this method of demonstrating the inventive genius of our engineers and the capacity of our motor industry should go so long neglected by  this country.’

Whilst commending the efforts of the small teams of enthusiasts who, at the time, dominated the British motorsport industry, the article calls on ’big progressive firms with a first-class design staff and ample manufacturing facilities,’ to step in and take control of this key sector.

Given the number of small, highly specialised engineering firms at the heart of the sector’s modern day success, The Engineer was arguably  little wide of the mark here. But its  suggestion that a thriving domestic motorsport sector could only benefit the wider automotive industry was spot on. And in the following decades, the manufacturing sector did indeed begin to take motorsport increasingly seriously.

Intriguingly, the “road relevance” debate rumbles on today, with many, for instance, claiming that Formula 1 – once a rich source of technology that found its way on to road vehicles – is too remote from the real world.  Meanwhile, others claim that the rise of the “green motorsport” sector will help drive the development of technology required for a host of low carbon production vehicles – breathing fresh life into the link between race and road.