The Changing Face of British Motor Sport Museums: Donington Park Museum Closes and The Silverstone Experience launches in 2018
The newly launched £18.2 million The Silverstone Experience (TSE) will open its doors in 2019 at the entrance to the circuit, with commanding views from the café area over the infield, as well as parts of the circuit. With half the funds provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the dedicated museum and archive spaces in a refurbished World War Two aircraft hangar, will aim to ensure that the heritage of Silverstone and post-war British motor racing is interpreted for today’s public as well as protected for future generations.
The Silverstone Experience aims to use contemporary history and sports heritage, particularly to inspire young people into Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine, or STEMM subjects, by celebrating the circuit and the country’s position at the heart of the global motor sport industry and tickets are now on sale for 2019. Donington Park Racing Circuit is also a complex site with a rich and diverse history of settlement and use from pre-historic times to the present day, encompassing both tangible and intangible heritage values. The geology, topography and landscape have played an important role in shaping and influencing the use of the site. Some of which can be still evidenced at the site today. However, one of the major challenges for motor racing circuits is how to combine scheduling for important motorcycle, sports car, classic car and cycling events. Most days of the year, the circuit is in use in some form and operates very much as a year-round business, even while races and big events might total 60 days annually.
It is worth saying here that Silverstone was by no means the first, or the only, British motor racing circuit to host Grand Prix or Formula One races, and its transition to become a motor sport circuit after World War Two was by no means assured. Firstly, the most important British circuit at the start of the twentieth century was Brooklands, which was inaugurated privately by Ethel and Hugh Locke-King in 1907, and operated as the locus of fashionable British motor sport until 1939. Always associated as much with aviation as with other forms of motor sport, Brooklands took its cues from horse racing, was considered an ‘Ascot of Automobilism’ and racing an elite social context. The first British Grand Prix motor race was established at Brooklands in 1926 and held again in 1927.
Located in Leicestershire, near to the town of Castle Donington and East Midlands Airport, the land on which the circuit sits, was originally part of the Donington Hall estate. The circuit was created by Derby motor-cyclist and garage-owner Fred Craner as a park circuit, whereas Brooklands had been part of a farmed estate. Craner inaugurated motorcycle races during the early part of 1931 and, following improvements to the track in 1933, the circuit became particularly famous in the remaining years before the Second World War. Following the inauguration of car racing earlier that year, the first Donington Park Trophy 20-lap race was held on 7 October 1933, and won by the Earl Howe in a Bugatti. But the British were about 17 seconds a lap slower than their rivals in future events.
The famous Silver Arrows, the German Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars between 1934 and 1939, raced at Donington. This controversy again helped to publicise the circuit. Although the naming of the cars as Silver Arrows is itself a contested story, the machines themselves were part of a racing program that was German-government subsidized and consequently faster, better financed, technologically more advanced and reliable than other marques. Each country had a racing colour before the cars were numbered, and whereas German automobiles had previously been white, the silver cars raced against British vehicles with a green livery, blue French machines and red Italian coupés.
Even more outrageous, as far as his mother was concerned, there was a British driver in the German cars, and Richard ‘Dick’ Seaman would go on to become one of Hitler’s favourite drivers, winning the German Grand Prix in 1938, and racing also at Donington in what was considered to be his home Grand Prix however, some consider the Donington Grand Prix of 1937 and 1938 non-championship races. Seaman died while racing in 1939, and a memorial to him remains on site at Donington, so there are many overlapping controversies from this period to unpick!
After World War Two, Donington Park circuit fell into disrepair, as it had been used as a military vehicle depot. Tom Wheatcroft, a local entrepreneur and vehicle collector, invested first in the motor museum, which largely consisted of his collection and opened in 1973, and then for racing in 1977. Although there were many motor sport innovations, from motor cross events, rallying, festivals of motor sport and truck racing, the circuit failed ultimately to expand sufficiently to attract Formula One racing permanently, in the twenty first century, although the 1993 European Grand Prix, won in heavy rain by Ayrton Senna with Damon Hill second, has been described as the ‘Drive of the Decade.’ Again, there is a memorial to Senna outside the Donington collection. Following some legal issues over leasehold and rent, the circuit was sold in 2017 to Jonathan Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision, which owns several other circuits and the museum closed on 5 November 2018. As well as an extensive collection of Formula One and Grand Prix cars, the collection had a wide range of ephemera and other vehicles, as can be seen from this web archived page.
Although the Wheatcroft collection on which the Donington heritage visitor attraction was based, was an individual’s passion, The Silverstone Experience will house and protect the archive of the British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) in a purpose built facility, as well as engaging the next generation of STEMM students. This is arguably a nationally significant collection since 1928, and so preservation and conservation an important part of the future. Although it was sad to see the Donington collection close its doors, there are considerable signs for optimism around motor sport heritage, with Heritage Lottery Fund grants supporting technological innovation at Brooklands and newly developed museums dedicated to British drivers, such as Jim Clark. There are also extensive sporting collections at both the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, as well as the National Motor Cycle Museum in Solihull, and Coventry Transport Museum.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.