Castle Combe was a buzzing hive of sporting activity on Saturday, September 23, as the 12th Autumn Classic unfolded. Unseasonably warm sunshine was a welcome novelty, reigning throughout the autumn equinox and showcasing historic racing at its best.

Not only was the paddock teeming with gorgeous machines from 1951 to ’97 – with the fabulous green and yellow ex-Graham Hill Team Lotus 49/3 feature car and Jim Clark’s Lotus Cortina roadburner presiding over Colin Chapman’s marque’s 75th anniversary celebrations in a marquee – but spectators responded in record numbers too. They enjoyed a wonderful day’s sport, outlined in a fine souvenir programme designed by Louise Sullivan of Ralph Allen Press in Bath.

Enthusiasts packed Café Bar H and other food outlets, mingling with competitors during qualifying sessions and on a splendid Formula Junior grid walkabout – during which the lead commentator interviewed period racer and Combe F5000 veteran Howden Ganley, plus numerous current drivers – then thronging the enclosures at favourite vantage points Quarry, Tower and Camp corners for the afternoon’s events.

New to the Autumn Classic bill was the Superformance Ferrari Club Challenge, which brought road-going V8 models through to the shapely F355 to Combe for the first time in several years. Nigel Jenkins (F355 Challenge) and local man Gary Culver (328 GTB) were head-and-shoulders above the rest, only a mistake by top qualifier Jenkins at the Esses letting Culver in to win the opening stanza. Colin Sowter (348 Challenge) staved off Chris Butler (328 GTB) and Tristan Simpson (355 Challenge) for third place.

Culver led the second race for four laps, but once Jenkins was ahead he powered clear. James Cartwright topped an adventurous day, during which he tested the Recticel barriers in qualifying and at Quarry on lap one of the opener, by capturing third with a more measured approach. Former Ferrari Club hillclimb champion Butler and Sowter chased him in.

Jenkins left the lap record at 1:16.504s (87.05mph).

Twenty three-year-old Transatlantic commuter and Combe debutant Horatio Fitz-Simon – leader of the Lurani Trophy Historic Formula Junior championship, run over five events in continental Europe – raved about the circuit having secured pole position in his ex-Tommy Reid Lotus 22 from Hampshireman Stuart Roach (Alexis Mk4).

The pair were leading the race handsomely when they tripped over backmarkers at Old Paddock and collided. Both were out on the spot, advantaging Brabham duo Mark Carter (BT6) and Geoff Underwood (BT2) who finished 0.428s apart with personal best results in cars run by 1983 British Sports 2000 champion Mike O’Brien’s Speedsport equipe.

Nic Carlton-Smith (Kieft), Chris Drake (Elva 100) and top Lotus rep Alan Schmidt (22) claimed the minor places, with Andrew Hibberd (Lola Mk2) and Alex Morton (Condor S2) best of the front-engined brigade. Fitz-Simon’s 1:14.663 (89.20mph) lap record      and remaining in the four-way UK title race with one double-header to go brought some consolation.

The Griffiths Haig Trophy races for 1950s’ sports cars revisited the event at Combe in 1966 which presaged the birth of the HSCC. There was no catching Richard Wilson’s wonderfully lithe ex-Carroll Shelby/Jim Hall Maserati 250S, but Oliver Llewellyn came close in the finale when the end of a full-course yellow period – after Tony Bianchi’s Farrellac, second in race one, smote the wall at Camp – enabled him to unleash his thuggish Allard J2’s Cadillac V8 power to reach the chequer alongside the Italian stallion. Malcolm Harrison and Alistair Pugh bagged a third and a fourth apiece in Cooper-Bristols – the latter’s cycle-winged T24/T25 ex-Tony Crook of Bristol Cars fame.

There was a surprise for onlookers in the restarted Classic and Modern Motorsport Club Classic Challenge race when Peter Fisk crossed the finish line first in his ex-Pete Hall Industrial Control Services Opel Commodore. Alas a yellow flag infringement attracted a one second penalty which dropped the combo behind extrovert Welshman Grant Williams’ fabled ex-John Coombs team/Roy Salvadori Jaguar Mk1 ‘BUY 1,’ already winner of the JEC Norman Dewis Trophy sub-set. John Young and Newbury’s Tom Smith were third and fourth in Mk1 and 2 Jags respectively, clear of the Moorhouse family’s nippy Mini Cooper S and David Alexander/Richard Fores (Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT).

The FiSCar 50s’ Intermarque race, omnipresent since the Autumn Classic’s birth in 2012, saw Richard Tyzack (Kellison-Chevrolet) and Alistair Pugh (Cooper-Bristol) lead before Marc Gordon (Jaguar XK150S) jostled ahead and stayed there to the mandatory pit-stops.

When the pit stagger unwound Gordon went back to the top and was elated to claim his first outright victory after many years of trying. American Scott Quattlebaum in father Alex’s LECo-MG – the FiSCar Fliers winner here in 2013 – pressured Murray Shepherd (AC Ace-Bristol) into a mistake at Tower to snatch second on the final lap. Tyzack and co-driver Nick Taylor – who set fastest lap at 1:23.540 (79.72mph) – were fourth in the bellowing Kellison, pursued at a distance by Brian Arculus’ Lotus Elite.

Automobiles Historiques’ GT & Sports Car Cup – run under the Castle Combe Racing Club’s auspices – graced the Autumn Classic for the sixth time since 2017, running over 90 minutes. Last year’s winners Chris Chiles and his father Chris Sr in their AC Cobra made history as the first to score a repeat victory.

Three Cobras headed the 31-car field, spanning 10 marques, but local man Mark Williams – second and twice third before in his previous example – went off at Tower when his newly-acquired version’s rear leaf spring mounting pin sheared on lap 10. This exit stage left signalled a six-lap safety car interlude under which most teams made their first of two mandatory pit stops.

Aided by a short second caution period, with GT3 class leader Karsten van Lanschot’s famous AustinHealey 3000 – David Dixon’s Ecurie Chiltern Le Mans car subsequently raced by burly Bristolian John Chatham – stopped at Camp with a clutch issue, Chiles Jr overhauled the Lotus Elan 26Rs of Cliff Gray/Stephen Bond and Steve Jones/Ben Tinkler to regain the initiative in the final 15 minutes. Despite picking up a 30 second penalty post-race for an unsafe pit release into his closing stint, Chiles growled to the chequered flag with a tremendous 1:16.612 (86.93mph) lap record under his belt, and sufficient margin to prevail by 21.583s after a hard slog.

Gray passed Jones for second overall three laps from the end, 20 seconds before Jeremy Welch – who had middle-stinted in van Lanschot’s car – slithered Doug Muirhead’s ex-BMC chairman Sir George Harriman Healey TON 792 past Mike Grant Peterkin/Theo Hunt’s version for fourth and GT3 honours.

The GT2 class was also very hotly contested, between the Healey 100M of Bristol-based husband and wife Mike Thorne/Sarah Bennett-Baggs, TVR Grantura crews Malcolm Paul/Rick Bourne, Guy Grant/Mark Hales and Joe and Piers Ward, plus rising star Oliver Marçais in his MGB. Paul/Bourne prevailed by a lap from the Healey, less than 12 seconds clear of the Wards, shadowed by Marçais.

Oliver was being caught gradually by uncle Nick Finburgh in the Lotus Elite Marc Gordon started from the pit lane following his FiSCar glory. Indeed Finburgh’s race was extraordinary for he started his Lola Mk1, then jumped into Sir David Scholey’s Jaguar XK120 (started by Rob Newall) before saddling the Lotus, orchestrated by Classic Autos’ Matt King. Nick’s total lap count was 63, one more than the winning Cobra’s!


Saty tuned for more information on the Autumn Classic 2024 – Saturday 21 & Sunday 22 September