Monday, 23 June 2014

Sport and Class

The Stigler's earlier post on sport in schools got me thinking, a bit.  Some of you may know that my particular sport (passion?) is motor sport.  And in many ways the development of UK motorsport, and its rise to international dominance - although declining a bit now - is interesting in how it reflects class, or perhaps wealth.

Before WW2 motor sport in the UK generally revolved around Brooklands.  The spectators and participants came from the 'right crowd and there was no crowding'.  But, by the late '30's a small number of impecunious enthusiasts were looking to see how they could also go racing, without basically any money. And out of that grew the 750 Motor Club which was started, by among others the notable Bill Boddy.

The immediate post war racing scene was dominated by generally the same marques as pre-war; Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and by the early 1950's Mercedes Benz.  And out of the Italian marques grew Ferrari. Ferrari built his business by selling to rich people and basic cronyism and political manipulation.

Meanwhile back in England the 750 Motor Club encouraged innovation among its relatively low wealth members who developed very ingenious, and low cost, methods of making cars go quickly.  People like Cooper, Chapman, Broadley, Duckworth and Costin and others drove forward development.  And pretty well none of them were in any way upper class or aristocratic. This was grass roots stuff.  There were also Jingoistic industrialists like Tony Vandervell (Vanwall - whose aerodynamics were sorted by Costin and suspension by Chapman) or Lyons (Jaguar) who sought to challenge the Continentals. By the late '50's other players like Lister and Connaught - run by the same sort of underfunded enthusiasts - were making a serious impact in what we now call Europe.

Other factors also helped UK motor sport.  Lots of disused aerodromes with excellent perimeter tracks just made for setting out as a circuit; Silverstone, Snetterton, Thruxton and Croft to name but four.  There were also a lot of adventurous, underemployed and technically trained individuals looking for new excitements or to make an excitement to replace the lost adrenaline rush of combat.

In short the UK was a hot house of development and opportunity, and most of it came from the bottom, not the top.  The very sport that one would think would be a rich man's game became the game of everyman. And what this 'free market' did was to innovate and out-develop every other country in the world.  No subsidies, no government help, no tax breaks, no 'special status' or development area grants.  Just the famous free for all of the free market, and a huge amount of ingenuity, and I think crucially, a shortage of money.

The car I race now was designed in 1963 by a bloke who is still alive and whom I know well.  He was part of the 750MC revolution and he maintains that by the early '60's 'we had sorted out all the issues with designing suspensions and chassis and engines'.  Taking that knowledge - worked out by the average bloke - he and others like Cooper, Chapman, Broadly and Derek Bennett went and totally stuffed all the grandee continental teams.

So perhaps using the example of one of the most expensive sports of all, it is not being born into or having wealth or being subsidised that drives success. It is ingenuity and determination, and liberty; the absence of bureaucratic constraints.

10 comments:

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed. Motor racing, like golf and cricket, appears to be relatively classless.

wiggiatlarge said...

The article is correct in the source of the innovation that sprang from the innovators in motor racing at that time.
The "garagistas" as Enzo Ferrari called them through gritted teeth transformed the thinking in race car design and took over the mantle of leaders in the field, Chapman in particular rose from a set of garages in Hornsey London to the most brilliant race car designer of the age.
As someone who raced cars in the sixties I would disagree on the driving front, whilst the demographics of drivers on the grid changed from the "gentleman's club" of pre war racing, very few of the new influx of drivers made it to the top, money influence still reigned in team choices in Grand Prix racing, outside of Graham Hill there are very few cases of drivers coming from humble backgrounds making it to the top level, and that remains today as garnering sponsorship at all levels trumps driving skill.

DBC Reed said...

Picketty's analysis that the influence of inherited wealth dipped for thirty years after WW2 might apply to motor racing.Max Mosley said he made his way in the sport because nobody's class horizons took in his exalted background: they thought his father was some obscure Midlands coach builder. But he did need money to set up March -and he rose to head the FIA.(Then his breeding showed : in flagellation by expensive prostitutes)
Motor racing has a slight class issue with motor-cycle racing, which is slightly looked down on.
I could never understand why John Surtees who was world champ on two wheels, then four, was not more famous. Lewis Hamilton has a yen to follow Surtees (the other way round).My bet is that if he does take up bike racing, he will, in the UK, be seen as lowering himself.
The thing about Picketty's analysis is that the more egalitarian phase is now over .Will we see a return of well-off snobs like the Bentley Boys?
Don't get me started on cricket: the Officers v Other ranks AKA Gentlemen vs Players game only finished in 1962.And tennis!! They would n't present Fred Perry with his All England Club tie for winning Wimbledon but left it on the back of his chair in the changing-room.( Did pro- tennis players have separate changing rooms; they did in cricket?) Fred Perry's dad was MP for Kettering: I think for Co operative Party.He was supposed to have had land tax leanings.

The Stigler said...

It's also worth adding that a lot of sports are or were until recently run by the old school tie brigade of amateurs who have no clue. Athletics, tennis, horse racing.

F1 is run by Ecclestone who understands it's a show, extracts a huge amount of rent from various governments and broadcasters and tries to make sure that people will want to watch it. It's now the biggest annual sporting competition by TV audience.

Mark Wadsworth said...

DBC, as TS says, there are some 'sports' which are far more class ridden than others (horses, sailing, tennis*) and there are some sports that are distinctly 'working class' (football, ten pin bowls, snooker, darts).

And some are class neutral nowadays (golf, motor racing, cricket, crown green bowls).

* Why tennis counts as 'posh' I have no idea. It doesn't in other countries. All you need is a pair of shorts and a racket.

wiggiatlarge said...

DBC I met Max Mosley just once, when I retired (broke) from the sport.
I sold up various engine parts and Mosley came down to look at an engine block, we spoke for about an hour before he left, he was quite open about who he was and his background and spoke of his father and everything else, he was a genuinely nice guy on the strength of that meeting, as far as I was aware most people were fully aware of his background and who he was as Oswald Mosleys last rally in the East End of London had only been a few years before and Max had been at that rally ?

DBC Reed said...

@w
Very interesting first-hand account of Mosley's early involvement in motor racing.

I was remembering a story which now appears on Wikipedia. It seems to have appeared first in Thomas O Keefe's "Max Mosley Face to Face" 2007,which has this quote from MM
"There was always a certain amount of trouble"(being the son of Sir Oswald)"until I came into motor racing .And in one of the first races I ever took part in, there was a list of people when they put the practice times.... and I heard somebody say 'Mosley ,Max Mosley,he must be some relation of Alf Mos(e)ley, the coachbuilder' . And I thought to myself "I've found a world where they don't know about Oswald Mosley' "
Most of his life he seems to have been living things down: first his father's dodgy past, now his own, although they do say his involvement in the phone-hacking protest has been for the general good.

Bayard said...

"Why tennis counts as 'posh' I have no idea."

Well real tennis was played by royalty and lawn tennis by aristos for many years before it became a popular sport and the British have a tendency to live in the past when it comes to things affected by class.

DBC Reed said...

Real Tennis or Tennis as they called it, was quite rough and ready and seems to have acquired its snob appeal when Lawn Tennis took over. The website for the new Real Tennis Court at Middlesex University says "Its origins are in fact humble. Thought to have started as a street game ,it was once a gamblers' sport, as popular and about as respectable as greyhound racing."The Puritans cracked down on it because of the associated gambling apparently.
( I have seen a game of pelota played by hand in the street somewhere I can't remember.Really rough).
Real Tennis was Prince Hal's game for which he was mocked by the Dauphin in Henry V, so it must have been really, really down-market given his lifestyle.
Perhaps the snob element of Lawn Tennis came from it not being played in town where the land price for a tennis court would have been extortionate.Fred Perry played in London because he was brought up some kind of co-operative garden suburb where they made provision for such things according to standard accounts.

Lola said...

Thank you for all your comments. I am quite surprised at the interest.
Wiggi. I am intrigued that you raced in the '60's. Tell us more.
And I did not comment on the drivers. It has always been that you needed wealth to get to the top in motor sport - if you think that Grand Prix / F1 is the top. Mnay of the UK and Commnwealth drivers who dod succeeed were not at all wealthy. Brabham, Hill, Hulme, McLaren etc all had to work at it. As did my favourite Jim Clarke.