The first Earl of speed

Motor sport is just one of the events that - thanks to the enterprising Earl of March - gives Goodwood a glorious future. Stephen Bayley reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is the first MT article to be written in a hermit's cave. But then it's about Goodwood, an unusual establishment even by the standards of the English peerage. My laptop and I am sitting here, trying to take it all in. After a cheerful lunch with the present incumbent, I have wandered up an ancient avenue of trees into an old 18th-century pleasure ground to collect my thoughts. Sussex. Twelve thousand or so acres of it.

There is sunshine and silence, apart from the buzz of a distant propeller plane. This, together with a couple of discarded blue fertiliser sacks tossing in the light breeze, is all that reminds me of the 21st century.

But there are haunted, frightened trees and the memory of an old Duke pleasuring himself with a lusty milkmaid in the underground tunnels somewhere near the derelict grotto where I am (temporarily) established.

Architecturally speaking, Goodwood is not one of the very greatest of English country houses, although that's a bit mealy-mouthed, as it is pretty damn fine compared with my 'hood. It is certainly one of the most complete, least spoiled and least compromised of stately homes: a beneficiary of continuous ownership and careful stewardship by the family. In The Buildings of England, the grumpy Ian Nairn and the dry Nikolaus Pevsner say there is more interest in the grounds than in the house. There are, indeed, wonderful managed vistas according to the picturesque ideal, including an avenue cut through woodland to give a view of the spire of nearby Chichester Cathedral and shining sea beyond.

Still, the house is a subdued composition. A design by the busy James Wyatt, circa 1790, it incorporates an older house of about 1720. In terms of style, Goodwood is on the cusp of classical and gothic. In terms of mood, local flint and stone create what Nairn and Pevsner describe as 'a low-toned combination forced on Wyatt by the Duke'. The Gordon-Lennox family usually gets its way, whether with milkmaids or with architects.

And then the reverie fades and I remember exactly why I am here. Which is to report on how Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox saved his family home from the taxidermicological horrors of the National Trust or the gaping, voracious maw of the taxman. With no revolutions or invasions to force dispossession, Britain's aristocracy was able to cling to the wreckage of its glorious inheritance, although the Revenue enjoyed stamping on manicured fingers. The weak let go. Some turned to lions for help, as at Longleat. Others turned to speciality chutney, as they did at Chatsworth. At Goodwood, they turned to motor sport.

It is a sound that is always exciting. That high-pitched, feral, angry whine; an aggressive, ungodly noise moderated only by the odd splutter, a punctuation mark in the free verse of a highly tuned engine on full song. No matter how many times I hear it, I experience a primitive excitement, an urgent need to get closer to the action, to join the priesthood in the execution of their rites. And every year Goodwood's Festival of Speed revives the acoustic memory for ever larger numbers of visitors: the distant promise of racing cars being exercised, tormented, cajoled, extended, enjoyed. It is scarcely stretching the point to compare the experience with infatuation and the act of love. At least, that is how the crowds seem to take it.

And when you arrive at Goodwood, you are rarely disappointed: the Festival of Speed provides more than merely ample satisfaction for those who enjoy the sight and sound of great cars being driven very quickly. It is not a race, but timed runs up the drive of Goodwood House. A sort of hill-climb, but with celebrity cars and drivers strutting their stuff in front of champagne-quaffing victims and beneficiaries of corporate entertainment. Real hill-climbs have people in wellies with a thermos.

Goodwood is, believe me, something else. In 11 years, the Festival of Speed has evolved from a picnic for a privileged clique of classic car enthusiasts to a major international event, the biggest and best of its kind in the world. Just walking around, you bump into Ralph Lauren and Bryan Ferry. It has saved Goodwood. For Charles, currently Earl of March and Kinrara, the 49-year-charmer who will one day become the 11th Duke of Richmond, exhausts tearing air, burnt Castrol-R and the roar of the crowd are the sound, the smell and the feel of money. And, of course, survival.

Motor sport is a family tradition. The 9th Duke had real success as a racing driver in the pith helmet days and founded the Goodwood motor-racing circuit on the remains of a Battle of Britain airfield in 1948. As a child, Charles March recalls finding Jo Bonnier, the Swedish publishing heir and BRM driver, sitting in his overalls in the Yellow Drawing Room.

I have known March for 20 years. It's an insight into the world of this most worldly aristocrat that we first met at a networking lunch in the West End, hosted by a German lighting manufacturer. He was the same engaging personality then, elegant light coachwork disguising a tough and efficient chassis. But in those days he looked rather different. A mere Viscount then, he was known as Charles Settrington. He had long hair, ripped jeans, rode a big bike and was a professional photographer. Significantly, he told me he picked up an interest in photography at about the same time the original Goodwood circuit closed in the '60s.

When Charles' grandfather died in 1989, it was time for a career move. In 1991 he became a director of the Goodwood Estate. The year after, he came to live at Goodwood, abandoning a handsome house and the photographic studio he had built in Fulham. The idea for the Festival of Speed came in 1992, when March was driving a Jaguar D-Type with his neighbour Michael Pearson of Cowdray Park. The occasion was the Loire Tour, a wire-wheeled and wood-rimmed jolly organised by classic car impresario Adrian Hamilton.

The idea of the Festival was simply to create an opportunity to enjoy fine classic cars in action. On a sunny day with a glass of champagne to hand - and at Goodwood there always is - there are few sights more magnificent than, say, a Porsche 550 RSK, or a Ferrari short wheelbase 250GT, being driven flat out - as mounting attendances testify.

Still, the origins were quite modest. Press activity for the first Festival of Speed involved not much more than parking a few classic Ferraris and Astons on the lawn, and having March pose with a charming old Lancia that his grandfather had raced. Still, it was soon evident that they were on to something. With little publicity, the target attendance of 12,000 was doubled in year one and attendance last year was 158,000. This year it will be ticket-only at £50-odd. As they say, do the math.

The Festival of Speed began as a waggish adventure but is now a vast commercial operation. The estate manager does the groundwork; I doubt whether the suave and urbane March ever shouts that invocation 'Car parks and toilets!', the mantra of all successful events organisers, but Goodwood does the car parks and toilets very well; the forestry people get the trees right for the corporate enclosures; the garden people dress the tables. Naturally, they have lots of experience of doing things with tractors. It is almost as if the patiently evolved mechanisms of an English country house with its hierarchies and fiefs were designed for this very purpose.

With big companies underwriting every activity, that ticket money is pure profit. Typical of the sponsorship arrangements is a traditional concours d'elegance, a car beauty contest, held on the private lawn during the Festival. But at Goodwood it is turned into a major and seriously smart social event, and since 1995 this Style et Luxe has been sponsored by Cartier.

At first, the entries concentrated on classical coachbuilt cars from before the second world war. So you found a 1924 Lancia Lambda Torpedo, Delahaye 135Ms from 1937 with Figoni & Falaschi and Chapron coachwork, a 1935 SS1 Airline (the Jaguar precursor), a 1927 Stutz Blackhawk Speedster, a Touring-bodied 1937 Alfa-Romeo 2.9 Spyder, a 1932 Isotta Fraschini Sedanca de Ville and a 1931 Maybach Zeppelin DS-7. These magnificent cars are some of the most gorgeous machines ever conceived, representatives from a lost world of gracious indulgence. Lately, they have turned to beach cars, American muscle cars of the '70s and '50s estate cars.

And then there are the judges, who comprise a sort of international caravan that meets once a year in Goodwood's parc ferme. Over the years, Cartier Style et Luxe judges have included architect Nicholas Grimshaw, designer of Waterloo's Eurostar terminal and an eloquent spokesman for the engineering imperative in design; Terence Conran, the retail and restaurant entrepreneur, has admired the pure aeronautical detail of a Voisin; visionary car designer Gordon Murray has made a splendid contrast with style ideologue Peter York, who does not drive.

Architect Norman Foster flies his own helicopter to join the other judges at Goodwood. An austere technocrat, Foster complements Sir Peter Osborne, the owner of Osborne and Little, one of the world's most exclusive wallpaper and furnishing fabric manufacturers. Furniture maker David Linley arrives on his motor-bike.

Patrick Le Quement of Renault, who has a fair claim to be the most inventive designer in the mainstream of the motor industry, is a regular judge. So too is cosmopolitan Dutchman and race-car enthusiast Harm Lagaay, in charge of Porsche's design studios. J Mays, who, with responsibility for Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Volvo, Jaguar, Mazda, Aston-Martin and Land-Rover, can claim the biggest portfolio in the business, joined the informal team in 2003 - as did Ross Brawn, technical director of the Ferrari Grand Prix team.

Every year, Goodwood's Cartier Style et Luxe brings together more astonishing, unusual, fascinating, delightful and beautiful people than were assembled the year before. And the cars are impressive too. On a summer's day, with yet more of that Veuve Clicquot to hand and quality jazz mixing in the background with the tearing rasp of a racing exhaust, it offers a form of perfection: beautiful cars with their pilot fish of beautiful people.

And it gets the Festival of Speed into the diary columns of the broadsheets and the society pages of the glossies. All these people turn willingly into unpaid ambassadors for Goodwood. In the world of corporate entertaining, it works like a virus.

But Goodwood is more than the Festival of Speed. Thanks to years of lobbying, March now also stages a Revival Meeting in September at the old racing circuit. This is a hallucinatory facsimile of a period event: men in trilbys and cravats; women on heels and in make-up. And real racing too. Carroll Shelby in a Cobra, Damon Hill in a car his father made famous here 40 years ago.

But, most obviously, there are the horses: 'Glorious Goodwood' is the horseshoe-shaped racecourse a mile and a half north of the house, 600 feet up on the Downs with a view to make the Betjeman in all of us weep.

A picturesque triumph, the first public event was held there in 1802.

With new pavilions by Philip Dowson and a £5 million 2001 Parade Ring by Michael Hopkins, race days have increased from fewer than five in 1960 to more than 20 last year with over £3 million prize money, about 20% coming from commercial sponsors.

Then there is the golf: Wyatt's original kennels, a fine low-rise neoclassical shed, are now a golf club. There is forestry, the aerodrome and property.

There is the corporate use of the house (currently 150 functions a year, open 60 days a year to the public). Turnover is £24 million. The commercial ambition is to integrate each service: seamless corporate hedonism, a premium-branded escapism in which the fortunate corporate entertainee moves, excited and replete, from golf to the circuit to dinner in the Egyptian Dining Room.

Soon there will be Goodwood organic products as well. With the same fastidiousness he applied to motor sport archaeology, March is concerned about traceability and thoroughness in farm produce. This may seem an incongruous fit with resource-burning motor-sport, but the organic idea goes back to his mother, who in the '50s was a founder-member of the Soil Association and a passionate advocate of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring alerted the rest of the world to the dangers of environmental abuse.

A 500-acre organic farm was started in 1998, but now all the estate's 2,800 acres of farmland are recognised as organic by the Soil Association.

The sole flaw in the whole admirable and effective Goodwood system is a hotel whose contract, in a rare careless moment, was given to Marriott.

And Marriott has done what Marriott does. Still, Charles March knows the problem. Eventually, it will be fixed.

But motor sport is the driver. It was the success of the Festival of Speed that brought BMW to Goodwood and helped March persuade the Germans to build their new Rolls-Royce factory, designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, on land from where Hurricanes and Spitfires once bashed Heinkels.

A number of factors work in favour of Goodwood as a powerful repository of memory. First, the circuit flourished at just the moment in the '50s and '60s when the current generation of senior management were wide-eyed kids and had their model Vanwalls. When people such as BMW's Karl-Heinz Kalbfel remembered Stirling Moss, it did no harm to their investment decisions. It is an image-conscious age, even for stern technocrats.

Second, the Festival of Speed took off at just the moment when people were becoming disenchanted with the boring corporatism of Formula One. Real men in Aertex shirts wrestling lively Maserati 250Fs after lunch through twisty bits whose sole concession to safety is a straw bale may be politically incorrect, but it is a stirring spectacle.

I asked March how he did it. The answer was very straightforward. The Gordon-Lennoxes have no London property to support them with rentals.

They receive no grants. Goodwood is a real place and a real home, and his lordship insists that any commercial development should be true to the spirit of the place and should also be self-financing. 'I can't develop it to the point where I wreck it,' he explains.

Equally, all the Goodwood businesses are run by Goodwood people. March is chief executive. His father, the 10th Duke (who trained as an accountant), is chairman. He is always there and always vigilant, never letting anything inappropriate happen: it is odd to find this descendant of Charles II discussing brand values, but there you have it.

Just as his forebears had their way with milkmaids and architects, so today corporate moneybags swoon at March's approach. He is handsome, articulate, amusing, plausible and very persuasive. In terms of absolute possession of the mystical essence of English charm, David Niven and Cary Grant look like a pair of underbred Kazakh criminals in comparison.

And, of course, March has turned himself into a sub-brand of the Goodwood mother ship. Gone are the photographer's rags and in have come the waisted Huntsman suits, the slightly foppish Berluti shoes, withal an immaculate classicism in dress. We proles, and I count myself in this sorry number with the CEO of Ford, cannot say no when March calls. I will not say he does it shamelessly, but he is conscious of his style and his power, and he knows we all want a part of it.

In Goodwood, March has one of the biggest toy boxes in the world. 'I do find it hard to go away,' he says brightly. But its development is not without its exquisite agonies. He has recently re-acquired the lease of the golf club and the intention is to turn it into something exceptional.

With business-like detachment, he says: 'Golf exists at Goodwood, so let's have a great golf course, not a mediocre one.'

But all the time there is the question of balance, of husbanding the patrimony while doing what's necessary to ensure its survival. He explains the dilemma of trying to balance a unique inheritance against commercial priorities. Should he tear down a wood planted in the 18th century to create a great 18th hole? My guess is the wood will go.

Earls just gotta have fun, but this one knows how to run a business.

Maybe the hermit's cave will be next in line. Stressed-out veeps reading nature poetry to the sound of a full-race V12 getting on the cam. That's Goodwood.

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