The Bolster Cup

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01 Apr 2019 in Article, Motorsport

Author : Charles

Image courtesy of Nick Dungan

The 76th Goodwood Members’ Meeting will hold the inaugural Bolster Cup, a race for pre- and post-war vintage specials. The patrons of the race, John Vary Bolster and his brother Richard, were irrepressible amateur engineers and racers of the pre-war period, who competed as often as they possibly could in their home-built specials amongst, and frequently in front of, much more sophisticated and powerful machinery. 

Where the benefits of money and scale could not be realised, the brothers instead relied on engineering creativity, paddock camaraderie and often, just a little bit less caution.

For the uninitiated, a Google image search for ‘John Bolster, Bloody Mary’ gives a small but illustrative glimpse into the career of a man that lived and breathed motorsport, from his earliest days to his last. The cascade of pictures show images of the moustachioed Bolster squeezed into the diminutive frame of the twin-engined ‘Bloody Mary’, a car that was conceived in the furtive mechanical minds of two schoolboys, John and his younger brother Richard. The car’s first iteration had no suspension, no gearbox and no brakes such was their unbridled enthusiasm for strapping a recently purchased 760cc JAP engine to, well, anything. Later iterations benefitted from the brother’s engineering creativity and, of course, from the legion of friends that they gathered along the way. Consequently ‘Bloody Mary’ carried John (he was, I believe, often nothing more than a passenger) to a host of victories at sprints and hillclimbs around the country, including his beloved Shelsley Walsh. John’s best time up that hallowed incline a remarkable 40.3 seconds. Surprisingly quick, occasionally inverted and always sideways, John and ‘the old queen’ were an integral part of the pre-war motoring landscape and epitomised the enterprising spirit of the period.

‘Bloody Mary’ herself will be at the 76th Members’ Meeting on display in the paddock. Although ‘Bloody Mary’ won’t be racing, her torch will be carried by Tim Harrison in the Hornet Racing Special. The Hornet was originally created by Duncan Pittaway, of Fiat S76 fame, and follows a very similar concept to ‘BM’. A flurry of chains, fuel lines, drive shafts and pointy metal, it is devoid of anything resembling bodywork and the entire car seems to resent the addition of a human being. 

John Bolster’s quest for a home-built special that could beat the ‘factory teams’ didn’t stop at Bloody Mary’s success and took him to an extreme that ultimately even he struggled to tame. In the late 1930s, J.V.B. took what he had learnt with ‘B.M.’ and multiplied it into a four-engined, 2-litre special that delivered 200hp to the rear wheels… in a car that weighed around 460kg. After initial teething troubles (shaking itself completely to pieces), John began to harness the power and started posting FTDs. However, this was in 1938 and war ultimately halted the car’s development. Perhaps ironically, the outbreak of conflict did much to preserve John’s life.

Surprisingly quick, occasionally inverted and always sideways, John and ‘the old queen’ were an integral part of the pre-war motoring landscape and epitomised the enterprising spirit of the period.

Sadly, Richard was not so fortunate and was killed serving in the RAF. His car, the MG-engined special that brought Richard success at Brooklands, Donnington and Shelsley Walsh before the war will line up for the Bolster Cup on March 18th. Richard’s special was built around a modified GN chassis that housed four 500cc Rudge motorcycle engines. These were swapped for an eight-cylinder Hudson engine when the four motorcycle engines refused to stop eating chains and sprockets. Lightweight, simple and cheap, the GN was the perfect choice for many pre-war specials builders and the Bolster Cup will host nine different GN specials. Familiar to Goodwood is Mark Walker’s 4.2 litre V-twin ‘Thunderbug’, Annie Scaldwell’s GN J.A.P. and Winston Teague’s Norton-engined ‘Wasp’. New to the circuit is Hughie Walker in the GN ‘Martyr’ and Tony Lees with his ‘COGNAC’ special, a car, like many others on the grid, that has been racing since their creation, in ‘COGNAC’s case since 1925.

J.V.B. claimed to follow closely the principle that reliability is the most important factor in winning trophies, followed by road holding and only when these two mistresses are satisfied can power be of any use. On that basis, there are a number of Bolster Cup entries that must have proven very reliable. Patrick Blakeney-Edwards will pilot the eight-litre Spencer Flack Bentley Special and Oliver Llewellyn will drive his family’s usually sideways Bentley 3/8 Special. Justin Maeer’s spectacular Parker GN is willingly powered by a 6.2-litre Gypsy Moth aero engine and will go toe-to-toe with Ian Bingham’s 5.4-litre, Cyrrus-powered Amilcar. Probably, however, the most effective power-to-weight combination is to be found in Tom Walker’s 600kg Amilcar powered as it is with an 11.8-litre Hispano-Suiza engine from a First World War SPAD fighter plane. Tom says the torque figures are comparable to his Can-Am Lola T160, at around 600ft/lbs. I think J.V.B. would have approved.

Before the war, many of the cars that feature in the Bolster Cup were tried and tested (repaired and then tried again) on the hills and sprints of Prescott, Shelsley, Lewes and Brighton. Some specials, however – Richard Bolster’s included – found their way into circuit racing and some even into international events. The ‘Halford’ Special, the Riley ‘Dobbs’ Special and the sublime Bentley ‘Pacey Hassan’ Special are remembered for their successes at Brooklands, Donnington and Crystal Palace and are found, as near as possible, in their pre-war configurations. However, some machines, like ‘Bloody Mary’ transcend their humble origins and have become part of motoring lore. Whilst certainly not home-built, the Delage DH V12 was a special built by Delage for the Gaillon Hillclimb in 1923. Twelve years later the car was still in active competition having taken Rene Thomas, John Cobb and Kay Petre to numerous race wins and Land Speed Records. It was in this 10.5-litre giant that the tiny but fearless Kay Peter won her 130 mph badge at a white-knuckling 134.75mph. The Delage DH V12 is steeped in history and many owners would be forgiven for keeping it cloistered in a museum, spectators to Goodwood are incredibly fortunate then that it is owned and raced by the Sielecki family and will no doubt be at the sharp end of the Bolster Cup grid. 

The Bolster Cup entries and the stories they carry recall a place and time that was profoundly close to the heart of John Bolster and many like him. Although always an enthusiast, John Bolster felt that motorsport, like so many other aspects of life, was changed beyond recognition. It is perhaps hard to conceive from our current perspective but he lamented the money-grabbing cynicism of the 1950s, especially the destruction of Brooklands, and fondly remembered more innocent times;

“There was something about motor racing before the war that has never been recaptured. One cannot pin this down to any one thing, but there was a spirit of gay adventure, a light-hearted approach, that is difficult to put into words. Of course, we were a smaller community, and probably knew each other much better than do most competitors today. Many things were wrong too, in general, though, we were a happy band.”

The Bolster Cup promises to be a spectacle. It may not have the speed of the Gurney Cup or the glamour of the Moss Trophy but the dramatic disparities between power, weight, and braking efficiency guarantee a classic battle. In the paddock, the assembled cars will stand as a testament to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of their respective owners, the eclectic gathering of specials, both old and less old, a continuation of the legacy that was laid down by John Bolster and his contemporaries. Visitors to the paddock should also find in abundance the spirit of good humour and camaraderie that John Bolster did so much to engender throughout his life, a light-hearted atmosphere that he feared was lost to the rising tide of professionalism following the war, an atmosphere that inevitably struggles to prevail when winning is the only motivation.  

As a commentator, a role J.V.B. began at Goodwood, he was a champion of the underdog and knew that the crowds loved an outsider too:

“The typical motor racing crowd have a lot of time for the under-dog. The brilliant performances of the top drivers in their works-prepared cars are immensely exciting, but most people have a secret hope that an amateur in a home-built ‘special’ will win the great race. Nothing could be more wildly unlikely, but that sort of sentiment does the crowd great credit.”

The Bolster Cup at the 76th Goodwood Members’ Meeting is a race made up of outsiders, mavericks and underdogs, so that elusive victory is finally on the cards.

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