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LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION - 1950s Sports Car Racing

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Post-war racing was an exciting and beautiful new era - as these historic photographs taken from the book Sports Car Racing in Camera 1950-59 prove.

By 1950, international motor sport was beginning to emerge from the economic chaos of World War Two and some famous races had been re-established.

To begin with, sports car racing at this time was a mixture of ersatz GP machinery, production sports and touring cars, some pre-war racers and newcomers such as Ferrari. It quickly evolved into factory teams racing against one another, with a large cast of professional and amateur privateers making up the bulk of each grid. The major events were Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, joined by the Sebring 12 Hours, Reims 12 Hours, Nürburgring 1000km, Dundrod TT, Goodwood 9 Hours and more.

Jaguar’s new C-type won its debut race at Le Mans, 1951, and during 1952 Mercedes-Benz fielded its first-generation 300SL, which proved successful but was merely the hors-d’oeuvre for something more potent. Yet the championship proper did not begin until 1953 (the first round at Sebring was appropriately won by Cunningham) and, with the exception of 1955 and 1959, resided with Ferrari throughout. Maranello can be congratulated too for evolving the ultimate period GT racer, the iconic 250GT that in various forms held sway over this category for years. But in individual race terms Mercedes-Benz’s almost total supremacy in 1955, Jaguar’s five Le Mans victories, and Aston Martin’s three-year domination of the Nürburgring 1000km and its accompanying championship in the final year of the decade are what stand out.

It was a dangerous sport and the consequences could be – and were – dire, as history records. The 1955 Le Mans tragedy and de Portago’s horrific 1957 Mille Miglia crash were a major contributor to a 3.0-litre upper limit for sports racing cars in 1958 that lasted for four seasons. This book covers that period and, when looking at the locations and the real-world obstacles, it was probably a miracle that more such disasters did not occur.

In the last two years of the decade Ferrari and Aston Martin dominated as Jaguar faded, its official participation having ended in 1956. Yet the Coventry name enjoyed a brief resurgence in non-championship sports car racing events in Britain, Europe and America during 1957-’59, courtesy of Brian Lister’s famous machines. Maserati also departed at the end of 1957, although it was to make a comeback with prominent privateer teams, mainly in America, with its formidable Tipo 60 and 61 Birdcage devices, but they really belong to the early 1960s.

The best of the rest (in the pure sports racing category as distinct from modified production sports cars) and often amongst the bigger machinery were Porsche’s relentless silver bolides, which frequently humbled their larger cousins. Cooper and later Lotus also proved worthy endurance competitors, especially the latter, whose successful 1957 Le Mans 24 Hours shocked the establishment. Sadly, French interests ultimately resided in their tiny Panhard- and Renault-powered racers, as Talbot Lago and Gordini ran out of time and money.
 
For those who most appreciate the aesthetic mores of front-engined, wire-wheeled racers on open roads, this era above all others represents the apogee of the genre. As these pictures prove.

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