Nostalgia for an iconic series of road races is bubbling up in Birmingham again, with promises to bring motorsport back to the streets of the UK’s second city
With miles of twisting motorway, sprawling ring roads, complicated car parks and a healthy devotion to car manufacture and motorsport, you could say that Birmingham is the car capital of the UK. England’s second city had the country’s first one-way streets, the first houses with built-in garages, and its National Exhibition Centre (NEC) was, for many years, the home of the British International Motor Show. It was the centre of the British motor manufacturing industry, and home to Rover, Austin, MG, Jaguar, Land Rover and Lucas.
With an industry that was so central to life in the city, it’s hardly surprising that it filtered through into popular culture. Jonathan Meades made a furiously funny BBC TV film about the roads of ‘Brum’ (as the locals call it) called Heart Bypass, while the writer Jonathan Coe set his novel The Rotters’ Club around a car factory in which his father worked.
However, it was in building miles of motorways in the 1960s and ’70s, from the famous Spaghetti Junction – a looping intertwined stretch of road at Gravelly Hill Interchange – all the way into the city centre itself, that everything changed. Desperate to show off these prized asphalt assets, Birmingham City Council decided that a road race was just what the city required.
This wasn’t exactly new. The idea of holding a motor race in Birmingham had been floating around for two decades, and racing legend Stirling Moss had even obtained permission to hold one in 1972, but the event failed to materialise. Finally, in 1984, the Birmingham Road Race Bill was presented to Parliament, with approval for a series of races centred around Formula 3000 granted in 1985. The Birmingham Superprix would run from 1986 to 1990.
Fast-forward more than 30 years and, in 2018, car lovers are not only revelling in those Duran Duran soundtracked memories, they’re trying to resurrect the race itself.
“My dad is a huge motorsport fan,” says Andy Smallman, a filmmaker born in Birmingham in 1990, the race’s final year. “My younger sister started racing Mini Stox and Dad would tell us about the Superprix every time we’d go racing at Birmingham Wheels or eat a curry on Ladypool Road, just off the Superprix course.
“It always fascinated me and, bear in mind that this was pre-internet, when I could only use my imagination. Years later I found a book on the subject, and as soon as I opened it I couldn’t believe, not only the scale of the race, but also how little the city had documented it. I immediately went home and searched for more information, and when I watched race footage it just reinforced my fascination. Now I could put it into context: watching future F1 world superstars such as Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell, Eddie Irvine and Mika Häkkinen storm their Formula 3000 cars down the roads I knew so well.”
Now Smallman and his dedicated band of fellow car enthusiasts are documenting the history of the races – and will eventually release a feature-length film telling the tale of this high-octane slice of Birmingham’s automotive history.
“The project is multimedia based and the film is just one part of that,” explains Smallman. “We collect interviews and memories from racing drivers, marshals, officials and the fans. The other side is our archive, where we collect physical and digital pieces of memorabilia, information, footage and photos so that we can preserve and build a detailed timeline and history of the Superprix for future generations.”
Smallman has worked with fellow Brummies to put out Superprix-branded T-shirts, and even a craft beer. “We collaborated with other local independent businesses like Two Towers Brewery, Provide and space.play.co.uk on products such as clothing, craft design and beverages. We’ve also held events and brought all of our resources together for occasions to celebrate the Superprix story, like the Autosport International show at the NEC.”
As if all this history wasn’t intriguing enough, the next chapter could be the best of all. Birmingham has recently realised the power of the Superprix – and wants to bring the smell of tyres and the blistering noise of souped-up engines back to the city’s streets. And the support goes to the very top. The first-ever directly elected mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, came to power in 2017 – and one of his manifesto pledges was to bring Superprix back to the city.
The intense competition for F1 races probably precludes a full F1 Grand Prix in the mould of the Monaco, Valencia or Singapore street circuits, but perhaps the small but growing Formula E electric car series might be a real possibility in 2019?
“I believe we stand a strong chance,” says Smallman. “The original race was pushed through with immense speed and urgency, going from Parliament to reality within just a few years. If this became a reality again, I’d love to think at least some parts of the original track would remain in the new course – a fitting tribute to its history.”
Words: Christopher Beanland
Images: Jon Jones, Dave Luca, Terry Scannell (courtesy of The Birmingham Superprix Project archive)