IT seems strange that two of the world’s most fascinating and enduring aristocrats ended up having a very tenuous association with Croft, but when the racing circuit re-opened in 1964, little did anyone know that at the time.

Although there had been motorsport activity at Croft (sometimes called Neasham) Aerodrome in the fledgling years just after the Second World War, it wasn’t until April 1962, when the Air Ministry offered about two-thirds of the land totalling 160 acres for sale at a public auction, that things really started to take off.

A group of mainly local enthusiasts decided that it would make an ideal and much needed motor racetrack to serve the North-East so “The Croft Consortium” as they were known made a successful bid at public auction before seeking planning permission. That was granted in August 1963 and in January 1964, they formed a company called Croft Autodrome Limited.

Thus, Teesside shipbuilding tycoon Sir Robert Ropner was elected chairman. His son Bruce and nephew John – who were both established racers – became directors along with Bruce’s (lifelong) friend and fellow racer Keith Schellenberg. Another established competitor, The Hon. John “Jock” Leith, was also elected to the board with the legal representation being provided by C.S. Tilley (of local solicitors Tilley, Bailey & Irvine).

That only left one more director – a certain W. Shand Kydd. Like Keith Schellenberg and Bruce Ropner, who were British bobsleigh champions in 1956 and 1962 respectively, Bill Shand Kydd embraced the trappings of his privileged upbringing by becoming a businessman, an adrenaline-fuelled sportsman including being a prolific winter sports athlete so hence the association. He also went on to be a successful amateur jockey and racehorse breeder.

For 19 years his older half-brother Peter was married to Princess Diana’s mother, Frances, after her divorce from Earl Spencer in 1967. But perhaps a more controversial link is that with his brother-in-law, John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan – Lord Lucan to most of us. There are various accounts of what happened to lead to his mysterious disappearance, but Shand Kydd was seemingly a prominent figure in the final exchanges between the two.

But all that was in the future and more importantly at the time was to get the first race meeting organised under the new regime. And so it happened when Darlington & District Motor Club hosted the very first meeting of the new order on August bank holiday Monday in 1964 for the Daily Mirror Trophy.

The format of the meeting was cars, solo motorcycles and sidecars, which was to become the staple format of the “Battle of Britain” meetings to follow over the next few years. Reports had between 45,000 and 50,000 fans in attendance and upon police advice, practice and racing was delayed to allow everyone in.

Once up and running, the 12-lap race for the Glovers of Ripon White Rose Trophy and the £40 prize money was won by Liverpudlian Robin Smith in his Ford Lotus Cortina. Next up was a 12-lap scratch race for Grand Touring Cars which saw future Croft legend Chris Meek from Leeds take the victory in his Ginetta G4 with John Ropner, in cousin Bruce’s Shelby American Cobra, a notable fourth.

The feature race over 20 laps for the Daily Mirror Trophy saw a titanic battle between late replacement driver Chris Summers (Lotus 22) and pole position setter Julian Sutton from Hexham in his Lotus 23. The pair battled throughout before Summers, from Coventry, took the lead with a new lap record on the penultimate lap and hung on for the £150 first prize.

Sutton got revenge by taking victory in the final event for Sports Racing Cars whilst in the bike ranks, sadly no results are evident, but the entry included future star Dave Croxford (496cc Matchless) and Middlesbrough’s William “Ginger” Hawthorne (499cc BSA/Norton). The sidecar contingent saw future British champion Jeff Gawley, Yorkshire bike and car dealer Colin Appleyard, Tynesider Geoff Bell and “the fastest Geordie on three wheels” Mac Hobson also in action.

  • A special thanks to Terry and Yvonne Wright for their help in compiling this article.
  • Dateline: Monday, August 3, 1964. Location: Croft Autodrome. Meeting: Daily Mirror Trophy