Freelance writer from Cornwall
People don’t normally associate Devon with motorsport but it briefly had its own Formula One team. Equipe Devone were run by local businessman Tom Kyffin from 1954 to 1955. Their star driver was Bruce Halford who’d spent his schooldays in Devon being privately educated at Blundell’s. Halford was a friend and team-mate of Bruce McLaren (founder of today’s McLaren team), racing against legends like Jim Clark, Sir Stirling Moss, Graham Hill and five-time Formula One World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio.
When people think of Formula One they consider today’s era. Stupendous amounts of money, cutting-edge technology, celebrity, glamour and style. They don’t think of tiny private teams in lock-up garages, on shoestring budgets staffed by a few mechanics and a driver who was probably also team owner. But in the 1950’s there were many tiny teams run by ‘gentleman drivers’. Equipe Devone was F1, Devon-style.
Equipe Devone had strong ties to the ‘Torbay Speed Shop’, Kyffin occasionally entered cars under ‘Torbay Speed Shop’ banner. The Speed Shop was a Mecca for South West racing enthusiasts who had relatively little local racing to enjoy. Races were held at the Davidstow Circuit (formerly RAF Davidstow Moor) from 1952 to 1955. There were some local hill-climbs, a few stock car races and some speedway but not much else. Local fans wanting to see famous teams and drivers usually went to Castle Combe or further afield.
Equipe Devone were a comparatively tiny outfit on a shoestring budget. Teams like Ferrari probably spent more on spare parts and tyres in a few races than Equipe Devone spent in their entire existence. Most of the money went on cars and parts with little left for transport and accommodation. It was strictly no-frills. Drivers didn’t earn or expect big money in the 1950’s. Small private teams were still commonplace, existing until the 1970’s when Formula One became a business rather than a sport. Many drivers were amateurs who raced alongside their day jobs or were independently wealthy. Car dealers and garage owners often promoted their businesses by racing. Some team owners, like Tom Kyffin and legendary privateer Rob Walker, simply loved racing and could afford it.
Equipe Devone raced during 1954 and 1955. Early races were non-Championship F1 events at Davidstow. Non-Championship F1 races were commonplace in the 1950’s. Some, like the Syracuse Grand Prix, were big events providing big prizes. Most, like Davidstow, were regional events under 1950’s F1 rules with whatever cars could be purpose-built or altered to meet F1 regulations. Equipe Devone ran Cooper-Bristol cars bought direct from the factory (itself little more than a lock-up garage and machine shop). Coopers were popular with privateers and made legendary by Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jack Brabham.
In 1954 Tom Kyffin earned his footnote in racing history. The Cornwall Motor Racing Club ran three non-Championship F1 races at Davidstow between 1954 and 1955. On August 2, 1954, Kyffin finished second behind fellow-privateer John Coombs. Coombs drove a Lotus 8 built to fit either F1 or sports car regulations. It was the very first Lotus F1 victory, the birth of the Lotus legend. After closing Equipe Devone in 1955, Kyffin continued racing in sports cars. He drove an Aston Martin DB3S (previously driven for the Aston Martin factory team by Peter Collins and Sir Stirling Moss) and a Lister-Jaguar before retiring in 1957. According to the Autosport Magazine forums he currently lives in Turkey.
Bruce Halford drove for Equipe Devone in 1954 and 1955. Equipe Devone were Halford’s entry into racing, leading to bigger offers in sports cars and F1. After Equipe Devone closed he drove for Maserati, Lotus and Cooper. He raced legends like Clark, Brabham, Fangio and Moss and became firm friends with Bruce McLaren, founder of today’s McLaren F1 team. He retired in 1960, died in 2001 and is buried at Churston Ferrers.
Races were often on public roads closed for the occasion. Drivers raced without seatbelts or fireproof clothing, wearing polo helmets and ordinary driving gloves. On street circuits there were trees, lamp-posts, ditches, fences, walls, buildings and telegraph poles, all potentially lethal. Spectators were often killed and fire was every driver’s greatest fear. Motorsport wasn’t always safety-conscious. In the 1950’s drivers were routinely killed or seriously injured. All drivers accepted the risks. Some drivers, like Sir Stirling Moss, eagerly embraced them.During the 1950’s fifteen drivers died in F1 races, not including F1 drivers killed in other races. The first F1 season was 1950. The first season without a death was 1976. As Fangio said after one meeting: “It was a good race. Nobody died.”
The corporate influence has given impetus to improvements in safety. Sponsors pay for positive coverage, not fatal accidents. Safety is as important now as anything else. In modern racing it’s a shock when a driver dies, not simply an occupational hazard. Sir Stirling Moss describes a modern F1 race as ‘A great occasion, but not a sport. Like many 1950’s racers, he mourns the loss of the sporting atmosphere and its being driven out by corporate and business interests. It’s as though 1950’s racers didn’t only want to win, they also cared about winning sportingly. Today’s F1 is far more focussed solely on winning races and pleasing sponsors. The sporting atmosphere of 1950’s F1 seems to have died, along with so many of the drivers themselves.
Equipe Devone lasted only two years but, for a tiny team, they punched well above their weight. They won no races, despite occasionally being highly-placed. They never employed legendary drivers. So, while theirs is a very small place in racing history, they deserve it nonetheless.