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Fueled by Passion by Michaela Cordes | 6th September, 2015 | Personalities

Grown men get as nervous as little boys in his presence. Lord March, the force behind the spectacular Goodwood motorsport events, is hosting the Goodwood Revival again this September. How the remarkable aristocrat turned his family estate into a profitable mecca for car enthusiasts, what he learned from Stanley Kubrick and why he is so admired by Formula One legends and Hollywood stars.

Glamourous guests have gathered at Hamiltons Gallery in London. Invited by Tim Jefferies, one of the world’s top gallerists for photography, they have come here to attend the opening of “Abstract and Intentional,” a show of works by Charles Gordon Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara. Tom Cruise, Nick Mason, the drummer from Pink Floyd, and mega designer Marc Newson are among the celebrities admiring the blurred images of woodland. But what has really brought them all together here this evening, and what quickens the pulse of almost every man in the room, is another work of art Lord March has created: Goodwood!

The mecca for classic car enthusiasts in West Sussex that draws close to 300,000 passionate fans from all around the world to the south of England every year. Rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown, they congregate twice a year at the magnificent, nearly 12,000 acre and 300-year-old family estate to pay homage to the thrill of motorsports, in June for the Festival of Speed and right now in September for the Goodwood Revival.

Several weeks later I meet Lord March again. This time at his home, Goodwood House, where he looks after 13 different family owned enterprises and where Rolls-Royce has also put up its headquarters. Lord March has just finished a business lunch. His handshake is warm, his suit classy and his laugh charmingly witty. Maybe that is why he is sometimes compared to the actor Hugh Grant.

Lord March – you have spent your childhood growing up in Goodwood. What are your most vivid memories? “We didn’t live here permanently until I was about 12, but when I was a small boy, we used to come down twice a year to visit my grandparents. I loved it. Especially during Glorious Goodwood, the horse racing in July, when the Queen would stay with us. It was grand. All those people rushing around in their red livery and shiny shoes (laughs). It was a big thing for a child to see her arriving in the large red helicopter. And early in the mornings, I would watch the racehorses exercise – hundreds of them, it looked fantastic!”

But it was his grandfather’s great love for fast cars – not horses – that became his passion. “My grandfather Freddie (Editor’s note: Frederick Gordon Lennox, the 9th Duke of Richmond) was a successful race car driver and engineer before World War II who also built his own cars and airplanes. My grandmother was very keen for me to spend time with my grandfather so she bought tons of books and magazines about racing cars that my grandfather then gave to me as gifts (laughs).”

“I inherited this passion from my grandfather, Freddie. He was a phenomenal race car driver!”
Lord March

In 1966, when young Charles was only ten years old, his grandfather decided to close down the famous race track on the property. A moment Lord March remembers until today. “I was heartbroken. The cars had become too fast, accidents were happening, and friends of his were getting hurt.” Was his vision of Goodwood today born then? “Not really. The thought of reopening the track came to me in 1991 just before I moved back home, because I needed fresh ideas to generate more revenue. The race track was just sitting there, and I thought to myself: Goodwood was so famous in the 1950s. Would it be possible to reignite that enthusiasm? Get people excited again? I soon realized that it was much more complicated. We had a lot of resistance from the local authorities, so we couldn’t do it immediately. That’s why I started with the Festival of Speed. Nobody could stop me from doing that. The problem with the old race track was that it was an existing one, and we had had a noise abatement order put on it in the early 1980s because it was used for Formula One testing. We negotiated for seven years, built banks all around and reduced the noise to five days a year. We finally reopened in 1998.”

In the meantime, the first Festival of Speed opened in June 1993, the only event in the world combining all the genres of motorsport. With Bonhams, Honda and Aston Martin as sponsors on board, Lord March hosted his very first Festival for less than 100,000 pounds. Today, the costs exceed 10 million. “That shows just how much we have grown. At the time we advertised in local newspapers and via the radio. I remember expecting to feel lucky if 2000 people turned up. But when we opened, 20,000 came streaming onto the grounds! We were totally surprised and didn’t know where to put all the cars. We did not even have enough tickets.”

What makes your Goodwood events so unique? “I think it’s the access. Everyone can go right up to the cars and can talk to the drivers. We have collectors, car enthusiasts and fanatics coming here. From some of the richest people in the world to some who have struggled to get a ticket. What unites them is their shared enthusiasm for cars. It’s not about money, not about gambling. The Revival is even more like that, because everybody dresses up in a period theme of the ’40s and ’50s. It may sound weird, but it’s an amazing thing. Here the guests aren’t just spectators buying a ticket and observing like you would watch a football match. Everybody becomes a part of it.” Like some famous Formula One drivers. Which ones ­haven’t you welcomed to Goodwood yet? “I hate to say this, but Michael Schumacher is the only world champion apart from Nico Rosberg who hasn’t been to Goodwood yet. Jean Todt was planning to bring him along this year, a terrible thing, his accident. But otherwise we have had all of the Formula One teams and drivers here. They love the old cars. We have some great footage of Jenson Button driving around in Alain Prost’s McLaren. Afterwards, Button told me that he could remember watching Prost drive that car on TV when he was 6 years old. Moments like that are magical!”

“Jenson Button drove Alain Prost’s McLaren at Goodwood – moments like that are just magical!”
Lord March

Many famous celebrities, including Jay Leno, Nick Mason, Tim Allen, Ralph Lauren and Jerry Seinfeld are avid car collectors. At the opening of your show in London I saw Tom Cruise come up to you and give you a big hug (He smiles). “Tom loves his cars and airplanes. Sometimes famous people approach us and ask us to drive a certain car at the Festival. And we do our best to make it happen.”

It may encourage young people to learn that Lord March quit school at age 16, leaving Eton to become a photographer. But before going to London, he had to recover from a serious car accident. What happened? “I didn’t enjoy school very much at all (laughs), but I loved photography and cars. One day, before I was actually allowed to drive, I took my mother’s car up the hill we now use for the Festival of Speed, turned it around and had a bad accident. I hurt my legs and was on my back for four months. I could hardly move for about a year. But as soon as I was better I went to London, following a girl I was in love with, and moved to Kings Road.” One of his first assignments as a young photographer was working for the famous director Stanley Kubrick. How did you land such a coveted job? “A friend of mine heard that Kubrick was looking for a still photographer for the film Barry Lyndon, and told me to go for it. The job itself was not so important, but I learned a lot from Kubrick. Working with him taught me that you don’t have to compromise and you should always aim as high as you can imagine.”

One year later, only just 18, the young Lord traveled to Somalia and Kenya, where he accompanied a group of local doctors as a photo journalist. Back in London, he started working on high-end advertising campaigns for brands such as De Beers, Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut and Glenfiddich. Twenty-two years later, when his father asked him to take over the family estate, the dynamic aristocrat left swinging London and a successful career behind. Were there ever any moments when you struggled with your future role? “Not really, because I grew up with it. I knew it was my responsibility. Many people think this system – the eldest son inherits everything – is unfair, but it is the only way to ensure that the place survives. But it is funny how, looking back, I realize how many of the people I met during my career as a photographer helped me later on with my work here, like in relation to how to position our brand.”

With the growing popularity of his events, the classic car market has become super hot. Prices for vintage cars are skyrocketing. In June 2013 a W196 Mercedes Grand Prix car sold for 19.6 million British pounds – the highest amount at the time that a car has ever sold at auction. And Sotheby’s has just announced that it has acquired a 25 percent stake in the car auction house RM Auctions. How much impact do you have on such developments? “We certainly see that we have an impact on prices when we put a race on for a particular car. For example, we created a race for the Ford GT40, and the value of that car has gone up a hell of a lot since. People come here to share their cars with a broader audience. That shared experience is what it’s all about and that makes the whole idea of collecting cars even more attractive.”

But Lord March is not only admired for his vision and his ability to bring speed and style together. He also turned Goodwood into a thriving economic success. When he took over, the family estate had an annual turnover of 8 million. Today 650 employees are generating 70 million, the biggest share coming from the car events. Luxury companies like Bonhams, Cartier, Veuve Clicquot, Rolls-Royce, Rolex and Ferrari are lining up as sponsors to support the prestigious events. “It takes a certain type of commercial brain to turn an asset into a brand, and such minds are not necessarily found among the aristocracy,” the British edition of Town & Country marveled. What is your secret? “It is not a secret, we just need to be profitable. We are not going to survive otherwise. When I took over I could not start from scratch. I had to work with what we had which was already here. For centuries it has always been our family culture to share the family’s passions with the rest of the world. And all of the activities are authentic to the place. The first Duke bought the house for foxhunting in 1697. His son loved cricket, so we have the earliest existing written rules of cricket in Britain in the world. The Duke and the King of England founded the horse races in 1802. Clearly we also own enterprises that are more difficult economically, such as our organic farm, but we would never contract it out or not farm it. We are living in the middle of it, it’s an important part of the story of Goodwood and something my mother was very passionate about, as is my wife now. Our milk, we just discovered, is perfect for coffee. Every day we send a whole tanker to all the independent coffee houses in London.”

What are your dreams for Goodwood’s future? “My eldest son is now 20, and studying Theology at Oxford. I want him to have his own career before he takes over. My next challenge is to work out how we take this to the billion people who can’t come to Goodwood, how we can engage with them virtually. There is a huge amount we can do with our content and how we use that digitally. I would love to make it possible for everyone who is passionate about Goodwood to be a part of it.“ MC

IssueGG Magazine 04/15
City/CountryWesthampnett/ United Kingdom
PhotographyUli Weber

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