Vintage Cars, Film Cameras, and Not Photographing the Crash

The Vintage Sports Car Club, a club for people who own or appreciate sports cars built before 1931, combines several great loves of mine. Its founding principle seems to be that cars should not languish in garages as collectors items, but be driven, and driven hard. It’s a bastion of British eccentricity with a healthy dose of old-world charm thrown together with some truly wonderful cars.

In late January I went to the birthplace of British motorsport to watch the VSCC winter driving tests. Driving tests are a series of challenges partly focused on speed, partly focused on ballerina-like precision. In no other form of motorsport would you see a slalom, a speed reverse bay park and a hill climb all in one event, but at the driving test it’s all part of the competition. Of course the vintage nature of the cars adds another level of difficulty – try doing all of that with a crash gearbox, no power steering and manual brakes on only two wheels. It’s a challenge, and whilst a few cars breach 50 miles-per-hour it’s a uniquely thrilling event.

I brought my tried and tested Nikon Nikomat, the venerable long nose Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 and a new-to-me Nikon Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. A bold combination of manual exposure and manual focus for fast-moving motorsport, but then this is film photography. We’re not here to make life easy for ourselves. Plus, I don’t own any automatic cameras. It could’ve been worse; I had to spend the morning talking myself out of bringing a TLR. The film I used was an eclectic mix including Velvia and Tri-X, and one slightly wacky roll of Kodak Aerocolour.

I spent the morning photographing these motorsport giants of yesteryear being put through their paces. I watched long extinct marques such as Frazer-Nash, Riley, Lagonda, Austin and Wolsey all being flung around tight slaloms and barrelling up a 1 in 4 hill. I saw sports saloons leaning hard into corners, I saw flames spitting from Brooklands exhausts, I saw people lying under cars rapidly reattaching bits and pieces, I saw people driving 90-year-old family cars like bats out of the proverbial hell. All in a days driving at the VSCC.

Toward the tail end of the afternoon I was watching one of the tests, featuring a slalom just before the back straight. First up, a rather genteel run from a nine horsepower Jowett, followed by a faster MG, by a positively flying Frazer-Nash. Next up was a sporty Austin 7 in bright gold. From the start you could tell the driver was going for it, leaning into each corner, tires squealing, engine buzzing like a wasp. And then on the turn out of the slalom to come up the back straight I saw the Austin cock its rear wheel, and then, almost in slow motion, roll completely.

It’s odd what you notice in the moment. For me in this moment, it was the sounds. First, breaking glass as the windscreen hit the concrete, then the crumpling of bodywork, and then silence soon broken by radios crackling for the fire crew and race doctor.

It was a slow crash, but with nothing to protect the driver, high speed isn’t a requirement for disaster. I remember quite distinctly looking at the wreckage and thinking there wasn’t a single place in the car which seemed safe, a place where the driver might have found protection from the worst of it. Every option looked terrible. I think most of the spectators were wondering if they’d just seen a crash that was going to change someone’s life, or worse.

I’d been photographing quite contentedly up to the crash. I was even reasonably convinced that some of my photos might be halfway good. As the car rolled, I was there, camera in hand, exposure dialed in from the previous shot. Unfolding in front of me was unquestionably a photographically interesting moment.

I didn’t take the photo.

I think sometimes as photographers we’re supposed to idolize the killer instinct. From the last actions of Robert Capa to the famous Decisive Moment that we’re all supposed to be chasing. There’s a reverence for the “get the shot whatever the cost” mentality. I don’t mean to condemn that mindset. It has unquestionably brought us some of the world’s best photographs. But I do wonder why it seems that this has become, for some people, the definitive photographic trait to which to aspire. There’s a place for that mindset, indeed we’d be worse off if nobody had it. But surely there’s room to embrace other ways of photographing.

The words of French photographer Willy Ronis feel closer to the mantra by which I want to live my photographic life. “I never took a mean photo.”

Does this limit my artistic range? Potentially. But does taking a mean photo increase it? I’m not so sure, in both cases execution rather than knowledge probably makes a bigger difference.

When I got my scans back from the lab I was pretty happy with what I’d got. There were plenty of duds (aren’t there always?) but there were a few in there that I was really happy with, one that even made it into my top twenty. And yes, there was also a large gap in which for twenty minutes I, along with everyone else, held my breath and hoped. Despite this, possibly even because of it, I was happy with what I’d got.

Incidentally the driver was fine. How, I don’t know. Whether he jumped or was thrown clear or was just plain lucky. After twenty minutes of lying on the ground surrounded my marshalls and paramedics, he stood up and walked away. I have no idea how, but he did.

And if you live in Britain, if you like old stuff and hobbyists and a healthy dose of eccentricity, then get yourself along to a VSCC event. They’re completely mad in the best possible way. You might even get some good photos.


Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.

Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…

Jacob Downey, an amateur photographer living in South West England. After re-discovering both photography and film in early 2019 he’s been working his way through a steady stream of rolls since then, usually filled with architecture, industrial heritage and seaside towns.


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