It sounds a delightful rags-to-riches story: young Freddie March becomes a humble apprentice at Bentley Motors, then goes on to win the 1931 'Double Twelve', Britain's answer to the Le Mans 24-hour race. So why did his father take no pride in the feat? Because the eighth Duke of Richmond and Gordon saw motor racing as an unsuitable activity for Freddie, who was his son and heir, the Earl of March.

In the duke's view, socially acceptable horsepower had four legs and galloped along his racecourse behind Goodwood House, Sussex, the family home since 1697.

But Freddie's grandson Charles, the present Earl of March, inherited his passion for fast cars, and is the force behind this weekend's Festival of Speed at Goodwood. Staged to celebrate a century of motor sport, the two-day event has attracted a spectacular line-up of cars and motorbikes, and legendary performers such as Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham, and John Surtees - the only man to win world championships both on two and four wheels.

The cars include an awe-inspiring 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 (whose power no Formula One car exceeded until 1982), a supercharged Alfa Romeo Type 158 (winner of the first world championship) and representatives of Ferrari, Aston Martin, McLaren, Vanwall, BRM, Jaguar, Bugatti, Maserati and Lancia.

Cars and bikes will contest a speed hill-climb that sweeps through what amounts to Lord March's garden. A far cry from the typical race track, the 1.1-mile course runs up an avenue of mature trees flanked by sheep-cropped pastures, past a golf course and a cricket field, then in front of Goodwood House and alongside a solid flint wall. Last year, when the festival was held for the first time, the fastest cars made the run in less than a minute.

'The hill-climb course had been used as such just once before, in 1936, when my grandfather organised a private event for the Lancia Car Club, which he won,' says Lord March. 'Last year, serious drivers were saying they couldn't wait to get back for another crack at it.'

About half the course is overlooked by the office from which the 39-year-old earl has run the 12,000-acre Goodwood estate since he gave up photography almost two years ago. It was his grandfather who opened the Goodwood car-racing track - on a former RAF airfield in 1948. All the great post-war drivers competed there until racing stopped in 1966.

'Early memories of motor sport at Goodwood are of being bloody cold]' Lord March laughs. 'I can still picture my grandfather standing there in his brown overcoat. There was always a drinks party here during the weekend of a big race. I was allowed to attend, so my autograph book was signed by the likes of Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill.

'What we have tried to do with the Festival of Speed is capture the atmosphere that made Goodwood such a popular venue. Last year I was reminded of what Edward VII said about the more traditional Goodwood event being a garden party with horse-racing tacked on as a bonus.

'People who know about these things expected us to get maybe 2,000 spectators, that being a typical figure for the established hill-climbs at places like Prescott and Shelsley Walsh. I was hoping for about 9,000. It's difficult to say how many turned up, but between 20,000 and 25,000 is probably about right.'

Harry Calton attended last year's festival in his capacity as Aston Martin's director of public affairs. He says: 'The event went better than anyone could have hoped. The setting was as super as the atmosphere. The scene in the paddock was amazing - just like in the good old days when spectators could see the cars and get really close to them. When they needed to move, the crowds parted much like the Red Sea must have done for Moses.'

'Nothing special,' was Lord March's reaction to a question about his own cars. His first was a pre-war Morgan three-wheeler. Today, powerful Italian motorbikes share the garage with a Porsche 924 Carrera GT and a Ferrari 512 Boxer.

One great thing about running an event on your own estate is being invited to drive or ride all manner of rare machines. Last year's transports of delight were a Maserati A6GCM grand prix car and a Manx Norton.

'The Maserati had been raced by Fangio, so driving it was a fantastic experience and a great privilege. But I had to remember that the brake pedal was to the right of the accelerator, not the left, and I was just a little concerned about the gearbox being between my legs] This year I've been offered a Maserati 250F and the Jaguar D-type that won Le Mans in 1957.'

Another link with the Fifties is the Aston Martin DBR2 to be auctioned this evening. Driven to victory at Goodwood and Oulton Park by Stirling Moss in 1958, it looked at home parked outside Goodwood House. Lord March was unable to resist starting the 4.2-litre engine, developing almost 400bhp

Powerful machines are still run on the old Goodwood circuit, but subject to restrictions that ban racing and stipulate a maximum of five cars on the track at any one time. Lord March hopes to revive racing on the track; meanwhile, this weekend's festival is reviving the Goodwood name's association with motor sport. Lord March has only one regret: 'I just wish we had thought of doing this before my grandfather died.'

(Photograph omitted)

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