From inauspicious beginnings in 1993, the Festival of Speed’s central display has grown, year-by-year, into the most elaborate and imaginative automotive sculpture anywhere. Welcome to the world of Gerry Judah

Fine art and motor sport is an unlikely association but nothing has ever been predictable about the high-octane spectacle of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. One feature, the centrepiece presented in front of the elegant Regency house has become the signature of this stylish event. Weeks before the gates open, there is great anticipation among motor sport fans. What has Lord March’s talented team dreamt up this year?

Walk up from the packed car parks and the buzz among visitors is electric as they discuss the latest dazzling presentation. Turn the corner over the last six years and you can hear cameras and jaws click at the sight of vertical Porsches, spiralling Jaguars and high-flying Auto Union. The man behind these unique feature displays is Indian-born sculptor Gerry Judah. From a miniature model of a WWII concentration camp to art bridges by the River Thames, Judah’s diverse works are intended to stimulate the human spirit wherever presented. Channelling his artistic vision and skill into the Festival of Speed was just one of Lord March’s ideas that have set the event apart.

Born in Calcutta, Judah grew up in West Bengal before his father moved to London in the 1960s. “He would often sketch for us at the kitchen table and he taught me how to draw,” recalls Judah. After leaving school at 16, Judah took on various menial jobs – a porter in a fishery and a supermarket stock room attendant – before studying fine art at Goldsmiths. A double-first class degree in sculpture took him to the prestigious Slade School for a distinguished postgraduate course. “I wanted to create heroic sculptures inspired by the monumental land pieces of American artists like Robert Smithson and Richard Serra. Unfortunately my projects were so big they needed funding. To raise money I started working in the theatre, building scenery for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera and the National Theatre. But ultimately I found building something that was subservient to a story frustrating. I was just too egotistical for the theatre!”

A new direction in rock videos working with Godley and Creme, formerly of the rock band 10cc, proved more rewarding: “Rather than being limited to a room set of a play, their art direction gave greater freedom to explore the theme of a song.” Next came sets for TV commercials working with, among others, photographer and director David Bailey. Judah’s talent for model making was also in demand with ad agencies and for Smirnoff he created a series of spoof mosaics for a massive poster campaign. Later came exciting movie work on the set of Batman where he produced a dazzling line of architectural collages to create Gotham City. “All this work harnessed different disciplines and I greatly enjoyed collaborating with diverse talents – engineers, lighting men, graphic designers and cameramen.”

As rewarding as these projects were, Judah’s true passion was pure sculpture on a grand scale. Then in 1997 came a commission from Charles March for that year’s Ferrari celebration. “They’d had an idea of a huge, triumphant arch with a Grand Prix car hanging inside. Knowing of my film set work, Charles wanted me to make it,” recalls Judah. The success of his design and construction led to free rein the following year for a Porsche display.

“I hate pastiches and wanted to create something that really stretched the imagination just as these racing cars had done. These fantastic machines had been pushed to the limit in competition and I felt you needed to exhibit them in that fashion.” For the 1999 Jaguar display the talk was of traditional production car values, of leather and walnut, but Judah was determined to celebrate the British marque’s epic sporting heritage. “Great Le Mans racers like the D-type were all about spectacle, so I had this idea of cars balanced in the air, flying with cables. I went away, made a model and everyone loved it.”

The Mercedes display was a favourite with Judah but the original plan was quite different. “I wanted to create a wall of water, with cars mounted at the top and water shooting up at them but the costs were prohibitive. So I asked Mercedes to give me one ultimate machine that I could make look like an icon. The idea started with a pure ellipse that appeared to launch one car into the air. The support engineering hidden inside high-tensile fabric also reflected the car’s design.” The original choice for the centrepiece was the spectacular 300SLR coupé, one of just two priceless machines originally built for the brilliant Mercedes racing engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut. When the directors realised what Judah had planned for the 1955 supercar they refused and a private enthusiast’s Gullwing was generously substituted. It didn’t matter. The final effect, particularly when illuminated at night with this sensational production model shooting up to the stars, was another Festival high point.

The build up at the Festival of Speed can be really scary, claims Judah: “The weather can be problematic and its frustrating trying to patch up the muddy grass after heavy rain, but the worst thing is having a client whose window is right behind the work! Often it can take half a day to put one car into position and during that time I could get 25 phone calls from Charles March asking ‘Why is it taking so long?’ There is a point where I have to let go and leave it to the engineers.”

The spectacular Audi celebration with Auto Union streamliner and Avus concept car flying high on dazzling steel banking provoked lots of headaches. Restorers Crosthwaite and Gardner, who recreated the sensational 1937 Auto Union record car, were firmly against the proposal on arrival and everyone that day from crane operator to fabricator had a point of view. “Charles and I stood there, watching terrified.”

During pre-event assembly, the Jaguar display looked wrong until Judah realised one car was positioned the wrong way round, but the engineers worked all night to reposition it. More minor problems have been escaping fluids once the cars are in position. Display vehicles are drained on the flat but when suspended on end something inevitably starts to leak. Now extra precautions are taken before positioning. “We’re indebted to the trust that owners and museums place with us; without that, such works would never happen.”

Last year’s spectacular Mercedes tribute resulted in the scariest moment in Judah’s six-year association with the Festival of Speed. “Nearing completion during build up I received a call at 7.30 in the morning from a fabricator. He reported a mother of all storms heading for Sussex from the west coast and enquired if we’d fitted a lightning rod to the structure. I didn’t know but started thinking about a Mercedes Gullwing full of inert gas being struck and everything, including the house, going up. An hour later a van with a lightning rod was speeding to Goodwood with the storm chasing behind. Thankfully we got it up in time.”

Gerry Judah’s association with Charles March goes back to the 1980s when involved with studio sets and models. “He was the only photographer that gave us lunch, and it meant a great deal to be invited into his home. The situation hasn’t changed, and when I leave urban London in my old Daimler and drive through that fabulous countryside to Goodwood, I always feel inspired. The Festival is a remarkable showcase and it’s wonderful that he has the vision to trust me. Working with such celebrated marques is a great honour.”

Designs for the Festival of Speed centrepiece are a closely guarded secret, only seen by the event team, engineers and manufacturer. This year, Renault’s heritage has inspired a new direction for Judah. For the first time the structure will feature colour and again high speed is the inspiration. Over 600 cantilevered steel tubes will support a clutch of F1 racers in another sensational presentation.

The Festival has introduced Judah to the creative possibilities of the motoring world and his ambition is to break the convention of manufacturer’s presentations at international motor shows. “I’d love to put the cars in a totally different context and really fire the imagination of visitors. Car commercials are now very surreal and it would be fascinating to bring that approach to motor shows. Volvo’s marketing team invited me up to Göteborg and I came up with some dramatic ideas celebrating the alchemy of the car. Using ice, water, sound and light, I wanted to create a fantastic interactive environment where you might not even see a car. Imagine such a facility under a lake with a fabulous hotel and beautiful cars presented in glass.” With the creation of Volkswagen’s dramatic Autostadt Centre, Judah’s ideas are not so far fetched. Impressed by his work at Goodwood, the National Motor Museum is Judah’s latest client. “As with the Festival I wanted to capture the dynamic energy of these historic cars and present them in an exciting way, but that’s a challenge in an indoor space without the atmosphere of an event. Rather than just coming to admire the cars, I wanted visitors to experience something not found in a book or video.” First stage in Beaulieu’s revitalization is a dramatic 26-vehicle motor sport display with historic racing cars at spectacular angles. “Without Goodwood’s vision,” acknowledges Judah, “such ambitious presentations like this would never have been possible.”