“Gotta get back to basics.” It’s a phrase commonly used when a situation has grown so complex that it’s necessary to stop, hit the reset button, and get back to… well, basics. I feel like cars are getting there in so many ways; sensors, computers, software updates, etc. Cars were much simpler once upon a time, and I was recently reminded of this while at the 2021 Goodwood Revival in England, where machines from the 1940s through the 1960s stood as beaming examples of just how much technology has evolved over the last half a century. Among those beautiful and priceless Ferraris, Jaguars, and Cobras, however, the absolute simplest car of them all is actually one of the most beloved: the Austin J40 pedal car.
The Goodwood Revival is a celebration of all things post-WWII. Cars, planes, fashion, food, decor, toys—you name it, it’s there and it’s full-on. Festival employees and attendees alike take this incredibly seriously, not only looking the part but also acting the part—so much that a woman dressed in military uniform constantly tried to enlist me in the RAF, claiming it’s what’s right for Queen and country. It’s all borderline Twilight Zone.
For full disclosure, Subaru flew me out to England to attend the Goodwood Revival and experience two full days of the best vintage car racing in the world.
The main attraction on the Duke of Richmond’s pristine grounds (where the Goodwood Festival of Speed is also held every year) is the cars, of course, and the racing show they put on. The little Austin J40s, however, are the only non-motorized vehicles to partake in the festivities, making them a bit of an oddity to some. And, not to mention that they’re driven by young children rather than wealthy car collectors or veteran racing drivers. But much to everyone’s surprise, the popularity of the Settrington Cup, as the pedal car race is called, has grown literally ten-fold over the last few years, ultimately becoming a fan favorite and one of the most-watched races of the Revival.
I have to admit that while I knew of the Settrington Cup from watching YouTube videos of previous Revivals, I didn’t know just how big of a deal it really was. At least not until I found myself in the epicenter of it all, in front of what seemed like dozens of Austin J40s and equally as many kid drivers. That’s when I realized that I had to find out more—what it took to buy one, race one, and win in one. Plus, my race-loving nine-year-old daughter asked me to find out this information and report back to her, so I had to track down these answers or face her wrath.
The Austin J40 Pedal Car
Originally built by British automaker Austin Motor Company Limited as an aspirational kid’s toy, the J40 manufacturing project was funded by the British government in order to give disabled coal miners another shot at life while generating much-needed income after the war. All J40s—along with their lineup siblings, the Joy 1 and Pathfinder Special—were built at a 24,500-square-foot facility in Bargoed, South Wales from 1949 to 1971, according to the original sales brochure.
The pedal cars were made from scrap metal brought over from the automaker’s Longbridge factory, and featured real chrome bumpers and accents, pneumatic tires, as well as working headlights and horns. They were very much so mini replicas of the real cars and even had individual serial numbers. Interestingly, the J40’s target audience was the American market, though it found great popularity in Canada and was also imported to Denmark, per Austin Works.
Even Queen Elizabeth II’s son, Prince Charles, became the proud owner of a teal J40 at the young age of five, though his was customized with a windshield, wipers, and a unique license plate. He reportedly terrorized staff at the palace behind the wheel of his pedal car.
When new, an average J40 cost around £33 ($45 at today’s exchange rate), making it a toy for children of well-off families. Considering the average male worker earned around £14 per week in 1960, it would’ve taken more than two weeks’ salary to afford the cute little pedal car.
Because production came to a halt in 1971, the J40’s affordability hasn’t improved over the decades. In fact, it’s become even more out of reach to the average person.
While chatting with Jamie Burnett of The J40 Motor Company, he explained to me that the price of a restored J40 today is around 5,000 pounds ($6,900). However, other folks I talked to in the pedal car paddock claim to have spent upwards of 9,000 pounds ($12,300) on their pristine rides, some of which have been converted to electric power for leisurely driving.
Racing a J40
So you spend a butt-load of money on a vintage pedal car, then what? Well, chances are you’ll park it next to your other prized vehicular possessions and glance at it from time to time. Or, you can let a young child race it against a bunch of other young children at various venues across the UK, including the headlining event, the Goodwood Revival.
In order to understand the process of enrolling your J40—and kid—to race at Goodwood, I talked to Mark Burnett, Jamie’s brother, and his son Charlie. While Jamie’s company is the top producer of quality spare parts for the J40, it’s Mark and Charlie who put the equipment to the test at the year’s most famous pedal car race.
For starters, the field of J40s is scrutineered just like the big cars. Whether you’re racing a $50 million Ferrari 250 GTO or a J40 pedal car, you’ve got to meet the rules and you’ve got to pass tech at Goodwood. All parts have to meet the strict regulations, not just to keep the racing fair, but also to guarantee that the overall experience is as period-correct as possible because that’s the whole point of the Revival.
“The race is an invitation-only event, though there are some ways to participate without one,” Mark told me at the starting grid. “There are some charity cars on the grid, so someone enters a car for the race and then they auction the entry off. The money goes to charity and the people who pay get to race.
“You can always contact the Goodwood competitions department and fill out entry forms, but of course, it’s highly contested in terms of entries. As you see around here, the majority of the children are sons or daughters of drivers racing the big cars, and the kids’ cars are replicas of the parents’ cars.”
Once enrolled and ready to rumble, all a boy or girl (typically between the ages of five and 10) has to do is qualify for the event, which is rather simple. Then, they must perform a flawless Le Mans-style start and pedal their hearts out to the finish line. This means running toward their J40 from the other side of the track, hopping in, and pedaling away while avoiding possible mayhem. And boy, is there a lot of it around the halfway-mark chicane.
“The grid for the first race you draw a number out of a hat and that’s your number for the grid, and the second race is reversed to where you started don’t the first race,” added Mark.
And while it’s easy to see that some kids only race because their family has an image to uphold or want to live vicariously through them, second-year racer Charlie Burnett is a real go-getter who knows what he wants. Of course, what he wants is to win, which is why he constantly hones his skills at home.
“This is my second time doing this, and I really look forward to being here,” Charlie told me. “If you like running with the drivers who want to have fun but also do their best, then you really have to practice every day. You really can’t just turn up on race day.”
When I asked about race strategy, Charlie confided in me and shared that it’s really all about getting off the line quickly.
“Definitely the start is the most important bit, ’cause if you stuff [the start] you’re gonna get passed by a ton of people. If you get it good you’re gonna pass like 10 or 15 of them,” he said.
Charlie clearly knows what he’s talking about. He managed a top-three and top-five finish over the weekend. His dad, however, says that as competitive as the racing is, it’s really all for fun.
“Really, it’s just for fun,” said Mark. “Each winner gets a wreath but there is a trophy for the overall winner which is decided by the quickest total time for both races [on Saturday and Sunday].”
This video below from the Goodwood Revival’s YouTube channel shows Charlie in action behind the wheel of the black and gold No. 13 car.
All the People Love It
2021 has seen the largest number of entries for the Settrington Cup ever, with 70 kiddos ready to fight for the win with nothing other than their legs and a steering wheel.
“We found out that a lot of professional drivers had given their kids these old pedals cars as gifts, so we thought it would be fun to make a race,” Mark Featherstone, Goodwood Revival’s Sponsorship Director, told me. “The first race we did a few years ago there were only 10 cars, and today we’re doing multiple times that. There’s even a miniature Land Rover pickup [tow] truck [support vehicle] for the field.”
In fact, pedal car racing has been such a hit that Featherstone told me that all content shared on the Revival’s official website or social media channels gets about three or more times the reach of all other racing content.
“When we first did it [the race] you could find one of those cars for £200 or £300, and now they’re £9,000,” added Featherstone. “My kids have done it before, I got three kids and two of them did it. It was a lot of fun, though I think I may have enjoyed it more than them.
“Originally, racing drivers being racing drivers would take the pedal cars to their engineers and have them tear the J40s apart and rebalance things, tweak things, you could literally see some cars were faster than others. Now we run all-original specs only,” Featherstone added.
When asked if the field of J40s would have to be limited due to the popularity, he answered, “Nah, we’ll keep going! Like I said, the reach we get is just unbelievable.”
What’s Not to Love?
As I mentioned at the beginning, cars are complicated nowadays. Even some of the vintage cars I saw racing at Goodwood are still engineering marvels that were once cutting-edge in their heyday. This is exactly why pedal car racing is such a highlight at Goodwood. People love that basic, every-driver-for-their-own, honest-to-goodness racing that’s nearly impossible to find anymore.
There’s no politics, no disparity in racing budgets, and no BS—just energetic kids hopped up on sugar ready to pedal their hearts out and beat the rest of the field. And if you ask me, regardless if there’s a motor involved, that’s what racing is all about.
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