Castrol R

As we set off for the French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand in the July of 1972 one of our first lifts was in a Morris Oxford – my diary from the time records that it was from “a gentleman who was passionately reminiscing about the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, the Auto Unions and the Mercedes which smelled of boot polish and made your eyes water”. This olfactory signature came from the exotic fuel concoctions used to propel these fire-breathing pre-war monsters.  For me, as with most racing fans of a certain age, the smell that brings it all back home is inevitably Castrol R.  The name Castrol is derived from castor oil, one of the key additives to be found in Charles Wakefield’s original creation; indeed, it is the burning of castor oil that gives it and the race circuits of my memory their glorious and distinctive odour.  Castor oil has long been associated with performance machines and was a primary additive for aero-engines during the Great War; the silk scarves worn by pilots were not an affectation but were used to wipe excess engine oil from their goggles and also to prevent chafing of the neck caused by constantly looking over the shoulder for ‘enemy aircraft at one o’clock’.  Castor oil is also a very effective laxative which had dire consequences for the bowel movements of early fighter pilots.  I like to think that the smell of burning castor oil would have been as nostalgically familiar to my aero-engineer grandfather as it became to me.  Does this scene, with my grandfather stood third from the left in the foreground, have the unmistakable whiff of burnt castor oil?

AVro 504K

The above text is an extract from Golf in the Wild, due for publication in April 2014.  The aeroplane is an AVRO 504K which entered service in 1913 and was outclassed as a fighter soon after WWI started. Relegated to training duties, at which it excelled, it was in use until the 1930s. Before it ended its service career, the rotary engine was replaced with a radial, and it was re-designated the AVRO 504N.


  1. LaVagabonde · February 8, 2014

    I never know what bit of trivia I will learn from your posts. I imagine that those early fighter pilots had some undignified memories.

  2. restlessjo · February 8, 2014

    We might be fighting the climate but overall we’re pretty lucky these days. (I know! I know!- don’t mention that in Somerset) 🙂

    • northumbrianlight · February 8, 2014

      We do indeed although safely at a distance from the trenches, the impression I get from many of my Granddad’s photographs is that they were mostly having quite a good time (as long as you didn’t have to fly the aeroplanes).

  3. suej · February 8, 2014

    You are always such a mine of interesting snippets of information, Robin – keep up the good work! 🙂

    • northumbrianlight · February 8, 2014

      Many thanks Sue – I am a mine of information, most of it useless 🙂

      • suej · February 8, 2014

        Ah well, me too!

  4. elisaruland · February 13, 2014

    Who knew Caster Oil had such an interesting and romantic history? Love the bit about the scarves. Great story, I really enjoyed.

    • northumbrianlight · February 14, 2014

      Many thanks, glad you liked it. I think just heating up plain castor oil generates the right smell – I must try it some time 🙂

  5. litadoolan · February 14, 2014

    Love the Morris Oxford getting a mention!

    • northumbrianlight · February 14, 2014

      Excellent, somebody who remembers those iconic cars. I never owned one but I did get to drive the sister car, the Austin Cambridge. It belonged to the very trusting parents of an early girlfriend – I was either 17 or 18!

      • litadoolan · February 14, 2014

        you coined the right word there. Iconic! I dated a guy who drove a Morris Oxford years ago. I think it may have been part of the attraction. Would love to see Austin Cambridge on the road one day! Happy motoring 😉

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