The Sprint Events of the 1920s
Both before and after the 1914-18 war speed trials and speed hill-climbs were a popular form of competition motoring in England. Racing over public roads has never been permitted in this country, and up to 1925 was thus confined to Brooklands Motor Course at Weybridge and the T.T. course over the sinuous roads of the Isle of Man. But, although illegal, sprint contests were held nearly every summer week-end in England, the majority of them over unclosed public roads.
True, a "police permit" had to be obtained by the organising club, but this usually took the form of verbal intimation that the Chief Constable of the area did not propose to interfere with the event so long as no undue inconvenience was caused to the public. In most cases policemen attended to allow non-competing cars to ascend and descend the hill between timed runs and to keep the course clear; as a general speed limit of 20 m.p.h. was in force until 1926, these constables had to leave their stop-watches behind so that, not being officially able to check the speed of the cars, they could not be aware, officially, that this speed was being exceeded !
In those carefree times—the "gay 'twenties !"—the law had not made mudguards compulsory, so that the running of stripped racing cars went unnoticed, except for the noise of their exhausts, and that was overlooked in the remote country in which these hill-climbs and speed trials, mostly the former, were held.
As pukka racing cars were driven, sometimes long distances, to the venue, the excitement was considerable, and on some courses very appreciable speeds were attained, the roads often being wider and the timed distance longer than we are accustomed to on the private courses used since 1925. Besides the racing cars, touring cars and light cars were encouraged by the adoption of numerous capacity classes and sometimes the employment of a weight formula. Huge entries were obtained, 221 for the opening hill-climb at Kop in 1924. and in some instances 35,000 spectators were attracted, 4,000-5.000 being not unusual.
Concurrently with these speed hill-climbs and sprints of the nineteen-twenties freak hill-assaults were organised, first at Nailsworth Ladder, near Stroud, later at Alms Hill (since closed to motor vehicles), near Henley-on-Thames. but these were in a different category, competitors not being timed but being lucky to ascend the hill without stopping. Later this freak hill-storming became popular in the North of England, at Moor End, Rosedale Chimney and Screw Hill, etc.
Not all these early sprint meetings took place over public roads, a few being held along private roads, while the famous Shelsley Walsh hill-climb of the Midland A.C., which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, has always been held on a private hill near Worcester. Some fixtures took place on the sands, as at Skegness. Porthcawl, Saltburn, Southport, etc., and others along seaside promenades. H.R.H. the Duke of York was Patron of the Southsea speed trials.
But the great majority of them were held on quiet country roads with the cognisance of the local police. In 1922 the Commissioner of Police raised a cautionary hand, The Autocar spoke warningly in April 1924, and early in 1925 the R.A.C. warned organisers about danger to spectators, but all was well until an unfortunate accident at the Essex M.C.'s Kop Hill-Climb happened on March 28th, 1925.
This meeting drew huge crowds, due to the proximity of Kop to London, and the spectators foolishly stood along the edge of the road. The police were powerless to remove them forcibly, because they were on public ground. A racing motor-cyclist crashed and bad to be removed to hospital and then Francis W. Giveen, driving the Brescia Bugatti "Cordon Bleu" which he had recently acquired from Raymond Mays, left the road and ran over a spectator, breaking his leg.
The meeting was abandoned. Soon afterwards the High Wycombe R.C.C. asked the police to ban speed events at Kop Hill and at a meeting on April 2nd, 1925, the R.A.C. and A.C.U. announced that they would issue no further permits for speed competitions on public roads "for the present." In fact, their ban was never lifted.
Raymond Mays' autobiography, "Split Seconds," makes it clear that his friend Giveen was quite unsuited to driving the Bugatti in competition events; Mays expresses real concern that Giveen would allow no one else to handle the car at Kop. Possibly present-day medical certificates would have prevented Giveen from starting.
Indeed, he had previously overturned the Bugatti while practising under Mays' supervision at Toft Hill, on the Bourne-Stamford road. However, he was not entirely to blame for the banning of public-road speed trials, because the growing interest in these events resulting in uncontrollable crowds and the advent of inexpensive cars having increased the population of remote areas and brought more traffic to these formerly little-used roads, the ban was almost certain to have fallen sooner or later.
As it was, Shelsley Walsh became the only major speed hill-climb, the 1925 meeting promptly being brought forward from September to May. Incidentally, disaster nearly occurred at an earlier sprint at Laindon, when Parry Thomas, crouching down in the driving seat of his Leyland Eight, expected to see a banner advising him of the finish, as he couldn't see the road, and as such a banner wasn't in use at the meeting in question, he hit two competitors' parked motor-cycles and ran over a policeman's foot, before shooting into a main road. But, in the "gay 'twenties," no one seemed to mind !
Incidentally, practice runs were by no means usual, drivers having been known to make f.t.d. and then lose themselves on the unfamiliar upper-reaches of the hill, beyond the finish.
The number of different courses used is interesting, being evident in the accompanying tables. Readers may care to seek out these old speed venues of 30 years and more ago—taking a pint in the local may well release the tongues of the locals and contribute some fascinating reminiscence. The writer has in recent years driven up Kop, Aston-Clinton, Spread Eagle, South Harting, Sutton Bank, and Dean hills, and in all parts of the country you can likewise discover the speed venues of the past.
After the ban sprint events languished to a considerable extent, although after a while various courses on private property, mostly on the flat, were pressed into service. I commend to the V.S.C.C. the idea of a revival of the old-style sprint—a Gay 'Twenties Speed Trial—confined to vintage and Edwardian cars, where the less controllable and well-braked vehicles could be extended in comparative safety, which they cannot be at the excellent V.S.C.C. fixtures at Silverstone, Oulton Park, and Prescott (or is this Editorial second-childhood?)
As I was able to pack a good deal of history into the pages of Motor Sport during World War II and since I have done my best, on this 30th anniversary of the Giveen accident and public roads ban, to tabulate the results of these carefree fixtures for the years 1920 to 1924. These tables appear on pages 189-192, and if you consider the present competition calendar overcrowded I commend them to you—it is significant that only the more important results are available for inclusion and on some week-ends three times as many sprints took place; in 1924 many events were postponed due to clashing fixtures. I apologise for such omissions as occur in the results listed; I have been compelled to work from scanty records which do not always quote the results of the over-1,500-c.c. classes.
I hope that older readers will find pleasant memories revived as they study these tables. One finds Capt. Archie Frazer-Nash victorious over larger cars in the early post-war events in his famous G.N. single-seater " Kim II," sold in 1924 to J.H. Hall, while when he was absent his partner-in-chains, H.R. Godfrey, often took the honours in his pre-war belt-driven G.N. "Bluebottle," afterwards sold to Norman Black. In those days Lt. G.A. Vandervell possessed a very accelerative 25-h.p. Talbot—today he is sponsor of the Vanwall team of British G.P. cars. Later Raymond Mays was successful with his Full Brescia Bugattia, "Cordon Bleu" and "Cordon Rouge," K. Don competed in (very much "in") a single-seater Deemster, Miss Ivy Cummings with the chain-drive 5-litre Bugatti "Black Bess" and her G.N., the latter sold in 1925 to Le Champion, Cyril Paul's Beardmore was prominent, and later still J.A. Joyce comes into the picture with a very light o.h. camshaft A.C. with remarkable back axle having exposed drive-shafts. And, amongst the big cars, Humphrey Cook, of E.R.A. fame, was so often fastest in his Vauxhalls "Rouge et Noir," the later one a 3-litre T.T. car.
This Vauxhall had a h.p. per ton figure of 95.5, developing 129 b.h.p. at 4,400 r.p.m., and Joyce's A.C., in 1925 form, weighed a shade over 9 cwt. and developed over 70 b.h.p. on Discol fuel; such cars reached speeds of 80 m.p.h. on many courses and over 100 m.p.h. at the finish of straight sprints. Although this may be regarded by some of you as tame, such cars, lightly shod on high-pressure tyres, must have been decently exciting to drive on the loose-surfaced courses, not to mention to and from the sprint venues, of the nineteen-twenties.—W. B.