Forty-five years ago this month was held one of the few wartime motor sport events in Europe. Conducted at night in secrecy. tor the participants were breaking the law, it none the less offered a welcome escape from reality during a particularly dark time.
While it is often assumed that motor sport ceased completely in Britain during WW2, there were a number of unofficial events. The best known is the notorious Inter-Services 10 lap handicap at Brooklands in 1940 won by “Goldie” Goldsmith in a Bedford 3 tonner from Bill Bodine’s Humber staff car. The escapade did not amuse the authorities and all participants were disciplined though Goldsmith s trophy is still proudly displayed in the officers’ mess of the Yeoman Halbardiers.
There have been tantalising hints at other events, particularly in Italy during the latter stages of the war, but even at this distance, the participants have been reluctant to divulge details. Recently, however, we have been able to piece together details of the 1941 Prescott HilIclimb.
The plan was hatched at a “Rembrandt” meeting (war-time gatherings of enthusiasts in the Rembrandt Rooms, Kensington) and, it being wartime with severe restrictions being involved, plans were carefully laid over the winter of 1940/41. It was agreed that the event should take place at night, for security reasons, and this restricted the entry to road cars. It was felt, anyway, that the use of racing cars would bring additional criticism should security be breached. Making a virtue out of the fuel shortage, there was a special prize for the fastest time freewheeling back down the hill.
About two dozen competitors gathered in a pub near Prescott on Friday, 31st March, the date having been chosen because of a full moon. Since it was wartime, the field all had to run with blackout shrouds over the headlights and every assistance with illumination was welcome. To conserve fuel. four competitors arrived from the Midlands all towed behind a single tractor!
One competitor, a major stationed in Cheltenham organised a platoon of infantrymen to act as marshals (in return for weekend passes) and he was able to rig up a field telephone connecting the starter with the time keepers at the finish. He was also able to commandeer a couple of fwd vehicles to act as tenders.
The first practice runs (one per driver in each direction) began just after midnight. It was a clear night and since the trees were still bare, there was a fair amount of light. The run was, however, fairly slippery due to frost and most drivers chose to take things steadily, enioying themselves rather than going for serious times. An accident, particularly one which might lead to medical treatment, would have been difficult to explain away.
Official FTN (Fastest Time of Night) was set by Dennis Stanhope’s HRG 1500, with which he was to win his class at Le Mans in 1947. Second was Raleigh’s Bugatti (Type 35?) and third was Hibbert’s MG TA. Surprise winner of the downhill freewheel event was Avril Grimaldi in a Riley Nine.
Though Stanhope was declared the winner his mechanic was actually faster in the same car. This turned out to be none other than Michele Lorenzo, a regular class winner in events like the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia who had been taken POW in North Africa. The Clerk of the Course ruled his times inadmissable on the grounds that it was an amateur event and Lorenzo was, to all intents and purposes, a professional. Sportingly, though, he was awarded a tin of 50 Players.
Unfortunately we have been unable to compile with any certainty a list of the other runners. Names like Freddie Dixon and Billy Cotton have been mentioned, but these are only rumours and besides had they been there they would have surely figured in the results. We have been unable, too, to get times or to discover whether class awards were given. None of those whom we know to have taken part are still with us. Perhaps readers can expand on the details.
All the runs were over by dawn and the competitors made sure they were quickly away. Apparently the local police were tipped off but they didn’t arrive until mid-day on the Saturday by which time there was no sign that the event had ever taken place — A.F.D