Hill Start

Phil Llewellin returns to the place where his motor-journalism career began and rediscovers hillclimbing’s unique and timeless atmosphere.

Accelerating like a clothyard arrow at Agincourt, McLaren’s prodigiously potent F1 reaches 100mplh in less time than it takes to recite the opening lines of The Lord’s Prayer. We are talking about 6.3 seconds. All things being relative, even that rate of progress verges on the pedestrian when you realise that similar power allied to much less weight catapults a serious challenger for the Auto Windscreens British HilIclimb Championship from zero to 100mph and back to a standstill in just seven gut-churning seconds.

Motivated by four litres and 600bhp of Judd or Cosworth V8, drivers who squeeze every ounce of performance from their single-seaters experience cornering forces up to 3.5g.

At the other end of hillclimbing’s scale, events such as this autumn’s Vintage Sports-Car Club meeting at Loton Park, Shropshire, attract Austin Sevens and three-wheeler Morgans that the famously short-sighted Mister Magoo could mistake for pond-skimming insects.

Those extremes have at least two things in common. First, the absence of serious prize money – even in relation to cars that cost in the region of £100,000 – has preserved the amateur ethos. Competitors are more likely to help a rival than lodge a protest.

Second, the climbs that attract such a rich diversity of talents and machines are delightful in their own right, even if you couldn’t tell the latest Pilbeam MP72B from a vintage Bentley. You can spend a summer afternoon at Shelsley Walsh in a glade of ivy-clad oaks, looking across the River Teme’s tranquil valley to hills made memorable by a Gothic clock-tower with all the madcap majesty of a Victorian spacecraft.

The setting is idyllic, but the sunken lane within a few paces of your vantage point will be filled not with bleating lambs, or even a lumbering Land Rover, but by a single-seater being driven at ten-tenths. The Midland Automobile Club staged its first climb here in 1905, which makes this the world’s oldest motorsport event still run on its original course.

Shelsley is unique, but the lovely setting is not exceptional. The 1475-yard Loton Park course snakes through Sir Michael Leighton’s estate, eight miles west of Shrewsbury, and from the highest point there are spellbinding views across Shropshire and Cheshire to the mountains of North Wales. Down in the Cotswolds, Prescott has been home to the Bugatti Owners’ Club since 1938, and is no less attractive.

Photographs in Chris Mason’s book Uphill Racers confirm that while the front-running cars have changed dramatically, the climbs retain their original character to a remarkable degree. Shelsley, for instance, is still flanked by nothing more unsightly than hedges, grassy banks and white-painted railings. One of the few sections of steel barrier is painted dark-green, to blend with its surroundings, and curls around one of the tight corners that form the Esses, where spectators sit little more than an arm’s length from very powerful cars.

Vantage points such as this enable you to look down into the cockpit and glimpse the driver at work. By comparison, spectating at most of today’s circuits is like observing toys through the wrong end of a telescope. Loton Park is a very special place for me, for reasons that were explained to anyone who cared to listen during September’s VSCC meeting, and later while relaxing over a beer in the near by Hand and Diamond. What was then a 770-yard climb was inaugurated by the Severn Valley Motor Club in 1960, when I was the most junior reporter on the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertiser.

The dream of attending a motorsport event with a. press pass came true on September 7, and resulted in a five paragraph story: A gentleman by the name of Vic McChesney clocked the day’s fastest time in his Lotus Seven. The popular Class for saloons with engines of between 1001ce and 1500cc, which attracted a thrust of Sunbeam Rapiers, was won by a local butcher in what my report described as his ‘highly tuned’ Commer Cob van. Challenging in itself, Loton Park also gave drivers a sporting chance to see how fast they could react when Sir Michael’s deer enlivened the proceedings by dashing across the track.

There is a pleasing purity about taking to the hills, because running alone makes it impossible to explain a poor time with excuses about being baulked, barged or forced off-line. With luck, the circuit racer has several laps in which to regain the yards lost by braking too early, failing to snatch an overtaking opportunity or running a shade too wide. In contrast, the majority of hillclimbers rarely get more than four runs, only two of which are competitive.

Precision worthy of a tightrope-walking brain surgeon is the name of the game at the top of the tree, where slivers of a second can measure the difference between a champion and an also-ran. At the end of the season, a title can be lost exerting an ounce too much pressure on the accelerator while leaving the line at Wiscombe Park, or lifting just too soon before Museum Corner, one of Loton ‘Park’s tight right-handers.

“HilIclimbing appeals to me because it’s a test of self against self, so if your time’s not very good you have only yourself to blame,” David Campbell told me after booting his 3.6-litre Alvis up Loton in 72.88 seconds. “You don’t get much time on the hill, but the intensity of the adrenalin rush more than compensates for the hours spent in the paddock. Waiting your turn tends to be very enjoyable, because hillclimbs attract an exceptionally nice bunch of people. And there’s a wonderful timelessness about it. This could be happening in the 1950s and ’60s.”

He was right on all counts. The atmosphere was delightfully homespun, a far cry from Charles March’s exquisitely stage-managed extravaganza at Goodwood. We bought bacon sandwiches from a caravan while pints were pulled in a wooden hut not much bigger than my desk. Cars that provided a pleasing link with the sport’s early days included David Leigh’s GN Spider, the unique chain-drive ‘special’ that Basil Davenport first campaigned in 1923, when it represented an investment of about £135. A few years later, when it held the Shelsley Walsh record, the single-seater was refused admission to the paddock by a policeman who did not believe that such a scruffy item was a competitor.

“I knew Basil when I was a boy and used to go up to Macclesfield to help him work on the Spider,” Leigh recalled after extricating himself from the cockpit, which is only a foot across. “After all those years it drives like a really well-developed racing car with magnificent handling and staggering acceleration, because there’s about 70bhp and next to no weight.”

Loton Park’s tighter corners pose problems, he chuckled, because the specification does not include the luxury of a foot-operated brake. “I keep in second for the short downhill run to Triangle” – the 90-degree right-hander – “otherwise a lot of time is lost trying to change down and brake at the same time with the same hand. Near the top, you leave braking as late as possible at Fallow ideally without going onto the grass. Then it’s hard right again at Museum, over the brow and remember to keep your foot down, because there’s still some way to the finish.”

The spirit that created the Spider is kept alive by the likes of David Baker, who wafts up the hills in a 1913 Schneider powered by ten litres of 1917-vintage Hall-Scott machinery from the USA. ‘Lightly’ and ‘stressed’ are words that spring to mind, because this four-cylinder aero-engine with pistons the size of bar stools develops about 110bhp. Baker beamed when asked about torque, because 550lb ft of the stuff is on tap from 600rpm to the end of the scale at 1500rpm. “Which is quite grunty,” he added, winning the weekend’s prize for typically British understatement.

Today’s engineers use computers and wind tunnels, but the basic requirements have not changed, according to Mike Pilbeam, who worked for BRM, Lotus, Surtees and Ford before taking the freelance plunge in 1979. Pilbeams driven by such hillclimb heroes as Alister Douglas-Osboum, Roy Lane, Martyn Griffiths, Martin Bolsover and David Grace have won the British championship 17 times since 1977.

“The single most important factor is that rather vague quality called driveability,” says Pilbeam. “That may not be what you expect to hear from an engineer, but it’s the fundamental characteristic that lets you know, at any time, what the car is doing. Cornering power and traction are important, of course, but not much use if the car’s not totally predictable. The sort of car that reduces you to a passenger if the back steps out of line is no use at all. Track conditions are far more difficult and variable than for circuit racing – not so smooth, not so wide, and with nastier, harder things at the edges – so really good handling is essential. After that, cornering power is the big thing, ahead of traction off the line, which some people think is the most important factor. But you only leave the line once on a hill with maybe eight or nine corners. That said, we can clock 0-60mph in about two seconds.”

British hilIclimbing is within sight of its centenary, having started in Richmond, Surrey, during the summer of 1899. Competitors included Charles Rolls, who spurred his Panhard et Levassor up the 325-yard course at 8.75mph. Did spectators cast their minds back, a few decades later, and reminisce about the good old days when men were men and cars were cars? I pose the question because my Loton Park report for the local rag raved about Frank Wall storming up the hill in his 1931 Type 35B Bugatti. I wrote; “The display by the Bugattis showed the younger generation what real racing cars looked and sounded like.”

That was written 29 years ago. Looking back over the same time-span from today’s standpoint should have me waxing equally lyrical about the likes of the Lotus 49B, Matra-Cosworth and Ferrari T312, but they seem almost modern to this member of 1960’s younger generation. One thing that has not changed is the landed gentry’s opinion of the humble journalist. When a VSCC stalwart suggested that I might accompany Sir Michael Leighton as he opened the hill in Julian Ghosh’s C-type Jaguar, which I had been privileged to drive earlier in the day, the baronet looked aghast and was sure that a more distinguished passenger could be found. I tugged my forelock “God bless you, Sir” backed respectfully away and ordered another pint.