Snaking between two Scottish mountains, this narrow pass was feared by early motorists. Then it became the most challenging hillclimb in Britain. Gordon Cruickshank went to see what remains
Above us there’s a notch in the grey mountains, the crest of the pass. Groups of tourists are gazing down the valley, but few of them know what they’re looking at; it’s just a disused, crumbling road leading from the car park to nowhere much. No particular landmarks, no buildings to arouse curiosity. That’s if you’ve never seen the photographs. Images of Ken Wharton painting twin black take-off lines with his ERA. Of Dennis Poore sliding his grand prix Alfa Romeo through the hairpin. Of Tony Marsh aviating his 4WD Special. Put those in your mental album and suddenly this dank and derelict track regains its dignity. This used to be the nearest thing we had to a mountain hillclimb. It was a whole mile long to start with (cut to 1475yds latterly); well shy of the marathon continental slopes, but the only one which has a real Alpine flavour.
For 200 years this pass has been a crucial route from Glasgow to the Western Highlands. It cuts across the neck of the Bute peninsula between the vertebrae of what the locals call the Arrochar Alps, scrambling out of Glen Croe and over a narrow saddle between the stony flanks of Ben Arthur — also called The Cobbler — and Ben Donich. It’s also a monument to military control.
Roads across Scotland were few at the time of the 1745 rebellion. In the wake of the rebels’ defeat, the government began a road-building programme which would allow troops to march rapidly to the scene of trouble. This was one of those roads. General Caulfield, in charge of construction, had no JCBs, so he took an ‘easy’ option, sticking low in the valley but paying the price with one steep last-gasp hairpin which brought him to the 860ft summit. Here there’s a stone inscribed with the words ‘Rest and be Thankful’ — heartfelt in the days of ponies or legwork, but not unique by any means; the name crops up at several passes, pubs and beauty spots — which may be Wordsworth’s fault for writing a poem about this bleak crossing.
Until WWII the steep climb was a legendary challenge to vehicles, the final hairpin flooring many a pioneer motorist. At the crest the frequent mountain mist often mixed with the steam from boiling radiators. And inevitably the stopwatches came out: in Edwardian days the Royal Scottish Automobile Club ran reliability trials up here.
But at the end of the war work began to improve the road. Though it crosses the pass at the same point, today’s A83 cuts higher into the side of Ben Arthur on its eastern leg, making a steadier climb parallel to the old route.
This new road was both the birth and the death of this scenic hillclimb. With the old road now redundant, the RSAC pounced on it for a new venue. But with the new road being alongside and above the track, it offered the perfect grandstand — and for free. ‘That’s what closed it,” says Andrew Davidson, who now farms the land. ‘They could never make it pay. Even with No Parking signs all the way down the road, people just heaved them out of the way.”
But spirits were high at the first meeting in 1949. Even though it was not yet part of the RAC hillclimb series, it attracted the big guys: Poore with his 8C35, Sydney Allard with his V8 special, Peter Walker and Raymond Mays in 2-litre ERAs. 12000 was spent improving the surface, already deteriorating, and a large crowd saw Mays set the first record: 68sec.
Over the next few years, just as on the circuits, the nimble rear-engined opportunists overtook the traditional heavy metal. By 1951, Wharton was running a Cooper-JAP as well as his ERA, and the blown twin proved quicker on the narrow track, though it was another year before he stole the hill record from Poore, at 54.23sec, and cemented rear-engined superiority.
Despite its northerly latitude the Rest became a popular summer addition to the British hillclimb series, helped by running Bo’ness, Scotland’s other chief climb, the weekend before. Large crowds drove out from Glasgow to lean on the fencing at the pass and watch:there were dub meetings, too, but never enough activity to require permanent facilities — canvas scrutineering bays and the lean-to Gents stick in the memory — although the RSAC inherited a couple of army huts (the pass was a security checkpoint during the war) to protect officials from the frequent damp. But just as often the sun lit the peaks and opened the views both ways to make this the most spectacular course in the county.
It was a track which cried out for power, and the glen reverberated to big-engined specials like Allard’s Steyr, Peter Westbury’s Felday-Daimler, the 4WD Marsh-Buick and Martin Brain’s 7.2-litre Cooper-Chrysler. But year after year it was Welsh brothers David and Peter Boshier-Jones who traded FTD; the absolute record of 50.09sec, set in 1964, stands forever to Peter in his nimble supercharged Lotus 22. Despite resurfacings, and planing the Hump in ’67, the big bruisers never matched that. As maintenance costs overwhelmed income, ’69 turned out to be the last big meeting. The Scottish Sporting Car Club ran one final climb in September 70, before the Rest and Be Thankful hillclimb died.
It’s rarely quiet, though. Since then the hill has often been used as a rally stage, both up and down, and, thanks to owner Davidson’s enthusiasm, for historic events like LE JOG, and commemorative runs. In the 1990s, a retrospective of the Scottish Reliability Trial saw the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost AX201 climbing the very hill it tackled in 1907 — when the surface was better. Of course, there’s a fee for access to the Rest; it’s currently a bottle of a decent malt. But no pussyfooting: Andrew says if you don’t try hard, you don’t get to come back next year.
Look down on it from above and the track seems to offer little more challenge than one left-hander and a hairpin. But driving onto it (with the owner’s permission — there are gates top and bottom) makes you pause. It looks much scarier from ground level.
Try to forget the appalling surface, the patches on patches, the edges crumbling away down the hill. Line up where a small brick wall used to mark the start (the wall has tumbled down to the burn) and look away up the valley to the crest, where a silver glint marks the burger bar in the car park. That’s where you’ve got to get, in one minute flat. And suddenly you realise that even the lower part isn’t straight: it’s a sinewy, squirrelling, plunging and rearing tapeworm of tar. And it’s fast If you’re lucky you’ll hit the bank and spin to a shuddering halt If you’re careless you’ll do more barrel rolls than the Red Arrows before you reach the valley bottom.
It begins with a flattish, very fast section over two humps to a yump over a culvert. The fast guys got airborne here, praying to touch down square on the narrow track, keeping the power on past the farm road (don’t drop a wheel down the road end), reaching peak speed on the 1-in-8 before hitting the brakes for a jink right into medium-left through a bridge. This would be narrow enough square on, but now you’re coming at it from below, at an angle, and you can only see the wheel-tearing corner of the stone parapet You can’t see the exit, but you know if the car slides too far you’ll tag the opposite wall, and there’s no room to get crossed up. As for the rocks below the bridge, put those out of your mind, too. (Later on, the club put logs across the burn for a softer landing, which saved Averil Scott-Moncrieff when she put her Bugatti off here.)
Now the hillside on your right blanks the view of what should be a fast open right but you can’t back off because you will lose time into the following left, the one with the long, unprotected plunge inside. This is your last chance for max revs, a brave right-left-right you can’t quite straight-line before whanging down to second for Cobbler. This one’s critical — it’s lo-o-o-ong, veering more than 90 degrees, but it’s quite open, so it’s quick, and you’re right below the watching crowd so you have to put on a show. Don’t look through the thin iron railings to the steep, slippery slope below, where Peter Lawson put the 4WD BRM 100 yds down…
At last the hairpin; rising steeply inside, but with plenty of width. Do you stay neat, clipping that 1-in-7 apex, or fling the car into a big slide around the flatter edge? Remember there’s another 50 or 60 ft before the scruffy tin hut where the timing crew are sheltering from the weather, and it’s still 1-in-20 here, so you need traction… At the top the holding paddock is crowded, but if your car is road legal, there’s another option: you can sprint back down the main road, terrorising the tourist traffic. The best bit, said some.
Six-time British hillclimb champion Marsh remembers the track well: “It was incredibly bumpy, and there was often water running over it. You couldn’t see over the humps, and sometimes you couldn’t see the top for the mist. But I enjoyed it – it was a real challenge. We only came once a year, so you couldn’t learn it like the others. And you couldn’t walk it easily, either. I used to count the bumps from the start — it was the third one you had to get right That’s where you took off, and the track changed direction while you were in mid-air. Then there was a huge camber change on the hairpin which would make your inside wheel spin. So I used to go in deep, almost overshooting it, and then turn.”
It was on the Hump that Marsh had a big crash in his Buick-powered 4WD special in 1962, while going for the outright record: “The cars were getting lower by then and I’d been hitting the sump. So I stayed left, off the camber. I landed touching the grass as planned, but I think the steering arm broke; the car shot right, up the bank, bounced onto the road and landed by a marshal’s post. I could feel it teetering on the stone wall; the marshals got me out but they let the car slide away down the hillside. Then the chief scrutineer took me up to the top for a big stiff whisky. Actually, I didn’t drink, but I think he needed it!”
Bill Henderson reported on many of the meetings for the weeklies: “Things were pretty basic. The paddock was just a wider bit of road before the start, and there was no catering — bring your own sandwiches. But the spectators could see the whole course from the top, and you had a great view of Wharton with his elbows waving, or Basil Davenport sliding Spider through the S-bend after the bridge; that one was critical. And I remember how proud Jimmy Clark was of his class win in the Border Reivers Porsche.”
Clark was just one home-grown star who competed here; Jackie Stewart also tackled the hill in his early days, in a Marcos. “That’s where I first met Jackie Stewart and his brother Jimmy — always helpful and friendly,” recalls David Good, another of the hill’s stars. He first came in 1959, with the inevitable Cooper-JAP, like all the top runners of the time. ‘We’d make a holiday of Bo’ness and the Rest It was rough, fast and challenging — the hazards were akin to the European climbs, but it was only half as wide!”
It had its unique problems, too, as Marsh recalls: “The best entertainment of the weekend was watching the shepherd trying to remove the sheep beforehand.” Not always successfully, as Good found when one jumped in front of his Cooper: “I nearly went over the edge. I told the official at the top that I’d just killed a sheep, and he just said, ‘Oh good, lamb for supper’.”
Westbury also recalls it very fondly: “I took the Cooper-Daimler there in 1962 and got the FTD, beating champion Arthur Owen. It was the first meeting of any consequence that I’d won. But what I remember more is our night out afterwards. Coming home I saw two wires sticking out of a lamp-post and I thought they ought to be connected. So I did; the whole village blacked out.”
Now, with the mountains lost in cloud and the decaying track slick with moss, it’s hard to feel the thrill that brought competitors so far north to take such big risks. Yet no-one was ever killed here, and drivers and watchers alike have only good memories of an epic place. And there’s one other link with motorsport; the man who runs the burger bar is Dario Franchitti’s uncle.