Motor Sport receives a great many letters from readers, and some of the fun of writing the historical part of the paper is that from such correspondents you learn of things you did not know previously or if you are asked a question you cannot answer, other readers often come up with it. Such it was with the following letter, questioning whether any car could climb Berriedale Hill near John o’Groats on top gear.
Land’s End-John o’Groats
This run has always attracted manufacturers and enthusiasts, and some have claimed that the whole trip has been done in top gear. The earliest such claim that I can trace is shown in the attached extract from the Grimsby News of 26 July 1912, which states explicitly that the route used by the 6-cylinder Napier involved “included the famous Berriedale Hill.”
Some years ago I drove this route frequently and cannot accept that any production car could climb this hill in top. This view is supported, I think, by the fact that some years ago one of your contemporaries undertook to cover the run in top throughout, but when confronted by Berriedale they abandoned the project and took another route.
My interest in the subject was rekindled by the interesting article “Happy Memories” in your November issue in which it was mentioned that a Jaguar did the run in top gear. It was not stated there specifically that Berriedale was used but it did say “. . it was one of those officially observed runs.” Would someone who has negotiated Berriedale in top please step forward and complete my motoring education; or does this feat take its place among motoring myths alongside Henry Alexander’s climb of Ben Nevis in an early Model-T Ford? He was reported to have said that he “received some assistance in rough places!”
J Wilson, Pinner, Middlesex.
I did not know the immediate answer to that one; I have driven the Land’s End — John o’Groats road more than once but never when confined to a car’s highest ratio. But Motor Sport’s Deputy Editor, GC, who knows Scottish terrain well, was dubious of the Napier claim. Right away I can tell Mr Wilson that the Jaguar he refers to, a 4.2 XJ6 borrowed from DIT in 1983 so that Mike Scarlett of The Autocar could try an RAC-observed top-gear End-to-End Run, ended when the clutch overheated on — Berriedale Hill (In fact, the RAC Observers relented and said the car could continue when its clutch had recovered but then the seal fixing the gear lever as having been kept in top gear broke, so the car was disqualified — why an Observer could not then have sat beside the driver and noted that the lever wasn’t touched I know not).
I can also tell Mr Wilson that S C H Davis, in his book “Memories of Men and Motor Cars” (Seeley, Service & Co, 1965) has a photograph of a Sheffield Simplex on which he was one of the Official Observers, on a LE-JoG top gear run in 1910. He says that it failed owing to the clutch slipping and becoming red hot on — Berriedale Hill. Indeed, Sammy Davis said the S-S’s clutch had to be slipped so much before the car stopped that “it practically caught fire”.
In the early days these top-gear performances were popular, at a time when many owner-drivers dreaded changing down, and to emphasise the power of an engine. One of the first officially-observed all-in-top speed runs of this sort was by Cecil Edge driving a 40 hp Napier from Brighton to Edinburgh in 1905 but interested parties alleged that the car had a fake low axle ratio. . . The classic Acton/Derby “duel” came in 1910. First, a 65 hp Napier was driven from London to Edinburgh entirely in top gear, (2.7 to 1), returning a petrol consumption of 19.35 mpg, after which, on Brooklands, it was timed at 76.42 mph. Derby then replied, both runs officially checked of course, using a 40/50 hp Ghost with a slightly smaller engine and a 2.9 to 1 top gear. It gave 24.32 mpg and at Brooklands managed 78.26 mph. Game, set and match to Rolls-Royce. . . The Napier was “slightly tuned”. The Royce had a larger carburettor than the standard 40/50 and its compression-ratio raised from 3.2 to 1 to 3.5 to 1 giving about a 16% power increase. Thus was born the famous “London-Edinburgh” Rolls-Royce.
Note that up to this time these top gear attempts had, sensibly, not been taken beyond Edinburgh. Sheffield Simplex, incidentally with an engine the same size as that of a Royce Ghost, obviously wanted to make a greater impression, hence the route LE to JoG. I felt rather sorry that it was defeated by Berriedale; it had only two forward speeds and was no doubt out to show that such was no inconvenience against cars with more in the box.
By 1912 that great publicist SF Edge set a 60 hp Napier to an RAC-observed top gear journey from London to Land’s End, then to John o’Groats and down to London via Edinburgh. Tough? The RAC found that the big Napier tourer had a 3.0 to 1 top gear, with 895 x 105 tyres, weighed 4,990 lb, and for the technical punters I will add that it had a drag-area of 10.3 sq ft. It made light work of its formidable task until it stopped on Berriedale.
It is thanks to the prompt and efficient research by Juliet Langford at the RAC Library that I can tell you what happened. The Napier’s driver is said to have found the hill, between Helmsdale and Wick, too steep on the first encounter and “found it necessary to change speed for three seconds”. (A very slick shift and short distance surely?) After which the Napier returned to the foot of the hill “and climbed it successfully on top gear”. This is confirmed not only by that cutting from the Grimsby News but by The Autocar, which said this was “the first time Berriedale Hill has ever been climbed in top gear.”
After the 1,928.73-mile journey at 19.74 mph and 25.918 mpg, this Napier was timed over the Brooklands’ half-mile at 77.104 mph. Edge’s smile have grown more smug than usual! The only work done during the test was greasing every morning but on down gradients the driver was allowed to either coast in neutral or stop the engine and descend in gear. Otherwise it was all done in top cog, even starting from rest. So there you have it. And if any Motor Sport readers decide to try this notorious gradient in top, don’t expect us to pay for the relining of your clutches. W B