Pre-WWII British Motorsport was forced to the fringes of the country to find venues. Bill Boddy takes us on a trip to the seaside
More motor racing on sand courses has occurred than may be generally realised. The inaugural use of such a venue appears to have been in 1904 by the Irish AC on The Velvet Strand’, near Dublin, where MacDonald’s big Napier beat the Hon. Charles Rolls, on his 100hp Mors, over a standing-start mile course.
In 1907, the same club ran what it called Reliability Trials over a 3-mile course on Magilligan Strand; two Ariel cars contested FTD by a margin of 0.2sec. There was a repeat in 1908, at Rosbeigh Strand, when F G Cundy’s 60hp Napier triumphed over a smaller Daimler, before a return was made to Magiffigan sands in 1909.
In 1913, there were 4-mile races on Rosslare Strand. Here the cars stopped at the end of the straights and then restarted, presumably to avoid the turns from getting dangerously cut up. Well-known drivers like Tuck (Humber) and Robinson competed, the latter’s racing 25hp Talbot clocking 107mph.
If Ireland instituted speed events on what might appear to be an unsuitable surface, the British mainland soon followed suit. But why beaches?
Because racing was forbidden in Britain on public byroads, where a 20mph speed limit prevailed, and the sport’s governing body was reluctant to provoke anti-motor feeling by issuing licences for such activities. Nevertheless, numerous clubs held speed trials or timed hill climbs when private courses could be found and approved. Private drives were often made available by landowners sympathetic to the movement — Shelsley Walsh, for example, from 1905.
However, illicit speed events in astonishing numbers took place on public byroads, permission usually being obtained from local chief constables or suchlike; if police came to the venue, it was only to keep onlookers safe or to ensure non-competing vehicles weren’t impeded. Some clubs did not quote the distance over which the competitors raced, and did not record speeds, quoting only times. Thus a local ‘bobby’ was unlikely to calculate speed, even if the cars looked to be vastly exceeding the statutory 20mph.
But if races instead of short speed trials were the aim, longer courses were strictly out of bounds, unless a co-operative authority in possession of a private stretch of beach could be persuaded to close it for motor or motorcycle racing. Some, who envisaged profit and publicity for their holiday resorts, were to be found.
So, around the coast of this little island, sand races were held: Southport, Saltbury, Redcar, Bream Sands near Bumham, Waterloo Sands at Wallasey, Westonsuper-Mare and Porthcawl. Some resorts — Blackpool, Colwyn Bay, Westcliffe, Brighton (its famous Madeira Drive), Southsea, Bexhill, and Eastbourne — made promenades available for more conventional speed trials.
I have a faint childhood memory of being on holiday at Weston-super-Mare and being dissuaded from going in the rain to see the racing on its sands, and of watching reluctantly from a far-distant window. This must have been in 1922, when a Horstman made Flu. Long before that, Saltbum had seen Sir Algemon Guinness take the skeletal 200hp 22.5-litre Darracq to 121mph on its sands in 1908. And in 1911, the improbable 28-litre 300hp Fiat, The Beast of Turin’, found the sand too wet for Bordino to tame it.
‘Mays recalled Skegness as a race against the tide. He drove through quite deep water, on a course so close to the sea.
Pendine’s sand became famous when Capt. (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell, Pany Thomas and others took records there, and in 1926, Segrave broke the LSR, recording 152.33mph on Southport’s sands with the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam.
I have reason to remember Southport. In 1936, The Autocar commissioned me to report the August Meeting. The father of my companion said we could use one of the Morris 8 saloons of his business staff, after a Rover Ten, hired locally, proved so unroadworthy that I took it back; an Essex Six had been substituted, but it broke down in 12 miles and had to be abandoned. I got my money back!
We drove from Esher to Southport on race day. People were walking to the beach, so we gave a girl a lift. Before driving back that night, we had dinner at a top hotel with her where, with the waiter hovering, she took so long freshening up (horrid expression) that we thought we had been stood up.
She later said she had left her car in the town. To our surprise, it turned out to be a smart blue-andwhite Vauxhall with a special drophead body. She invited us to have a nightcap at the family mansion before our long drive home. Being unshaven and unkempt, we declined, and I drove that night, screen open to cope with fog, my friend asleep on the back seat. We had breakfast in London, then drove to a hill climb, and got home at midnight. Oh, those days of youth! I discovered the girl was a daughter of a high-ranking Northern JCC Committee man.
Space confines me only to the prolific Southport and a few other venues. The first of the former’s meetings took place in 1920, when Segrave, in a 1914 GP Opel, was fastest over a s.s. mile, and George Bedford’s Hillman won the 1.5-litre class. In 1924, Skegness crowds had had the excitement of a duel between Campbell’s 350hp LSR Sunbeam and Parry Thomas’ Leyland-Thomas, the Sunbeam setting a new course record of 29.2sec for the s.s. half-mile.
Saltbum replied with Eldridge’s famous 21.7-litre Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’, which devoured the s.s. kilo in 76.09mph, beating the 350hp Sunbeam. But over the f.s. kilo, Campbell did a remarkable 145.26mph, to the Fiat’s 139.81mph and the 8-litre Leyland’s 125.67mph.
There was increased need for sand courses after the oft-exaggerated accident at Kop in 1925, when Giveen’s Bugatti broke a spectator’s leg, causing the RAC to ban all public-road speed events from 1925. Only Brooldands and the few private courses were then available, as Donington Park did not open until 1933, the Crystal Palace circuit not until 1937.
In 1925, Southport began a full season’s racing on New Year’s Day. When Southport opened again in January 1926, Segrave’s 2-litre GP Sunbeam was so dominant that he made the 10-mile race boring; “Why not send him his prizes beforehand, to save him the journey?” someone said. Segrave also won the one-mile sprints, only Basil Davenport’s GN ‘Spider’, which preferred heavier sand, challenging.
At Skegness, E K Mayner’s 2-litre Mercedes was quickest Raymond Mays was notably successful with his Bugatti and Vauxhall-Villiers. He recalled Skegness as being a race against the tide, cars being hustled to the start. Mays drove the Bugatti through quite deep water, on the course so close to the sea, adding that he and Peter Berthon were drenched, and that the sand and salt water were not at all good for racing machinery. The crowds, however, loved this kind of racing.
In September 1926, Southport used S-type bends for the long races, causing Horton’s Morgan to roll over. Jackson’s Sunbeam won the 50-miler and Clay (TT Vauxhall) the sprints. Southport Corporation took over Birkdale Sands late in 1926. Felix Scriven had driven a straight-8 Sunbeam there that year, lending his famous Austin 20 ‘Sergeant Murphy’ to another driver. Bouverie had found the Brookla:nds gear ratios of the ex-Campbell streamlined Chrysler unsuited to Southport, and there was disappointment when Sir Alastair Miller, having brought the 5-litre Sunbeam all the way from Weybridge, retired after a lap as, sans screen, he was blinded by sand.
‘It could be dangerous. Furrows would form at the turns, and drivers had either to cut these or take firmer sand further out’
In 1927, unusual competing cars included a Hodgson, H Spurrier Jnr (son of Leyland’s MD) with the Abab, the Toreador with Parry Thomas engine, and J Hepworth’s successful racinglowett. E T Scarisbrick had forsaken his aero-engined Fanoe sand-racing monster for a Bugatti, and a 1913 GP Sunbeam appeared.
The 100-mile race was first started that year over a course complete with pits, having a hairpin at one end, an S-bend at the other, and a long corner in between. Driving very wildly, Dan Higgin won in the TT Vauxhall. Skidding just as wildly, even stalling and finding the Vauxhall difficult to restart, Higgin had also won the Liverpool MC’s 20-mile sand race at Wallasey.
The Southport 100 became a very important fixture, run by a club now well-established, with Parry Thomas as its president, and the town’s mayor a guest of honour at its dinner dances.
In 1928, the Ainsdale beach was flooded, curtailing the Championship Meeting. Higgin was successful in the shorter races with an old 1.5-litre Talbot, as were May Cunliffe and her brother with a 3-litre Bentley, to which a supercharger had been added. The 100-mile race was a victory for Mays in the Vauxhall-Villiers.
In 1929, this race had 20 starters, including such famous names as Mays, Earl Howe (in a Bugatti), Holbrook and Poppe with A7s, Charlie Dodson driving a 3-litre Sunbeam, and Jack Bartlett with a
Riley 9. Regulars included Higgin in his yellow Talbot, Field’s and Fontes’ Bugattis and Stevenson’s A7, which had done well at earlier meetings.
The race, actually of 91 miles, watched by an estimated 60,000, was won by T Thistlethwayte’s 28/250 Mercedes-Benz, “The shriek of its supercharger drowning all other sounds, his expression registering scorn, anger and pained surprise as the A7s hounded him, then happiness” as he won from the Bugattis.
Mellor’s Lea-Francis had tyre trouble and ran into the crowd, breaking the legs of three spectators. This did not put an end to these famous sand races, but it was reported that some opposition and other difficulties made the future look bleak for a while.
In 1930, Southport’s course was moved further along the beach in deference to the tide. Brooklands drivers like EL Bouts (Sunbeam) and Frank Ashby (Riley) came for the ‘100’ event, handicapped as usual, Stephenson awarded eight laps’ start from Thistlethwayte and Neil Gardner’s Studebaker. A fine battle ensued between TV G Selby’s Bugatti and the Mercedes, the former winning.
Sand racing could be as dangerous as other forms of racing. Deep furrows would form at the turns and drivers had either to cut these or take firmer sand further out Sadly, May Cunliffe’s father, who liked to passenger alongside her, was killed when her GP Sunbeam dug in at Southport in 1928.
Southport, and other venues, continued to be a popular attraction during the 1930s, when the Southport Club ran 50-, 75and 100-mile races, as well as the sprints. In its 1935 100-mile race, Shutdeworth’s Bugatti was lapping at over 72mph before it had mechanical problems, so that Goodacre in Stephenson’s s/c A7 won, at 63.07 mph.
But after WWII, with aerodrome and other circuits available, the golden years of racing on sand were over.