Shelsley Walsh is a splendidly enduring British institution, having first been used as a motor sporting venue as early as 1905, and still going strong today. The organising Midland Automobile Club always seems remarkably welcoming and what I’m about to say is absolutely no criticism of the club, nor indeed of its (astonishingly steep) hillclimb venue.
But when you leaf back through the British motoring and national sporting press, the event’s perceived significance from 1905-1955(ish) seems frankly baffling.
While our Continental neighbours, and rivals, were road racing around Spa, the Nürburgring, Le Mans, Strasbourg, the Bremgarten and so many more – or storming uphill for miles on end at the Grössglockner, Mont Ventoux, the Klausenpass or Susa-Moncenisio – our forebears were merely scratching away over a paltry thousand yards of Worcestershire farm driveway.
Indeed the manner in which Shelsley heroes like Raymond Mays and AFP Fane, and later Dennis Poore and Ken Wharton, grabbed so many headlines is really evidence of what a poorly served, parochial little pool of motor sporting enthusiasm Great Britain really was. But Shelsley Walsh of course bred its wonderfully wacky catalogue of home-built specials. And it’s here, to my mind, that its legend simply soars…
The Fry family’s Blackburn vee-twin powered Freikaiserwagen perhaps tops the list – indeed a wonderful monograph book on the car has just been published – while John Bolster’s ‘Bloody Mary’, Jack Moor’s ‘Wasp’, Basil Davenport’s long-lived GN ‘Gnat’, Dick Caesar’s ‘Alfi-Capa’ and so many more create a tremendous honour roll of ingenious British motor sporting eccentricity.
One of the many which has always appealed to me is the special built, continuously developed and intrepidly driven by H D Carlmark. Its one consistent feature seems to have been its 996cc air-cooled JAP vee-twin engine, which John Bolster himself recorded as having developed some 78bhp at 5500rpm, which was pretty good news in 1937-38. ‘The Carlmark’ was completely transformed during its career, from early beginnings as a front-engined special to become an Auto Union lookalike with the clamouring JAP twin mounted behind its owner’s driving seat. In his book Specials Bolster related “…the machine (then) burst upon an astonished world with merely a rudimentary form of front springing, and no rear suspension whatsoever. It was watched by one and all to see if it would hold the road; it didn’t. Having gone from the sublime to the gorblimey, the versatile Carlmark… bought for himself a Fiat 500 front-end and chassis. Still evidently prejudiced against this new-fangled independent suspension, he fitted it with friction-type dampers to stop it working too well. In order to prove that he had the courage of his convictions, the intrepid Carlmark again seated himself next to the accident…”
Intrepidity largely unrewarded, the Carlmark, at least in its 1938 form with twin rear wheels and tyres, has always struck me as a splendidly Britannic counterfoil to what those ever-suspect Continentals were up to with their Auto Unions. In conjunction with Shelsley Walsh – its reason to be – the Carlmark-JAP and its sisters seem to embody all that was finest, together with that which was most feeble, about British motor sport of the period.