Students of speed

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The intense sporting rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford stretches beyond the Thames, Lor’ds and Twickenham. Bill Boddy remembers their car and bike battles – a veritable breeding ground for future British Motorsporting talent

It is rather pleasing to thing of the sight and sound of racing cars invading usually quiet private drives in country estates, as the Dark and Light Blues compared their motoring skills, even if these lacked the prestige of the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race.

That each university had a motor club was probably influenced by enthusiasms stemming from parents who had owned cars from early times and whose sons found the faster ones (and motorcycles) an exciting escape from toiling for hoped-for places in the religious, legal, medical or business firmament Or simply as an enjoyable pastime between public school and awaiting access to an inherited fortune. Whatever, let us look back at these events, at which some of the participants were to emerge as accomplished racing drivers in a broader field.

Cambridge UAC was started in 1902, its President Professor Inglis; it had garages in Jesus Lane. Cars were then few, but members’ vehicles included a Locomobile steamer, a Lucas Valveless, an MMC, and a motorbike built by the Secretary, W Gregory. This club lasted for 10 years; a prominent member was Harry Ricardo of Trinity.

The club reformed in 1913, only to be halted by WWI, but afterwards G A Jenlcins of Trinity got it going again and the Inter-Varsity hill climbs began.

Oxford UMCC was formed casually in 1910/11, but L P Openshaw, rider of a 90-bore Zenith Gradua with wicker sidecar, put things on a firmer basis, reviving it in 1919. The title was changed to Oxford UMC in 1922, Humphrey Cook of Christ Church acting as President. By 1927, it had premises in Commarket and about 120 members who took part in several events, one against Oxford City MC. Many of its members later had motor industry associations — Riddock with Blackburnes, Harwood with JAPs, and Lord Settrington an apprentice at Bentley’s. Lectures were given by Capt Frazer-Nash, Prof A M Low and the then-editor of Motor Sport, etc.

Motorcycles predominated at first, and Cambridge beat Oxford in the hill climbs from 1923-26. In ’25, the venue was Mon Clinton, presumably just before the RAC ban on public-road events. Cambridge beat Oxford by 28 points. FTD was made by J A Temple, whose Norton averaged some 51mph. Watched by RAF cadets from Halton, and with the crackle of open exhausts abounding, the car classes were won by E Berry’s Alvis from two ACs, the faster driven by R Millais, who was to become well-known in later years with his racing cars, and G Legge’s 30/98 Vauxhall for Oxford, from a Beardmore and a Bugatti.

Another Inter-Varsity happening was the winter trial over a very difficult course, from Harpenden, many retiring after only 16 miles. Tunnel Slide near Nettleden was a ‘stopper’, but Bagshawe (Senechal — Oxford) and Martineau (Salmson — Cambridge) made it. Oxford won the Motor Cycling Cup, the Senechal and A7 Chummy won their classes, and the Birkin Cup went to a rider of a huge Henderson.

Back to speed. In 1926, Cambridge ran eliminating tests at Wimpole Hall before the I-V contest. Over a two-corner half-mile course, an AJS was quickest bike, R C Symondson on his new Brough SS100 won his class, (another who became very well-known) Temr, with that one-pot Morgan, took two classes, but Braidwood’s GN was 0.2sec faster.

The climb was over a very twisty 600 yards of private road at Henley Park. The car classes were won by Byrom’s A7, Swann’s Frazer Nash and Martineau’s 30/98. Cambridge won by 39 points. We called it ‘perhaps the premier amateur motoring event held in this country’. With public-road speed events banned, it was difficult to find courses for the I-V fixtures; prior to that, Cambridge had once lured Oxford out to the wilds of Haling Common near Thetford, but the Dark Blues had prevailed. In 1927, Mr J Murray lent his one-kilometre 1-in-14 private drive at Ewelme Down, which included a number of bends. From a standing start, over this wet course, J W Marshall (Cambridge), on an ex-Brooklands Norton, rode fearlessly to FTD. `Ferni blew up the only cylinder his Morgan possessed. Cambridge riders won the bike classes, but Bagshawe set FTD for Oxford in a Frazer Nash to which a supercharger had been hastily fitted. R R Jackson drove the s/c 1100cc Frazer Nash ‘Rikki-Tikki II’, but its supercharger expired after a slowish first run. Cambridge had no sidecar competitors and were just beaten by Oxford.

Ewelme Down was the venue again for the 1928 I-V climb, held in hot sunshine, the gravel surface cutting up, making the final long right-hand bend on the 1-in-10 section tricky. Of the bikes, H W Taylor (AJS — Cambridge) made an outstanding ascent, clocking 66.1mph, Cambridge winning all the solo classes. T G Moore was second in class on his 500cc Rudge and third in the unlimited class and, with a sidecar, second in the up-to-600cc class. It looked like a victory for Cantab, although the car classes were Oxon’s, with the twin-cam supercharged Amilcar Sixes of A S Llewellyn and A A Arnold (43.68 and 44.55sec) taking the top two places, with M Miller’s Amilcar third in the 1100cc class, and T G Moore’s 4.5-litre Bentley third in the unlimited section with 45.22sec, and winning the touring class. (Moore would soon acquire Motor Sport) Kent Karslake drove his stripped 1913 Alfonso Hispano Suiza. Cambridge won by 61 points to 23. One wonders whether the ‘bulldogs’ (the college ‘police) were out, looking for first-year students’ forbidden cars, hidden as Karslake’s had been during his first term?

In 1929, there was difficulty in finding a course for the I-V trial suited to both bikes and cars. The former could get up Alms hill when the cars seldom 13 could, and it was all very difficult. Oxford earned a mere 12.92 marks, to Cantab’s 49.92, the May Cup going to H Robson’s MG. Tough, yes, but a noncompeting A7 saloon, three-up, buzzed up one section that was troubling the competitors!

For 1930, a new speed course had to be found as Ewelme Down was now a stud farm, so the CUAC persuaded Mrs Tonge to let it use 550 yards of her straight macadam drive at Branches Park. W B Scott and Spottiswood ran Bugattis, the former crossing the finish at over 100mph to sett FTD. Jack Robinson had his very quick Brescia Bugatti, well-known at Brooldands, as were Meeson’s 30/98 and the Frazer Nash ‘Slug’. Robin Jackson had his Morgan, and Willis a BC A7, and Agabeg, not yet known as Fane, the Salmson, all leading their classes on this pleasant day near Newmarket.

A sporting course was found that winter for the I-V trial, which took in the chalk of Lewknor and the rutted Maiden’s Grove. Competitors famous in racing included Oliver Bertram (30/98), Maurice Fallcner (MG Midget) and T G Clark (MG Midget). May was now in a side-valve Aston-Martin instead of his Ceirano, and Scroggs used his famous Trojan. All got awards. Final score: Cambridge 67.3, winning the Motor Cycling Cup, Oxford 46.1.

In 1931, past members of the universities were now eligible. R G J Nash had the Frazer Nash The Terror’, Ginger Llewellyn had borrowed a Davenport GN, and Spottiswood’s Bugatti clocked 21.2sec. Plus fours had given way to Oxford bags and some wore crash helmets. The GN set FTD, in 20.4sec, for the standing-start 550 yards after an improvised clutch pedal had been fitted. Nash was only a tenth of a second slower after his car had caught fire and coasted to the finish! Brian Twist was also fast in an Amilcar Six and Falkner’s s/c MG Midget, MG 557, won its class, in 24.0sec.

Charles Brackenbury arrived, refreshed himself in the drinks tent, then managed second in the unlimited class with a 2.3 Bugatti. W S Braidwood, Joint Editor of McgoR SpoRr, did 22:7sec in his Frazer Nash, SO 2573. The Conan Doyles who brought Chitty 1 and ‘The Slug’ did not behave very well, alas, as I have described previously. Kehoe demonstrated a 4.5-litre Invicta instead of attempting proper runs, of which every entrant was allowed three or four. The Cup for best time by an undergraduate in his own car went to Robinson’s Brescia Bugatti.

The next year this enjoyable, well-organised event was held at a most unusual venue. A bypass was being built round Eynsham, and Oxford managed to get permission to use an unfinished section of it. A minor road crossed it but somehow a policeman was posted there to hold up legal traffic. I wonder what these drivers said as a racing car screamed past? If you drive over this road, perhaps nose-to-tail, think back to the days of such freedom!

Past undergraduates added fast cars to the proceedings, but the organisation was poor: the start was two hours late and further delays ensued; the paddock was half a mile away; and a biting wind kept engines off-form. A 1-in-80 gradient gave excuse for the ‘hill climb’ title and the half-way crossroad added a bad bump to proceedings. After a 40-yard rolling start there was the tinned km on this 30-feetwide course. Earl Howe had his Alfa Romeo, its engine too stiff to risk competing, but his 38/250 TT Mercedes-Benz made Flu (29.7sec, 75.1mph). Best undergraduate was Thomas Fotheringham, whose 2-litre Bugatti clocked 29.8sec. Neither ‘Slug’ nor ‘Terror’ upheld Frazer Nash reputation, but Dick Nash’s s/c Frazer Nash won its class, as did an MG Midget, a 1926 Frazer Nash, an MG Six, Hamilton’s MG Midget and a s/c BNC. But Fell’s Douglas beat the cars, with 25.65sec. Cambridge won easily.

In 1933, each club ran its own invitation event. Oxford used Eynsham bypass again. Kenneth Evans drove his 500 Mile Race MG Midget, and was almost as quick as Hall’s class record. Richard Marker had his Le Mans 4.5-litre Bentley, the Duke of Grafton an old racing Sunbeam, slowed by clutch slip. Andrew Fairdough, who later favoured ACs, drove a Salmson, a Ford V8 beat May’s Alvis, but Baker-Carr’s Bentley reversed this and Oxford led.

The return match was at Gospall Park’s half-mile with excellent CUAC organisation. Whitney Straight in an 8-litre Bentley (30.6sec), Marker’s Bentley (36.3sec) and Baron von Liergardi’s Ford V8 and a Chrysler were quick, Bertram’s 30/98 tying with the latter (37sec). But the Bellevue Garage MG’s 31.1sec won much acclaim for Evans until Bertram’s old 10.5-litre Delage achieved 26.8sec.

That winter, Cambridge won the I-V trial in the Chilterns, their Frazer Nashes taking the team prize.

The following year, the OUCC was about to become the OUMDC, so Cambridge ran the ‘Battle of the Blues’, again on a bit of that Eynsham bypass, now downhill, with 10 yards of rolling start. Called an acceleration test, 15 bikes and 53 cars entered. Dick Seaman in an MG Magmette took the 1100cc racing class (34.33sec), Dick Nash won his class with the `Spook’ (29.20sec), and Fotheringham in the 2.3 Bugatti (27.27sec) beat Bertram in the big Delage (28.09sec). Femihough’s Excelsior bike vanquished them all, though, (26.69sec). The old spirit was present when Sumner, who had bought two GNs for £4, ran the resultant amalgamation.

These I-V duels were now bringing fast cars to Syston Park for the 1935 round. In rain, Bertram made FTD in the Brooldands lap-record Delage, now with twin rear wheels, in 28.86sec over the half-mile. Tim Davies’ MG Midget (29.09sec) was next, then Humphrey Cook’s ERA (29.14sec), and Kenneth Evans’ MG Midget (29.32sec). Reggie Tongue’s MG Magnette was best 1100cc car, Bolster’s ‘Bloody Mary’ was first in class and Bertram in ‘Old Nol’ Bentley with Bamato’s coupe body was slower by 0.68sec than Cardo’s s/c 7-litre Mercedes-Benz. The Light Blues scored 9 to 2.

Syston, near Grantham, was the venue again in 1936, when Tongue’s R-type MG contrived to go 0.2sec faster than the giant Delage of Bertram, with 2’7.2sec. But again `Ferni’s’ Brough was best of them all (26.3sec). Cambridge were again on top, eight to two. Hugh Conway, the CUAC Secretary in 1935, got praise for how well everything went.

It was similar in 1937, when Jucker’s Alta achieved 2754sec, a new record for the original long Syston course. Sumner, new owner of the big Delage, was second-best (29.34sec). The light blues prevailed, 8 to 2, and they also at last won the I-V trial.

In 1938, Connell broke the record with his ERA (25.67sec), the runners-up being Fry in the revamped Freikaiserwagen (26.39sec) and Eric Fernihough in his first car event with an ex-Dobbs single-seater 2litre Riley (27sec). So the Motor Trophy went to Cambridge, 4 to 2. In the trial there was only a point in it, and Tongue, for Oxford, in an unfamiliar Allard, was the only one ‘clean’.

With war clouds forming, Oxford won the 1939 Chilterns Trial, and in the last Syston sprint before war started, the inexperienced Habershon in the ex-Hyde GP Maserati, after some wild runs, made Flu (26.99sec) on the wet tarmac, and Connell broke the sportscar record in the Darracq (27.53sec).

Whatever the Dons thought of it, this was a good way to prepare for a racing career and great fun.

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