ONE of the attractions of the sport of hillclimbing is that it is relatively easy to begin competing in. With a wide variety of classes to choose from, even a standard road car can often find a competitive niche, and after all, since the whole thing is over in less than a minute, there is not much time for a novice to make mistakes in, is there?
Well, of course it is the converse which is true. With only 50 sec in which to cover perhaps four corners, and only one attempt at a time, the importance of using an extra two inches of road here, or braking a fraction later there becomes vital. But most hill-climbs serve as access roads for most of the time, and are not available for practice and test sessions in between events, so experience takes a long time to gain.
It was watching the various more or less successful lines of other competitors that brought Roy Lane, 1983 RAC Hill-climb Champion, to the conclusion that organised tuition at a particular venue would be a valuable service. It was an idea that the Bugatti Owners Club had also discussed, so it was appropriate that such a school should be set up at Prescott, the BOC’s home hill and HQ. The first classes, with Roy Lane as tutor, were held in 1984 and proved to be a success. This year, the club will hold six school days, involving some 170 pupils.
Motor Sport attended the first of these in April, carefully heeding the instruction sheet which requests the pupil to bring his driving licence (though no-one actually checked its validity), a crash-helmet, and an umbrella! In the event it was a sunny day, so the latter was not needed during a walk up the hill. The scheme is to allow each driver to tackle the hill four times in the morning and four in the afternoon, with every ascent recorded on video for later analysis, which with 28 pupils made a total of 224 runs. This seemed rather optimistic, especially as the projected 9.30 start was a little late. Nevertheless, everyone had had their eight runs by the end of the day, even if this was nearer to 5.30 than the intended 4.30.
On arrival at Prescott, each pupil was directed to park in a numbered space in the Paddock, where the range of cars turned out to be universally sporting. GTis, a trio of Porsche 944s, a Sprite and an MG TD, Morgan +8. TVR 350i, Ginetta G15, Capris — but the system is designed so that everyone is rated on how they use the car they are in, with no advantage to the faster machinery. I parked my Alfa GTV6 alongside the only other Alfa, a Sprint, and walked up to the Restaurant building. Here, Bill Goodman, BOC Secretary, welcomed everyone and made a few points about obeying marshals and flags, before introducing the Chief Instructor. Roy Lane. Lane’s introductory talk was quite brief, confining itself on a blackboard to illustrating some common errors such as turning into the bend too early and consequently understeering out, but he made the point that such basic techniques of car control were not really something he had time to teach, but that it was up to each driver to know his own limits and to concentrate on accuracy and smoathness of line.
In order to illustrate the correct approaches, the next stage was for the whole party to walk up the hill, Lane stopping at each important turn-in or apex and delivering advice. Under his shepherding, the group had soon returned to the bottom, climbed into their cars, and began to form up in strict order at the start line. Although these runs were not to be timed, the thought of any mistakes being replayed to a critical audience added a frisson of apprehension as the car in front of mine set off.
Lane had time to reiterate that he would be looking for the correct line and a smooth style, rather than spectacular driving, before the first few cars screeched away from the start. The first long left-hander is harder than one imagines, since the car is accelerating right through it even though the exit is not visible and it is easy to come across to the inside kerb too early. The following open hairpin right, Ettore’s, can be taken in at one glance, but the problem here is avoiding a build-up of understeer between what ought to be a very late turn-in and the slightly tightening downhill exit, from where a fast drop and rise leads to Pardon, a true uphill hairpin left.
Although the slight right which forms the approach to the Esses is fairly gentle, it is fast, and features a sharp drop on the outside with no barrier to aid one’s confidence. Here Roy had stressed that an outside position would provide a much better view into the Essex, as well as any advantage of line, but it is important to forget the drop and aim for the kerbs. With first the left-hand wheels on the concrete ribs and then the right ones running a little precariously along a raised kerb, the exit line from the Esses should run under the branches of a tree as the car swings left and up into the Semicircle. For the Prescott novice, this is the most alarming of all, since the competitive urge says “stay on the throttle”, while the voice of reason points out that only a small patch of road and a lot of sky is visible, as the course sweeps up and right over the shoulder of the hill, towards the finish. Only a short section is left to slow in after the chequered finish boards, before turning hairpin left back down the paddock again.
On foot, the bends looked a long way apart; in the car there seems to be little time to collect one’s thoughts between dragging the gear-lever back and forwards and lots of frantic wheel twiddling. Now I would be the first to agree that an Alfa GTV6 makes for extra work, with its pronounced understeer and notorious gearchange, and it proved heavy going through Ettore’s, the front tyres howling all the way through. But on the tighter bends, the excellent torque and the limited slip differential brought the rear end round with much less effort, while the effective (if fade-prone) brakes allowed plenty of time for unhurried gear-changes. After a rather careful first run, there was a short pause to allow the video equipment to be moved to the next corner before the next series of ascents. My own second and third attempts felt much smoother and controlled, but the fourth, perhaps through over-confidence, seemed much less tidy.
Lunchtime — and on the way to the Restaurant for a light lunch, there was some rueful muttering in the ranks about mistakes made right in front of the camera, though I could not frankly remember seeing the video crew at all, being too busy peering at the tachometer. Lane’s commentary is made directly onto tape during the filming, so that replay is straightforward. and pointed out any mistakes in a light-hearted manner which relaxed and encouraged the class. My ascents looked a great deal neater from outside than in, which showed that the camera, while it may not lie, can flatter. In fact, the video quality, both technical and camerawork, was quite unexpectedly high, and the class prepared for the afternoon runs feeling that the principle was working very successfully. With no “indiscretions” (only one car has required to be towed out of the greenery so far, the second batch of runs went off smoothly.
Tea and biscuits made a civilised background to the matinee showing of “Prescott Revisited”, and it was noticeable that everyone’s driving was a bit more confident, their positioning was better, and that the higher-powered cars were burning quite a bit of rubber on acceleration. Again, Lane’s succinct comments raised a few laughs, but there were no truly embarrassing blunders, and at the end of his tapes, his marking sheets were ready. Before handing these out, he repeated that his scores reflected the way each individual coped with his own car, and what improvement there had been during the day. The marks proved to be in a tight band, from the mid-80s to the low 90s per cent, and I am relieved to say that Motor Sport was in the correct part of the field, if not quite pole position. There are no prizes, but recently it was announced that a trophy into be awarded to the Prescott pupil who comes closest to his class-leader’s time in his first hill-climb.
Every pupil receives a certificate as a reminder of an enjoyable day spent amongst a friendly group of motoring enthusiasts, but those who had recently taken up hillclimbing went away with a glint in their eye. Those who wanted a taste of fast motoring were happy in the knowledge that their £49 would not have gone as far as a circuit school, while some of us who had never seriously thought about taking up this branch of the sport began to wonder where they might find a spare seat in a hill-climb car.. . . —GC.
New cars: Alfa Romeo 75
It is no secret that Alfa Romeo has been having a particularly hard time of things lately, even by the current standards of much of the European car industry. Apart from the problems of over-capacity and insufficiently high productivity, which BL had to face a few years ago and which are now being faced by several manufacturers on the Continent, it most also be said that Alfa Romeo has had severe quality control problems of late. We have three Alfa Romeos on the Standard House fleet (an Alfa 6 and two GTV 6s) which indicates a certain amount of goodwill towards the marque but the reliability of these cars has been extremely disappointing. On the evidence of our three cars, the company not only faces the problems which beset BL a few years ago, but also the ones which affected Jaguar, but from which that company has emerged with a new spring in its step.
Alfa Romeo’s new model, the 75 (the company celebrates its 75th anniversary this year) becomes, through circumstance, unusually important. Seen by Alfa Romeo as the natural heir to the Giulia and Giulietta, it will not arrive in the UK until late this year and neither the model line-up nor prices have yet been decided. It seems likely, though, that we will receive the 1.8-litre version (because of the tax premium on company cars) together with the top-of-the-range 2.5-litre injected V6. In terms of price, the range slots in between the 33 and 90 and should be 6/7 per cent cheaper than the latter, £10,400 for the V6.
The 75 uses the same floorpan and suspension as the 90 but has been given a new body bearing a family resemblance to the 33. Tinted glass, electric front windows, central door locking, electronic diagnostic panels and 7-function computers are standard on all models.
At the end of last month I had the opportunity to drive the 2.0 carburetted model and the 2.5 injected version. As you would expect from an Alfa Romeo, the interior is not only well finished but has been designed with the sporting motorist in mind. The instruments and controls are well laid out and the overall impression one receives on first sitting in the car is of a vehicle which is wholly functional and yet which has a feel of quality and some luxury. The 2-litre engine (128 bhp) has the throatiness which one expects from a unit fitted with two twin-choke Webers, and that’s a statement, not a criticism, but apart from that noise levels in both cars are low. The ride/handling compromise is excellent, giving a great deal of comfort with no loss of feel though, for some reason, the 2.5 felt much tighter. On both models, the steering is precise and communicative (the 2.5 had pas), braking distances were impressively short even though the brakes were short on feel. The 156 bhp 2.5-litre engine needs no recommendation from me, it’s as sweet and responsive a unit as you’ll find and it, together with the 75’s terrific roadholding, made driving in the Italian Alps a rare pleasure. The car is so easy to set up for corners and one powers through even the tightest bends controlling the slight oversteer on the throttle.
The Alfa Romeo 75 has the potential to be an outstanding car within its projected market niche. It has style, appointment, road manners and pedigree, but I have to use the word “potential” because it remains to be seen whether the company has solved its quality control problems.
While bearing in mind that we were driving very low mileage examples of early production cars, I have to say that I was not convinced that the problems have yet been fully overcome.
The gearbox on the 2-litre car was so stiff it was downright unpleasant, an experience shared by others on the launch, yet it is supposedly identical to the one fitted to the 2.5, which was superb. The fact that the oil warning light came on after a little over 80 miles did not impress either, though since my Italian is no better than the English of the mechanic to whom I pointed this out, I never did discover the reason though the word “electronic” seemed to loom large. “My” 2.5 developed an audible and transmitted thump from the steering when going through left-handers and the handbrake worked loose. The overall “feel” of the two cars was also remarkably different, the 2.5 seeming to be much more taut, yet apart from the engines, they were supposed to be identical.
These are possibly the sort of problems and differences one might expect from early production models. They might, on the other hand, be evidence of continuing poor quality control. I sincerely hope that the former is the case for nobody could wish ill to a name as great as Alfa Romeo. ML.
Alfa Romeo running report
THE one-time top model of the Alfa Romeo range, the executive Alfa-6, is about to be replaced by the Alfa Romeo 90 but as this new model uses the same vee-six engine, but with fuel-iniection, some interest still attaches to the older model. The Standard House car now has over 45,000 miles on its odometer and has settled down to a more passive old age, although seemingly difficult to service. For example, when the n/s front turn-indicator failed, causing the fascia warning light to go on the blink, it was found that the thoughtfully provided mud shield under the wing was missing, and so the bulb-holder had corroded. This was duly reported, after the indicator had been juryrigged to work again. When the car was returned the mud shield was back in place but some five months later, when the flasher failed again, the corroded jury-rigged one was still in place. . .
The individual feature of one carburetter per cylinder seems to present tuning problems, for starting is anything but instantaneous and fuel consumption, at the last check, was 19.36 mpg, the average over an appreciable mileage being 19.03 mpg. The front tyres ran 21,200 miles and the rear tyres were close to illegal after 23,500 miles, the Michelin XVS being replaced with Michelin MXVs. Corrosion of the bodywork after four years is not yet a problem but the selector-lever for the ZF automatic transmission is apt to “zizz” and the “hold” or “P” position no longer acts as a sprag. The oil-gauge continues to register zero at idle and the fuel-gauge to show full with the ignition off, which can lead to a nasty shock when the engine is started! However, since servicing by Huntsworth Garages of Marylebone some of the former snags have been ironed out and I find this rare Alfa Romeo a comfortable car on long journeys, easy to drive. — WB.