Hill-Climbs and Speed-Trials
Timed hill-climbs and speed-trials were at one time an important part of British motoring sport. Indeed, until Brooklands was opened in 1907 they were the only speed fixtures on the Mainland. Public road courses were used freely, until a spectator’s broken leg in the accident at Kop hill in 1924 resulted in the RAC ban early the following year.
MOTOR SPORT listed the more important of these events many years ago and a book has since been published about them. So there is no need to dwell on the pre-Ban sprints. It has, however, been interesting to visit as many of the old venues as possible, such as Kop, Spread Eagle, Aston Clinton, South Harting, Dean Hill and Caerphilly. Only recently, aided by an old photograph, I was able to discover the starting area of that ACU speed-trial which, together with another near Tavistock, had the distinction of being the last to be held after the Ban was enforced, apart front “pirate” happenings. A half-mile of road, tarmacadamed even in 1925, out of Hereford, was used, f.t.d. being made by F. B. Taylor’s Brescia Bugatti. A bungalow beside this now busy main road was my clue to where competitors had been started; although some of its chimneys have since been removed, there was no mistaking it.
After the Ban, private courses had to be found. By all, that is, except Clubs that turned a blind eye. The Bugatti OC, for instance, timed cars up Middledown hill near Salisbury during one of its adventurous Night Trials and did so again in a daytime trial in 1934. It was disguised as an acceleration-cum-hill-climb test! (Driving-tests were rather different but it is amusing that the MCC got away with timed manoeuvres and a brake test on a road in Llandudno that the public were using at the same time, also in 1934; there was even a policeman there to help!)
Mostly, however, the Clubs behaved like good boys and found private speed-venues. Many of these were notably picturesque, often consisting of the drive of a stately home, so that the Paddock would be in a suitable field and the cars would run in close proximity to railed-off pastureland and age-old trees, frequently over a narrow, gravel-surfaced road. I find myself wondering whether any of these 1925-39 courses still survive. Do they now sleep undisturbed by the sudden invasion of racing cars with open exhausts driven by wild young men intent on going as quickly as possible come what may? Or have they been ravished by the public buying teas in the great house? Or have the bulldozers and speculative builders swamped these old estates, converting them, maybe, into estates of quite another kind?
Whatever has befallen them, it is fun to recall them. There was Branches Park near Newmarket (by kind permission of Mrs. Tonge) where W. B. Scott made fastest time in the 1½-litre GP Delage, crossing the line at well over 100 m.p.h. Moreover, he had driven the car from his shed at Brooklands to London and to the venue the next day, with the Hon. Max Aitken in the passenger’s seat! There was Hexton Hall, where the Conan Doyles got their Austro-Daimler across the course beyond the finish, causing Rothschild’s 38/250 Mercedes-Benz to go off the road, alas to the detriment of Sir James Hill’s box hedge of immemorial antiquity.
There were Syston Park, Ewelme Down (by permission of Mrs. Harwood-Murray), Gopsall Park, Isworth, Henley Park and Hatley Park. And there was Eynsham, as I am reminded whenever I drive to the office through Witney towards Oxford. It was here that a timed kilometre was available before the new by-pass was opened, a policeman holding up main road traffic as each competitor made his run. I wonder what the public, waiting in their staid saloons, thought, as they got a glimpse of a Bugatti or Frazer Nash in full cry?
I used to attend the Berkhamsted & DMC’s hill-climbs at Dancer’s End. The course was too loose and short to rank with the faster venues but it provided much fun, although not for Alan Hess when he inverted a borrowed Brescia Bugatti at the hairpin. The same Club held speed-trials at Howard Park nearby, at which touring ioe GNs were brutally made to perform as single-seaters. In later times there were speed-trials at Wetherby, just off the Great North Road, where the Vauxhall Villiers stirred things up.
As the, peaceful years ran out less pleasing courses were resorted to. The Bugatti OC made use of part of a building site at Chalfont St. Peter for a speed hill-climb, and had an even less alluring course at Joel Park. The VSCC once went to a windswept concrete road at Littlestone-on-Sea for speed-trials, before this venue became, I expect, a holiday camp. Later it was reduced to a maze of roads in Croydon that normally served as the Learners’ course at a Driving School, and the roads round the AEC factory at Southall have been the scene of speed events. It is the more vintage-flavour courses that I prefer to remember.
Fortunately, we are still endowed with excellent sprint events, many of which have classes for pre-war cars. Shelsley Walsh, which as it commenced in 1905 is definitely pre-Ban, has seen very successful participation by the VSCC in recent years and the Bugatti OC’s Prescott hill is even more frequently supported by vintage and thoroughbred cars. The seaside speed-trials at Brighton and Weston-super-Mare happily survive. Curiously, however, there is no speed-trial in the VSCC calendar—for Curborough is not quite what I have in mind. A hill-climb, in the very nature of things, usually incorporates bends and corners, which puts a premium on good brakes and road-holding and driver prowess. This is less true of a speed-trial, which should thus suit back-braked Specials and Edwardians, and enable interesting comparisons to be made between them.
I know the RAC now demands a hard surfaced course. But surely it would not be impossible to find a suitable quarter or half mile, preferably in a 1930s setting? Such a vintage speed-trial over a straight and level course might be dull to watch but photographers could be encouraged by restricting the car-parks adjacent to the start area to prewar car – to give a period atmosphere. I should be interested to have Peter Hull’s reactions to this idea.
Meanwhile, can anyone tell me how some of those pre-war sprint venues are faring, in the chill wind of 1975? – W.B.
Book reviews, October 2003, October 2003
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