Ever since H F Locke King built his remarkable Brooklands Motor Course at Weybridge in Surrey in 1906/7, it has been recognised worldwide as the first ever motor race course. It was copied by the Americans at Indianapolis in 1911, and by other nations after the war, but indisputably it remains the first track of its kind. But those organising this year’s Bexhill-100 celebrations with the support of East Sussex’s Rother Council advertised not only that this seaside town was “the first real home of British motorsport”, but that on May 6th/7th it intended to celebrate the fad that in 1902, and I again quote “…some years before either Brighton or Brooklands, Bexhill-on-Sea had constructed Britain’s first ever custom-built Motor Racing Circuit”.
A curious claim indeed and I note that Bexhill-100 seemed undecided whether to base it on the year 1902 or 1903. No matter, because it was a false claim. Let us look at the facts of the matter. The first test of speed in Britain took place in 1900 over a course in the Duke of Portland’s Welbeck Park, which MOTOR SPORT visited and photographed a few years ago. The Hon. C S Rolls made FTD on his Panhard. Other such speed trials followed in some numbers, illegally on public roads and also in Lord Cromer’s Gunston Park. It was not until 1902 that such an event was held at Bexhill.
Admittedly this was quite an occasion, attracting foreign competeitors such as the great Rene de Knyff (Panhard), Giradot (CGV), Barras and Gabriel with Darracqs and Serpollet, whose steam-car made FTD at 54.53 mph. The course consisted of a kilometre of the De La Warr Parade, which the Council was able to close through the influence of Earl de la Warr. The Earl had erected a 1-in-12 starting ramp 155 yards long to increase the pace of the cars along what was neither entirely a straight nor a smooth road. No-one disputes the popularity of this first Bexhill speed trial. Important newspapers gave trophies, the LB & SC and L & SE railways ran special trains from London to the venue, and some 20,000 people spectated. But a local jobmaster obtained an injunction stopping the Earl from holding another such event that year, on the grounds of obstruction of a right of way. Incidentally, it is a reflection on how motor cars were thus regarded that, in the course of the case, “William Mayner v Earl de la Warr” in the Chancery division of the High Court which led to the injunction against using the Marine road for motor speed trials, when the judge, Mr Justice Farwell asked in what space a car going at 50 mph could be stopped and was told “Within about 50 feet” (in fact it would have been in the region of 400 feet), he said “I should be sorry to be in it.” (Laughter). And the case for Earl de la Warr was lost . . .
In 1905 Brighton staged a four day speed trial meeting organised by the ACGBI with the backing of Brighton Corporation. Moreover, the Madeira Road (renamed the Madeira Drive in 1909) which allowed for a standing start mile and a flying start kilometre, was tarmacadamed for the purpose, at a cost of around £4000, thus ranking as Britain’s first road specially prepared for motor speed events. FTD was made by Earp (Napier) at 92.88 mph. The famous Madeira Drive is used to this day, not only for the Brighton speed trials but as the finishing place for such important events as the Veteran Car Run, the Historic Commercial Vehicle Run, etc. Both at Bexhill and at Brighton cars ran in pairs, which might be construed as racing. But I am sure that Brighton Corporation, unlike Rother Council, would never claim that this had any similarity to racing over a circuit, nor that holding an annual sprint meeting endows a place with the right to claim that it is a “home of motor racing”.
Bexhill resumed its speed trials in 1904, over three days, the kilo course now run in the reverse direction from that of 1902; FTD: Algernon Lee-Guinness (Mercedes 60) at approximately 48 mph. But the Sussex Daily News described its 1906 event as “the worst farce ever conducted in the name of a motor car race meeting”. Lack of entries finished off a Bexhill fixture later that year.
In the years between the wars, speed trials and hill-climbs predominated, mostly over public roads until the RAC ban in 1925, and Bexhill held some of the best of them, along the Promenade. Here over the West Parade in 1922 Leon Cushman’s Bugatti clocked 27.2 secs for the 650 yard course and in 1923 Ivy Cummings was quickest in 28.0 secs, with her 5-litre chain-drive Bugatti “Black Bess”, now owned by David Heimann. Cushman (Bugatti) was fastest again in 1924, equalling Miss Cushman’s speed in the bigger car, and later that year J A Joyce’s AC did a run, over 700 yards, in 23.2 secs. So let’s not deny Bexhill its fair share of speed!
However I can find no evidence that a racing circuit was ever built at Bexhill. In my book, and unquestionably in most other people’s, Brooklands was the first custom-built (horrid term!) motor racing track, not only in Great Britain, but in the world. Other such tracks were planned, even before Brooklands was thought of, at Warlingham in Surrey for example, but none came to fruition. Even earlier than that, thoughts had turned to racing circuits on public roads. An 18 mile course was visualised near OuIton Broad in 1901, just as in the 1920s a circuit was proposed over little-used roads on Salisbury Plain, which curiosity caused me to drive over after the war. But the law forbidding the closing of public roads for racing (speed trial illegality had been easier to disguise) meant that nothing came of these proposals and when the RAC introduced a Parliamentary Bill to overcome this in 1925 it was thrown out by the then Home Secretary and has never been rescinded.
After the usefulness and success of Brooklands had been established, plans for other “custom-built” motor race tracks multiplied. Considerable work was done in 1922 on a banked track a mile outside Derby. Although a mere one-third of a mile to a lap, Prof. A M Low had calculated the angle of the almost continuous banking was safe for speeds of up to 75/80 mph. The unemployed, aided by Fordson tractors, were engaged on building it and a football pitch in the centre and a running track outside were visualised, with viewing terraces at the banking top. Perhaps the very steep and narrow banking was unsafe, for no more was heard of the project; maybe someone will tell us if any trace remains.
Hardly had the Derby scheme fizzled out than Birmingham got in on the act. A three mile track with long straights linked by banked turns was planned three miles outside the city, at the Perry Hall Estate. Lord Calthorpe’s residence was in the centre of the estate, which was bordered on one side by the LM & S railway line, with a station at each end and on the other side by the main road to Walsall. The track was announced as intended to compete directly with Brooklands, and while profits were not visualised (did Locke King ever make a profit from his ambitious undertaking?) these were to be scooped from sports facilities, of course including football grounds and eventually an Olympia-like exhibition hall. The Midlands motor industry was in favour and the 30/40 bedroom house with moat, lake and outbuildings was suited to club facilities. Fine; yet nothing came of it . . .
The next suggestion, backed by a branch of the Brighton & Hove MC, was for a 2 1/4-mile road circuit on the downs, close to Portslade station. The cost was estimated at slightly over £20,000 and by the end of 1926 even the admission charge (3/- or 15p) had been announced. A pyramid shape central grandstand was to give a view of all round the course, a 1 1/2-mile long straight would cater for speed trials, other clubs would be invited to hold races there, the opening being confidently billed for May or June 1927. So what happened to that one? Rising costs killed it, after a prospectus had been issued, with Segrave, Lee-Guinness and other celebrities named as Directors and a more ambitious “figure of eight” circuit envisaged, with banked corners. There were also objections about desecration of the Downs and Portslade Council found against the construction of the track. . .
Undaunted, a road circuit was proposed in 1927 at Wallop Hall, about ten miles west of Shrewsbury. A Nantwich architect was behind the idea. He visualised a 3-mile, 30-foot-wide tarmacadam course with banked corners and oddly a 1-in-3 hill as part of it. It had been staked out and surveyed by that autumn. Being in remote country the noise problem that almost closed Brooklands was unlikely to arise. By December it was announced that Major Segrave, who had just become the first driver in the world to exceed 200 mph, had inspected the site and had agreed to become Chairman of Directors of the promoting company. But when I went to look at the place some years ago, I was told that it all fell through due to the finance disappearing. Other sites where tracks were mooted, but never got off the surveyors’ included Ivinghoe on the Dunstable Beacons, on the shores of the Wash, etc. and rumour has suggested that in 1905/6 there were plans to build the first banked track at Clacton in Essex, perhaps with Locke King’s blessing, for an area there is apparently called Brooklands with roads named after makes of cars, which perhaps readers living locally would care to investigate. An Ivinghoe circuit was so far advanced that a great International road race was scheduled there for August 1933, at this £200,000, 435-acre, 4-mile track, which had the backing of G E T Eyston, C R Whitcroft and the BRDC Secretary, and which the Press were shown that January. Yet it fizzled out like all the others . . .
None of these tracks reached fruition. Brooklands remained the first British Motor Course and the only one until the Donington and Crystal Palace road circuits were opened, respectively in 1933 and 1937. I deplore deeply any claim that denigrates the rightful place of Brooklands in motor racing history. Otherwise I have nothing against the Bexhill-100 charity carnival. Indeed as the original speed trial road will presumably be used and the 1902 “downhill free-wheel race” apparently re-enacted, and the Sackville Hotel, HQ in 1902, has been restored, tradition is being followed, which is commendable. But whether another claim is fulfilled, that it is hoped to have present cars that actually took part in the 1902 speed trials, remains to be seen. That the 1902 speed trial meeting was a great success cannot be denied. WB