“I laid The first tyre tracks at Prescott”
Our founder editor was the first man to try out the famous hillclimb, which left him with an unfair advantage…
It will soon be time to enjoy again meetings at that very pleasant Prescott hillclimb course near Cheltenham, owned by the Bugatti OC, which was able to acquire the site that Tom Rolt had discovered before telling the VSCC of its potential. The VSCC was unable to meet the cost involved, so the Bugatti OC took over, allowing the VSCC a meeting of its own in repayment, as it has every year.
When this was announced I realised that publicity would be needed and asked Col Giles, who with his brother Eric Giles had bought the estate and leased it to the BOC at a nominal rent, if I could see the completed course and describe it in Motor Sport. It was agreed, and with my friend Jim Brymer and his cameras I drove from London in an 1100cc Fiat Ballila saloon I had for a road-test. After Brymer had photographed the course and the fine empty mansion, Prescott House, at the top of the hill, which would have become the BOC Clubhouse had the war not put paid to this development, I drove up and down the hill as fast as I could a number of times, leaving black lines on its virgin corners. The strain on the Fiat’s tyres presumably caused the flat tyre we had to change before driving back to London. I suppose the contractors and the Giles brothers must have driven up and down Prescott before I did, but perhaps I was the first to leave these tell-tale marks on the newly-laid surface.
The hill was ready by May for the first meeting in 1938. The course was closed to everyone until after lunch, when timed runs were made by 45 cars, the idea being that all the drivers would be trying climbs for the first time. It was an embarrassing arrangement for me. The fastest time was made by C I Craig’s 4.9-litre Bugatti in 55.58sec, second best was R C Symondson’s 57S Bugatti in 57.83sec, followed remarkably by Cecil Clutton with the 1908 GP Itala, which took 59.03sec, faster than a Railton, another 57S Bugatti, an Alfa Romeo and a Type 37 Bugatti, of those who bettered 60sec.
The corners were difficult, particularly the semi-circle with its 90-degree blind entry, but I was quick to enter the road-test Lancia Aprilia (what a wonderful car it was) and, with the many runs I had made in the Fiat, managed 63.75sec, beating Eric Giles’ Type 50 Bugatti (64.25sec), a Ford V8, an HRG, a Talbot 105, an 8-litre Bentley, a Type 55 and a Type 57 Bugatti, a Frazer Nash, a 4½-litre Bentley, a Wolseley Hornet, Tom Rolt’s 12/50 Alvis, two Triumph Dolomites, a British Salmson, two more T57 Bugattis and another 4½-litre Bentley, a 3-litre Bentley, two other Lancias, a Hillman, down to Marcus Chambers’ Fiat 500, among many well-known drivers whose first run up the hill it was. It pays to practise!
Soon after The Motor published an article on Prescott including all these times. I felt I had to ‘come clean’, so I wrote a letter confessing why the obliging Aprilia had made a quick time.
Prescott’s first full-scale meeting was on May 15 1938, for which I entered an Aprilia again. Going too fast into a corner I crammed into bottom gear to assist the brakes, the engine was not amused and I was posted as a non-starter. In the afternoon I resumed reporting the climbs for Motor Sport. It was now raining and when the loudspeaker announced that a spectator had offered his Lancia for me to drive and the Stewards had agreed I set off in muddy shoes and soaked raincoat to the start. At least I knew how to drive these cars and I hoped to justify this very generous offer. When I got into the car everything seemed unfamiliar and to this day I am ashamed of finishing last but one (70.81sec), beating only Mill’s 1907 Renault (106.2sec). FTD was made by Arthur Baron’s 2.3-litre Bugatti (50.70sec) and Cecil Clutton set the remarkable time of 58.40sec in the 1908 GP Itala, now owned by George Daniels. That was Prescott 70 years ago.
An Oxford education
Practically every one-make club has its own magazine. The latest magazine I have received is that of the Bull-Nose Morris Club (secretary Malcolm McKay, e-mail: [email protected]), which tells us that a commendable attempt is being made to acquire Nuffield House, Lord Nuffield’s home. I am always glad to receive these, as I was taught to drive in the mid-1930s, in a flat-nose Morris Cowley saloon. Its owner told me that driving was as easy as walking and that a car would stop and start safely if its driver understood it. Soon afterwards I took a test with a driving school but the tester (no examination then) sat and read his paper, saying that I need not have wasted my money, as there was nothing he could teach me. So I hired a Model A Ford, collected a girlfriend and set off for Brooklands.
This issue departs partially from the bull-nose theme, with 15 pages devoted to pictures of how flat-nose cars and vans were assembled at the Cowley, Oxford, factory in 1927 (pictured), when 58,000 were made in a year, or about one every two-and-a-half minutes! The next 15 pages show T-type Morris one-ton commercial vehicles being made at Soho, Birmingham in 1925 (5300; one every 27 minutes).
However, the following 19 pages cover in colour the club’s 2007 rally season, with plenty of bull-nose cars. It is said that it was possible to tell a Morris Cowley from a Morris Oxford as the former had three nuts per wheel, the latter five. Not for safety reasons, as Cowleys may have broken half-shafts but did not shed wheels, as I remember it. But a Morris Oxford was not all that faster than a Cowley, so why the cost of an extra two holes per wheel?
Gatecrashing the guild
The Guild of Motoring Writers, following the death of Lord Strathcarron, has elected as its new president Nick Mason, drummer with the Pink Floyd band but also known for his fine collection of vintage and historic cars, which include a V16 BRM, a 250 GTO Ferrari, a Bugatti 35B, a Maserati 250F and a Ferrari 312T3, and for his racing appearances since the 1970s, including Le Mans. He is a life member of the BRDC. His wife Annette is also an enthusiastic driver, who competed at the Goodwood Festival hillclimb with a 512BB Ferrari and a Frazer Nash. Mason’s father Bill is remembered for those splendid GP films he made and for his 4½-litre Bentley, which is among Nick’s collection.
The GMW has over 400 active members, who get a very useful annual yearbook with head-and-shoulder photographs of members, a very useful directory of relevant companies, and details of motor and motorcycle racing etc.
In the year of the guild’s formation a fellow motoring writer, Joe Lowrey, told me he had heard that the motor industry was holding a meeting at Goodwood at which the press could sample its products. So we went along and did this. No-one had challenged us but we soon realised that we had inadvertently ‘gatecrashed’ and were supposed to be members of the GMW. So we joined, and went to its meetings each year. I used to ask Paul Frère (who has sadly recently died) to take my wife round, as he was a far faster driver than I was, but safe. One amusing episode was when the very fast cars were only available to those with competition licences. I had obtained one to compete in an Economy Run so was able to show it and drive the circuit in, say, a Maserati or suchlike, although I had only got the licence to drive a Citroën 2CV at economical speeds… Happy days!
The Guild’s honorary members are the Duke of Kent, the Earl of March, Lord Hesketh and the Marquis of Bute, and the secretary is Patricia Lodge, 40 Baring Road, Bournemouth, Dorset BH6 4DT.
VCC dating panel sacked
I had barely referred to the dependable dating panel of the Veteran CC about a story for next month when I received a most distressing circular from the Veteran Car Club saying that the Board of Veteran Car Services Ltd has sacked its dating panel and that this sub-activity is to cease forthwith.
When the Daily Sketch held the first commemorative Brighton Run in 1927, the cars permitted were those made up to 21 years after the 1896 Run from London to Brighton by the first primitive ‘horseless carriages’. When, four years later, the VCC was formed, the aim was to commemorate properly that adventurous 1896 run. There were too few vehicles of that era to constitute a decent entry, although this served to remind enthusiasts that they could search to find such vehicles to restore and use in later runs. So a later cut-off date had to be decided upon, and the VCC committee chose the 1904 limit on the grounds that after that cars had become more sophisticated.
This was the run’s composition until some years ago, when slightly later cars were included. The rot set in with an invitation to take in cars of those who were concerned, or determined, that they owned pre-1905 cars, although the panel disagreed. The owners argued that the engine and chassis numbers would be put on their vehicles when they were sold, not when they left the factory, which the very thorough VCC dating committee knew was not so. Now we do not know what rules will be implemented, or who will assess vehicles.
The VCC’s statement concludes: “as a result of the decision by the BVCS Board a major raison d’être for the Veteran Car Club’s existence has been destroyed at a stroke”. A sad occurrence.
Jensen’s history in colour
When I was editor of Motor Sport and road-testing lots of cars I was very impressed with the 6.3-litre Jensen FF, with its Ferguson 4WD and Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes. Now Richard Calver has told the Jensen story in an enormous, landscape-style book, rather floppy with soft covers but ideal for the full-page, full-colour pictures, not only of Jensens but of every conceivable variant from the A7s onwards including commercial vehicles and most of the Jensen personnel.
A History of Jensen – All the Models, ISBN 978 0 245 1291 1, foreword by Richard Greaves, is available for £45 from the Jensen Owners Club; http://www.jensencv8.com/regalia; e-mail: [email protected]
I see that my friend Michael Worthington-Williams, the industrious motor historian, has been sorting out those post-war three-wheelers which the financial slump brought forth. Prominent among these were the Bond and the Isetta.
I retain mixed memories of the former. How one wet night, returning from a Fiat club dinner in London with my wife, the thing suddenly stopped. Cars poured past without helping, in an age when such assistance was still commonplace. I got the tiny single-cylinder 197cc Villiers engine, which turned with the front wheel, to restart eventually. The Bond folk sent a mechanic down to set things in better fettle. “You have a nice job,” I said, “driving all over the place instead of being confined to an office”. “What?” he replied. “I’m giving in my notice next week; I can’t stand driving this 122cc van.”
Testing another Bond, with Jenks aboard, the steering suddenly failed – two large pulleys had fallen off the cable-operated system. A passer-by told us the Boy Scouts had probably picked these up for their scrap-metal search. He gave us the address of their Scout Master and we were at last able to recover these essential pulleys and proceed. But on Bonding to the Motor Sport offices the clutch refused to disengage, and as I tried to get out of gear the Bond ran slowly into the back of a bus. Its conductor pushed us back with his legs. I had had enough and drove into the next garage and left the Bond there, telling the company where it was. When the more sporting Bond Bug, which was aimed at young drivers, came for test I let my youngest daughter try it. She wrote a report, which I had no need to edit, of a rather critical nature, and did not ask me to buy her a Bug.
The Isetta you got into by lifting up its nose panel. If another vehicle parked too close, you were trapped, which I found terrifying due to claustrophobia. Mrs Tee, wife of Motor Sport’s proprietor, used one as a runabout and met Jenks and me at a local railway station on the first stage of a journey to report on a GP; I was very glad when I could push up the front panel and get out. Four wheels better, perhaps, unless you had a Morgan or a French D’Yrsan?
When petrol rationing was introduced soon after the beginning of WWII, motorcycles were exempt for some time to help workers who used them to get to work. When I drew Holland (Holly) Birkett’s attention to this, ever ingenious and capable, he installed an Austin 7 engine in a Raleigh three-wheeler, although Jenks thought it was a Reliant. It was quick on its initial outing, and it overturned at the first roundabout.
I can still remember a winter’s night when Holly and I were in it on the way home to Fleet in Hampshire and were stopped by a policeman for misuse of war-time petrol. Holly left me freezing in the car while he went into the Police Station to argue the legalities, which the police had not heard of. I suppose they rang other stations to ask for confirmation, eventually obtained. An amusing aspect was when, before we drove away, a policeman with a torch came out to check that our car had only three wheels.
Do you have photos of Campbell Star?
In Ireland another ex-Brooklands car is being restored, by Michael Wylie. It is the Star raced there by Malcolm Campbell, which had a tuned version of the production side-valve two-bearing 11.9hp engine, of which the original body still exists.
This Star lapped at 79.30mph. Seven weeks later, rebuilt with the 1924 2-litre three-bearing 12/20hp engine and a single-seater body, it gave Campbell another win, with a best lap of 87.84mph. Later the new body was put on an ohv-engined Star by J E Coulter & Company in Belfast, where Mr Wylie’s father was apprenticed. This Star competed at Magilligan Sands and made STD at the Ballybannon hillclimb.
Michael has only one photograph of the original Star and would like others to aid with the rebuild. If anyone can help, please let us know.
Kipling was a Singer fan
Having heard that Rudyard and his son John Kipling were both motoring enthusiasts, I tried to verify this. All I have found is that in the book My Boy Jack? by Tonie and Valmai Holt, John (known as Jack and pictured above) is described as having a Singer. He said, “I don’t think, honestly, that there is a better car in the market. It’s her amazing strength, speed and handsomeness that attracts me.” This was at the outbreak of WWI, so it was probably the 14hp 2.4-litre model, because not many of the bigger 20hp Singers were produced before the war. After an accident it cost £100 to repair.
Kipling recalled leaving a nightclub in London at 3.10am and getting to his army barracks at Warley, Essex in 43 minutes – about 21 miles. He said, “being broad daylight I could move like hell”. On the way he met only two taxis and a cart – the open road of those times.
There is a reference to the family chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce which had soon to be laid up, after which the Singer was substituted, driven by a sister.
Had John Kipling not been killed in action in 1915 he would, he said, have bought “the smartest two-seater Hispano-Suiza to be got”. The question mark in the book’s title refers to the then unknown location of John’s grave. It was published in 1980 by Pen & Sword Publishing, Burnley.
All I have been able to discover about Rudyard Kipling’s cars is that he began motoring with a steam Locomobile in 1900, changed that for a 10HP Lanchester, christened ‘Amelia’, and bought his first Rolls-Royce in 1911. His last Royce, a 1928 Phantom, is still on display at his home, Batemans in Sussex. But despite enjoying motoring, he never drove himself.