As old as the hills

Shelsley Walsh led the way for speed hillclimbs in Britain. Bill Boddy emphasises why this historic venue must not go the way of Brooklands

Shelsley Walsh, the famous speed hillclimb course near Worcester, dates back to 1905. The pioneer of such courses in this country opened when other clubs were holding their speed events illegally on public-road hills. The Bugatti OC's 880-yard Prescott hill is excellent in every way, with a picnic atmosphere, but it was not ready until 1938.

Shelsley's lease runs out next March, and the Midland Automobile Club needs to find £1.4 million to purchase and save it. The demise of such a long-established and active speed event is unthinkable, another British sporting heritage lost forever.

The Midland AC is itself one of the oldest of such organisations. Founded in January 1902 in the Grand Hotel in Birmingham, with influential personalities on its Committee, namely Vernon Pugh, JD Siddeley, J Holden, A Bird, J Chatwin, AJW Millership, Herbert Austin and Frank Lanchester, the last-named its first Secretary, it could not fail to grow to greatness.

At the time, it too was organising hill-climbing competitions on suitable stretches of public roads, at Gorcott and Sunrising (look at the MAC badge) on the main Stratford-Banbury highway. But it was with the MAC's acquisition of Shelsley Walsh, the winding road on the estate of Mr Taylor and later Sir Francis Winnington, with the acquiescence of his Court House tenants, the Kirby brothers, that it was able to have its speed hillclimbs untroubled by police interference or public objection.

The first such event took place on August 12, 1905, when Hugh Locke King was still contemplating a motor track in his Weybridge grounds and the first French Grand Prix had yet to be held. So Shelsley Walsh predates Brooklands, which was not up and running until 1907 and where racing ceased forever in '39.

The rough track the MAC had access to needed to be improved for its new purpose. It was converted into a 992-yard timed section, incorporating the still extant Kennel bend (named after the abode of the hunt hounds), the Crossing curve, and the S-bend further up the course.

Spectators were admitted, at first for free, and warned not to impede competing cars by four policemen ringing bells. A very loud ship's bell at the Esses told the starter that the course was clear and another car could be put on the start by the Dutch barn. It was rung three times if the road was blocked, five times when it was cleared. No times were issued, except to those officials at the startline tent, but it was possible for keen onlookers to listen for the start and finish bells and do their own timing. The course was of rolled gravel, rising at 1-in-6.5 for some distance by the Crossing, which defeated four cars at the opening meeting.

At the initial 1905 meeting 41 cars completed the ascents. The fastest was Instone's big Daimler (77.6sec), beating two other Daimlers. (His son was much later to drive the GN 'Martyr' and 'Djinn' and become a president of the MAC.) But a weight/ speed formula was in force for those early meetings, making the winner G Patterson's 6hp De Dion Bouton. Cars had to be weighed at Martley weighbridge about three miles away. (Is it still there?) It was rumoured that some competitors had water ballast with a tap in the tank so that when they arrived at the hill their cars were lighter than when on the weighbridge, the giveaway a trail of water along the route! A full load of passengers was allowed, however, and the formula-class persisted until 1929.

The Bennett Cadillac, in the news again recently, took 229sec. Four failed to reach the top. Famous drivers such as the great Charles Jarrott (De Dietrich) and Louis Coatalen (Humber) competed.

In 1906, FTD was set by a White steam car (80.6sec) and the slowest was a little Wolseley which took over 10 minutes, driven by Luff Smith, who came with me in the 1930s on MCC trials. The outright winner (that formula again) was a De Dion (289.6sec). In '07, the course now longer by 24ft to make it 1000 yards, Hutton's Berliet took the record to 67.2sec. It was broken again at the second meeting in '07 by Tryon's Napier (65.4sec), and then the big Daimlers scored best times from '09-11, HC Holder's getting down to 62.2sec in the last year.

J Higginson, who was the Autovac man, appeared in 1912 with a 68hp La Buire, making best time in 68.8sec. Determined to get the course record, he persuaded Laurence Pomeroy, the Vauxhall designer, to produce a special car, which did the trick very nicely in 1913 (a remarkable 55.2sec). This was to sire the E-type 30/98.

War stopped the June 1914 climbs, but Shelsley opened again in '20, the entry fee 20 guineas per car (take note, if you think today's fees are too high). A thunderstorm left the car park in the field opposite the lodge entrance so muddy that spectators' cars got bogged down and it was 10.30pm before a tractor rescued the last one. Before the rain became too torrential CA Bird clocked best time (58.6sec) in a Sunbeam.

I know how muddy it could get. Even in the 1930s the path up to the seats overlooking the Esses was difficult to climb. I once asked the taciturn-looking but friendly Leslie Wilson, in charge of things so wonderfully from 1921 to '58, several hours before the ascents would begin, if instead I could walk up the course to the Press tent. I received a firm "No". This tent soon became full of people quite unconnected with reporting the climbs.

In 1921, the weather was good, dust rising from the road, and Bird put the record to 52.2sec with an Indianapolis Sunbeam.

Shelsley Walsh was by now a very popular event, especially with those Midlanders living so far away from Brooklands. It was to gain even more support in 1925 after public-road speed events became illegal. By '27 the Orchard Paddock at Shelsley was tarred, Brooklands-type car shelters erected and a return road provided. Soon the BBC was broadcasting commentaries from the hill, which I first listened to in the 1930s, before going there myself for Motor Sport. I found it profoundly exciting.

At every meeting, two a year, a fine variety of cars competed, important road-racing ones, the inimitable 'Shelsley Specials' such as the Avon-JAP, the shattering Bolster Specials (John stood his on its head at one climb), Spider, Wasp, GNAT, the twin-engined 4WD Fuzzi and the Martyr, and others more sophisticated, cars designed professionally or by skilled amateurs for the purpose, and vintage cars. There were occasionally unexpected ones to add more variety — the single-seater Brooklands Lanchester Forty, Whales' very slender Calthorpe, Ellison's enormous Renault 45, etc — all had to have a go up the very famous hill.

Park was quickest in 1922 with a TT Vauxhall, and in '23 Raymond Mays tied with it driving his fast, much smaller Bugatti. At the July '24 climbs Cyril Paul provided a surprise by breaking the '21 record with a Scottish Racing Beardmore (50.5sec).

True professionalism arrived in 1925 with a 2-litre GP Sunbeam, complete with bulb horn and mechanics from Wolverhampton for Segrave, who drove impeccably on a wet course (53.8sec), crash helmet above smart lounge suit.

A 30/98 Vauxhall had the advantage of a dry surface in July 1926 (56.6sec), and that September the inimitable Basil Davenport, in his now legendary GN Spider, had a run of best times and four record ascents up to May '29, his best of 46.2sec bettering the Beardmore time by 4.3sec. Who will ever forget the sight of this apparently crude, deliberately scruffy, air-cooled, twin-cylinder slim cyclecar being so bravely and cleverly driven, to outclass larger celebrated cars and their drivers? Only Mays in the massive Vauxhall-Villiers, of twice the engine size and supercharged, managed to do this, in September 1929 — by just six-tenths of a second.

In 1928, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his daughter attended, following the precedent set in '02 by PM Arthur Balfour, who had come to the ACGBI Dashwood hillclirnb on Lord Montagu's Daimler.

Then, a most interesting interlude. The European Hillclimbing Championship embraced Shelsley Walsh, so the redoubtable uphill champion Hans von Stuck came there in July 1930 to gain points. He arrived in a smart Austro-Daimler and stayed at the Swan Hotel in Tenbury Wells. He competed in another Austro-Daimler, a neat 3.5-litre with very large brake drums, which he drove so cleanly that his new record of 42.8sec surprised most of us. A wonderful day, for Rudi Caracciola was there as well and won the sportscar class with a 38/250 SSK MercedesBenz in 46.4sec. But Davenport and 'Spider' were fast enough to have broken the hill record had Stuck not been there!

In 1931, Lord Howe, in the '29 TT-winning 38/250S MercedesBenz, clocked 46.8sec to win the sportscar class, and 46.2sec in '34.

The A-D's record stood until the second 1933 meeting, against the might of the Vauxhall-Villiers, Earl Howe's Bugatti and Dick Nash's very hot Frazer Nash Special. Then the talented American Whitney Straight in his 2.5-litre Maserati got it down to 41.2sec, and then with his 3-litre monoposto Maserati to 40.0sec in '34.

Next came the ERA period. Mays may have been unsuccessful in going from English Racing Automobiles to British Racing Motors, but in the 1930s his cars were notable contenders in racing and sprints. Driving the 2-litre ERA R3A in 1935, he took the record to 39.6sec. Using the 1.5-litre ERA R4C in June '37 and then the 1.7-litre and 2-litre R4D, he was beaten only by AFP Fane (38.7sec) in the single-seater Frazer Nash in September '37. After the war Mays achieved seven best times from '46 to '48, and again in '50, but in '49 Joe Fry went quicker in his amazing Freikaiserwagen, by 0.2sec.

Shelsley was by now firmly established as the greatest of our speed hillclimbs. There had been another thrill when in 1936 champion driver Stuck drove a short-chassis, 5.3-litre, twin-rear-wheeled Auto Union, the first to be seen in Great Britain. Alas, rain ruined a truly sensational effort, but he won his class in 45.2sec — "rather a short course", he commented — but Mays, in the dry, got ERA R4D up in 41.6sec.

It was said of Nuvolari that at Monaco he once removed a banner at a corner with his offside front wheel, and Mays used to get just as close to the Kennel bend. I remember the excitement as he came to the start, not liking to be held long, placing the ERA to his liking, letting in the clutch at 4000rpm, the engine blasting to 6000rpm as the car shot away to finish its climb at something like 90mph.

In 1937, two Nacional Pescaras arrived from Spain in Chevrolet vans, having got lost near Oxford, for Tort and Zanelli to do their runs in the Hillclimb Championship. Other continental drivers who drove at Shelsley Walsh included Jean Bugatti, who crashed the 4WD Bugatti in practice, Count Lurani, Count Premoli, Robert Kohlrausch, Hans Berg and Walter Baumer.

Indeed, so rich was the entry that I cannot mention all who excelled at the now-famous hill. The post-war course record holders include Fry's Freikaiserwagen, Ken Wharton in Coopers and ERA, Tony Marsh and David Boshier-Jones (both Coopers). Then there was the battle between Boshier-Jones' Lotus 22 and Marsh's BRM, until new purpose-built downforce specials slashed times dramatically, down to the present record by Graeme Wight Jnr of 24.56sec in a Gould.

By 1932, the flag start had been changed to lights, allowing a driver to leave in his own time, and electrical timing to one-hundredth of a second was installed. Motorcycles, both solo and sidecar, competed, with George Brown, on his powerful 998cc HRD, outstripping the cars in '49 with a motorcycle record of 39.13sec, not bettered by a car until Wharton's 36.62sec in '51. George created as much excitement as Mays, as he tested with a foot the best place on which to make his getaway.

From the early 1920s, the ladies had also been at it, and in later years those who won cups included Mrs Wisdom (Frazer Nash), Miss Skinner, Mrs Bolster (Morris Special), Miss Sedgwick (Frazer Nash), Doreen Evans (MG), Miss Allan (Frazer Nash), Dorothy Stanley Turner (Alta) and the aviator Amy Johnson in her FN-BMW.

Quite clearly Shelsley Walsh is a National Heritage sports venue, and every means must be used to save it from ending up as Brooklands so sadly did after 1939. The Chairman of the Shelsley Walsh Trust is Peter Davis, Shelsley Walsh, Worcester WR6 6RP (tel: 01886 812922).