Against the Clock at Prescott and Brighton

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Prescott hill-climb and the Brighton Speed Trials are as much a part of British motorsporting tradition as Badminton and Wembley are to the world of horses. Memories of Bugattis and ERAs howling through the trees up the long drive to Prescott House, bathing huts and the roar of monster Napier thumping its record-breaking way along the Madeira Drive to the sound of grey, Channel waves splurging on the shingle beach. Relaxed atmospheres, pleasant bonhomie, an extraordinary variety of beautiful machinery and, even today, hardly a piece of Armco, and certainly not a catch-fence, in sight. In one case a tortuous climb from base to summit, in the other a full-throttle thrash to the end of a level, straight strip of smooth tarmac with the sea-breeze the only unknown quantity. In both cases just onc enemy: the incessant tick of the timing clock tapping out those so-critical hundredths of seconds.

The older generation of Motor Sport staff was weaned in this quintessentially amateur arena; today they take it for granted as a part of everyday life. We younger ones have grown up into the razz-matazz of the circuit scene, where the quality of race result duplicating is one of the only truly amateur elements left. The month of September was the time for enlightenment, when J.W. and I were put on the road to rehabilitation. Firstly came a call from Josh Sadler, Steve Carr’s partner in Autofarm, the Porsche specialists (who’ve moved to 5 Hill Avenue, Amersham, Bucks., 02403 21112 since we last wrote about them). Would I like to take over his entry in his Carrera in the Prescott Gold Cup meeting, the fourteenth round of the RAC Hill-Climb Championship, as he had to attend a wedding in France? Now, Josh Sadler’s Carrera has built itself quite a reputation as one of the fastest production based cars on the hills this season, so the answer—after some rapid re-arranging of schedules—was an enthusiastic “yes please!” There could be nothing like jumping in at the deep end with a fast and competitive car for my first attempt at hill-climbing.

Meanwhile, the Dolomite Sprint described by J.W. elsewhere in this issue had been readied for us by Penta Morris in Reading. We decided to give it a shakedown in the Brighton Speed Trials, both of us to drive it.

The bright yellow Autofarm Carrera turned out to be an old friend. Regular readers will recognise LGW 4D as the car in which I “cleaned” the Exeter Trial in January. That all-conquering 911T of the trials scene has since undergone a complete face-lift and heart transplant. Its 1966 912 shell now clothes a standard 2.7-litre Carrera engine attached to an RSR competition clutch, a limited-slip differential set at 80 per cent and a gearbox packed with four ultra-low bottom ratios and a standard fifth ratio, merely for road cruising and 2,500 r.p.m. down on fourth. It has 911S front suspension and steering, including torsion bars, with castor/camber adjustment on the strut tops, a 15 mm. anti-roll bar and three-year-old Bilstein struts fitted with replacement race-set inserts. A removable cross-brace straddles the front boot between the strut tops. The old rear suspension, battle-scarred from many trials, was replaced by a “bitsa” set-up. The “cut-and-shut” trailing arms came from a 1973 Carrera rally car. New 24 mm. torsion bars and new race-set Bilsteins were added, just about the only new items in the conversion, everything else being secondhand and illustrative of Autofarm’s Porsche parts business. The driveshafts came from a 2.2 series 911. An adjustable 18 mm. rear anti-roll bar is fitted. Reconditioned 911 S brake call pers are fitted all round, ATE rear pads and Mintex MDB 1005 front pads on to reground discs.

Readied for the hills this old Porsche looks superbly purposeful: moulded-in front wheelarch extensions shroud Dunlop D42-442, CR129, 200/575 section tyres mounted on 9in. Porsche alloy rims. Massive, detachable rear wheel-arches cover similar rear tyres, but of 230/575 size mounted on 11 in. rims. A huge Autofarm rear spoiler, part of the glassfibre engine cover, completes the striking cosmetics. A standard pattern, glassfibre boot lid is fitted. These lightweight panels and the basic original specification of the 912 “host” car, account for an advantageously modest weight of about 17 1/2 cwt.

The initial rebuild incorporated a 3-litre Carrera engine, later exchanged for the higher revving 2.7-litre unit with its wider power band. So-propelled, LGW 4D has broken records at Gurston, Barbon, Scammonden, Cadwell, Shelsley and Prescott in the course of a very active season. In the early part of the season the car was entered and accepted as a marque sports car; Sadler was unhappy about this, because of the lightweight panels and went so far as to voluntarily forfeit his points in the Guyson/BARC HillClimb Championship and change classes. It now runs with the GT and Modsport cars— and still breaks records!

As can be imagined, this quick hill-climber makes an exhilarating road car, and is always driven to and from meetings. I swapped the surprising comfort and sophistication of a Mazda Hatchback for the violent performance of the Porsche in Amersham and conducted it on the road to St. Albans, down to Prescott and back to Amersham. Acceleration for overtaking was probably superior to any production-derived car I have driven on the road (the weight, gear ratios and broad power band make it superior to a Turbo), yet with the sewing-machine-like effortlessness of any standard Porsche, combined with brilliant handling. One hitch is that the constant-mesh third gear has been prone to throwing off its synchromesh band when speed has been allowed to creep too high in fifth, so Josh has imposed a 110-115 m.p.h. cruising speed. I kept it well below that, in deference to the car’s conspicuous nature and those unmarked Capris, successors to the MG-B V8s, in the Thames Valley . . .

Being an RAC Championship round, the Prescott meeting was a two-day event, organised by the hill’s proprietor, the Bugatti Owners’ Club. the 54th National Hill-Climb meeting run at Prescott since the hill was opened in 1938. I was to share the Porsche with Russ Ward, a noted hill-climb exponent and Prescott local, who has been competing with Autofarm Porsches whilst his crashed Arkley is rebuilt. An early start from St. Albans had us at Prescott before 9 a.m., in time to join the first 20 to sign on, thus qualifying for an extra—and much-needed– fourth practice run. In theory, practice runs in batches at certain times; each competitor selects which batches he wants to join. In practice, there is one long batch, with competitors joining and rejoining the queue as and when they are ready. Firstly, Russ and I had to prepare the Porsche, emptying it of mountains of unnecessary paraphernalia and bolting on the racing tyres and wheels (three transported behind the front seats, one in the boot) after removing the Dzus-fastened, road-width rear arches and standard width road tyres and wheels. The full-harness seat belt had to be clipped in place behind the Recaro bucket driver’s seat and 50 lb. of passenger seat removed. Meanwhile, the sloping green pastures of the Prescott paddock subsided under a sea of magnificent machinery, atypical of the hill-climb scene, ranging from Kieft 500s, through the well-constructed and very neatly driven, Rover V8-engined Riley 1.5 of Alan Payne, to the FTD contenders, such as David Render’s Lotus 76 and Roy Lane’s Fenny Marine March 741.

It’s essential for a newcomer to walk the hill, if only to see which way the next corner lies, for most of them are “blind”. I think all the walk did for me was to make me more apprehensive and to illustrate how glorious is the Prescott setting. From the beautiful wooded slopes, spectators can survey not only the antics of cars and drivers from a couple of yards’ distance, unimpeded by debris netting, but a Cotswold hillscape of unsurpassed majesty.

The scene from inside a fast-moving Porsche is a little different. From the line (after warrning the rear tyres up with wheelspin on the way up to it) it’s flat in first, second, third, with a gearchange per second, into the long, blind, Orchard Corner, with barely a hint of gradient and stout-looking wooden sleepers on the right. A slight feathering of the throttle to ensure tyre-to-tarmac contact and then hard down out of Orchard up the rise to Ettore’s Bend, hitting the 7,500 r.p.m. rev. limit before standing on the brakes and snatching second for Ettore’s, a long, open, right-hand hairpin. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop power-on understeer taking me wide on the exit there (Russ had the same problem at first), where unprotected stout trees await the unwary, until I learned to “ditch-hook” (a self-explanatory rally term) with the inside front wheel on the inside of the apex. Maximum revs in second, with the tail trying to escape, into third and full throttle down the dip towards the left-hand Pardon Hairpin, hitting the brakes and into second gear on the rise towards it, where the tarmac bears the scars of a thousand dipped noses. Pardon’s apex lies on a steep gradient, where too much throttle can be embarrassing on the exit. Porsche traction pays off there and full throttle can be applied immediately the car begins to straighten up. Third, snatched a second later, propels the Porsche rocket-like up the gentle, gradient to the blind Esses, flanked by a banking on the right and a drop into the trees on the left. Just a slight lessening of throttle pressure on the right-hander, then almost immediately a dab on the brakes into a sharp left-hander Ranked by kerbs, still in third gear, a burst of throttle round a slight right kink and then hard on the brakes and into second for the last lefthand bend of the Esses complex. Here the narrow track climbs steeply towards the Semi-Circle, third snatched en route. The Semi-Circle is a seemingly endless rightbander, with a bank on the right, fresh-air on the left and not muds grip. A brief application of the brakes into the bend is followed by judicious throttle in third until the bend begins to open out, when it’s flat-out for the timing beam, 50 yards hence.

The foregoing little lot, with all its surprises, is contained within 1,127 yards, covered in the Porsche in about 50 sec.

I make no mention of the lines to take. Hill-climbing is the art of precision driving, the art of not making a mistake, for there can be no catching up time on the next lap. The corners come up so quickly, most of them are blind and the thick is so narrow that there hardly seems time to think about nicetiss of line. It took me four practice runs and one official run before the scenery became less of a blurs and instinctive pointing of the car gave way to “thinking” positioning. The result was a massive improvement in time. Regular hill-climbers switch on instantly.

Still, I beat my target times set by Josh of 54 sec. in Saturday practice and 53 sec. on Sunday. On the brilliantly sunny Saturday I was into the 53 sec. mark on the first practice run and into the 52s on the fourth, after spinning off at Semi-Circle on the second run. Meanwhile, Russ Ward was down in the high 49s. . .

On the Sunday Russ really stole the show, with a first run of 49.27 sec., to knock a massive 1.82 sec. off the dass record, sufficient to win him the coveted Prescott Gold Cup and a £100 cheque, an award which is based on the greatest improvement on any Prescott class record in the season. A creditable second in the Cup, after he and Russ Ward had worked until 2 a.m. in the morning to mend his damaged Mini, came John Meredith with a 1.42 sec. improvement.

Whilst the experienced Russ switched on instantly on the Sunday, this writer remained half asleep whilst clocking 53.93 sec. on the first run. But I woke up for the afternoon run as rain clouds approached, to improve to 51.63 sec., much more satisfying and quicker than the time with which Sadler had won the class at the May meeting. But my time was only good enough for third in class, 0.13 sec. behind Wilson’s 4.7-litre Cobra and just 0.01 sec. ahead of Garland’s Morgan.

Prescott taught me a lot. I’ve tended to frown upon hill-climbing as being a long way to travel to spend a lot of time to achieve a few very short bursts of satisfaction. In reality the fight against the clock is wonderfully satisfying. Certainly at Prescott the atmosphere was marvellously friendly and relaxing and the organisation by Ronnie Mountford, Geoff Ward and their colleagues in the Bugatti Owners’ Club was little short of remarkable. Nearly 190 competitors had two runs each, the Top-Ten had two runs each—an electrifying battle between Roy Lane’s March 741 DFV, Alister Douglas-Osborn’s Pilbeam DFV and Martyn Griffith’s Han-engined March 74P, with Lane finally setting the course record at 42.33 sec.—yet the prize-giving had started by 5 p.m. The experience has persuaded me possibly to take hill-climbing more seriously next season with the Dolomite Sprint, though I shall envy Josh Sadler the Porsche.

THE BRIGHTON SPEED TRIALS

I expected the Brighton Speed Trials to be something of an anti-climax after the challenge of glorious Prescott. Could the straightforward job of pointing an almost standard Dolomite Sprint in a straight line compare with the thrill of navigating a lightened, low-geared, 210 b.h.p. Porsche up a twisting hill? Perhaps the Madeira Drive Sprint was not quite so enjoyable in terms of driving technique, yet there was the same sort of satisfaction to be derived from competing against those split seconds, looking for ways of trimming them in the next run —and actually doing so. Having J.W. and I competing in the same car added more competitive spice, additional respective targets to aim at—in fact the targets to aim at until we found, to our chagrin, that a standard Dolomite Sprint was beating our modified one. Neither Sprint was competitive in the class, which was dominated by Rod Chapman’s well-known Rallycross Escort BDA, Masters’ twin-cam Anglia, the Young/Funnell Escort twin-cam and Castle-Miller’s Lows twin-cam-engined Fiat 500, a familiar veteran of sprint events.

The Madeira Drive pavements supported 00 0055 greater variety of machinery than Prescott, for Brighton opens its doors to abnost any vehicle that the scrutineers think safe. Cars ranged from Lotus and Brabham Formula One cars for Render and Brabham, to the ex-John Woolf 7-litre racing Cobra, beautifully restored and driven by Brian Angliss, Nigel Hulme’s equally mouth-watering ex-Jack Sears Cobra, Lister-Jaguars, sporting Bentleys, pseudo or very genuine, of which the former were sadly the faster, GT40s, Symondson’s Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, which unfortunately—and expensively— cooked its clutch, single-seater and sports/ racing cars of all descriptions and absolutely standard saloon cars. Then, perhaps most spectacular of all, came the bikes, from pre-war Douglas and Rudge to a supercharged Imp-engined sidecar outfit.

What was obvious is that you don’t need to take your motoring spots too seriously, or prepare a car specially, to compete in these historic trials. The only essentials are an RAC National Speed licence, available to any over-18 holder of a driver’s licence for £7.50 from the RAC Motorsport Division (the same licence covered Prescott too), and a crash helmet with the correct approval stamp. The scrutineers seemed more interested in mechanical safety aspects than in being pedantic about the finer points of the rule hook, to standard cars can be made to comply very easily. Detail points to watch are that the steering lock should be made inoperative and the carburetters have sufficient return springs. It’s a very safe form of motoring sport, not too hard on the car and even if the car is not competitive there’s at least the satisfaction of knowing the answer to “wot’ll she do?’ over the standing kilometre. I keep saying “car”, but the same applies to production ‘bikes, of which we had a mixed bag of Hondas, Suzukis, Nortons and Kawasakis.

There’s something especially appealing about doing three-figure speeds past 30 limit signs under the cyes of the local police, without them turning a hair. But that is part of the Brighton atmosphere, on the only public road in mainland Britain open for motor racing, in the oldest motor sporting event on the British calendar. The first Brighton “Motor Trials” took place in June 1905, on the same stretch of road, which had been specially prepared for motor racing. Thus there’s a deal of experience behind the Brighton and Hove Motor Club’s organisation of the event, all of which is called upon to glide over 200 competitors through one practice and two timed runs before the 5 p.m. police deadline.

Th traditional “start” banner flaps across the pier end of the Madeira Drive these days (it has been run in reverse in earlier times), below the terracing which provides such a magnificent grandstand. Cars are started in pairs at a green-light signal, their courses separated by a central white line. As neither car is competing directly against the other, the driver drops the clutch at his own convenience, the clock being started when the timing beam is crossed.

J.W. has described our Castrol-Penta Dolomite Sprint elsewhere in this issue, so I need not go into further details, except to say that we ran on “slick” tyres and standard axle ratio. The Speed Trial was its debut in our hands and the first time I had laid eyes on the car. Indeed the first time I changed gear in it was away from the start line on my practice run, which probably accounts for my very slow time of 35 sec., most of it added during wheelspin off the line, despite the limited-slip differential. Too many revs, of course. J.W. managed a much more respectable 31.1 sec.

Even at that modest pace Madeira Drive unwinds very quidtly, a very short-feeling kilometre. Towards the finish the tarmac narrows and curves gently to the right, of no consequence in the Sprint but no doubt a potential drama area at the 170 m.p.h.-plus terminal speed of the Formula One cars. Plenty of esplanade remains for slowing down after the line; then it’s into the Marina Car Park to be stacked up with a batch of other competitors awaiting the closure of the course for the return to the start.

The tables were reversed between J.W. and I in the timed runs. J.W.’s first run clocked 31.0 sec., and mine 30.5 sec. Our faces dropped when we saw that Heley’s standard, though 44,000-mile old and nicely loose Dolomite Sprint, on road tyres, had clocked 30 sec. dead. Out came our front and rear passenger seats, fire extinguishers, anything we could lay our hands on to save weight. J.W. went out again and clocked 30.7 sec., still not good enough to beat Heley, who then fired back with 29.7 sec. So it was all down to me, with the only run left. The Sprint left the line perfectly and ran sweetly up the gears to 6,500 r.p.m. Instead of using overdrive third to the finish line (the competition overdrive gives an instant gearchange), I whipped into the slightly higher fourth of the wide-ratio gearbox, hoping to keep the engine more ideally into the power band. Holey, after all, had a nonoverdrive box. It almost paid oft, the time improving to 30 sec.

Why should our Sprint, with larger carburetters, but perhaps slightly more weight because of the roll cage and other extras, show second best to a standard car? The engine felt right in tune, so we can only surmise that it was still very tight. A visit to a rolling-road will hopefully tell us more. Back amongst the faster machinery, St. Albans farmer John Pope had been busy shattering the morale of the Cobras, GT40s, Miura and Ferraris in the class for sports cars and GT cars. The John Pope Special, a twin-turbocharged, Aston Martin V8-engined Vauxhall Firenza, road legal, clocked 22.41 sec., which it improved to 22.37 sec. in its run in the sports racing and special GT car class.

But the real speed potential lay in the class for racing cars over 2,000 c.c. in which the record —and the course outright record— had stood to David Purley’s F5000 Trojan, at 18.62 sec., since 1974. On this dry and sunny afternoon it was in for a complete shaking, with both Alan Richards (Cheltenham Cameras Surtees 5000) and Simon Riley (Houbigant Brabham DFV) tieing on 18.34 sec. at the end of the first runs. David Render’s Lotus 76 was under the record too, on 18.58 sec. The massed crowds were obviously in for an exciting finale in the last of the second runs. First John, Williamson’s 5.7-litre McLaren put in a rapid 18.80 sec. run, and Render slowed to 18.66 sec. Then came Richards, the Surtees charging up tho course to a resounding 18.30 sec. Surely Riley, the last man to run, couldn’t possibly beat this? A great cheer went up from the crowds massed on the iron-railed terraces as Riley’s time came over the Tannoy: an incredible 1,28 sec. and a terminal speed of 172.45 m.p.h.

Even more exciting to watch was Tony Weeden’s performance on the motorcycle class record holding, supercharged Triumph 500, whose bravery was rewarded with a time of 19.10 sec. at a terminal speed of over 160 m.p.h.—C.R.