Making a sideslip last month in the date of the Kop Hill accident which resulted in a ban on all public-road speed events has caused me to look again at this minor, but unfortunate, happening. As the RAC ban was total, the accident does have considerable historic clout. It has persisted to this day, along with the ban on motor racing on the British mainland, even over closed puiblic thoroughfares, this never having been made legal.
The unfortunate accident that stopped the very great number of public highway and byway speed events occured at the Essex MC’s popular Kop Hill fixture on March 28. 1925 (not 1924 as stated last month). Such events, either speed trials or speed hill-climbs, had been prolific since long before WW1, and had flourished after the war until several were likely to be taking place every weekend, from early in the year until late autumn. The driver who had the accident which broke the leg of the spectator sitting on a bank that flanked the road out of Princes Risborough and who had refused to move further up the bank when asked to do so, was young Francis Giveen. He had bought, and was driving, Raymond Mays’ famous and fast Brescia Bugatti “Cordon Bleu”.
Most people gain information about the affair from that excellent book “Split Seconds” by Raymond Mays (GT Foulis, 1951). This account of that great driver’s racing years contains a very full and very interesting and technical survey of that exciting period of motor racing. I enjoy it again and again and would not denigate it in any way. Except that it is perhaps somewhat unfair to Giveen, who had to carry the heavy load of the ban on the very speed events he and so many thousands of spectators so much enjoyed. Before I defend that statement, it has to be said that the ban was coming anyway. Since the war more people were motoring and had developed an interest in motoring sport. So while deserted roads deemed suitable for speed events by the organisers could be found, the spectators who drove out to them became less and less easy to control. As the terrain was public, the Police had no real authority (rather as marshals are disobeyed at today’s rallies, although Forestry Commission land is private). The RAC was already concerned about a situation which was growing ever more unsatisfactory, some considerable time before Giveen’s accident brought things to a head.
It has to be emphasised that these carefree speed meetings were no more legal than staging racing over closed roads in England, although such races were legal in Ireland, Jersey and the loM. They took place only because, perhaps after a local dignitary had used his influence, the Police were prepared to close their eyes (and ears) to what was going on, providing non-competing vehicles were allowed reasonably free passage and no other form of law-breaking was indulged in. Sometimes clubs published only times, not speeds, at their events, and did not necessarly declare the length of the course, remembering that an overall 20 mph speed limit could be legally enforced! But the Government and the RAC were unhappy and the latter were clearly going to ban these events sooner or later. Giveen only accelerated the ban, and by only a short time.
However, let us look at what “Split Seconds” accuses him of doing. The book was, I believe, “ghosted” for Mays by journalist Dennis May. It says that to pay for his future racing and repairs to the Bugatti “Cordon Bleu”, Mays had to sell the Brescia Bugattis. F B Taylor bought “Rouge” and “Bleu” was sold to the undergraduate Giveen. Mays says he felt Giveen was tough enough to handle fast cars, “but judging by his rather slow speech and the dreamy way he looked at you” — I will not enlarge on that -he wondered if he had the quick reactions needed. However, the deal was done, and, as asked, Mays set about teaching the fair-haired young enthusiast how to race a very quick Bugatti. This entailed runs in the Bourne lanes, after he had been driving the car for two months, and then demos by Mays up Toft Hill on the Bourne-Stamford road. There Giveen was then sent up alone, working up speed gradually. But with the “hot” plugs in he hit a bank and overturned, with minimal damage to himself or the Bugatti. Well, keen young drivers have done it before — and there were no racing drivers schools then for the RAC to insist on! Mays gave Giveen another day’s tuition and then he was ready for Kop.
The book says that Mays tried to persuade Giveen to let him drive at Kop, but that S F Edge, to whom Mays was contracted to drive for AC, refused the change-over, presumably fearful that Mays in “Cordon Bleu” would beat Joyce in the sprint AC. Mays then asked Giveen to let Major Coe, of 30/98 fame, drive the Bugatti. Understandably, Giveen refused. The story then goes that Mays warmed up the car on the line and gave Giveen final instructions, even advancing the dashboard ignition-lever for him, leaving him two hands for the steering wheel and hand-brake.
Then off the Bugatti went at full bore, up Kop Hill, until Giveen “went off the road onto the grass verge, the car leaped into the air, completely jumped a small sand-pit, knocked over several spectators… and disappeared from view”. Mays ran as fast as he could to the spot, to learn that the Bugatti had regained the road and crossed the finish line. Giveen is said to have remembered nothing of the accident or going off the road. Indeed, he is said to have asked “Have I broken the hill record?”.
However, let’s pause a little. This suggests a wild young man in his first attempt at a speed event, with a car he couldn’t drive safely. In fact, he did a very good climb, in 31.2s, on his very first appearance in a speed trial. It is difficult to discover the actual course record for Kop, as rolling starts were sometimes used and the distance may have varied. But it seems that in 1922 Zborowski made FTD with his big Ballot, in 26.8s, and that in 1923 Humphrey Cook did best time, 29.8s, in a Vauxhall, getting down to 29.0s in 1924.
So if Giveen realised he had made a jolly good time and was perhaps thinking of 29s as the figure to beat, he could well have asked had he broken the record. Anyway, he had shown that he could do very well indeed in his unfamiliar car. It was on his only ascent that he went off the road momentarily. A motorcyclist had missed several people in an earlier crash and, conscious of the RAC’s view, their Steward then stopped the event. In his class Giveen was second to A F Nash’s Frazer Nash, which was a mere 0.6s faster. In another class, J A Joyce’s 1 1/2-litre AC clocked 30.0s. So Giveen seems justified in asking had he broken the record, for he might well not yet have heard of Segrave’s earlier time of 28.8s in the GP Sunbeam.
“Split Seconds” says that when Mays got to the accident spot “ambulances were removing the injured.., some were seriously injured”, being mechanics from the Vauxhall works at Luton. But contemporary reports say the only injury was one spectator’s broken leg. Verb Sap! The RAC ban was immediate, coming into force days later. However, two more speedtrials were held over the forbidden public roads — maybe news travelled more slowly then! The ACU ran one over the Whitacross road out of Hereford, a road I know well; I believe it was gravel-surfaced in 1925, and was it Riddock who crossed the line at 90 mph and then fell off? Anyway, FTD was made by Taylor’s Bugatti “Cordon Rouge” (25.8s). The other beat-the-ban event was the West of England MC’s speed-trial at Brentnor. near Tavistock, where Joyce and the AC were fastest, in 19.8s from a 1912 7.6-litre GP Peugeot (21.4s). W B