In the early years of motoring, while great city to city races were being organised in mainland Europe, the UK was constrained by a nationwide speed limit of 14 mph (the original 4 mph speed limit was removed in 1896, and the requirement to be escorted by a man waving a red flag abolished in 1878). By 1903 the speed limit had risen to 20 mph, but it still wasn’t legal to organise motor races on public roads in the UK. Motoring clubs therefore turned to other events, and hill climbs were popular. These used relatively short steep sections of road, and initially the competition was to see which cars would actually make it to the top of the climb. As cars got faster, certain members of the public complained about these events and some even disrupted them by driving manure carts up and down the hill for the duration of proceedings. The Midland Automobile Club which had been founded in 1901, then went looking for a private venue on which to hold its events. In 1905 negotiations with a farmer had resulted in the 99 year lease of a steep bridle path connecting two parts of the property. The track was widened and a gravel surface laid, and the first Shelsley Walsh hillclimb was held on Saturday 12 August 1905.
From the farmyard start, the track ran around a left hand bend, then steeply upwards around a second left. A short straight led to a sharp left and right under overhanging trees, before emerging through a gateway into open land, with a steep straight to the crest of the hill. The total length was 992 yards. In 1907 the finish line was moved a further 8 yards up the hill, and this 1000 yard course has been in continuous use ever since (the only breaks being for the two World Wars). Over its 1000 yard length, the competitors climb 328 feet, with the road being only 12 feet wide in places. Although the surface was sealed with a layer of tarmac in 1930, the course hasn’t changed, and there is no great expanse of run off (gravel or tarmac). The only concession was the extension of the braking area at the top of the hill to allow the cars to be brought to a halt at the end of their run.
While the early events were not won or lost by the time that it took the competitors to complete the course, in fact for cars over 20 horse power required to be four seaters and carry a full complement of passengers. In that first event in 1905, there were 37 entrants, and four failed to reach the top. Times were however recorded, and soon as the sport became established, it was the best time of the day that was considered the winner. Over the 111 years since that first event, the improvement of the record time has been dramatic:
Staring at 77.6 seconds, the record now stands at 22.58 seconds, and has done since Martin Groves set that time in 2008. Through the years there has been a constant battle between the larger more powerful and heavier cars against smaller and more nimble machinery, with the different approaches having success at different periods.
Unlike Formula 1, where the regulations are very tight and every last dimension is regulated, the rules for hillclibing allow for more innovative approaches. While some have tried using circuit racing single seaters and sports cars, the particular demands of the sport (short, narrow, steep courses where accurate placement on the road is more important than high speed aerodynamics) have meant that the most successful cars are those developed specifically for hillclimbing. While off the shelf chassis from Gould and Pilbeam have proved dominant in recent decades, there is still a band of talented individuals who prefer to build their own cars. For many this is driven by cost, but for others it is their innovative spirit that drives them. In fact, the current dominant hillclimb constructor, David Gould started out building a special in his garage which he shared with his son Sean. Many of these Shelsley Specials still run today (and thanks to a better racing surface, and better tyres) they are as fast or faster than they were in their heyday.
Basil Davenport with his Spider became the first Shelsley Special to hold the hill record in 1926 with a climb of 48.8 seconds. Over the next two years he improved the time, so that by 1928 he climbed in 46.2 seconds. Joe Fry was the next Shelsley Special builder to hold the record, in 1949 he took his 1.1 supercharged Freikaiserwagen to the top in 37.35 seconds. By 1967 six time British hillclimb champion, Tony Marsh, had built his four wheel drive Marsh GM and set the record at 32.94 seconds. In 1994 Mark Colton took only 25.91 seconds to get to the top in his 3.5 Roman Judd, and while not an outright hill record, it was the fastest time a Shelsley Special had gone up the hill. While it never held the hill record, John Bolster’s Bloody Mary, built in 1929 by two schoolboys ‘…with the object of driving around a field as dangerously as possible’ certainly embraces the spirit of the Shelsley Special.
For those that want to find out more about this fascinating branch of the sport, then on the weekend of 16/17 July 2016 Shelsley Walsh will be holding its Classic Nostalgia meeting, and to quote from their website:
This years Classic Nostalgia will celebrate the 80th anniversary of an Auto Union Type C similar to the one that Hans Stuck drove on the hill in June 1936. This incredible V16 Grand Prix turned-hill-climb-car that was such a stunning technological marvel at the time is returning to Shelsley with none other than Stuck’s son, Hans-Joachim Stuck driving.
Celebrating the Auto Union’s visit fifty years after Stuck’s was Hannu Mikkola who in 1986 drove works Audi Sport Quattro Group B car to new Closed Car record at Shelsley of 29.51 seconds that stood for many years. This famous short wheel base Quattro ’44 WMN’ that drove in the British Rally Championship in 1986 in the hands of Mikkola, will too be returning to Shelsley Walsh.
As well as the Auto Union and the Audi Sport Quattro, both days will also see a tribute to Group B Rallying with the mighty Group B cars in action from the Audi Sport Quattro, Peugeot 205 T16, Metro 6R4, Lancia Delta S4, Ford RS200 and everything in between.
Plus there will be static displays from some of the Group B clubs, like 6R4.net and Rallying with Group B.
To see the current crop of hillclimb cars, the British Championship visits the hill for the second time this year over the 20/21 August weekend.