Back in 1910, before even I was born, some motorcyclists thought it would be a grand idea to see who could ride the fastest up Kop Hill, a public road in the Chilterns. In subsequent years, they were joined by car drivers, including illustrious names such as Henry Seagrave and Malcolm Campbell, making Kop Hill Climb a significant motorsport event of the period. This came to a halt after a spectator was injured in the 1925 event, but several decades later the event was revived as a non-competitive festival so Kop Hill could once again reverberate to the sound of cars and motorbikes blasting up the 903 yard course.
The event has been held annually since then and has grown to become a highlight of the South East’s classic car season, attracting several thousand spectators each year. This was my fourth time attending, though my first as an active participant. In common with many classic motoring events in the UK, Kop Hill exists not only to give enthusiasts a chance to display their cars and tackle the hill, but also to raise funds for charity – in this case, over £537,000 (EUR 603,000 / $ 701,000) has been collected by the Heart of Bucks Community Foundation and donated to various good causes throughout the area. As every year, the whole thing is managed and run by volunteers, over 600 of them giving their time for free through the year.
On this 10th anniversary of the second incarnation of the event, 289 cars and 106 motorbikes were accepted to run the hill over the weekend. Some attended both Saturday and Sunday, while others, like me, settled for just the one day, with die Zitrone and I – fresh from our triumphal debut ascent of the Shere Hill Climb two weeks ago (well, that’s how I choose to remember it…) participating in our second-ever hill climb on the Saturday.
As well as the cars, bikes and commercials taking part, there was the usual variety of trade stands, food and drink outlets, live music throughout the day – including the seemingly obligatory jump-suited Elvis – the now-famous soapbox challenge for young enthusiasts to demonstrate their own engineering ingenuity, and even a small fairground – Kop Hill is a proper family event.
The hill itself starts off with a gradual 1 in 6 gradient, leading to a section that’s 1 in 4, before winding through the trees to the top of the hill just short of one kilometre later. The competition element of the original event is no longer part of it, as all competitive events held on public roads were in fact banned in the UK after that incident at Kop Hill in 1925. Therefore it has been classed as “demonstration runs” since its reincarnation in 2009. So the challenge is simply to get to the top without mishap; some of the older cars (and some are very old indeed) don’t always make it.
One of the great things about Kop Hill is the very wide range of cars (and bikes, if they’re your thing) it attracts. The event does focus more on older classics than those of the 1950’s onwards, and the oldest car entered on this day was a 1907 Berliet, while at the other extreme, and the newest car to run, was the quite astounding McLaren Senna. In between were all sorts of delights, and I’ll try to highlight at least some of them. Because it’s a two-day event, many of the cars are only there on one day or the other, so it means missing some gems unless you attend both days. But frankly, either day presents more than enough treasures to satisfy even the most demanding classic enthusiast.
Arriving with my neighbour and fellow enthusiast John at around 8:45am on yet another beautiful sunny morning, we parked up and went to register our presence and collect our start number (734). This was quite a late one (the running order for the day was bikes first, then cars in age sequence, oldest first), so we thought we’d use the time ahead of the drivers’ briefing for a wander around the early arrivals, of which there were already many. First stop though – after a much-needed coffee – was a visit to the Soapbox Challenge area, to check out the work of the next generation of petrolheads, designers and engineers. There were some super designs, and I’ve highlighted just three that caught my eye. Schools and scout groups are among those that take part, and it’s clearly something they all enjoy.
Continuing our stroll in the general direction of the Marshalls’ Tent where the driver briefing would be held – and which consisted basically of “behave yourselves” – I spotted, much to my delight, a lovely 1973 Inka Orange 2002tii ’roundie’. It had evidently been modified, but tastefully so, and its owner, Steve Waterton, made clear that he was not going to ruin the car with massive wheels and arches and god-only-knows what else. He had, however, done quite a lot to the car that was mostly hidden under the bodywork – bored the engine out to 2.3 litres, currently delivering 172bhp but capable of 190bhp, put in a 5-speed transmission and not least a LSD, as well as a host of other mechanical upgrades. He’d also fitted a completely new interior with BMW E21 Recaro seats in black leather with a single line of orange stitching. It looked really good – if only all modded ‘02’s were this well done.
For fans of small-volume British fibreglass sports cars from the 1950’s to late ‘70’s, there were some real treats. Besides the not unexpected Lotuses (Lotii?), there were a few genuine rarities. Only couple of cars along from me, a bright red, mid-engined 1966 Unipower GT, powered by a 1398cc unit – can you remember the last time you saw one, if ever? There are just three on the road in the UK out of 71 built in Perivale, London, and this one was the very first. It still looks good today and apparently drives very well, helped no doubt by its featherweight 590kgs.
Another was a Hillman Imp rear-engined 1973 Clan Crusader in proper period bright lime green. Some 340 were built between 1971 and 1973, but the company was a victim of the oil crisis and shut down production. Clan Cars in Northern Ireland picked up the baton in 1982, but 130 cars later, ceased trading in 1987. This one needed a little fettling to encourage it to run, but run it did, twice. It looked a little weird, but I quite like it.
Speaking of weird, and made in larger numbers (but still hardly mass produced), there was a splendid turnout of Daimler SP250’s – more than I’ve ever seen in one place. The SP250 Club had organised a special day around this event, and there must have been at least 20 or more of these grouper-fish-faced V8 roadsters assembled together. While they’re not conventionally good-looking – indeed, some think they’re plain ugly – they are distinctive, and they made quite an impression lined up in the morning sunlight.
Back with the specialist manufacturers, there was a very tidy dark blue 1964 Reliant Sabre 6 and nearby, another little gem, a 1959 Fairthorpe Electron Minor, manufactured not 5 miles from where I live, in Denham. This example now sported a replacement Triumph 1298cc engine (originally 948cc). Fairthorpe built around 400 of these roadsters, but eventually went out of business in 1976, a fate that sadly befell the vast majority of these low-volume specialists.
Next to the Fairthorpe, but neither British nor made of fibreglass, was what looked at first like a Fiat 500, but was in fact a delightful and tiny 1958 Steyr Puch 500. Built in Graz, Austria and originally sold to a Hungarian, the little car’s owner, William Nodes, told me that it had subsequently been restored in Bologna and Rome. While in Rome, it was advertised by its surgeon owner on Car & Classic, so William asked his sister, resident in Rome, to check the car out for him. She advised him that it was in excellent condition, having only recently been restored, and he bought it on her recommendation. It’s his third one – he clearly has a thing for them, and he was very happy to show us around it!
By now it was just after 11:00am, and visitors were pouring in through the gates. It was time for our first run, and after a brief chat with the start-line announcer, we followed a beautiful, red 1972 Alfa Romeo Montreal to the line and then up the hill. Die Zitrone made easy work of the run, but sadly, the Montreal wasn’t seen again – its owner had already had a little difficulty getting it started for its first attempt up the hill, and clearly didn’t trust it to do a second run, so must have decided to head home – a real shame.
Between runs there was time to grab some lunch and a cold beer (it was a warm day!) and to sample more of the cornucopia of delights parked around the field. Italian exotics were in good supply on this day – most spectacularly, an utterly fabulous 1961 Ferrari 250GT swb in Giallo Fly – and this was most definitely the genuine article. It was only there for the morning, but what a car! Next to it, not one, not two, but all of three 246GT Dino’s, and in the visitors’ car park, a 308 GTB which is really the last Ferrari I like.
A few yards away, a spectacular 1960 Maserati 3500GT stood out even among other Italian delicacies such as two (of only 329 built) lovely Triumph Italia’s, a red one from 1960, and a stunning silver-over-dark-blue 1963 model. These Vignale-built beauties, using the TR3 chassis, just ooze elegance and style. Of all Michelotti’s designs for Triumph, I think the Italia is his best work for the British marque.
Other notables included the very first RHD Triumph TR, a pair of Australian Ford Falcon XB GT351’s – basically Australian Mach 1 Mustangs – a very smart red AC Ace Bristol, and a special mention goes to the Datsun Cherry 100A with the most appropriate number plate, DAT 100A. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the monstrous Napier-Railton from the Brooklands Museum, with it’s 24-litre (yes!) W12 engine, which never fails to make an overwhelming impression!
Among the racing cars on display, perhaps the most beautiful were the pair of Jaguar D-types, both in the famous Ecurie Ecosse colours. Now these turn out to nearly always be replicas, and indeed, one of the two was listed as such. The second, however, was listed as an actual D-Type, and yet… it was shown as having been built in 1960 – three years after Jaguar stopped making D-Types. My usual font of all wisdom on such matters, the DVLA website, didn’t recognise the registration number. So where was the owner when I needed him or her? I get irrationally irritated by this kind of thing… Still, the cars were of course exquisite to look at, and even more so as they stood there side-by-side.
We took a little time to check out some of the hill runs, but in truth, a hill climb doesn’t offer a great deal in terms of spectator viewing, with the cars making a single pass and then they’re out of sight after maybe a couple of hundred metres. Still, it’s great to see – and not least to hear – so many old classics being driven, if not in anger, then certainly with enthusiasm. For those that wanted to burn a little rubber, the first 100 metres or so was available for them to show off a little. This was largely the preserve of modified cars, mainly fast Ford Escorts, modern dealer cars and supercars. The rest of us tended to treat our ageing cars with a little more respect!
Returning to the field ahead of our second and final run, I ran into Mary Sanders and her perfect 1973 Porsche 911E in my favourite colour – yes, yellow. I’d met Mary before at Kop Hill – the 911 had been her husband’s since 1991, but was passed on to her after his death four years ago. Mary takes great delight in confounding the usual expectations that many people have of a classic Porsche owner, not least that she is female. We even have a couple of mutual friends, something we hadn’t previously realised.
Wonderful as it was to see her and her 911E again, there was an even more desirable 911 in the cherished car park area – a 1972 911S, also in yellow. All my Christmases in one car! As usual, the visitors’ car park contained a number of interesting classics – besides my favourite 911, a stylish Big Healey in the unusual colour combo of green over ivory (there were no less than five in metallic blue over ivory), and a very smart Mercedes-Benz W114 230, the only classic Mercedes I saw all day – not even a W107.
American presence was relatively limited on the Saturday – three hill-runners included a 1973 Corvette with possibly the most lethal (for pedestrians) nose on any car and a pair of Ford Galaxie 500’s – one convertible, one saloon. One US car which made a big (sic) entrance was a huge black Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, (this didn’t run the hill, perhaps unsurprisingly) but the majority of cars from across the Atlantic were pre-WWII.
Car of the day? Spoilt for choice, as always, but if I could only take one, it would obviously have to be the yellow 911S in the car park. Otherwise, it would be that fabulous Ferrari 250GT swb, but I might have also slipped the cute little Steyr Puch in my pocket on the way out…
After one final look around, we joined the line for our second run up the hill, and this time, after sailing serenely and easily to the top, turned right instead of left and headed home along the country roads of Buckinghamshire. It had been a(nother) wonderful classic day!