After yet another week of political trouble and strife in our sceptred isle, last weekend offered not just an escape from all the doublespeak and general nonsense, but a comfort blanket of nostalgia that harked back to bygone times. If nothing else, it proves that when it seems that we are all heading to hell in a handbasket, there are some constants that can be relied upon to make us petrolheads happy – the howl of engines being revved, the whiff of petrol fumes in the air and the sound and fury of sports and racing cars being tested on one of motorsport’s oldest stretches of tarmac… before “they” ban it.
For hillclimb aficionados, Prescott Hill is a name that has significant motorsport resonance like few others, matched in the UK only by Shelsley Walsh. For me, this was my first visit, so I hope ViaRETRO readers will allow me the freedom to include a little of the venue’s origins in this piece.
Like several of the classic events I have the good fortune to attend, Prescott sits among the beautiful Cotswold Hills, the nearest city being the spa town of Cheltenham, filled with Georgian splendour. I would go so far as to say that the setting at Prescott is as lovely as any in motorsport, certainly among those which I’ve visited.
Back in the 1930’s, the Bugatti Owner’s Club (BOC) had been searching for a suitable permanent location for some time. Finally, in 1937 they acquired Prescott House and its estate for the purpose of creating a permanent hillclimb course, while also granting the Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC) the right to hold one event per year, which they still do today.
The very first meeting on the original 880 yard or half-mile (805 metres) course was held April 10th 1938, and events have been held regularly on the hill ever since, with the course being extended to 1127 yards (1030 metres) in 1960. The course record is 35.51 secs, held by Jos Goodyear in a GWR Raptor Extreme (no, me neither…?) and it is this course which was being used over the weekend for the 30th annual “La Vie en Bleu / La Vita Rossa” event, a combined celebration of all things French and Italian, which this year also happened to mark the 90th anniversary of the Bugatti Owner’s Club. The weekend was split in two, with the Italian themed day on the Saturday and the French day on Sunday. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the Saturday, having a prior commitment to an old friend’s 60th birthday celebration on Sunday. But nevertheless, it was a superb celebration of one of motoring and motorsports most famous names, as well as the some of the best of Italian and French classics.
Despite the French and Italian themes running through the weekend, I felt obliged to drive the 130kms or so to Prescott Hill in die Zitrone as a matter of principle – that principle being that whenever possible, one should drive to a classic event in a classic car. Fortunately, the weather gods were kind once again as I set off early on Saturday morning to be there in time for the first cars to take on the hill for their practice runs. En route I drove along typical picturesque Cotswold country lanes surrounded by gorgeous scenery and in the early morning sunshine, the drive was a delight; all was well in my world.
First priority for me after my early start was a visit to the Clubhouse to grab breakfast. Besides breakfast – and lunch – the Clubhouse offers fabulous views across both the hill itself and not least the Cotswold hills and is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend an hour or two. In between the hill action, there was jazz and opera, the usual catering and memorabilia stands and more unusually, stilt walkers!
However, it was time to get up close and personal with the cars, both in the paddock and in action on the hill. I’ve taken this description of the hill from Prescott’s website:
The course itself is very demanding, from the slightly uphill start, a full blast up to 110 mph under the footbridge to a sweeping left hander and onto the long 180 degree right hander at Ettore’s, then down-hill and up-hill to the famous Pardon Hairpin, a climbing left hander that then leads into The Esses, a tight left hander, up to ‘Semi-circle, a long right hander which you approach looking at only the sky!, then onto the finish, and unlike most other venues, back to the paddock via the return road.
Fairly challenging, then…
The entries for Saturday were somewhat more internationally eclectic than I had expected on what was effectively the Italian part of the weekend, including a couple of classes for MG Car Club members as well as the Classic Marques Championship, but other classes did indeed have an Italian focus in the Pirelli Ferrari Hill Climb Championship and the Italian Marques & Invitation Class.
The marshalling at Prescott is superbly efficient, with cars being released up the hill roughly every 30 seconds so there’s a steady stream of cars tackling the hill for spectators to enjoy. There are excellent viewing points along pretty much the entire length of the twisting track – far superior to Goodwood, for example – and the challenging nature of the track provides a test for drivers and a treat for spectators. The timed runs saw lots of moments where drivers – particularly those of older cars on skinnier tyres – flirted with disaster in their efforts to gain the odd second, with one MGB rearranging its front-end and an MX-5 spinning through 180 degrees but managing not to hit anything. It was a thrill to watch. This isn’t a race report, so you’ll have to look up the winners and their times on the Prescott website, but some of the more exciting cars to run included a Triumph TR8 with a 4.6-litre engine, a couple of the Abarths, and especially the older single-seaters such as the tiny Austin 7 Specials and Bugatti’s, as you could see the drivers using their entire upper bodies to manhandle their vintage cars around the bends. By contrast, watching the Ferrari class was relatively ho-hum, as they made it look too easy.
The paddocks were a great place to take a closer look at the cars, and even more interesting than the competition cars to me were the cars brought in by BOC and Friends of Prescott members, as well as visitors’ cars. There were more Bugatti’s in one place than I’d seen since my visit to Mulhouse last summer, with a spectacular Type 57 in cream over black being the highlight for me. Add to this, several Type 35’s and 51’s among a spectacular turn-out of this legendary marque – even more were due on the Sunday.
At this point I feel I have to mention a couple of modern cars that will unquestionably be future classics. Wearing the number plates BUG 1, BUG 11 and BUG 111, a Bugatti Chiron and a pair of Veyrons lined up just after the entrance to the paddock – about €7.5m worth of supercar, not to forget a fourth Veyron that joined these three in demonstration runs. Whatever us old fogeys think of modern cars, the Chiron and Veyron are extraordinary pieces of automotive engineering.
Back to the past… despite the sound of the name, Bugatti’s are of course French, and even though this part of the weekend had an Italian focus, they were not the only representatives from the country of Chablis and Roquefort.
Among the rarities was a black 1952 Hotchkiss Gregoire saloon, one of only 247 built with front doors hinged at the B-pillar. A little further on it was joined by a charming pre-war Hotchkiss AM2 Monaco from 1930, not to forget an immaculate green with white hood Avions Voisin from 1925. A super-stylish 1965 Panhard 24 CT sparkled in the sun (I love the rear light cluster on the Panhard), while being kept company by its super-cute stablemate, a 1951 Panhard Dyna and an absolutely delightful 1953 Talbot Lago Baby – yes, that is in fact its official name!
Appropriately enough however, it was the Italian marques which stole the day, for me at least. So much so that it’s hard to know where to start…
Perhaps the most favoloso row of Italian classics was the line-up that contained no less than three Marcello Gandini masterpieces – a dramatic bright green Lamborghini Miura once owned by Bernie Ecclestone, alongside a gorgeous pale orange ’72 Alfa Romeo Montreal, a unique red 1958 Lancia Aurelia B20 single-seater, a dark blue ‘72 Dino 246GT and a bright white – with white leather upholstery – ‘85 Lamborghini Countach.
Just behind this stunning selection was one of my favourite FIATs – a ‘64 2300S Coupé, beautiful in silver. Of the many Ferrari’s scattered around the site – including a 275GTB and a 275GTS, both in Ferrari red – perhaps the most interesting, certainly in terms of history, was a metallic brown ‘65 Ferrari 330GT gifted by Enzo himself to that legend on two wheels and four, the great John Surtees, as a reward for winning the 1964 F1 World Championship. Surtees used it to commute to race meetings in Europe and ran the car until 1967. It’s fair to say it has patina in spades, and interestingly, it seems there are no plans to restore it; rather, the intention is to keep it roadworthy and retain its originality – a laudable aim for a car with such provenance.
There were wonderful cars from Alfa Romeo, too – a 6C 1750 complete with minor dings and paint chips (more patina!), the battleship grey 8C seen at Brooklands a few weeks ago and a delectable 1956 1900CSS, as well as a number of Spiders and Giulia’s of varying vintage.
Alfa Romeo also gave us one of the two examples from Carrozzeria Zagato that were present – the controversial cheese-wedge Zagato SZ and there was also a tiny jewel-like Fiat Abarth 750. Personally though, the SZ just doesn’t do it for me – I’d take a Montreal over it any day – but it undeniably makes an impression!
The most extraordinary car of the day – among many – had to be the Beast of Turin: The utterly ludicrous 300bhp, 28.5-litre (!!!) Fiat S76. Almost as tall as the average man, and the remaining one of two built in 1910 to achieve the world land speed record – which it did, reaching 116 mph equating to 187 km/h the following year. It’s just huge, and very noisy!
Yet, it wasn’t all French and Italian classics at Prescott. There were some interlopers, including a very bling-y 1958 Buick Special in white and a lurid metallic green plus so much chrome you were forced to squint at it, a smart Dodge Dart GT convertible and a gorgeous deep metallic blue ‘66 Mercedes 230SL, still one the most elegant designs of the 1960’s.
After spending a blissful few hours wandering the paddocks, walking up and down the length of the hill and watching three complete sets of hill runs, I decided it was time to hit the road home – but not before a quick look around the public car park. At events like this, it always pays to see what classics the viewing public might bring, and while this was no Goodwood, there was a handful of interesting – in one case, exceptional – cars in the field.
With only around 75 left in the UK, the white Renault 16 was possibly as rare as some of the more exotic cars on show, and there was a very tidy bright green ‘70 Porsche 911E 2.2, which I would have cheerfully taken home with me. Most remarkably, and just as I was about to head over to die Zitrone, a navy-blue Ferrari 330GT bounced its way across the very bumpy field. I was somewhat baffled – surely this car should have been allowed inside with it’s Maranello cousins? Well, apparently not – the owner was told that there was no room at the inn, despite his car being one of the most desirable of all ‘60’s Ferrari’s. He’d owned this car since 1973 but accepted his exile in among all the modern tin boxes with equanimity.
It had been a thoroughly splendid day in every respect, and I shall certainly go back to Prescott Hill again, possibly before this summer is over.