My calendar has recently been full of outings, some of which will make it to these pages whilst others will remain between me and only the necessary eye witnesses, but things don’t always go to plan. I had been looking forward to drinking heavily at a blues festival, but that particular avenue of pleasure became a dead end when it was cancelled at short notice. This was disappointing but created the opportunity to visit one of those places I’ve been meaning to visit for years. Tony Warwyk’s recent report from Prescott reminded me to check the hillclimb diary and, as luck would have it, there was a historic meeting at Shelsley Walsh scheduled for the very same weekend I now had free.
The hamlet of Shelsley Walsh is nestled in a valley cut by the River Teme, a stone’s throw from where Worcestershire kisses Herefordshire. This is England at its most idyllic and provides a stunning backdrop for the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb. Things change slowly round these parts and it’s a fitting location for one of the world’s most historically significant motorsport venues. They’ve been running cars up the hill here since 1905 and the course has been extended only once, in 1907. Excusing wartime interruptions, Shelsley has been continuously operational and is the oldest motorsport venue in the world still using its original route. The new course length (new as of 112 years ago) is 1,000 yards (914m) but it climbs 328ft (100m) in that short distance, winding up through the trees on a ribbon of tarmac that in places narrows to only 12ft wide. It’s a place that requires a lot of commitment to carry momentum and there’s precious little space should anything not go to plan. The winner of the inaugural meeting recorded a time of 77.6 seconds at an average speed of 26.15 mph in a 35hp Daimler. The record on the fractionally longer current course is 22.58 seconds which equates to an average speed of 90.55 mph. From a standing start on a twisty country lane with a gradient as steep as 1 in 6, that’s staggering.
We visited for the Classic Nostalgia meeting which was first held in 2010 and is now the Midland Automobile Club’s flagship event. It’s a two-day motorsport festival featuring timed competition, demonstration runs, trade stands and a static gathering of visitors’ classics. The event is obviously much smaller than the big festivals such as Goodwood, but to compare would be to miss the point. Shelsley is a compact and welcoming place and I’m frankly disappointed in myself (yet again) for having left it so long. With the sides of the hill offering excellent viewing opportunities and an open paddock to explore, I was so distracted it took until actual lunchtime and some prompting by my chaperone for me to find the bar. That’s how good it was. Each day of the festival allowed for morning practice and afternoon timed runs with cars being batched by class, this being necessary to permit each group to turn around at the top of the hill to return slowly to the paddock. Shelsley lacks a separate return road, hence the anti-directional convoys which explains why some of my photographs show cars descending the hill. Despite appearances, nobody got it thatwrong. Apart from these short interludes, the action came thick and fast with cars being set off at roughly 30 second intervals. Spanning pre-war specials to Group B rally cars, with all points covered in between and beyond, you are certain to find something you like.
The paddock was a treasure trove with all manner of good stuff sheltering under the canopies. The 1940-1959 Saloons & Sports Car of Class F notably yielded a Jaguar C-Type and a very pretty AC Rudspeed Ace, in addition to journalist Simon Taylor’s well known HWM Stovebolt Special. Originally built in 1950 with a two litre Alta engine to compete in Formula 2, the car was raced by a young Stirling Moss before being shipped to America and starring in the 1955 Kirk Douglas movie, The Racers. After sustaining damage during filming, it was bought and rebuilt with a number of modifications including fitment of a 5.7-litre small block Chevrolet V8, reputedly being the first circuit racer to be powered by one. The car has continuous competition history and Simon continues to use it for hillclimbs, where its 400bhp made short work of Shelsley’s steep gradient. Incidentally, the name of Stovebolt Special is apparently something of a misnomer. Chevrolet used large boiler plate “stove bolts” in the manufacture of their straight sixes and the term became synonymous with Chevrolet engines. Even though the V8 didn’t use stove bolts an American magazine christened the car and the name stuck. After racing up the hill to a class win, Simon left to drive the 130 miles home – a trailer apparently never being part of the equation.
Class H Saloons & Sports Cars 1960-1969 was an eclectic mix ranging from an Austin Healey Sprite to the 4.7-litre AC Cobra 289 of Robert Bremner. The latter was witnessed warming its rubber before leaving the line in spectacular fashion to thunder up the slope in a class winning time of 33.56 seconds. It must be an occupational hazard of owning a Cobra that everyone assumes it is a replica, such is the cost of a genuine article. As it happens, the Porsche 904 pictured actually is a replica and as such ran in the Shelsley Specials class. Built and campaigned by Bill Drysdale, it’s powered by a 2341cc flat-6 engine from a 911 and was threaded up the road for a best run of 40.84 seconds.
Similarly interesting were the Bucklers, which were represented in sufficient numbers to have their own dedicated Buckler Car Register class. Buckler sold approximately 400 cars between 1947 and 1962, in either fully built or home assembly kit form. Utilising the usual Ford and BMC mechanical donors, they were notable for their spaceframe chassis and high quality construction which appealed to the competition market. In a master stroke of suggestive marketing their first car was actually christened the Mark V but the swagger was backed up by results. In a testament to their engineering capabilities Buckler want on to develop a racing chassis for Jack Brabham and produce gear sets for Lotus.
Morning practice was interrupted by a Midget dumping oil everywhere. The clear up was completed just in time for a dramatic cloudburst to wash the oil straight back out again, forming a rainbow slick at the Esses, a 90 degree left-right sequence with a very fast approach. Even from a spectator’s perspective it was apparent that track conditions were challenging. At one point during the afternoon timed runs, the commentator announced cars were being held on the startline due to heavy rain whilst we dried out in the sunshine less than 0.5km away.
One competitor who didn’t seem too bothered by the conditions was Mick Strafford who hurled the fearsome 5-litre Chevrolet Firenza Can-Am up the hill as if it was a gravel stage. If you have never encountered the Cam-Am you’re missing out. Now sporting a rear wing of cartoonish proportions the ex-Jimmy McRae rally weapon is a sight and sound never to be forgotten. The sheer enveloping volume of the snarling V8 and barely silenced pipes can be felt as much as heard. In the world of extremely loud things, Motorhead are gone and the last airworthy Vulcan bomber has been grounded, so honours fall to the Firenza. All the noise and sideways action did actually lead to a respectable time, posting a best of 35.90 seconds.
Not all of the rally cars were undertaking timed runs; the Celica ST165, Escort RS1700T and Lancia Delta Integrale were only ascending for demonstration purposes. However, the SWB Quattro Sport, TR7 V8 and Golf G60 Rallye were amongst those being driven against the clock. The striking Bastos liveried Escort Cosworth popped and banged its way up the hill after leaving the line cleanly on a full power launch, whilst the MG Metro 6R4 simply lit up all four and laid thick black stripes on the tarmac. One Class J Saloons competitor slightly overdoing things was Dave Moore who came all the way from Cornwall to roll his Mk2 Escort at the Esses. Undeterred, he simply continued on his subsequent run without front and rear screens. Fastest rally cars up the hill were a Mitsubishi Evo 9 and Impreza WRC which are a bit modern for our interest, but the Bastos Escort took third place with a fastest individual run of 33.02 seconds.
In contrast to the sometimes wayward antics of the rally cars, fastest time of the day was achieved by Class K Sports Racing Car entrant Mark Harrison in the very rapid Toleman TG280 with a 30.85. Accuracy and consistency are the order of the day when you only have two runs and less than 2km overall to play with.
In addition to the track action were a section of classics on static display. The concours competition was won by the imposing Facel Vega Excellence, the rare four-door variant of the better known coupé. Featuring suicide rear doors and no central B-pillar, the Excellence had issues with rigidity which contributed to low sales and a low survival rate. The owner delighted in demonstrating the button operated gearshift, and the sheer size of the Facel was emphasised by it being parked next to an Austin A40. Another French rarity was the Renault Caravelle cabriolet, only pictured roof up due to the weather playing downpour roulette. The charming Caravelle sported an exotic body designed by Frua at the carrozzeria of Ghia, but was underpinned by the humble Dauphine which we featured only last week as our Prime Find. So, the Caravelle had to make do with a mere 37bhp when it debuted in 1959. Much needed suspension upgrades in 1960 paved the way for power increases, peaking in 1964 when a 55bhp motor was borrowed from the Renault 8. Never a real performance car, the Caravelle eventually became respectably brisk but by that point the styling had gone out of fashion and it ceased production in 1968. You won’t see many in the UK.
At the other end of the sophistication scale I was quite taken by the de-bumpered Ford Consul Capri wearing a metalflake paintjob and slot mags. The coupé version of the Ford 315 Classic is an unusual sight and you can clearly see the transatlantic influences in the body. Although the Ford Thunderbird is most often cited as an influence, I can see a greater resemblance to a 1959 Plymouth Fury – albeit at half scale. Whether you’re a fan of the slightly non-committal custom look or not, it was great to see something different. Shelsley operates a no-dogs rule so I’m unable to bring you a photograph of any canine classic connoisseurs, and I also almost struggled to comply with the other ViaRETRO report staple of bringing you a brown car from the seventies. However, I will submit this Landcrab on the topic of brown, if only to let our resident former BL salesman reminisce. File under “you don’t see many of those anymore”.
The Classic Nostalgia meeting was my first trip to Shelsley but it won’t be my last. Despite the best efforts of the cloudbursts to disrupt proceedings, the venue remained glorious throughout and the sense of history soaked through even more than did the rain. The venue gets you close to the cars and despite a strong attendance it felt bustling but never too crowded. Shelsley represents historic motorsport at its best and I’d highly recommend a visit. Hiking up that hill will keep you fit too…