Here at ViaRETRO, we’re spending the summer visiting some of the UK’s historic and most iconic hillclimb venues. Tony Warwyk made the journey to Prescott and I recently reported from Shelsley Walsh, both of which are well established venues with long continuous history. Back in the early days of motoring, hillclimbs were often run as quasi-legal competitive events where the local constabulary were willing to turn a blind eye to unofficial road closures and the use of a stopwatch. However, a series of mishaps soon forced a change to using venues situated off the public highway which legitimised the sport. The discipline took a stride forward with the establishment of the British Hillclimb Championship in 1947 and over the following couple of decades new venues such as Loton Park, Harewood Hill and Gurston Down were opened. Hot on the heels of the full championship hills, a second tier of courses came and largely went, one of which was Chateau Impney in Droitwich, Worcestershire.
The grand surroundings of Chateau Impney date back to the 1870s. Salt magnate John Corbett built the grand house in the style of a French chateau to satisfy the nostalgic longings of his wife, who spent her formative years in Paris. She repaid the gesture by not talking to him much and stomping off to Wales, but rather than rattle around alone he decided to open the parkland once a week to the general public. This cemented local affections for the house and in 1925 it was converted to a hotel, which by the 1950s had earned a fine reputation. Hagley and District Light Car Club, based at nearby Loton Park, saw the opportunity presented by the roads through the grounds and on 29th September 1957 cars roared up the hill against the clock for the first time. The new course was enthusiastically received with Autosport remarking it was “easily the most picturesque of this country’s sprint and hill-climb venues, and with a little skill and ingenuity applied to the road itself it will quickly rival the best of them”. The annual meeting attracted a hard core of supporters but by 1967 it had begun to ebb away, largely due to competition from a plethora of other local venues, calendar clashes and poor weather conspiring to hit ticket sales. In 1968 the big news at the Chateau was the Bluesology festival where the noise was instead provided by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Joe Cocker. And so, hillclimbing in Droitwich went into hibernation for 47 years.
In 2009 the Chateau went into administration but in 2012 it was bought by Greyfort Hotels. As luck would have it, this not only secured new financial investment but with car folk happening to hold positions of influence within the new management structure, it put the prospect of motorsport back on the agenda. After a mammoth effort to devise a meeting compliant with the MSA regulations which didn’t exist last time, motorsport returned with some fanfare in 2015. I’ve been fortunate to attend most of the revived meetings, now held annually, and seen it grow. Originally restricted to cars made before 1968, the rules have recently been relaxed to allow selected later vehicles although the emphasis is still firmly on the vintage and early post war years. In fact, the real star attractions would have been older at the time of the first Impney meetings than the time elapsed since the venue first closed. You can take your pick of classic car events every summer and there is a fair choice of vintage, but to go full Edwardian there is nowhere else quite like the Chateau.
It’s hard to know where to start but the paddock is always a good place to be. Although the weekend is now a large attraction the paddock remains a jumble like all good club level meetings with cars and service equipment spread around liberally. You won’t find race support trucks and marquees with click-together tiled floors here. This is more the territory of tarps, bin bags and portable tea urns. Spectators are free to roam and get up close to the cars, many of which are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. The drivers of the oldest machinery are simply wired differently and they’re all keen to demonstrate why theirs may be the maddest. Some cars are original and some are rebuilds, but if you were over a century old you might too have had a bit of work done along the way.
A prime exhibit is Whistling Billy, a faithful rebuild of a fabled steam racer originally produced by the White Company. The original was constructed in Oregon in 1905 and named the White Flyer before earning it’s nickname due to the whistling noise it emitted when on a charge. The chassis is constructed from American oak and motive power originally came from a 15hp steam cylinder rated to 800psi at 750 degrees fahrenheit, ignited by gasoline or kerosene. The current engine is a 20hp version with similar properties that drinks a cocktail of petrol and diesel that mimics the low octane gasoline of the distant past. The gearbox consists of neutral which allows the boiler to build pressure and first gear which was good for a top speed of anywhere up to 120mph at 2200rpm. A casual flick through the history of Whistling Billy reveals phrases such as “seriously injured”, “turning three somersaults in the air in a blazing ball of flame” and “broken in half” but somehow the car, or at least fragments of it, was still racing as late as 1914 before it was abandoned. Whistling Billy’s Sunday afternoon run at Impney was foiled however when the car in front failed to make the gradient and Billy went off the boil.
Managing a successful ascent was the 1907 Itala 40hp of David Ayre, a walk in the park for such a vehicle. Itala of Turin were made famous when Prince Borghese used an identical car to win the 1907 Peking-Paris Marathon, a mammoth journey of 10,000 miles. Borghese completed the route in 61 days, a full 20 days ahead of the second placed competitors. David Ayre’s example was first restored 70 years ago before being parked up until the new millennium when it was again revived. Pressed into service as a competition car, it notably completed the 2007 Centenary Peking-Paris in a mere 36 days; the benefit of a significantly better road network than a century before.
Another notable climber was the FIAT S76 Beast of Turin, the Italian monster that’s made quite an impression on the UK scene since it reappeared in 2015. Still running the original 1910 chassis under the rebuilt body, the focus is on the 28.4-litre in-line four cylinder under the bonnet. The 290bhp power output was enough to propel the car to 132.27mph at Ostend in December 1913, which was only recognised as an unofficial speed record as a return run was not made within the hour. The big four pot motor pops and bangs in the manner of a bi-plane, and spits of smoke and flame to complete the spectacle. FIAT originally built two examples of the S76, and whilst this one made it as far as Australia the other one was dismantled in 1919. The engine from the dismantled car was recovered during the restoration of the survivor so in many ways it is remarkably original, in an amalgam kind of way.
If you prefer modern cars, the Packard-Bentley might just be for you. Built by Chris Williams in 2010 in the grand tradition of period aero-engined cars such as the Napier-Railton, “Mavis” is all about the huge thumping powerplant. Whilst the 21ft long chassis is a modified 1930 Bentley frame, the motor is a supercharged 42-litre Packard 4M-2500 V12 marine engine, developing 1,500 bhp and 2,000 ft/lb of torque. Each cylinder is 3.5-litres alone and the head is twin port so 12 exhaust pipes line each side of the car, providing the focus for Mavis’ party piece. This is a car that can gulp fuel at up to four gallons per minute, but it can gargle quite effectively too. In a display that is best viewed from a few paces back, Mavis can ignite each exhaust and quite literally belch flame at the gathered onlookers. That’s not something you see every day.
Dangerous in a less obvious way is the Morgan RIP Special. Constructed from wood and fabric and fuelled by methanol, it is described in the event programme as a “pre-war deathtrap”,which seems to be a reasonable statement. To add to the peril, it only has brakes on the front axle and the steering is lightning quick meaning key requirements for the driver are to have the reflexes of a cat but a much greater ability to plan ahead. Morgans of this era were of course three wheelers, but mating with a GN from the same era turns it into a conventional four wheeled machine. I’m a particular fan of the hollow tail which comes to a sharp point in full Wacky Races style. Modern competition regulations demand drivers wear fire proof overalls and many opt for full face crash helmets. This may seem overkill when considering the sedate performance of some veteran and vintage cars, but when looking at contraptions like this you start to think the precautions may be sensible.
I especially enjoyed viewing the Brown Truck vintage hot rod and chatting to its creator, Jim Henshaw. Based on a 1929 Ford Model A Pickup chassis, it’s hot rod engineering at its most traditional, focussed on the pure pursuit of speed. Running a small block Ford V8 with approximately 400bhp, it was originally built as a beach racer but it’s now being shown some hills which has required a number of evolutionary changes, particularly with regard to locating the back axle. Notably I was more interested in talking about the truck than remembering to get multiple good photographs of it – proof that I cannot be relied upon to multitask. You can find out more by looking for Brown Truck Racing on Youtube.
The Edwardian and vintage cars may get my attention every time but there are vehicles from many other eras to stare at. The paddock took two visits to the bar to fully appreciate and it was still possible to miss things. Pre-war cars were in abundance with some very pretty ERAs and Rileys. There was a fine selection of 1950s sports racers and a healthy gaggle of 1960s saloons, Minis being particularly in abundance in their 60th anniversary year. During the lunch break, autotester and stunt driver Alistair Moffat even tried to drive up the twisting hill on two wheels in a well used example, getting well over halfway before gravity grabbed it back. To illustrate how Chateau Impney have relaxed the 1968 qualification threshold, the Ralli22 club had their own class in which to exercise their cars. I make no apology for including another photo of the familiar Cam-Am Firenza but even for a rallying obsessive like myself, I couldn’t help thinking that the likes of the Rothmans Legacy, Ur Quattro and Manta 400 looked a little tame in this company; perhaps a better word is “safe”. The signs still state that Motorsport is Dangerous, but the heroics necessary to have gone racing one hundred years ago were in a different league.
Chateau Impney is one of the few places where you can still get an inkling of the madness of the early days of motorsport. Although attendance has increased since the 2015 relaunch, the venue still has space to roam and it remains a very accessible and friendly environment. Make sure you put it in your diary for next year, but just make a note of when to step forward and when to stand well back.