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Continuing the tradition that was instigated in 1905, the 2019 Brighton Speed Trials assembled over 75 historic cars and motorcycles to compete for the fastest time at the half-mile seafront sprint, and add their name to the distinguished list of winners that includes legends such as Malcolm Campbell, Whitney Straight and Raymond Mays.

Considering how the event brings grassroots motorsport to dedicated followers and the casually interested alike, and operates on the by-enthusiasts-for-enthusiasts basis that makes it so much more valuable (in virtually every sense besides the financial one) than corporate Formula One, it seems unfair to level any complaints at it, but there is one small quibble to be dispensed with:

The lack of older, say pre-1960, cars that are obviously a major part of the event’s heritage was disappointing. The first speed event on Madeira Drive was held in 1905, to be repeated in 1924 and then run as an annual event from 1932 to the present. Pre-war cars retained a great enthusiast following at the Speed Trials at least up to the 1980s, so it seems a great shame now that it should be pretty much irrelevant on the Vintage events calendar. The author’s first and only previous visit to the Speed Trials was in 2017, when five pre-war cars and five cars from the 1945-59 era were present, not counting those that had been modified beyond any resemblance to the period. This year, those numbers were down to one and one.

It ended up being the case that the motorcycles were the highlight of the event since they included various machines from the 1920s to the 1960s, from pre-war sprint specials to the magnificent, skeletal Alf Hagon machines that dominated motorcycle drag-racing during the sport’s infancy. I suspect that this is down to the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s enthusiastic participation in the Speed Trials; perhaps the Brighton & Hove Motor Club might be willing to approach the Vintage Sports-Car Club to see if they’d be interested in supporting the event with a field of pre-war cars?

That is quite enough, though, about the cars that weren’t there, when the purpose is really to report on those that were. A handful of low-volume British sports cars from the 1960s and ’70s was pleasing, including rarities from Turner, Elva and Davrian. Fast Fords had a strong presence, particularly a cluster of Escorts and one 100E which were all separated by a hair’s breadth in the 13s bracket, despite their differing engines. Since off-the-line acceleration is often a deciding factor in speed trials, Lotuses, with all their extra lightness, were naturally desirable cars.

A 1960 Lotus Seven was quite charming, but sadly didn’t stand a chance in its class against more modern Seven-derived roadsters. Even Lotus anoraks may struggle to recognise the much-modified  Europa (131). It’s a one-off loosely based on a pair of works Lotus 62s raced in FIA Group 6 competition in 1969 and 1970. Built as Lotus’s bid for the Le Mans GT40 contract that ended up being given to Lola, they were fitted with a Rover V8 and the new Lotus two-litre, 16v, dohc engine. They ultimately served as testbeds for Esprit development. Andrew Webber’s tribute runs no less than a 4.3-litre turbocharged Rover V8.

Entries in the B&HMC Members’ Handicap Event included a pair of 1967 Ford Mustangs. Trevor Jones’s coupé (52) really looked lovely with its polished Cragars, and seemed more set to cruise to a hamburger joint than go racing, but it still pleased the crowd with a burnout smokescreen. Many of the younger American cars burnt a bit of rubber to warm their tyres, but in the case of a new Dodge Challenger, the sticky wheels confounded the traction control and spoilt its several attempts at launching.

It was the 1250cc 1978 Davrian Mk. VII (60) of Kenneth Banks that delivered exceptionally quick times in the Road-Going Series/Specialist Production Cars class, though it was a small class with only two heavily modified MG Midgets to rival it. Almost half the field of the Road-Going & Modified Production Cars 1401-2000cc class was made up of old Fords, but if anything really belonged at Brighton it was Rob Cobden’s pretty 1964 Elva Courier (63). These early kit cars helped Mark Donohue on his way to SCCA success and were built just a few miles along the coast from Brighton in Bexhill, though from 1962 they were manufactured by Trojan in Croydon.

The Road-Going & Modified Production Cars Class Over 3500cc covered all sorts from E-types to Americana. Among the three E-types fielded were Robert Oram’s time-served 1962 model (92), which Oram bought when it was only 10 years old and immediately started drag racing, and Darren Tyre’s 1969 example (96) which débuted this year having recently been rebuilt from ‘a wreck’. Nicholas Jackson’s 1964 Ford Falcon Futura convertible (99) and Christopher Blewitt’s striking 1972 Dodge Charger (107) represented America. Japanese loyalists will be pleased to know that a 1974 Datsun 240Z (101) featured, albeit considerably improved by a 302ci Ford small-block. Unsurprisingly, though, few of these cars were a match for the 1992 Ferrari F40 (93).

The Sports Libre class contained some of the most remarkable machines, including the ex-Jo Siffert 1971 Chevron B19 (135), Michael Brogan’s sensuously curved 1964 Maserati Monza Special (226) and Jon Doubleday in the crowd-pleasing 1967 ‘Fraud’ Cortina, which was raced in the early 1970s by the Australian ‘Doc’ Merfield, who shoehorned a Coventry Climax ‘Godiva’ Formula One V8 into it for an extra turn of speed. The stand-out entrant by far, though, was 85-year-old James Tiller in the Allard J2 The Old Fella, which he has owned since 1959 and campaigned continuously. It’s not an ordinary Allard, either – Tiller has to control a 450ci Chevy V8 at speeds of over 130mph. It achieved FTDs in 2004 and 2006, of 10.20s and 10.28s respectively.

The real highlight was the pre-1959 Racing and Sports Cars class, small though it was. Whatever it lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality, with the 1930 Rolls-Royce Handlye Special of Robin Beech and Doug Nixon’s 1948 MG TC. The Handlye Special is a perennial crowd favourite, no doubt on account of its ability to smoke its tyres with aplomb. The pre-war-inspired special was built by Beech on a Rolls-Royce Phantom chassis, with a 27-litre Merlin V12, from 1985 to 2007. However, it couldn’t match the MG for history.

The TC was making its first appearance at the Brighton Speed Trials since it raced there in 1949. It also participated in the 1948 Brighton Concours d’Elegance. Most significantly, it was campaigned across the five-day, 3,000km Alpine Rally in 1949 by renowned rally driver Betty Haig and navigator-mechanic Barbara Marshall. Miss Haig bought the MG for £529 from the Abingdon works, which had built it specifically for victory in Class 2 of the Alpine Rally, on 14th September 1948. Ultimately, the Haig-Marshall team was victorious, winning four trophies: the Coupe Fuhrman, André Rey Cup (Ladies’ Cup), Coupe de Comite des Sports de Nice and the Coupe de Majestic. Four weeks, four new tyres and an oil change later, Miss Haig was back behind the wheel at Madeira Drive, racing alongside an HRG (the Brighton Speed Trials was side-by-side then). This year, the TC made a graceful pass of 28.65s, which is perfectly respectable considering the half-mile record at the time was 23.6s.

On a closing note; as much as your writer enjoyed the motorcycle element, he regrets that he has not the authority to describe many of the machines in detail. However, the Vincent Owners’ Club is to receive credit for not only fielding three bikes in the competition but also presenting a static display of historically important Vincent-engined racers, including Brian Chapman’s Mighty Mouse and Super Mouse drag bikes which ran successfully at Santa Pod in the late 1970s, a Comet sprint special built for club members to sample in the 1960s and the stripped-down 1300cc twin that set one-kilometre speed records for a sidecar combination in 1964.

For a different take on historic motorsports than the much more common (at least here in Europe) circuit racing, the Brighton Speed Trials still deliver both history and not least entertainment by the bucketload, Let it continue to flourish…


3 Responses

  1. yrhmblhst

    Some interesting stuff there for sure…but a couple of ‘surprises’. First, those are some STRONG ‘wire wheels’ on that Rolls Special – cant imagine that all that torque doesnt rip the centres out! I mean, Carrol Shelby stopped using wires on the Cobra because the 289 was breaking wheels…
    A little surprised that there isnt better subscription to the event also. What with all the veteran / Classic stuff going on in England and with a fairly active American car scene, one would think along with the author that participation would be much higher. That being said tho, looks like the Quality was pretty high even if the quantity was down.
    The most surprising thing to me tho was the Vincent drag bikes; with the prices of Vincents these days I’m surprised they havent all been ‘restored’ to “original” and sold at an auction as ‘one owner original paint barn finds’…

  2. Anders Bilidt

    It’s amusing – almost counter intuitive – that a drag racing venue outside of the US can be so iconic. But it is. Even so, I must shamefully admit that I have thus far never attended the Brighton Speed Trails in person. Something I clearly need to rectify!

    The pre-war stuff is truly delicious – if scarce. It would indeed seem very appropriate if they could somehow manage to increase the pre-war attendance at future events. Even so, there’s lots to like here. I’m always excited when there’s an Imp seeing some action. The Davrian, Turner and especially the Elva are just fabulous. And that Slantnose 930 looks awesome as it sits down heavy on its fat rear wheels as it launches itself down Madeira Drive…

  3. Dave Leadbetter

    I’m astounded this still goes on given the politics of the local council; long may it continue indeed. I’ve never been down myself because it’s a billion miles away from my headquarters, but I have vague plans to enter at some point. Whether I’ll get round to it is another matter entirely.


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