How to use classic cars and historic motorsport as therapy, edutainment and pure joy:
After yet another week of political nonsense here in the UK, capped by more windbaggery than a fleet of hot-air balloons, I needed to retreat into the familiar and comforting sights, sounds and smells of classic cars and historic motorsport, and luckily for me, I had a whole weekend of classic joy to look forward to, first with a day at Prescott Hill Climb for their Anglo American Autumn Classic, followed by a visit to Bicester Heritage for the season’s final Sunday Scramble, which our own Dave Leadbetter will be reporting on.
This was my second visit to Prescott, having gone there a few months ago for the first time to attend the Italian half of the “La Vie en Bleu / La Vita Rossa” event, when I enjoyed a superb day of enthusiastic hill climbing and classic car spotting at one of the loveliest locations you could imagine for a motorsport event, set as the Prescott Estate is among the green and very pleasant rolling Cotswold hills in the heart of England. On this occasion I was accompanied by one of my German cousins and his wife, who were over for a few days and keen to experience an English historic motorsport event.
Owned and managed since 1937 by the Bugatti Owners’ Club – who welcome non-Bugatti owners as well as those fortunate enough to own one of Ettore Bugatti’s marvels (it would be a very exclusive club, otherwise) – Prescott provides a proper challenge for competitors, and superb vantage points for spectators. The hill is 1030 metres in length and winds through and up a combination of bends – some of them tight enough to goad some drivers into errors – to the finish line almost hidden in the woods.
Besides the political uncertainty of recent weeks, we have also had quite a bit of unreliable weather recently, and the forecast for the weekend was distinctly unpromising. Luckily, the day stayed dry, if dull, and following a scenic country drive and a warming cup of coffee, we set off for a wander around the paddocks.
Now I’m afraid I have to register a note of disappointment here – billed as the Anglo American Classic, there was a healthy number of Anglo (and indeed European and Japanese) cars competing, but there were precisely two Americans taking part on the Saturday. I’m not sure why this was – the forecast wet weather, perhaps? – and although the entry list for Sunday was a (slight) improvement – I’m desperately disappointed not to have seen the 1965 Chapparal 2A and 1969 McLaren M12 attack the hill – there were still a mere nine US entries. So significantly more Anglo than American, but still much to enjoy.
Like most historic motorsport events, Prescott allows spectators to wander freely among the competing cars, often necessitating stepping over body panels and mechanics’ feet. Such unfettered access really adds to the experience and combined with the beauty of the location, even on a somewhat gloomy day, Prescott is a wonderful place to spend some classic car time.
Triumph and TVR were the best represented marques and had their own classes, but a fistful of Porsches, MG’s, Fords, Mini’s and others were also present and correct, as well as just under twenty single-seaters, including a 1932 Bugatti Type 51, which made a fine sight as it was wrestled up the hill by driver Edmund Burgess. The usual efficient marshalling ensured a steady stream of cars being released with minimum delay to tackle the hill, and Prescott gives spectators several options when it comes to finding good viewing locations, and we tried several.
Thanks to several days of rain in the run up to the event, the hill itself was fairly greasy, resulting in a fair amount of locking-up under late braking – too late, in the case of Chris Roberts in his 1980 Triumph TR8, which ended up in the gravel wedged against the Armco after ploughing straight on at the Pardon Hairpin. Quite a few other drivers were also on the ragged edge at Ettore’s Bend, and it all made for very entertaining viewing.
“La Vie en Bleu / La Vita Rossa” saw a fine turnout of roadgoing Italian and French classics in the car park and display areas, and in this respect the Anglo American did not disappoint either, with Americans much better represented than in the event itself.
As you might expect, there was a selection of US muscle on display – mostly the inevitable Corvettes, Mustangs, and Camaros, but there were a few less-often seen American classics at Prescott, too. Among my favourites were a fine bright red Dodge Coronet – I like the car’s long, sleek and relatively elegant lines, and of course, it also packs a punch via its 5.9-litre V8 – and an imposing green and white 1959 Chevy Impala with its fabulous rear “wings”, which has been with its present owner for 35 years. By contrast, his other classic is a slightly smaller, more modestly styled car – a Peugeot 205GTi !
While I’m gradually becoming more familiar with classics from the other side of the Atlantic, it’s still the case that I’m regularly caught out, and this weekend the surprise came in the form of the initials REO. Now REO to me has previously meant sappy AOR rock ballads like “Keep on Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon, themselves named after the REO Speed Wagon truck, and a band I don’t particularly care for. In this case, though, they were attached to a 1935 REO Flying Cloud 6A, looking very smart in white and red.
The initials refer to truck manufacturer Ransom E. Olds, who after building a profitable business making trucks – one of which, the REO Speed Wagon, was where the band took their name from – decided to try his hand at cars.
A little research revealed that in 1897 Ransom E. Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, makers of Oldsmobile cars, then left the organisation in 1905 to start the R.E.Olds Motor Company. However, his old company objected on the grounds that it was too similar to their then-current name, Olds Motor Works, so he decided to use his initials instead. Meanwhile, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company became Oldsmobile, so eventually everyone was happy. This excursion into motor car manufacturing was to prove relatively short-lived, as in the face of decreasing sales and shrinking profit margins – in contrast to their truck business – R.E.Olds ceased car production in September 1936 to concentrate on trucks, so this 3.7-litre, 6-cylinder REO Flying Cloud would have been one of the last models built by the company – you live and learn at classic car events!
Another attention-grabber was perhaps the oldest car present – a 1914 Stanley Steamer, which emitted all manner of “whistling kettle” sounds as it stoked itself up to making it’s run up the hill – though as part of a cavalcade rather than the competition. It made quite a sight as it trailed a cloud of steam behind it. Despite at one stage holding the world mile record – in 1906 a Stanley Steamer covered the distance in 28.2 seconds, an astonishing average speed for the time of 127.4 mph or 207 km/h – by the late 1910’s the future of steam-powered cars was limited by the fast-improving efficiency and performance of the internal combustion engine, and Stanley ceased automobile production in 1924.
America is of course also the home of the Hot Rod, and there were some striking examples at Prescott, including a vivid metallic orange 1950 Studebaker Commander and a bright blue 1955 Ford Popular – with 7.5-litre engine installed as opposed to its standard 1172cc powerplant!
So in the end, despite the disappointingly low number of American entries for the Hill Climb itself, there was still plenty to look at, plus live music, food and drink and as a bonus, the rain stayed away – what else could you want? After two visits to Prescott this year, I fully intend to return on a regular basis.