FLAT OUT UP THE HILL
The Grimsthorpe Speed Trials aimed to recreate the racy romance of 1920s motor sport in the grounds of a stately home – and succeeded in achieving those heights
Petri Hitches parks his 1928 speedway Douglas by the chestnut fencing, takes off his pudding basin, pulls his Aran-knit jumper straight and is barely able to conceal his glee at having completed the opening competitive run up the hill in the first Grimsthorpe Speed Trials since the 1920s.
“I worked my way to the front of the queue so I was first one away,” he says with a broad grin of childlike excitement. “The first sharp right after the start line is close to the lake on your left, but after that it’s pretty much flat out on this. I’ve ridden at Syston (another Lincolnshire speed trial) and while the course there is a little wider, I’ve never got into top gear there like I have done today. It’s great to be able to give it full beans.”
Petri is one of over 100 competitors with pre-1939 bikes and cars ‘giving it full beans’ up the sinuous singletrack stretch of tarmac in front of Grimsthorpe Castle, Bourne, which has its origins in the early 13th century. It’s currently owned by Jane Heathcote-drummondwilloughby, the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Erseby, and has been in the de Eresby family since 1516. The dramatic frontage of the house was the work of Sir John Vanbrugh (the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) who gave it the grandeur of a castle. Not only that, Capability Brown is said to have landscaped the gardens of this 3000-acre site in Southern Lincolnshire. That’s proper heritage.
Grimsthorpe Castle has real motorsport heritage, too, first hosting a speed trial for cars and motorcycles back in 1903. Raymond Mays, who developed ERA racing cars and subsequently launched BRM, raced there in 1904. Speed trials, the early life-blood of motorcyclists with sporting pretensions, continued at Grimsthorpe until the early 1920s.
According to reports in The Motor Cycle, events at Grimsthorpe used one mile and 1¼-mile courses, some
of uphill gradient, some downhill. At the East Midlands Centre ACU event in April 1921, Geo Dance recorded a top speed of 96mph on his Sunbeam 3½, which caused something of a controversy in the press. The Motor Cycle, one of the two weekly bike publications of the time, couldn’t believe the top speed and queried it with Mr T F Bidlake, the official timekeeper of the event and the surveyor who laid the course. He confirmed the high speeds attained on the day were due to: ‘the course being on a slightly downward grade and there was a strong following wind’.
This year’s ‘revival’ was run by Vintage Speed Trials, a company formed by Richard Powell in March this year with the intention of establishing a club for members and the volunteers who help out. He says: “We’ve talked to the foresters working on the estate, who have an intimate knowledge of the ground we believe the original track was in the ‘Old Deer Park’. It has the gradient The Motor Cycle mentions, and is in some of the original photographs. We would like to use this track and the owners are prepared to let us use it, but the protection of the trees with bales is very expensive and will only be possible when we are a little bigger.”
Back in 1911, the Lincolnshire Automobile Club (formed in 1900) used a new formula at Grimsthorpe to determine overall results based on merit, as well as those of elapsed times, the thinking being that riders should be rewarded for getting the best out of smaller-capacity machines. The Motor Cycle’s formula took into account the height and length of the hill plus the average gradient
‘DESPITE A 1939 CUT-OFF DATE FOR BIKES, THERE WAS A ROARING TWENTIES THEME’
to determine the constant for the hill, then factored in machine weight, capacity and time to calculate overall positions irrespective of machine class. Complicated? It took two people performing calculations between each run – but, provided riders were separated by at least two minutes on the course, it was possible to provide a rolling update of ‘formula’ results throughout the event! Grimsthorpe was also used by the same club to carry out Acu-observed testing to revise the formula again in 1916. There was no timing during this year’s event at Grimsthorpe, but it’s likely there will be in future.
The 2018 course measured just half of a mile with an uphill gradient of about one in six, and attracted an entry of over 40 bikes across four classes. The variety of machinery was quite remarkable and although there was a 1939 cut-off date for bikes, there was a definite Roaring Twenties theme to the event, with people in period dress and a soundtrack being played in the club tent on the lawns of the castle.
Grimsthorpe has the potential to grow and replaced Syston, which didn’t run this year. “Syston is a little bit of a sensitive subject. Sufficient to say, the land owner did not share the majority of the founders’ vision for the event,” says Richard. “Grimsthorpe is entirely its own new, unique event. The history lays at the heart of why we choose a venue; we were aware of the Grimsthorpe history, and there is probably more to uncover.”
It’s rumoured that Raymond Mays also tested his cars at Syston and Grimsthorpe, but Richard explains: “He
tested the ERAS mostly on the road between Bourne and Colsterworth. What we have uncovered is that he had plans post-war to build a racing circuit at Grimsthorpe with a Mr Clutton to test the BRMS. There was even going to be a branch line of the local railway from Stamford to get the public in!”
The superb entry for Grimsthorpe was partly curated from previous speed trials at Syston, but entries were also invited. “We had a good following from Syston and they all migrated to us, but we advertise on our website and all our group go to race meets through the year seeking interesting cars and bikes. Word of mouth is best. The Edwardian groups are always looking for new venues that better suit the braking and top speeds of their cars, and a group that call themselves the ‘Festival of Sloth’ want to come next year with cycle cars.”
There were race bikes, modified road bikes and fullon specials at Grimsthorpe, not to mention an incredible array of period cars. Richard adds: “All our bikes are pre-1939, some are built from parts of old machines, but our approach is to create as varied a field as possible. Some of our entries Goodwood would be proud to have
on the grid, and for a fledgling event I was impressed with the turnout on what was a damp day.”
The weather might have deterred casual day trippers, but it didn’t put off the hardcore vintage enthusiasts, which delighted Richard. “I was expecting a small loss that is to be expected on the first event, with such awful weather. But we will be back next year and with good weather, I am confident now the formula will work.”
He also has a pretty clear view of how the event can
‘THE CARS AND BIKES WILL ALWAYS BE THE MAIN EVENT, THE KEY IS TO BE CREATIVE’
develop. “We are planning to introducing more unusual attractions to capture the public interest, a pennyfarthing race along the main drive being one. We need to enhance the spectator access to the start line and get them closer to the track. We need more vintage stall holders and food, and perhaps a ball or 1930s dinner dance the night before, with runs up the track for our guests. The positive feedback we have received is heartening and any negative feedback we will listen to carefully and improve upon.
“I want the event to have a simple formula; I have no interest in bolting on traction engines and fun fairs. The cars and bikes will always be the main event, but the key is to be creative as our visitors always notice the detail. The brown dust coats, vintage commentary caravan and traditional start posts are all trademarks of ours.
“I am proud of what we have achieved so far, and with circuit racing and big revival events getting more expensive and commercial, I hope we can fill a niche in the motor sport calendar. The owners and trust at Grimsthorpe are 100% behind us and the combination of a lovely setting and great entries will help us grow.”
We loved the wonderful, relaxed atmosphere of the event and it’s no surprise to hear that Richard has already been approached by several groups in other parts of the country to help them promote and get similar speed trials off the ground.
Dave Inglis on his Harley ‘D’, originally designed to take on Indian Scouts and the Henderson Super X
Magnificent Series A Rapide looked entirely at home in the aristocratic surroundings
ABOVE: The Mistress of Ceremonies was suitably attired BELOW: Even the course car was in period style
Carl Rear, suitably attired for the rain on his Sunbeam Model 9. He has participated in Syston speed trial and Grimsthorpe compares favourably, he says
Brown dust coats are an event trademark
Roger Moss has really gone to town on his 1934 Scott: different crank, deflector pistons, bigger carburettor... and much more
Some of the entrants looked like they might be a bit of a handful...
Sheelagh was suffering from a crash injury to her hand, but still rode her Velo and Triumph outfit