There is little in British motorsport as evocative or esoteric as the sight and sound of period racing cars and home-built specials rushing up the side of the Teme Valley in rural Worcestershire.
The Shelsley Walsh hillclimb course has hosted motorsport for 115 years and, uniquely, continues to use the same 1000-yard course to test man and machine against the clock. The whole venue oozes history and atmosphere and, even behind closed doors, its events have a real sense of occasion.
In August, four days before Shelsley’s 115th anniversary, competitors from the Vintage Sports Car Club got their annual adrenaline rush up the short, steep and narrow ribbon of asphalt. Even with no spectators, the cramped paddock at Shelsley is a special place in motorsport heritage.
From the start line, the speed and gradient builds through left-handers at Kennel and Crossing before the headlong rush up to the Esses. This sharp left and right, surrounded by unforgiving banks, catapults cars onto the finish straight, where the top hillclimb machines of the day nudge 150mph in search of a 22sec climb. It’s one of the most intense experiences in motorsport, and the challenge of Shelsley keeps competitors coming back in their droves.
Of all the pre-war cars in action this summer, one of the most notable was the remarkable GN Spider. Built and driven by Basil Davenport in the early 1920s, it was based on a narrow GN cyclecar chassis and fitted with a potent Frazer Nash V-twin. Although not as skeletal as some of the more outrageous specials, it was a car designed with a simple function: to challenge for the record time at Shelsley.
It proved to be a success and in 1926 became the first car to climb Shelsley in less than 50sec. Over the next decade, Davenport broke the record several more times as he pared down his best time by 6sec before motorsport was halted by the war.
When Davenport died in 1979, the Spider was handed to David Leigh, who continues to own and race the unique machine. It has been out of action for a few years for an engine rebuild, but otherwise Leigh keeps it in a glorious patina of oil stains, dents and scrapes in fitting tribute to its creator, who cared plenty for speed and little for aesthetics.
More recently, Leigh has taken advantage of better tyres and a resurfaced hill to achieve Davenport’s period ambition of taking Spider up Shelsley in less than 40sec, but this summer’s outing wasn’t about breaking records. It was about fettling the rebuilt engine for the next chapter in the story of an amazing competition car that will soon be 100 years old.
Spider missed the first 20 years of the Shelsley story, but it has been a constant pretty much ever since and certainly isn’t looking like retiring soon.