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Was the first organised motorsport event in England held in the Black Country?

By dan shaw  |  Posted: February 07, 2013

Herbert Austin at the tiller of the 4-wheel Wolseley he drove in the 1000 Miles Trial, 1900

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BLACK Country motorsport enthusiasts are fortunate in having a number of famous racing venues so close to their doorstep. Silverstone, where modern Grand Prix racing began in 1950, and Donington Park are in the Midlands, and much closer to home is the oldest motorsport venue in the world still at its original site, Shelsley Walsh. The first event there took place in 1905 and it is still going strong, well worth a day out.

Bexhill-on-Sea claims to be the home of the first organised motorsport event in England, the event taking place in May 1902. A further competitor for the title is the 1,000 Miles Trial, from London to Edinburgh, which started on 23rd April, 1900, and arrived in Edinburgh ten days later, the competitors having run in 100 miles sections each day. Crystal Palace also claims a first in May 1899, but this was just a few motoring friends seemingly doing what scores of young motorists do illegally today and having unorganised ‘fun’ with their cars. The London to Brighton run started in 1896 but was a demonstration run celebrating the “emancipation” of motoring with the raising of the speed limit from 4 to 14mph. Contrary to popular myth, the red flag requirement had been abolished years before.

I have some sympathy for the claim of Walter Arnold of Kent as our first true motorsport man, as he was the first person in England to be prosecuted for speeding.

On 28th January, 1896, he was fined one shilling with costs for travelling at 8mph when the speed limit was disputed at either 2 or 4mph. He had been chased by a policeman on a bicycle who caught him. Quite how the law could confirm at that time that he was travelling at 8mph is not recorded.

But it seems that the accolade for the first organised motorsport event in England lies here in the Black Country.

There are widely varying claims to the invention of the first motor car, but many agree it was Karl Benz in 1885. Certainly he was selling a three-wheeler Benz Model 3 in 1888. The claims for the first car on the road in England are even more widely contested.

Several names have been put forward as people who built “cars” in sheds and back gardens and then drove them in public, few stand full analysis, but perhaps William Bremer of London, who built a fourwheeler in his shed and received some publicity for it, and Henry Hewetson, who imported a Benz, both lay claim to be the first, late in 1894. In 1895 there were 14 or 15 cars on the roads of England, by 1900 that had rapidly grown to between 700 and 800.

Manufacturers, many overseas, both French and German, and if British, largely based in Birmingham and Coventry, exhibited at the Birmingham Motor Shows, Bingley Hall, which started in 1896.

On Wednesday, 31st January, 1900, several motorcars and autocycles left the fourth of the Midland Motor Car Exhibitions at Bingley Hall, to travel the six or so miles to Mucklow Hill, Halesowen, to “prove” themselves in front of a large crowd, by climbing the steep hill, 1 in 9 in places, that stretches for nearly one mile.

Hill climbing was known to be a weakness with these newfangled inventions, however 11 vehicles entered the hill climb and none of them broke down, even though the surface was described as very loose and dirty with a tendency to slip on the muddy surface.

The tricycles were the first to attempt the timed climb although some of them needed pedal power to assist the climb.

The judges, it seems, accounted for this when making the final awards which were as follows: 1st, A.J.W. Millership (driving an Ariel) 4 minutes 23 seconds; 2nd, J.W. Stocks (Ariel) 4 minutes 40 seconds; 3rd, C.G. Garrard (Ariel) 4 minutes 50 seconds; 4th A.C. Edge (unknown) 4 minutes 57 seconds; 5th, G. Sharpe (MMC) 5 minutes 6 seconds; 6th, Sangster (Ariel) 9 minutes.

Two quadricycles were next, each had to carry a passenger, although no vehicle name was given for either of them but they may well have been Ariels, as the drivers seem to have been the same as on the Ariel tricycles and the company did produce quadricycles at the time. Sangster and Garrard climbed the hill in 5 minutes 18 seconds, and Stocks and Millership in 7 minutes 3 seconds.

Then there were two light cars weighing less than 12 hundredweight.

The first was a Frenchmade Mors Petit Duc, with J.

Palethorpe and C. Wheelwright on board, that reached the top in 9 minutes 29 seconds, followed by a Wolseley, containing H. Austin and Wilson, who completed their climb in 11 minutes 2 seconds.

There was only one entry in the heavy carriage section, named as an Iveagh Phaeton, made by the Motor Manufacturing Company, but their records only list a model named the Sandringham at this time with a power output of 5.5bhp.

It carried an unnamed driver with H. Sturmey, J.G. Williams and H. Keys as its passengers. It was timed at 11 minutes 48 seconds.

The company was declared bankrupt in 1905.

The organisers of the show had also organised a run from Birmingham to Coventry and back with members of the public as passengers from the previous Saturday. The weather was reported as “unpleasant” with a chilling wind and alternating snow and rain. I would have thought “very unpleasant” in what would doubtless be cars open to the elements.

The H. Austin was, of course, the soon to be famous Herbert Austin, who at that time worked for the Wolseley Company, makers of sheep shearing equipment. He had been sent to Australia to look for innovation in shearing machinery, but on his return he had started to use their facilities to develop motor cars.

The car in question was his voiturette, which I believe may be the one that still exists in the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon.

The car used was what we would today call a pre-production model as sales to the public did not start until 1901, and by 1913 Wolseley was the largest selling car maker in England, with sales of over 3,000 cars in that year.

Although a small event, I think that the claim for the very first organised motorsport event in England is ours, here in the Black Country — unless you know better.

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