Hillclimb History At Bo’ness

Bo'ness hillclimb as seen from the original start line.

Although I still regard circuit racing as home territory, despite not having done any for quite a while, regular readers will be aware that most of my competition activity these days involves hillclimbing, a sport in which you drive as quickly as you can up a short track with no concern that anyone will attempt to gain an advantage by drop kicking your car into nearby pastures.

Opinions vary on this topic, but as far as I’m concerned the first ever hillclimb took place at Chanteloup-les-Vignes to the north-east of Paris in 1898, inspired by one of journalist Paul Mayan’s suggestions (another, improbably, was a paperchase) of ways to use cars competitively. The sport came to the UK not long afterwards; famously, the first event at Shelsley Walsh in Worcestershire, where hillclimbs are still run on the original course, was held back in August 1905.

Hillclimbs became very popular over the next few years, even to the extent of being ranked second only to Grand Prix races in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that a British Championship was devised. There were five rounds, four of them at venues that are still on the BHC calendar in 2017: Shelsley, the almost equally ancient Craigantlet closed public road course just outside Belfast (first event 1913), Prescott in Gloucestershire and Bouley Bay in Jersey.

(You’ll notice that Craigantlet and Bouley Bay aren’t in Great Britain, and Bouley Bay isn’t even in the United Kingdom. For this reason I think we should be referring to the British Isles Hillclimb Championship, but I don’t imagine the idea will ever catch on.)

The other venue was a road on the Kinneil Estate at Bo’ness, within sight of the River Forth, fortunately out of sight of the nearby Grangemouth oil refinery and about 16 miles east of Edinburgh. Bo’ness was used for the very first Championship round, which took place on 17 May 1947 – exactly 70 years ago as I write this. There will be an official celebration in the next few days, but I wanted to be there to celebrate the precise anniversary, so I did some of today’s work yesterday, delayed the rest until tomorrow and popped along, hoping that I could do some on-site research and come home to write this article in time for publication before midnight. We’ll see how that goes – if the article is dated May 18, I haven’t made it.

Even for those with no interest whatever in motorsport, Bo’ness is a resoundingly historic place. An eastern section of the Antonine Wall (a counterpart of the older, longer and better-known Hadrian’s Wall further south) runs through the Kinneil Estate, and there are the remains of a Roman fort. In 1323 the grounds were given by Robert the Bruce to Walter fitz Gilbert, an ancestor of the Hamilton family which retained ownership for very nearly six centuries until they were taken over and turned into a public park by Bo’ness Town Council in 1922.

James Watt's workshop on the Kinneil Estate at Bo'ness.
James Watt’s workshop on the Kinneil Estate.

The centrepiece of the Estate is Kinneil House, built in 1677 on the remains of an earlier tower house and saved from almost certain demolition in 1936 after the discovery of some hidden mural paintings. Just behind the House is a tiny, ruined cottage-cum-workshop where James Watt worked at improving what he regarded as the very inefficient Newcomen steam engine.

By the time of the inaugural British Hillclimb Championship event, Bo’ness was a motorsport venue of fifteen years’ standing, though the course had only recently been extended to 880 yards. From the start line, just off a now bypassed main road, the course swung steeply uphill to the left before drivers had to brake for a righthander which I can tell you, having approached it at some speed, is tighter than it looks.

Just after that came the Courtyard, a tight section surrounded by private houses and what is now the Bo’ness Museum, a small but fascinating place originally built in the late 17th century and used as a stable. Horses were kept at ground level, while the upper floor was used both for storing fodder and as sleeping quarters for the stable lads. In the Museum there is an ordinary-looking blue ring-binder folder which turns out to be an absolute treasure for motorsport historians, full of photographs and archive reports (extracts to follow shortly) from the May 1947 meeting.

Courtyard section at Bo'ness hillclimb.
Courtyard section with museum visible on the left.

The Courtyard led into a long straight interrupted by a fast and tricky chicane known as the Snake. This is now completely submerged under the housing estate whose contruction brought hillclimbing at Bo’ness to a standstill in the 1966, forcing members of the organising Lothian Car Club to find another venue. (They did. It’s about 30 miles away at Doune, the most northerly course still used for the British Hillclimb Championship and by general consent the most intimidating.)

Housing estate notwithstanding, if you wander out of Kinneil and take a path next to Provost Road you can find a little brick enclosure which protected the timing gear at the finish line and look further up the hill to the braking zone before the return road. Kenny Baird, a Bo’ness expert (and incidentally the man who helpfully guided me by phone to this part of the hill a few hours ago) assures me that speeds of up to 120mph were regularly achieved here by the front-runners in later years. Today’s top hillclimb cars, several producing over 600bhp and weighing less than 400kg, have the space to exceed that at only a few of the current Championship venues.

Cover of programme for the 17 May 1947 hillclimb at Bo'ness.The May 1947 event was by all accounts a tremendous success. Nine thousand paying spectators turned up, and according to the pseudonymous ‘Pilot’, motorsport correspondent of Motor World magazine (which my father was editing when it went bust decades later, I hope not because of him), “Bo’ness on Saturday was not unlike a Continental speed fiesta. The bright sunshine, the animation in the paddock, in the fact the whole setting of the meeting brought back memories of pre-war events across the channel.”

‘Pilot’ also quoted one of the drivers (sadly without naming him, though he was probably a southern visitor) as saying, “Your Bo’ness is something different. It’s more than an ordinary event. That idea of handing each driver a written copy of his times immediately upon returing to the paddock was unique and darned sensible. I’ll be back.”

That driver was careless with his pronouns. By no means all the competitors were male. One who definitely wasn’t was Mrs Sheila Darbyshire, who flung her 1.5-litre supercharged Riley up the hill in 40.8 seconds. To put that into context, Sydney Allard set exactly the same time in a car of his own devising powered by an air-cooled Steyr V8 engine.

One thing you couldn’t say of Allard was that he was a slouch. He didn’t win the British Hillclimb Championship in 1947 or 1948 because Raymond Mays did, but he managed it in 1949, a year before finishing third in the Le Mans 24 Hour race and three years before winning the Monte Carlo Rally. To match Allard, Mrs Darbyshire must have been an extraordinarily talented driver. In fairness, Allard’s second competition run was compromised when the Steyr engine began to misbehave near the finish, but still.

Raymond Mays wasn’t present at Bo’ness, but Dennis Poore was. A possible contender for overall honours, he rolled his Alfa Romeo during a practice run, “and arose,” a reporter explained, “covered in bruises and some confusion.” I can see how that might be the case.

Then there was George Abecassis. A very successful racing driver, a war hero (he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for transporting secret agents around Europe) and later the co-founder of the HMW race team, Abecassis came to Bo’ness with a Bugatti Type 59 fitted, as other cars were, with twin rear wheels for extra traction, though eye-witness accounts suggest the power of his car’s 3.3-litre engine nevertheless overcame the combined grip of all four back tyres.

1947 Bo'ness hillclimb pennant.

It didn’t seem to cause him any trouble. “Abecassis left the starting line in a crescendo of cacophony,” a reporter wrote in a tone suggesting breathless awe, “swooped round the bottom bends with his foot hard down, dived through the Courtyard in a terrific burst of abandon, and as quickly as it takes to write these words had disappeared over the crest of the hill to the finish.” Except for the reference to the Courtyard, this could be a description of any of today’s hillclimb heroes on a really hot run.

Abecassis went up the hill in 38.6 seconds on his first run and 38.2 on his second, and won the event. It was his only victory in a British Hillclimb Championship round, though he contested all the others that year and ended up second on points to Mays. He also achieved podium finishes in circuit races across Europe (one of them on ice!) in an ERA and a Cisitalia, so he must have regarded 1947 as quite a memorable season.

Although Bo’ness has not been part of the British Hillclimb Championship for more than half a century, events are still run there thanks to the efforts of the Bo’ness Hillclimb Revival Club, which has been holding events for classic cars there since 2008. The housing estate remains in place so it has been impossible to use the 1947 course, but some yardage has been regained by moving the start line on to the former main road. A more recent development has involved turning left on to the main driveway to Kinneil House just after the Courtyard. This means competitors use even less of the original track than before, but it helps spectator access.

1947 Bo'ness hillclimb finish line and braking zone.
1947 Bo’ness finish line with brick shelter just visible in the undergrowth.

Today I walked up and around the hill, but in 2013 I did a demonstration run in a Vauxhall Corsa VXR and a year later another, much more cautious one in a Mk1 Lotus Cortina supplied by the Ford Heritage Centre. I had expected to have nothing more than a pleasant time in 2013, but in fact the event exceeded expectations by an enormous margin, due partly to the wonderful array of competing cars (in some cases dating back to Edwardian times) and partly to the wonderfully friendly atmosphere. The 2014 event was even better, and although I haven’t been to a Revival meeting since then, because it clashes with a BHC round at Prescott, I’m told that each one has been more delightful than the one before.

The tenth anniversary Revival, of which more details can be found on this website, will take place on September 2/3 this year. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I heartily recommend paying a visit, even if it means travelling a long way.