Picture a traditional British rock climbing event and images of tweed flat caps, red trousers, wet weather and tea, with cars ranging from pre-war to 1960s Minis and Spitfires fitted with ply tires lean crossovers and SU carburetors will probably come to mind.
While to this day this remains a fairly accurate account, climbing also continued to evolve into single-seater race cars with turbocharged bicycle engines and everything in between. With certain class rules in place to keep budgets low, hillclimb racing can be one of the most affordable types of motorsport. But for the other classes, anything goes.
Prescott Hill Climb events have officially existed in the Gloucestershire countryside since 1938. In the 1930s the Bugatti Owners’ Club had been looking for a permanent venue for their hill climbing events, and when this fell into their hands what was the driveway from the neighboring road to Prescott House has been resurfaced. A slightly longer loop was added in 1960, but the course design has remained unchanged since.
The Bugatti Owners’ Club hold a variety of events here under the Prescott Speed Hill Climb umbrella, and on the first Saturday in November I headed out to Rallye Prescott.
Now that it is autumn in the UK, when the leaves on the trees turn from bright green to shades of yellow, orange and red, it was incredibly scenic. It also meant that rain was forecast and the track was wet and slippery which made it even more difficult. But on this occasion though, the cars that came out to play were designed and built for grueling conditions.
Rally legends in the paddock
Among the decades-old rallying legends there was not one, but of them Factory-exit Subaru WRC car. The first, W23 SRT (S6 generation), a car we have already covered in a full functioncompeted in the World Rally Championship in 2000. The second, P12 WRC (S5 generation) competed between 1997 and 1999.
Parked next to each other, the two Prodrive-built machines looked pretty similar, but they’re radically different under the skin. The W23 SRT was a complete redesign, called a “low center of gravity” car, featuring active differentials and, for the first time in the WRC, a sequential gearbox.
We’re used to seeing classic Porsche 911s on historic rally stages, but not so much their modern counterparts. It’s a shame, because all of the attributes that make 911s capable on the track—capable chassis and plenty of corner-exit traction—are found in rallying.
BMW E30 M3s have proven themselves both on the circuit and on rally special stages, but I had to do a double take when the bonnet was removed from this particular car. In place of the BMW S14 engine was a Millington Diamond grinder, a bespoke engine based on the YB Cosworth design. The M3 retains a throaty induction note from the individual throttle bodies, but changing the engine was a practical matter as parts sourcing for the S14 became increasingly difficult.
This Lancia 037 in full Safari Rally trim went one step further than gravel spec. Massive crash bars, additional spotlights on the A-pillar and a roof-mounted tire carrier adorn the exterior.
Many people aren’t aware of Mitsubishi’s World Rally Championship efforts until the Lancer Evolution models, but the Colt 1000F is where it started in 1967. The Lancer EX Turbo seen here competed against early Audis Quattro, Ford Escort and Fiat 131, and produced up to 400 bhp by the end of the car’s competitive life.
The short-wheelbase Audi Sport Quattro has impossibly awkward proportions, but the foundations of the S1 E2’s all-wheel-drive technology laid for rallying at its peak are undeniable.
In anticipation of the event which will take place in the evening, most of the cars were equipped with lighting modules and spotlights. More is better, right?
The great thing about events like this is that in addition to the manufacturer-backed entries of yesteryear, Rallye Prescott has attracted a lot of more accessible machinery, like the Citroën Saxo. Fifteen years ago, the Saxo reigned over the municipal domain; you couldn’t walk into a McDonald’s after dark without seeing at least one in the parking lot. Stigma aside, they continue to be incredibly capable cars, boasting 120bhp and weighing well under a tonne in VTS form as standard.
No British motorsport event would be complete without a classic Mini or two, and for good reason. Their lightness and maneuverability always make them a force to be reckoned with.
Not sure what the collective name is for a bunch of classic rally Renaults (maybe a frustration?) but seeing so many cars parked together was kind of special. The Renault 5 Turbo sitting alongside the Maxi Turbo really underlined how crazy the Group B car was.
As you can see, the rest of the Rallye Prescott paddock was extremely varied.
I can’t say I’m a fan of the bubble-esque Nissan Micra/March K11 in stock form, but with the works kit car arches added, its look is completely transformed.
As part of the event, members of the TypeRA-Forum were invited to exhibit their cars and had the opportunity to do some runs. Never one to turn down an offer, I brought my Spec C 16″ and took to the hill. It was as fat as expected and I quickly developed a real respect for riders who went ten tenths.
Rally legends on the hill
Although the course may seem easy, it is not. From a slight uphill start, you increase your pace as you enter the left turn, hiding under the pedestrian bridge.
Then at Ettore, a slightly uphill 180 degree turn that was the aforementioned addition 52 years ago.
Descending into the plunge, you are then faced with a steep climb into the Pardon Hairpin. This is almost a first gear corner, with wheel spin common as many cars lift a wheel going to ground level.
There can’t be many people other than the Duke of Richmond who can say their driveway is a Coast racebut the competitors then pass in front of one of the two houses accessible only by the hill course.
Another quick right turn follows as the elevation gradually increases.
Then the cars weave their way through the Esses before a steep climb to the left.
The course ends with a bend called the Semi-Circle. It requires nerves of steel and full commitment as the outside of the bend is a blind incline that stretches about 150 feet to the brush below. You don’t want to leave here.
If you have reached this point, you cross the finish line. While the fastest cars dipped into the day’s high 47-second range, the all-time record held by Wallace Menzies in a Gould GR59 (a 650+ horsepower single-seater) stands at 34.65 seconds.
A unique feature compared to other hill climbs in the UK is a separate back road, which means the cars can continuously attack the hill at 30 second intervals.
Seeing how different types of cars have done this has been interesting. While many front-wheel-drive cars managed throttle and steering inputs to control understeer, rear-wheel-drive cars did the same to avoid spinning.
Grassroots motorsport events are a really special thing and while that might be a bold claim, I think Britain does them better than most. Rallye Prescott is definitely a sum of its parts. With a visually stunning venue steeped in history, a mix of incredible cars and the UK’s quintessential enthusiasm for motorsport, this is a British climb to the T.
So maybe the traditional elements live on, just with a wider variety of cars? Events like the Rallye Prescott can only be a good thing, mixing two different types of motorsport to bring together different enthusiasts. I won’t be holding my breath yet waiting for the pre-war Bugattis on the rally cross tracks.