THE SUMMER OF 1938
As the first green shoots appeared on the wooded slopes of Prescott hill in the spring of 1938, those responsible for the transformation could, with justification, take pride in what they had accomplished.
For here was the first purpose-built speed event venue to come on stream since the sport on public roads was outlawed some fourteen years before. In a little over four months Prescott had been made ready for action, the result of careful planning, much hard labour and inspired project management. A full season was mapped out with four events organised by the Bugatti Owners’ Club and one by the Vintage Sports Car Club.
The first of these was really just an informal rally. On Sunday April 10th 1938 the BOC Spring Rally came to Cheltenham where 130 members and guests lunched at the Queens Hotel. They then drove in convoy to Prescott, led by Col. Godfrey Giles in his Type 18 Bugatti ‘Black Bess’, to have a look at the new hill and try some informal timed runs. Ian Craig was fastest in his 5-litre ‘Bachelier’ Bugatti in 55.58 ahead of long-time Prescott competitor Ronnie Symondson in his Type 57S with 57.83.
The first meeting proper was an ‘invited clubs’ event on May 15th with Midland Automobile Club, Derby and District and Brighton and Hove among the guests. However the layout for the early events was very different from later years. The paddock was in what is now the orchard car park, and the viewing area on the opposite side of the track extended only as far as the footbridge. Arthur Baron was fastest in his Type 51 Bugatti and his time of 50.70 seconds was just 0.04 seconds ahead of the similar car of Jack Lemon Burton.
Thus the first hill record was established but it was not to last long. At the first ‘open’ meeting on July 3rd George Abecassis (Alta) set a new benchmark of 47.85. In a spirited defence, Baron recorded 48.14 and eleven drivers in all bettered the 50.70 target. In order they were A F P Fane (Frazer Nash), Bob Ansell (ERA), Robert [Bobby] Sumner (Sumner-JAP), Guy Griffiths (Anzani Nash) - later to become one of motor sport’s best-known photographers - Ian Craig (Bugatti Type 57), Peter Vaughan (Becke Powerplus), Jack Lemon-Burton (Bugatti Type 51), Hugh Hunter (Alta) and David Fry in the Freikaiserwagen.
Next came the Vintage Sports Car Club Prescott event on August 27th, the first in a series of annual meetings that continues to this day; the result of an agreement acknowledging the VSCC’s part in the acquisition of the Prescott Estate.
The VSCC had run its first speed event three years before in the grounds of the Howard Park Hotel at Aston Clinton. Other courses included Bramshill in Hampshire (later a police training college), Littlestone near New Romney in Kent, Croydon Autodrome driving school and the race course road at Lewes. 1937 saw the Club’s first race meeting at Donington Park, plus a demonstration at the newly-opened circuit at Crystal Palace.
Tom Rolt, by whose imagination and perseverance Prescott was secured, competed in a Bugatti Brescia powered ‘Phoenix Special’ and the story is that he suggested a single run sweepstake class to end the programme. On this extra run the Freikaiserwagen dipped under Abecassis’ hill record - but it could not be ratified as an official record as the event did not have RAC-recognised time keepers.
The first season ended on September 25th with a wet weekend that relented on Sunday as the drizzle and mist cleared and conditions improved. The hill record was not threatened and just five drivers dipped under the 50-second mark. Fastest was Bob Ansell (ERA) on 48.91, then Abecassis (Alta), Fane (Frazer Nash), Lord Avebury (Alta), and J Palethorpe (Frazer Nash). The first season was very successful. Prescott was established on the British motor sport map, and plans were already being put forward for a full season in the summer of 1939.