Two driveways run up to the manor house on Prescott Hill in Gloucestershire, England, seat of the Bugatti Owners' Club. One, almost straight, is part of a Roman road. The other, interestingly curved, was laid out when the house was built 500-odd years ago, and is one of the best-known automobile hill-climb courses in the world. Half a dozen times a year, drivers who specialize in this strange and demanding form of motor sport assemble at Prescott to assault the hill, and they go up quickly indeed, the record at the moment being 48.18 seconds. They come down slowly, down the straight Roman road, through an apple orchard and around to the starting line for another try.
The next hill climb at Prescott occurs this weekend, and since I am living in England I hope to be among the first to arrive and the last to leave. As an admirer and owner of Bugattis and an occasional visitor to Prescott, I know that I will be able to see more race-worthy specimens of these extraordinary cars in action than I could anywhere else on earth.
Bugatti cars are no longer fast enough to be competitive at Prescott. The last time one broke a record was in 1946, and that was accounted a noble performance. Only slightly less noble was the feat of a Bugatti coupe I coveted at Prescott a couple of summers ago. It was a mere 9.1 seconds slower than the winning brand-new race car, worth perhaps $15,000.
I saw that coupe early on the morning of the meeting. I had spent the night at The George, a small and ancient inn in Winchcombe, a village a little way from Prescott. The door of the inn opens directly on the street, and I had come out for an early walk at about 7 o'clock. A low, lithe Bugatti of the late 1930s just then appeared at the end of the crooked, narrow street, traveling fast; the driver braked hard and shifted down smartly for a right-angle turn and rasped off toward the hill. Alone, in that setting, the car looked as it might have looked in 1938, whistling through a village in eastern France on the run to Paris from Molsheim, where the gifted and eccentric Ettore Bugatti commanded the construction of his motor cars. As the coupe disappeared, running with the taut gait characteristic of the make, nostalgia was, briefly, almost palpable.
May 2, 1965
Nostalgia probably is the base root of all old-car admiration. Nothing save a period-furnished ancient house—a Stately Home—surpasses a fine motor car in evocation of the past and, to Bugattistes, there is no other breed of car. They say that much more than nostalgia motivates them. Indeed, it can be argued that the Bugatti automobile is among the half dozen most intriguing we have known. If sociologically less significant than the Model T Ford, it is considerably more interesting than the Rolls-Royce. In variety Bugatti was supreme; no other designer has exceeded his range of some 55 models, running from an electrically propelled racing car for children to a ducal motor carriage with the wheel base of a London bus and priced at $20,000 for the bare chassis.
Ettore Bugatti made sports cars, touring cars, Gran Turismo cars and racing cars, one type of which, winner of 1,045 events in 1925 and 1926, is still held by some to have been the most successful racing car of all time. Bugatti had much in common with Enzo Ferrari, the present-day builder of the great cars that bear his name—both Italians, former competition drivers, independent and autocratic. Bugatti is said to have refused to sell an automobile to King Zog of Albania because he didn't like the royal table manners, and he was inclined to be brutal in riposte to customers who complained of minor defects in his cars. He could also be kind and generous. He died in Paris in 1947 at the age of 66. The factory was disorganized, having been occupied successively by the Germans, the Canadians and the Americans. Since the war's end hardly a handful of cars have been made. They are undistinguished, outmoded in design and overpriced. Only Ettore Bugatti, it appeared, could produce a Bugatti automobile.
There is a deep-rooted schism between Bugatti owners who want to run their cars on the road and race them, too, if possible, and those who see them as irreplaceable artifacts that should be kept, ideally, in museums, and in dust-free rooms at that. About 6,000 Bugattis were made from 1910 to 1939, and 1,169 are extant, an extraordinarily high survival rate. The biggest single group is in the hands of a French collector, Fritz Schlumpf. He has more than 100.
Racing tempts Bugatti owners because the cars do well against their contemporaries. A recent old-car race at the Bridgehampton course on Long Island is an example. Bugattis finished first, second, third and fourth. The first car to appear at the end of the first lap was a Type 51 Grand Prix Bugatti, the second was a little four-cylinder Type 37, and for the rest of the race no one could get near them.
Needless to say, their drivers were of the race-and-let-the-museum-fogies-be-damned persuasion, as are all who would conquer Prescott Hill. During the 27 years of the club's ownership of Prescott, the course and the estate proper have been steadily improved and refurbished. There is nothing about Prescott that is even vaguely reminiscent of the temporary, country-fair appearance that outstandingly characterizes most American race circuits. In its setting, green and climbing, with a view over a lovely valley, it is like the Watkins Glen course, but many more years have gone into its making. It is a beautiful site and it is run with stunning efficiency.
The competitive hill climb is much more important in Europe than in the U.S., where the once-a-year Pike's Peak event alone attracts much attention. The hill-climb championships of Great Britain and of Europe are decided on a scheduled round of well-known venues, and attract specialist drivers many of whom compete seriously in no other category. Prescott was first used as a hill climb for members only in 1938, but since the war it has been, with Shelsley Walsh and other famous hills, one of the sites on which the championship of Great Britain, sponsored by the Royal Automobile Club, is decided.
On meeting days, five times a year, two cars a minute howl up Prescott. They roll out of the paddock, where they have been parked in ragged rows under the apple trees while owners and, sometimes, mechanics made the last-minute adjustments. Many of them, frank racing cars, have to be push-started, two or three men and sometimes an ambitious girl running head-down behind the car along the narrow single path.
When a car rolls out of the paddock onto the paved road that leads up the hill, it will have been "scrutineered"—given a technical examination for safety's sake—and confirmed in the class for which it was entered, according to age, type, engine size, and had a number painted on its side. It will run past the Memorial Gate to the starting line opposite the timing pavilion. Here two officials take it in charge, one chocking a rear wheel with a wooden wedge on a stick, to relieve the driver of the burden of keeping the car from rolling backward, the other seeing that it stops just short of the electric-eye timing beam. A red light announces the clearing of the course by turning to green, the starter gives a thumbs-up sign to the driver, who snaps his clutch out and pushes prayerfully on the accelerator. In moving the first three or four inches the car closes an electrical circuit and starts the 100th-second timer. The engine howls, a veil of blue smoke wreathes the rear tires as they spin—not too much, the driver hopes, or the car will just sit there for a precious half second, and not too little, or it will not reach maximum acceleration. Knowledgeable spectators, numerous at Prescott, often shrug and turn away before a car has gone 50 feet. "He's had it," they say, and they will be right more times than wrong: a trace of mismanagement, too much eagerness, too much caution, has taken a half a second off the driver's time, and he will not get it back.
However, to most of the 6,000 or 7,000 spectators who watch a Prescott meeting, a car leaving the line takes off like a fighter plane thrown down a carrier's catapult; in a really good getaway the car seems suddenly to disappear, vanishing in the blink of an eye under the arch of a small bridge a long stone's throw from the line; here a fast car will be accelerating past 70 miles an hour. Going into "Ettore's Bend," a hairpin corner which is part of an extension recently added to the original course, it will very nearly touch 100, a velocity that appears unlikely indeed to anyone who has walked the course and noted the narrowness of the road and the 180° reversal of direction at its apex. A short uphill straightaway leads to "Pardon Hairpin," a corner named for the tenant farm beside it. This is a steeply climbing left-hand 180° bend, quite impossible at anything over 20-22 miles an hour, a great pile of sand beside it serving as catchment for the unwise. Cars are accelerated violently out of Pardon along a gently curving roadway carved out of the side of a hill, through an S bend, around another hairpin, this of wider radius than the first two, and into a short straight through the beam of the electric eye at the finish line. They have then only to brake quickly enough to keep from charging into Prescott House courtyard, turn and coast down the return road. When the first competitor is halfway up the hill the green light flashes on the starting line and another Car screams away.
When men go motor racing accidents are inevitable, and at most Prescott meetings a car or two will spin or run off the course, but the level of competence of drivers is high, injuries are few and a fatality is a great rarity. Fire equipment, an ambulance and a hospital hut are at the ready. A call for doctors to look after a woman driver who had cut her forehead while loading her car on its trailer at one meeting was immediately answered by five assorted medics, but the girl's name had been announced, she was extraordinarily pretty, so perhaps the incident does not furnish a fair example. The marshals posted all along the course are expert in assaying ability, and a driver who demonstrates an excess of enthusiasm over skill is likely to find his entry firmly rejected the next time. If a car runs a wheel through the sandpiles strategically placed here and there and scatters sand on the road, men with push brooms will deal with it while exhaust smoke is still hanging in the air.
Prescott's efficiency is deceptive and underplayed. Anyone who sees much motor racing is used to being badgered by officious policemen and guards, amateur and professional. Sebring in Florida and the Monza circuit in Italy are noted for this kind of bullying. At Prescott one may notice a bobby covertly checking the color of a lapel badge out of the corner of his eye, but I have not heard of anyone's being made to stand and deliver identification, and I have no doubt it would be thought a barbarism. Prescott's air is decorous and urbane, and if the officials are tolerant it is equally true that none among the spectators feel that a 10-shilling paddock-admission ticket entitles the bearer to make loud noises or even to wear a funny hat.
To open a meeting, the mayor of Cheltenham, at five miles distance the nearest sizable town, will be driven sedately up the course in his Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Just before Ettore's Bend, the car will stop at the foot of the gravel path leading to the Steward's Enclosure. The chauffeur will open the door and the mayor will be greeted by a welcoming committee, perhaps including B.O.C. President Eric Giles, Vice-President L. J. Roy Taylor and R. C. Symondson, chairman of the council, or Godfrey Eaton, the club secretary. Inside the enclosure, sherry and hors d'oeuvres will be served. Twenty minutes later the mayor will depart down the hill, some other notable will drive a distinguished or historic car to the top and the course will be declared open.
It is a pretty sight from any vantage point—the brightly painted, improbably shiny toylike cars scattered around on the deep-green English grass, the show of flags of many countries lining the starting line and, in the middle ground, the blue Cotswold Hills. There is constant movement. People do not stand long in one place at Prescott. They move about, across the lawns, up the sloping meadow to look at the new loop of the circuit or, on the other side, along a woodland sort of walk. Shooting sticks are much seen, including the B.O.C. version, which is a big blue, gold and black umbrella as well. There are a small restaurant and a big bar, both busy. There are tiny, candy-striped ice-cream tents and a bigger one, a sandy-linen color, covering a discreet display of B.O.C. accessories: cuff links, blazers, car badges and the like. Whether the day is one of practice or competition—meetings are two-day affairs—a lunch interval is declared at one o'clock. There are picnics of varying degrees of elegance. At one meeting in May, one o'clock found me near the improbably erudite Laurence Pomeroy, dean of the world's technical motoring journalists. "Come with us," he said, "and take some solids." The solids had been stowed in the boot of his Rolls-Royce, and we took them off the folding tables in the car. Nearby a four-foot-long wicker hamper, glossy with the varnish of many years, was opened to provide lobster and hock for six. A little way off in the paddock a redheaded schoolboy of about 13, who had pitched a bedroll and a tiny pup tent neatly under a tree, was spooning briskly through a cold can of curried baked beans and raisins.
Before 2 o'clock unmuffled engines were running, and not long afterward the first car went up the hill, its driver staring ahead with the curiously desperate but restrained air of a man who knows he cannot do what he is trying to do: make a perfect run up Prescott. Like some other games that appear to be childishly simple—for example, lawn bowls and curling—hill climbing is subtly and fiendishly difficult. It is perhaps the purest form of motor racing. In a 200-mile Grand Prix race or a five-day mountain rally a driver may make two or three little mistakes, compensate for them later and go on to win. In a hill climb one mistake ruins the run. And nothing can be covered up. Every foot of the course is under observation—indeed, there are places where scrutiny is so close that a spectator can look into the cockpit and see how many revolutions a minute the engine tachometer is showing.
"Hill climbing is potentially the most dangerous form of motor racing," Tony Marsh told me a few minutes before he broke the Prescott course record, "because you're going flat-out the whole time. If you run the least bit slower than your absolute flat-out maximum you'll fail, and that means that you're on the ragged edge of losing the car all the way up the hill. On the other hand, anything that happens is your own fault: there are no other competitors running beside you to louse you up."
Mere possession of nerve enough to flatten the accelerator pedal is not enough; the car in which Marsh did his 48.84-second run—since reduced to 48.18 by Peter Boshier-Jones—can be geared to do 180 miles an hour, and a heavy foot would merely put it off the course before it was out of sight of the starting line. An intimate knowledge of the hill, balance, timing and a full complement of driving skills are required to bring a man even close to a respectable time up Prescott. And once close, once within sight of the eternally elusive perfect run, they will come back again and again, whether they're running for fun or trying for the British Hill Climb Championship. They come year after year. They come every time the course is open, for a regular meeting or a closed members' event, to take their practice runs and their two under the timer. They stalk about the paddock peering at other cars, looking for the odd modification that may be giving another man half a second or a fifth. In the purpling dusk one may see three or four of them standing clustered around a great boxy Type 46 Bugatti or eight-liter Bentley, using the opened boot lid as a table, having a drop of Scotch, staring now and then at the silent, stubborn hill, impatient for tomorrow and another go at it. The hill will always be there, and I am sure that long after the last Grand Prix Bugatti, spurning well-deserved rest in a museum, has screamed to the top of it, the B.O.C. will still be sending cars up, one every 30 seconds.