It’s like someone’s flicked a ‘mute’ switch in the car. Right here and now, on Shelsley Walsh’s start line at the Hagerty Hill Climb, this is the biggest challenge I have. Not, strangely, that the car I’m driving is over six feet wide on a track that’s so narrow I wouldn’t be able to pass myself at some points. Nor the fact that this is unashamedly a road car, and one whose original purpose was to travel faster in a straight line than any other wearing four-door saloon bodywork. Or that it’s someone else’s car, it’s ultra-rare (about 180 left in UK), and not inexpensive to replace if I bin it (one has just come up for auction with a £100k estimate).
None of that matters to me now, but a lack of sound does. The reason for my temporary loss of hearing is a slightly under-sized race helmet, borrowed from Hagerty’s deputy-ed, Antony Ingram. My son, a race instructor, had pinched mine, leading to some frantic last minute calls the night before to retrieve it. All to no avail, so it’s Antony’s noise-cancelling lid, now effectively blocking off my ear-tracts, or nothing.
And the car? A 1993 Vauxhall Lotus Carlton: 377bhp, 0-60mph in 5.1 seconds, and a top speed so high back in the day (176mph) that it even elicited a heated debate in the House of Commons about the ethics of producing such a vehicle. This one is quite well-known, too, ‘XGS’ always having been owned by Vauxhall, starting its days as a press car, and then transferring to its heritage fleet, now maintained by the British Motor Museum in Gaydon. If you buy a Dinky model of a Lotus Carlton today, ‘K948 XGS’ is the registration it’ll wear.
It’s not until you try driving without sound that you realise how much you miss it – especially when you need to be at the top of your personal game, if only for less than a minute. This is my first run of three up Shelsley’s historic hill climb today, and while all the cars gathered here today – a real eclectic mix, from a 1920s Blower Bentley to a current Ferrari Roma – are technically only performing ‘demonstration runs’, the reality is that each will be timed, even if only for the drivers’ personal bragging rights thereafter.
I’m sure I won’t have anything to brag about in the Lotus Carlton, but that’s partly why I chose it, the thought of driving something so inappropriate having a perverse appeal. There was an historic tribute I wanted to pay, too. Vauxhall had enjoyed immense success at Shelsley before the war, and 89 years ago yesterday, on 27 May, 1933, legendary racing driver Raymond Mays had cracked the very same course in 44.8 seconds in a Vauxhall Villiers ex-grand prix car. So, that’s my yardstick today.
It’s been at least ten years since I drove here in anger, so while I still have a vague map in my head of the 1000-yard course – unchanged since 1905, making it one of the world’s oldest motorsport venues – it’s too sketchy to unleash anything approaching a full-beans assault for this initial attempt. I’ve waived the crowd-pleasing spectacle of ‘warming’ my tyres beforehand out of respect to the LC’s notoriously weak differential, so I gently roll up to the line and let the marshals do their bit.
The start is on an incline, as you’d expect, so while one marshal lines up the front of your car with the eye of the timing beam, the other places a wedge at the back of your offside rear tyre to stop the car rolling back. Then it’s just a case of waiting for the previous driver to finish their run, after which a green light flashes on, giving you the all-clear to go. And this is where what you hear is so important. The LC is a quiet car, even when its twin-turbocharged ‘six’ is fully extended, so when I launch it off the line, there is nothing more than a subdued hum. The reality is very different, though. Within a few feet the car is merrily slewing from one side to the other – albeit gracefully – and a quick glance at the tacho’ shows it’s already bothering its 6300rpm redline. Jeez! First is a tall gear, too, so by the time I’m into second and on top of Kennel, the first left-hander, I’m carrying a lot more speed than intended, and having to throttle off, making the whole launch feel pretty erratic.
But this is no time to dwell. Caution being the better part of valour, I hold second, which must be good for 80-85mph. Crossing, the second left hand-hander, is little more than a kink on the circuit map, but the reality is that high banks on either side of the track mean that it’s poorly-sighted, so a cautionary lift again. Damn! But then the track opens up and you can see it undulating upwards before you power towards Bottom S and Top S, the near-90-degree left- and right-handers nestled in the shadows of a naturally wooded amphitheatre, making it a perfect vantage point for spectators.
Because the Carlton is so wide, and the track so narrow, the sense of speed is exacerbated, which leads me to brake way too early for Bottom S, arriving there at an embarrassingly low velocity, compounding the shame of it all with a clumsy clip of the raised white- and red-painted kerb on the inside. But as I clear the treacherous Top S (I’ve seen cars quite literally wedged between the high banks which border its exit after applying too much throttle), the finish line is in sight. An arrow-straight path now, so the Carlton’s throttle is nailed, and I just manage to snatch third gear before crossing over the line at a recorded 90mph.
The collecting area at the top of the hill is a great place to share your experiences with other drivers in the same batch. My paddock ‘neighbour’, Andrew Barrett, has just arrived in his stunning E28 BMW M5 and is still grinning from ear to ear as he greets me. We both agree that there can be no other form of motorsport that gives you this kind of bang for your buck, and allows such a broad church of competitor cars. Of course, there’s still an inherent danger – especially if you choose, like we have, to compete in the car in which you intend travelling to and from the venue – but it’s controlled by you, the driver, without the potential for someone else spoiling your day, like on a race circuit.
Back in the paddock, and my time is in: 42.1 seconds. Sounds okay – and I’m pleased to be in Mr. Mays’ ballpark – but it feels like there’s so much more in the car, and me, for that matter. For my second run, I adopt a smoother, taller-geared approach. I already remember not to bother lifting through the first two turns, and use third gear immediately afterwards. The car feels instantly faster and more composed, and I brake deeper into Bottom S, dialling out the Carlton’s tendency to understeer with a dab of throttle-induced ‘oppo’, and end up across the line faster, at a recorded 95mph.
A result, surely? But no. Incredibly, I’ve gone backwards, and recorded a 42.67 – half a second slower than before. Clearly, by losing some of that first-session aggression in favour of what I thought was a more cohesive and better-balanced run has lost me time. But this is what makes hill climbing and sprinting so much fun. It’s how you can experiment with different techniques as you learn about the car and course, and deploy those that work on subsequent runs.
Which is why on run three, the Lotus Carlton turned in a respectable 39.93-second time.
Raymond Mays would have been proud.