Photo courtesy of Len Wooller
‘There was something here that seized the imagination,’ the Brighton Herald noted in July 1905, perhaps in apology for their sometimes overheated prose about the inaugural Brighton Speed Trials. Readers had been told about ‘volcanic racing dragons,’ and ‘fearsome machines… more like the engines of war than the vehicles of sport’, ‘hurtling through the air with the menace of a live shell… low, venomous monster[s], spitting clouds of smoke and flame,’ and ‘shaking the earth’.
The reporter’s excitement was understandable. This was early in the history of motoring, and “it was just so unusual to be able to see racing in those sorts of circumstances,” says Len Wooller, from the Brighton and Hove Motor Club. “It wasn’t a huge amount of time before that they’d had people walking in front of cars with red flags. So to suddenly see them ending up at nearly 100mph was just unbelievable… I think it was a shock to a lot of people, you know.”
The 1905 event ran over four days, but that top speed – 97mph – was seemingly way above the average. There were 375 entries in total, of which “lots of cars broke down, spilled oil all over the track, [or] overheated,” Wooller says. “Reliability was really, really bad.” Other entries ran fine but slowly. The Herald referred to ‘sedate touring cars hardly doing twenty miles an hour down below.’ A policeman was seen by a Brighton Gazette writer ‘surveying the scene with disgust. He had not seen a single car which he could have stopped in the ordinary course of events for furious driving. “Look at that thing,” he said, pointing to a car which was passing. “Fourteen miles an hour and not a fraction over.”’ However, the same paper claimed that ‘the interest of the great mass of spectators never flagged for a minute’.
It sounds like there’s a story to tell about how the event came about, but I can only get at parts of it: Petrolhead hotelier Harry Preston’s role in ‘a great fight with the town council’ to make it happen; ‘the well-known anxiety’ of Blackpool, Portsmouth and Bexhill to host the event themselves; the Automobile Club’s insistence on a tarmacked road; how tarmac was so new that a council delegation was sent to Nottinghamshire to look at some; and how controversial and expensive the surfacing work was. In modern terms, it cost in the region of £450,000. Which seems to be the main reason why – despite the national media interest in the first event, and the gushing coverage it received locally – Brighton didn’t host its second Speed Trials for another 18 years.
With thanks to Len Wooller