June 14, 2013

The birth of Great British Motorsport...

Not many people know that Britain's relationship with Motorsport goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Even fewer people are aware of the fact that the birthplace of British Motorsport was none other than Bexhill - a small seaside town in the South of England.
It certainly doesn't match the exotic 'live fast' image of Motorsports that we've come to be familiar with, but it is nevertheless a fascinating tale of risk and triumph.

The man responsible for Britain's century long love affair with racing is one Gilbert Sackville. Sackville, whose family owned most of Bexhill, set up Britain's first ever automobile race in 1902. Working in conjunction with the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland, the cricket fan and one time mayor of Bexhill, wanted to promote the town as a fashionable new resort. The race would use Bexhill's pioneering 'bicycle boulevard', and would prove wildly popular with visitors and tourists. Over 200 cars competed in the 1902 event, racing at speeds in excess of 50 mph. The speed limit of the day was a meagre 12 mph, so its fair to say that the race was rather exciting for spectators. More races were planned - that is until a disgruntled shopkeeper complained and further events had to be cancelled. 

According to the experts at Grand Prix Merchandise, it took another two years for Sackville to reach an agreement with the shopkeeper - a Mr. Mayner. In 1904, a second race was held in Bexhill and it too proved to be a huge hit. Thousands lined the streets to witness the spectacle. Gilbert Sackville died in action in 1915, but by that point the trend had well and truly stuck. Throughout the 1920's and the 1930's, regular races and speed trials were held in the town. By 1935, Bexhill was playing host to its own high profile car shows. The Concours d'Elegance took place in 1936 and showcased some of Britain's most beautiful automobiles.

"By 1954, Bexhill had become synonymous with both Motorsports and automobiles in general," says town historian Alistair Hazell. The vast majority of residents were very proud of the fact that their town had been the birthplace of the sport and wanted to celebrate it. The Jubilee Speed Trials were held to commemorate the town's place in automotive history. Though it took another 36 years for the event to become a regular occurrence, it now takes place annually under the moniker of 'Bexhill 100 Festival of Motoring'.

Excepting one off and specially organised events, street racing is now completely illegal in Britain. It has been since 1925, when the Royal Automobile Club chose to withdraw race permits for public highways, says Telegraph transport editor David Millward. Interestingly, there are many experts who believe that bringing (properly organised) Motorsport back to the streets could be very good for the UK. It would boost the financial health of flagging towns, inject money and interest in sport and it would serve as a great way to celebrate and commemorate Britain's role in automotive history.

If Gilbert Sackville were alive today, there's little doubt that he would support such a notion. Though he was a complicated man with many different interests, Sackville took it upon himself to carve out a home for racing in Bexhill and there that home remains today. Britain has some of the best roads for inner-city racing in the world - if events are organised properly and safety is a top priority, why shouldn't the UK step up and reclaim its former glory?

It's certainly what Gilbert Sackville would do.

- Eva Holmes

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