Back in the late noughties a couple of young lads in the Brighton & Hove Motor Club headquarters, on Madeira Drive in Brighton, asked me about the Firle Hill Climb. I couldn’t tell them very much. We had lost so many racing venues down south over the years – Bodiam, Brunton, Ditcham, Sedlescombe, Valence among them. So started a lengthy quest to document the history of the Firle hill. After visits to the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, New York; the Revs Institute in Naples, Florida and to the British Automobile Racing Club at Thruxton Circuit in Hampshire, I had pretty well cracked the case. An early version of the history appeared in 2010. I secretly hoped that somebody out there would be inspired by it.
Meanwhile Rob Bryant found himself at the Bo Peep track one day thinking this would make a great venue for a hill climb. After a google search he found my history of the hill – there had been races held there back in the day between 1949 and 1967. Being a man of action Rob contacted me in Toronto saying he wanted to start a revival at Firle. I rather rashly agreed to fly over to Sussex to be the track commentator. The first revival was held on 20 September 2015.
The event was an instant hit with a ready-made charm. Locals were coming out of the woodwork, remembering the old days and entering their beautiful classic cars. Spectators crowded the paddock with a jazz band for accompaniment. Period dress was encouraged. The track was unaltered from the old days, looking much as ever, if a little more overgrown. The event just felt right, straw bales and all, harking back to a simpler time.
This year the 5th Firle Hill Climb Revival will be held on Sunday 22 September. Among the cars entered is the Grayford Special of Paul Grêlé, a native of Le Mans, whose restored car raced in period at Wiscombe Park, Brunton and Ditcham. He will be joined by Pierre Lequeux with his familiar blue-and-white Austin Healey Sprite. Obscure British marques such as Dellow, Buckler, Unipower and Turner have appeared over the years. More exotic fare such as Bugatti, Ferrari and Mercedes have added variety. Much of the appeal of the event is that just about anybody can enter – we’ve had every car imaginable from an Austin Allegro to an Allard J2, a Minivan to a Chevrolet Fleetline, chased up the hill by the Sussex Constabulary! For the oldies the show is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, for the youngsters a look into the past when racing was affordable fun.
A spinoff for me has been searching for potential entrants and helping them research the history of their cars. Simon Taylor caused a sensation in 2018 with the Stovebolt Special, a car with Hollywood and North American racing heritage. Competitors voted the Stovebolt as their favourite car and he received the “Bonnet & Goggles” trophy. Mike Barker also appeared with the historic Alton-Jaguar, which had appeared shortly before at the Le Mans Classic and the Goodwood Festival of Speed. As I was able to say on the day, they saved the best till last!
A serious aspect from the start was charity fundraising for Chailey Heritage and, this year, the Southfield Trust, providing special schools for children. A huge effort on the part of many volunteers has brought the Firle Hill Climb back to life. Many supporters have joined the Bo Peep Drivers Club. Thousands of people now know about the Firle Hill Climb, which had been largely forgotten. Most of all, for me, a dream has