Looking Back On The Prescott Speed Hill Climb, A Cosy Alternative To Goodwood
Photography by Kévin Bouvier
Have you heard of the Prescott Speed Hill Climb? I hadn’t either. The story begins back in 1929, when the Bugatti Owner’s Club were looking for a permanent location to have fun with their cars and organize events for the group. They purchased the land and turned it into the official home of the Club, and in the ensuing decades the course has been modified, extended, and used by loads of different marques. I attended the Speed Hill Climb last year, and in anticipation of the 2018 iteration to come (along with all the other vintage car hill climbs that dot the calendar once the weather warms), I thought this would be an appropriate time for a retrospective.
Working in the car design industry, you get to know a great many car enthusiasts, and some of them are kind enough to share their weekend plans, which is how I ended up at this lesser-known race with my camera and not much of an idea of what to expect.
It was described to me as “a friendly hill climb race with some nice cars.” That sounded quite good already, but it was actually much better than I expected. I would even go further and describe it as a baby brother to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I know that’s a lofty comparison, but hear me out: Goodwood (probably one of the best classic car events running) has a hill climb format to its action, it’s nestled out in the British countryside, and their are crazy rare and otherwise significant machines all over the place—on and off the track—and your eyes don’t know where to settle so instead they flit back and forth all day. All of this is true of the climb at Prescott. Obviously there are far fewer cars than you’d find the Festival, but there’s one big advantage: not even close to as many people show up.
Bugatti, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, and Porsche from all ages abound, and despite it not being an internationally renowned weekend, you will still find some of rarest metal in the world in the paddocks. One such car was the Miura Jota that showed up (a replica of the first Jota built by Lambo’s chief test driver Bob Wallace back in the early ‘70s, which burned down decades ago). It was a recreation that took the better part of fifteen years to complete. For truly original cars, there was an appearance by the ever-enthralling Ferrari 250 GTO, and the only existing Fiat S76. In contrast to these towering cars, there were also some home-built prototypes designed specifically for running the hill at Prescott. For such a small event, that was pretty impressive.
And again, not too many people were around to obstruct the views, so I was able to spend some good time around the cars, observing their details and even sharing some words with a few owners when they were nearby.
By the end of it all, the car that really stuck in my mind was the Fiat S76, the “Beast of Turin.” Only two of them were built in the period, and only one has survived. There it was in front of me. it was brought back to life a few years ago thanks to Duncan Pittaway, a British car collector, for whom this former speed record holder is a unique time traveling device. There’s not much that looks like it being made today, nor was there when it first came to be. First of all you notice its size. It’s huge. The S76 isn’t all that wide, but its height is positively towering, and it’s also a pretty lengthy wheelbase, as you’d expect for a speed record chaser; it almost looks like a scaled up version of a normal car from the era.
Under the endless bonnet lies a fire-spitting four-cylinder, but not like the ones you’re familiar with. This one boasts a monstrous 28.5 liters, which means each cylinder has roughly the capacity of an American big block V8. My Honda S2000 sounded like an angry chihuahua on the way back home after hearing the Fiat. This one’s engine actually came from the only other S76 built, that car being dismantled before the war as Fiat was worried the car could be taken by competitors, studied, and copied. Quite an extreme method to keep trade secrets, but an effective one nonetheless! Some other components were refurbished during the car’s restoration, while some others were painstakingly reconstructed according to the archives’ design plans.
After plenty of prep, the car was ready to fire up for the crowd, and the enormous engine was shaking the stately bodywork all over the place. The sound was not only in my ears though, and I could literally feel the vibrations through my bones. Intense to say the least!
The engine delivers roughly 290 horsepower which nowadays is not really that incredible when you think about the 28-plus liters at play, but this was built more than 100 years ago, and for sure it was a groundbreaking level of performance and power back in 1910. It had already reached the speed of 225kmh (just about 140mph) back in 1912, a feat bested in that same year when it reached 290kmh, though this wasn’t an official record.
There is a big feel of purity and purpose around this car, but without any lack of Italian emotion. At a time when pretty much all the cars look like each other, where a budget rather than a good idea is the number one factor in creation, it feels good to see something so single-minded as this hulking Fiat. Everything is here for a reason, you can see loads of mechanical details, some oddly-located gauges, the transmission chain, and the gear shifter outside the cockpit, the blades of the suspension, all sitting around this beautiful WW1 fighter plane-esque red and gold body. This is a piece of art, and it should probably belong to a museum, but it’s even more exciting to see it coming to life and running up a little hill in England.
So if you can’t make it to the Festival of Speed this year, or are simply looking for a toned-down version with greater access, give this event a look in 2018.