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Vauxhall history


The first 5hp Vauxhall car rolled out of the south London factory of the Vauxhall Ironworks Company in 1903, while Edward VII was king, and some six months before the Wright brothers made the world’s first powered flight.

Vauxhall made its debut in motoring competition, successfully competing in a sporting hillclimb later in 1903. So, as Vauxhall technology developed at a spectacular pace, competition showed the way, and underlined every technical advance.

Within a year of that first hillclimb appearance, Vauxhall’s entry in the 1904 London to Glasgow Trial had proved both its performance and its reliability by losing only seven marks out of a possible thousand over the gruelling marathon.

It was a medal-winning performance, but the biggest winners of all, then as now, were Vauxhall’s customers, as the lessons filtered down to the ordinary customers’ cars. Even before Vauxhall production moved from London to Luton in 1905, steering wheels were replacing the original tillers, and from just one cylinder in 1903 you could have four by 1905 - when Vauxhall’s competition cars for the Tourist Trophy also had six gears. Further proof of Vauxhall’s sporting credentials came in 1908 when Percy Kidner’s ‘12/16’ Vauxhall finished the RAC’s 15-day, 2000-mile International Touring Car Trial without any penalty, without a single breakdown or any kind of repair work, replacement or adjustment, without adding oil or water, without even a tyre stop - the first car ever to complete the Trial distance with no unplanned stop of any kind. And after the event, Vauxhall showed off the car at one of the most famous motor sport venues of all, Brooklands.

The famous high-banked concrete speedbowl of Brooklands was the first purpose-built motor sports venue in the world, but it was also a magnificent proving ground for the British motor industry - and a showplace for winners like Vauxhall. It was built on a marshy part of pioneer enthusiast Hugh Fortescue Locke-King’s huge Brooklands estate near Weybridge in Surrey, and when it opened, in July 1907, it was one of the wonders of the motoring world.

In 1909, stripped A-Type touring cars scored half a dozen wins at Brooklands, driven by Trial-victor Kidner, AJ Hancock and Vauxhall director Rudolf Selz - and the list of successes was growing fast. In March 1909 the famous Test Hill was opened - a challenging 352-foot run with a gradient of up to 1-in-4. Kidner’s 20hp won a certificate on the Hill’s opening day, at an average of 15.9mph, and in 1920, after the interruption of the war, Major Pierce Jones’s 30/98 set a new record at 24.9mph - the pace of progress.

And Vauxhall were the first to recognise the emphasis Brooklands’ high speeds and clever handicapping system placed on science versus brute force. So, late in 1909 Hancock had raced a slim, streamlined, single-seater version of the 20hp to a string of records including a flying half-mile at an average of 88.6mph - earning his car the nickname ‘KN’, because it was ‘as hot as pepper’!

Having steadily pushed the record on, in October 1910 KN achieved almost exactly 101mph over a flying half-mile - the first time a car in its class had ever beaten the ‘ton’, and showing that aerodynamics were just as important in those golden days of racing as they are in today’s range of production Vauxhalls, whose slippery shapes make them not only super-efficient in terms of maximum speeds but also help make them stable at speed, quiet even at motorway cruises, and very frugal on fuel - all part of the competition heritage. And if you visit Brooklands now, and look at the crumbling remains of the old high-banked circuit and the evocative restored buildings, it’s fascinating to think that a car like today’s 3.2 V6 Vectra, with a top speed of 155mph, is more than 10mph quicker than the all-time Brooklands lap record, set at 143.4mph by John Cobb’s massive, aero-engined Napier Railton in October 1935, four years before the legendary track closed for good.

But if Brooklands is now just a nostalgic museum, another of Vauxhall’s early hunting grounds is still very much in business, and again bursting at the seams with memories of pioneering Vauxhall achievements. That’s Shelsley Walsh, widely recognised as the oldest motor sport venue in the world to have been in continuous use (wars apart) since the day it opened. And for the 1000-yard hill near Worcester, that was in 1905 - the year when Vauxhall moved to Luton.

Like Brooklands, Shelsley was created to avoid the perils of competing on the public road in the early days of the last century - discovered by the Midlands Automobile Club on the estate of Squire Taylor, who enthusiastically backed their ideas of using his steep and unsurfaced farm track as a competition venue! So the first meeting was held on a warm August day in 1905 - the year Vauxhall first went racing, in the Tourist Trophy. Like Brooklands it had a great social atmosphere. For the opening, Squire Taylor laid on a huge picnic in the flower-decked cart sheds at the bottom of the hill, with music from the Worcester Civil Military Band, and uniformed waiters from the Birmingham clubs. The ladies wore long skirts and broad, veiled hats; the gentlemen wore ‘stovepipe’ trousers, high collars and deerstalkers - and the very first car to compete on the hill failed to make it to the top!

The quickest climb that day took 77.6 seconds, but by 1913 a Vauxhall driven by Joseph Higginson had reduced the hill record to a spectacular 55.2 seconds - and his 4.5-litre car turned out to be the forerunner of the 30/98 - not only one of Vauxhall’s greats but one of the great sporting cars of all time.

In 1923 a Vauxhall recorded one of the hill’s very few dead heats, in 52.8 seconds - against a Bugatti!

In 1929, with the awesome supercharged Vauxhall Villiers Special running with 250bhp and twin rear wheels for added traction, multiple Shelsley record holder Raymond Mays reduced the hill record to a sensational 45.6 seconds - and Mays’ performances with the mighty, screaming Vauxhall Villiers were part of the reason why the BBC chose Shelsey, in 1932, as the venue for its first ever live radio broadcast of a motor sports event.

In 1924 Vauxhall Motors withdrew from motor sport and became part of General Motors the next year.