by Pat Toulmin with much help from the contributors to Ton Up!, the club’s centenary book and drawings by Melodie Nightingale
The Midland Automobile Club was founded in Birmingham on 11th January 1901 at the Grand Hotel. Amongst those present included Herbert Austin, J.D. Siddeley, George, Fred and Frank Lanchester and Alfred Bird. The club’s first sporting event was a hill climb on Gorcott Hill (nr. Alcester), held in early October 1901, when an Ariel Quadri-cycle beat all the assembled petrol and steam-driven cars. A year later, a second event on Gorcott was won by the 1902 Circuit d’Ardennes winning Panhard, driven by Harvey du Cros, Jnr., ahead of two Racing Wolsleys. In July 1903, the Club took on the toughest challenge in the country, the 1000 yard gradient of Sun Rising Hill, between Stratford-on-Avon and Banbury. This event was won by a 20 hp Napier driven by Cecil Edge, other contestants including the Hon. C.S. Rolls (Panhard), Capt. Deasy (Rochet & Sneider) and Fred Bennett in the first Cadillac to be seen in this country. The next year, the entry for Sun Rising included S.F. Edge (the winner, driving a 20 hp Napier) and a trio of 28 h.p. Daimlers driven by Ernest Instone, Percy Martin and Edward Manville. Problems with a local landowner and the police, who put speed traps on the roads in the area, caused the club to look for suitable sites on private land. The first such event was held at Middle Hill House, Broadway, won by Percy Martin in a ‘works’ Daimler.
At much the same time, the club was offered the use of a steep and winding bridle path in the grounds of the Court House Farm, Shelsley Walsh. Club officials quickly recognised its potential and after considerable clearing of trees and undergrowth, easing gradients and resurfacing, the track as is known today was ready for its first ever hill climb. Held on Saturday, 12th August 1905, the club and the landowner entertained a large crowd of spectators and competitors with considerable hospitality and much interesting motor sport. Ernest Instone recorded the fastest climb of the day on a 35 h.p. Daimler, averaging 26 mph over the 992 yard course – extended to its present 1000 yards in 1907.
Shelsley quickly became the motor sport ‘mecca’ for skilled drivers and fast cars in the early days. Until 1933, there were only two motor sport venues in this country – Shelsley and Brooklands with MAC were staging international events at Shelsley in the 1930s. The roll of honour includes such names as Prince Bira, Bolster, Caracciola, Collins, Davenport, Graham Hill, Earl Howe, Mays, Mikkola, Moss, Seagrave, Seaman, Stuck, Wharton, to name a few!
When most people think of the MAC, they think of Shelsley Walsh and understandably as over half of its motor sporting events have been held there. However, the MAC is truly a motor sporting club, with its first event being a social run to Stratford-on-Avon in 1901 and from this beginning, the club has never stood still, organising about 450 events spread over many disciplines. Since then, the social events have ranged from dinner dances, quizzes, factory visits, film shows, and talks by famous personalities, to the currently very successful classic section gatherings and the recently-introduced new members evenings.
Perhaps some of the strangest events were the ladies smoking concert in 1913 and the great balloon chase of 1904! In the latter two balloons were launched from Birmingham and two minutes later the 19 cars were allowed to start the ‘chase’. The Hon H S Rolls was one of the passengers in the second balloon. The cloudy weather favoured the balloons and many of the cars didn’t even see them! The first balloon landed at Ross at 4.30 and the second one, which was captured by George Lanchester landed at Monmouth at 6pm.
The club has always been keen to offer its members a range of events and its first sprint was in 1936, with an event at Madresfield, which was won by J P Wakefield in an Alta. Lord Austin brought a team of three cars and despite the bad weather it was a very successful event. It is surprising therefore that the club waited almost another 30 years to organising its second sprint at Curborough, near Lichfield on April 12th 1964. Since then, almost 80 sprints have been run there by MAC and others at Hixon, Oulton Park, Cornbury Park and at MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association. A successful Sprint Drivers School at Curborough was introduced in 1990s.
After the 2nd World War, the club expanded into rallying. Eleven ‘Members Rallies’ were run between 1947 and 1960, visiting Wales, Derbyshire and Shropshire, but in this form of motor sport the club’s claim to fame is its highly successful series of the ‘Birmingham Post Rallies’, between 1952 and 1963, until the newspaper‘s support ceased. These events were national rallies and attracted such entrants as Pat Moss, Val Domleo, John Sprinzel, Stuart Turner and the Morley brothers.
You might think that the club came late to trials, but its first ‘reliability trial’ was run in 1905, in the form of a petrol consumption test. Trials were also run for the next three years and were hugely endorsed by the likes of Herbert Austin, Victor Riley and the Lanchester brothers. Since then a ‘Sporting Trial’ was introduced to the MAC calendar in 1976 and a ‘Classic Trial’ in 1994. Both these events have national status and attract the stars within each discipline. MAC were asked three times to organise the British Trials and Rally Drivers Association’s British Experts Gold Star and Silver Star championship trials. The club has also won the coveted ‘Trial of the Year’ Award for both types of trials. Interestingly both have taken place on the Boyne Estate in Shropshire – but not at the same time!
Racing became part of the club’s portfolio in 1968 and, like the sporting and classic trials, a small like-minded group of enthusiasts took on the organisation of races at Silverstone. Eleven successful race meetings were run altogether, until in the late1970s changes to the way Silverstone was run, meant that smaller clubs were squeezed out. In 1990, another group of MAC race enthusiasts took advantage of the brand new circuit at Pembrey, South Wales, and MAC went circuit racing again with great success, with the events hosting rounds of numerous championships. However when the BARC took over running the circuit from the Llanelli Borough Council MAC lost its preferential position in the calendar and with it the invaluable support of the various championships. With the prospect of a poor date at the end of the season and no championships the 1994 meeting was abandoned. However with new facilities coming on stream at Rockingham and with former hillclimb champion, David Grace, in charge of the circuit the club may go racing again……..
The club has always been innovative. In 1932, the BBC chose Shelsley Walsh for its first ever outside broadcast. Electronic timing was first introduced at Shelsley and in 1998 the club organised the first-ever classic trial on the Isle of Man. In 1955 MAC organised a junior championship to encourage younger, less wealthy and unsponsored drivers who could not afford to travel long distances, nor take three days off work to do events. This championship was run for eight years and included sprints and hillclimbs organised by several clubs. During the First World War the club committee decided to present a fully equipped Darraq ambulance car to the French Red Cross Society. To commemorate Raymond Mays retirement from active motorsport, so that he could devote himself to the BRM project, the club organised an appeal to build a mobile workshop for the BRM team. Mays’ record of 21 outright wins or best time of day at Shelsley is still unsurpassed.
The club has also organised a total of 5 touring rallies – to France, Ireland, Northern Spain and Portugal and the Isle of Man, the latter to support the 1st Manx Classic Trial. Famous racing circuits and venues were visited and the tours were seen as something of an adventure, with an emphasis on good food and wine!
MAC began its centenary year with a wonderful dinner at the Grand Hotel exactly 100 years to the day at the same venue.400 members sat down to dinner and many more would have liked to attend. What would that elite band of 1901 have thought? I’m sure they would have been very proud, but would not have imagined it. It was an evening of some emotion and some of the members felt that a piece of history was being made. Murray Walker, who began his commentating career at Shelsley, was the guest speaker and he held the room in rapt attention for forty minutes.
Fittingly the long standing outright hill record, set in 1992, at Shelsley was broken at the June meeting in 2001.