How Bexhill became the birthplace of British motoring

Vintage car helmet

Motor racing is an integral part of British sporting and cultural history. From circuit racing to rallying to karting, the sport has evolved over the years.

Formula 1, arguably the most well-known type of motor racing, is the world's most-watched annual sports series, racking up 425 million television viewers in 2014, and is worth an estimated $4.8bn.

And the sport remains popular in the UK. According to the Guardian, the British Grand Prix is so popular only Wimbledon attracts more spectators. But, as they point out, Wimbledon is counted over the full two weeks, not three days.

While Silverstone is now seen as the home of British motorsport, it is not where motor racing began.

Motor racing at Bexhill

Bexhill-on-Sea

In 1883, 7th Earl De La Warr started the development of Bexhill-on-Sea with the aim of creating a fashionable resort from the rural inland village of Bexhill.

After his death, the estate was passed to his son, the 8th Earl De La Warr. As chairman of the tyre making firm, Dunlop, the Earl had an interest in motorcars.

In 1896, the Earl created a Bicycle Boulevard along the seafront. This Bicycle Boulevard secured the town's place in history as it hosted the first automobile race on British soil.

In 1902, as part of a campaign to promote Bexhill-on-Sea as a fashionable new resort, the Earl encouraged the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland to organise the Great Whitsuntide Motor Races.

To accommodate the races, the Earl transformed his Bicycle Boulevard into a one-kilometre motor racing track with a flying start from the top of Galley Hill. The existing Cycle Chalet was taken over and used for timekeeping.

As the races were being held on the Earl's private land, it was exempt from the national speed limit — 12mph at the time!

Bexhill-on-Sea

The races consisted of straight sprint races, running from east to west against the clock, and cars racing side by side in the opposite direction, much like the start of Grand Prix races today.

The races were a success with the local hotels and boarding houses packed with spectators who had come to watch more than 200 entries. Included in these were numerous well known personalities of the day, including Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, who raced in his Mercedes.

Leon Serpollet, who raced in his steam car 'Easter Egg' and reached a top speed of 54mph, was the winner of the 1902 race — the first French victory on British soil.

The success of the races encouraged the Earl to make Bexhill the motoring hub for British racing drivers of the day, with speed trials taking place on De La Warr Parade until 1906.

By this time, plans had been drawn up for a circuit that nearly reached Beachy Head, and included various garages, restaurants and hotel accommodation.

However, sadly, these plans never came to fruition. Bexhill residents began to get fed up with the noise of the races — a property owner, Mr Mayner, even took out an injunction against the Earl. This coincided with the opening of the Brooklands motor racing circuit in Surrey, and so British motor racing eventually moved on from its birthplace at Bexhill-on-Sea.

Did you know that Hastings Direct has its headquarters at Bexhill-on-Sea? With its great heritage of British motor racing, we couldn't think of a better seaside setting!

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