There’s something terribly British about the Kop Hill Climb. After all, you have to be slightly crazy to join hundreds of other enthusiasts queuing to tackle a long straight hill in the heart of the Bucks countryside just for the hell of it.
They say that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. That might have been the case on Saturday at the historic rally challenge on Saturday, when the event was blessed with glorious weather. But the true test of eccentricity is to sit for half an hour in the pouring rain waiting your turn to tackle the long incline ahead - a trip which only takes a few minutes and which modern day cars would achieve with no problems.
But the vehicles assembled at Princes Risborough had long since forgotten what it is to be called modern.
The earliest car at the weekend went back to 1803 - seven years before the original Kop Hill Climb started - originally 0.75 miles (1.2km), although some competitions were timed over 900 yds (823m).
True eccentrics at the weekend were the stubbornly determined band of motorcyclists who assembled in the rain for their chance at the climb - an extraordinary collection of black-clad riders seemingly from another age, machines with great names such as Brough, Sun Villiers, BSA and Vincent roaring, spluttering and kicking up enough exhaust clouds to make an emissions inspector faint.
Our turn on the car run came after a half hour wait aboard the formidable primrose and black 1926 Vauxhall OE-type 30/98 - a sporting open top four-seater that was originally sold for a time with a guarantee of 100mph top speed. The 30/98 achieved major success in speed trials and hill climbs in its day and 170 examples have survived of the 600 originally built. This one resides at the Vauxhall Heritage Collection at Luton but still frequently hits the roads and isn’t allowed to sit and collect dust.
With rain teeming down, it’s hard to even see what is happening once the climb is under way. Our driver Simon Hucknall, from Vauxhall’s PR team, had to be at his very best with four on board both to tackle the hill with enough speed and also remember how to change gear and brake. The 30/98’s foot pedals are in different order to today’s cars, the interior brakes are rarely used as they put too much strain on the car, so the outside handbrake, also on the offside, is used to keep speed down. A gearlever with reverse pattern on the driver’s right completes the picture.
The 30/98 stormed up the long incline with no problems - but then there’s the long descent to the public roads on the other side. That’s where Simon’s knowledge and skill come to the fore.
“The last thing we want to do is to lose her and not be able to get her back,” he told us cheerfully, opting for first gear and plenty of hauling on the outside handbrake as we headed downhill.
We needn’t have worried - the 30/98 was built for such an occasion and the 4.24-litre four-cylinder engine was well up to the task as it stormed up the hill with four on board. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.
Speaking of which - how about a time trip back to the 1970s? This was another experience for me courtesy of the Vauxhall Heritage Collection, which loaned me a 1975 silver Vauxhall Firenza ‘Droopsnoot’ for the rally.
This extraordinarily streamlined three-door coupe unwittingly became a bit of a cult car after its launch in the early ‘70s - around 1,000 were originally planned but the oil crisis hit demand and eventually only 204 were built.
The ‘Droopsnoot’ - a nut and bolt two-year rebuild lovingly tackled by the Heritage Centre’s restoration team of Andy Boddy and Terry Fordham, is a reminder of everything that was good and bad about that period. It had great vision, thanks to generous glazing and no headrests, remarkable few blind spots, a high driving position where you could see the whole front bonnet and wings, comfortable seats, surprisingly smooth brakes, slim dashboard (no airbags) and logical controls and displays. And it was no slouch - the 2,279cc slant four engine could propel the Droopsnoot to 60mph in an impressive 8.1 seconds.
But the trip to the climb also revealed an agricultural gearchange (five-speed, though), a tendency to mist up completely in the rain, muscle-building steering (no power assistance) and the anxiety of what pull the engine would start on, depending on your own skill with the manual choke and a little throttle.
The ‘Droopsnoot, with its enormous oblong headlamps and dramatic dropped nose, still causes a stir 37 years on and enthusiasts love it, as there are thought to be less than 30 around today.
But after 48 hours in its company, I still handed the keys back with a degree of relief after my time trip. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, as they say.
> Our thanks to the Vauxhall Heritage Collection for loan of the 1975 Firenza Droopsnoot and the climb in the 1926 30/98.