Chasing Prewar Ghosts and a Hillclimb Record in a 2019 Subaru WRX STI
We wheel a modern Subaru at the iconic Shelsley Walsh hillclimb track.
Thirty-seven seconds. For one surprisingly bright and sunny British afternoon, that's all I wanted from the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb. Ideally, I'd hunt for less time, but I was unsure if I'd be able to dip into the thirties at all, so 37 remained the goalpost. This should have been a wash, considering the tarmac course runs just 1,000 yards—or 0.568 of a mile—from start to finish.
I also had more than enough vehicular firepower. As our gracious host was Subaru, the automaker rolled out a small fleet of WRX STIs (and one Type RA) that rumbled at our disposal. I was anxious, excited, and hungry to take the first run, but before they let us loose, our enthusiastic Shelsley Walsh overseers gave us a crash course in what makes the 114-year-old complex so incredibly special.
Yes, intrepid motor enthusiasts have disrupted the idyllic Worcestershire countryside for more than a century now, stopping only briefly for the stresses of wartime in 1939. It holds the claim to the single oldest continually run motorsports venue in the world, and the facilities wear that badge proudly. Red brick buildings frame the start line, while competitors' cars are shacked in long spindly rows of wooden-frame paddock covers. There's even a restored 18th-century water mill on site that can technically trace its roots all the way back to the year 1308.
It's a place where the weight of history hangs heavy. When the stage lights turn green, you're out on the course by your lonesome, the only competition being the ghosts of the motorsports titans who raced before you. There are serious figures who have competed here at Shelsley Walsh; go back far enough, and you'll find names like Hans Stuck, Ken Wharton, and Stirling Moss.
My sights were set squarely on the legacy of British racing legend Raymond Mays. Before wartime stalled most motorsport activity, Mays charged up the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb at a stunning 37.37 seconds, setting a record that stood until—well, not long after things resumed in 1947. Prior to setting that particular record, Mays established himself behind the wheel of Bugatti Brescias, Mercedes, Vauxhaull-Villiers, and most important, ERAs.
Mays was one of the key figures behind the founding of English Racing Automobiles (ERA), an engineering and racing firm that inspired Mays to later create the successful British Racing Motors (BRM) team in 1945. As moderately successful BRM was, it's the lesser-known ERA that's inextricably intertwined with Shelsley Walsh, the 1,000-yard snake of pavement serving as equal parts proving ground and competition ground zero for Mays and his race cars.
Most ERAs are considered racing voiturette cars, or lightweight, open-wheel, single-seat GP cars that are somewhat equitable to modern-day Formula 2 cars. Mays's record-setting run in 1939 came at the wheel of the ERA R4D, a one-off ERA D-Type that set the best time of the day an incredible 16 times between 1935 and 1956.
Fast forward to now, and the record-hunting competition field at Shelsley Walsh looks more like modern Formula 1 with absurd aero and sleek composite monoposto fuselages. On the lower end of the dockets, vintage warhorses like the aforementioned ERAs roll up for nostalgia and class-specific records alike. It's safe to say a modern, bone-stock compact Japanese sedan is more than a little out of place at Shelsley.
Well, maybe not. Subaru built an iconic performance brand on rally dominance, and the automaker has recently developed a penchant for breaking records in heavily modified examples of the cars we'd be charging up the hill at Shelsley. In 2016, Mark Higgins blitzed around the Isle of Man, and later the Transfăgărășan Highway. Not only that, but classic Subie rally cars make appearances at Shelsley historic days, and privateers race highly modified Legacys and Impreza WRXs.
I'm not at Shelsley to break records—not that I could if I wanted to—so matching the prewar record would be good enough for me. Eighty years separate my 2019 STI from Mays's ERA R4D, and as far as I could tell, I'd scramble up that hill faster by merit of thicker, stickier, wider tires and the trick all-wheel-drive system alone.
Maybe I should have paid more attention in history class; the R4D certainly didn't earn its titles and records from being slow. According to an excellent writeup by Motor Sport, who took the R4D up the hill in anger back in 2016, the R4D remains one of the most competitive vintage race cars from its era, and is still tremendously quick by 2019 standards.
My prerun ritual is certainly easier than the ERA, at least. Helmet on, check. Chin strap, check. Get in STI, adjust seat, adjust steering wheel, check. Clutch in, hit start button, and stage for the climb. Before you can even consider turning the ERA's 2.0-liter supercharged six-cylinder over, there's a laundry list of steps you have to follow, per Motor Sport. The car is stored without coolant, so make sure you brim the reservoir with water, but make sure it's hot water, as both the oil and water must be warmed before starting.
Then, with ignition plugs in place and fluids warm, pure methanol is poured into the empty fuel tank. Finally, you're ready to start. From Motor Sport: "Turn the fuel tap in the cockpit, pause five seconds for the float chambers in the two huge horizontal carburetors to fill up, then flick the magneto switch. Keep pumping up the fuel pressure with persistent strokes from the plunger on the dash, and with a burst of the electric starter, the engine comes to life."
Now that you've gone through all this toil and trouble, you're rewarded with stunning performance. Despite the age, that 2.0-liter sixer is putting out an estimated 350 horsepower, all in a car that weighs a touch over 1,540 pounds. Modern tests have clocked the R4D's zero-to-120-mph time at 12.33 seconds, putting this on par with a brand new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, at least in a straight line.
By contrast, my dead-reliable and very unfussy 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four has 310 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque to hustle 3,500 pounds of bulk. When this gumption is routed through a six-speed manual transmission to all four wheels, you're looking at a zero-to-60 sprint in the high-four-second range. By now, you should be familiar with the STI, so I won't go into any further details, but it's this familiarity that made the STI the perfect Shelsley training shoes.
On the large, poster-sized map in the driver's meeting room, the short course appears deceptively straightforward. There are only four officially recognized turns over the entire run, so the first half of the course appears to be one big squiggle that ends abruptly at some esses. At speed, it's much, much more intimidating; the course is extremely narrow and unforgiving, with the high grassy banks and large wooden retaining walls on either side providing zero room for runoff.
Don't forget the climb itself; from start to finish, the elevation changes by 328 feet, more than enough to pop your ears at some points. There's a course average of a 10 percent gradient that spikes at one point in the course to 16 percent. Maintaining momentum from corner exit is crucial, as you're only really going to need the brakes once or twice as you charge toward the tightest corner.
So, after a smoky standing start, you blitz down the meandering first portion, sticking as close to the suggested line as you can. You're charging hard until the first major corner, dubbed the "Bottom S," where you engage the brakes fully for the first time. Through there, you rip through the "Top S" and begin the hard run down the final straight to the finish line.
It's strange. A month later, after only five or six runs, I can recall every stage of the climb as if it's my front driveway—not that I was particularly fast. That's just the nature of hillclimbs; the short and eminently repeatable layout burns it into your hippocampus and gives you false hope that you might be able to master it someday, if only you had enough runs. We weren't privy to each finishing time until the very end of the day, presumably to keep our heads on our shoulders and prevent any overextension. At the start of every run, I unscientifically smashed the "Start" pusher on my Casio's stopwatch function, and by the end of each sprint, saw I was making visible progress as the day went on.
However, the best I could muster was 40-point-something. I can give you all the excuses under the rare British sun, beginning with how my starts could have been a bit more aggressive, my braking a little later, and my nerves a little steelier, but I left all of that on the hill. I came close to breaking into the thirties, and for me, that's a small victory.
I couldn't quite catch the ghost of Mays in his R4D, but at least I got a taste the excitement and frenzy of those hillclimb legends. I'll leave you with words on Shelsley from the June 1938 issue of Motor Sport. "As usual, the event was very, very good, and certain it is that anyone who climbs Shelsley in under 45 seconds is a very capable racing driver indeed." How's that for progress?