The surprising history of motor racing in Bexhill-on-Sea

Laura Cooke 27 May 2022

Motorsports enthusiasts should plan a visit to this idyllic Sussex seaside town, which is the original home of British motor racing.

If asked to name the birthplace of British motor racing, Brooklands, Silverstone or Goodwood may be among the first locations that come to mind. Few would look to a quiet seaside town in Sussex for the answer.

But it was along the picturesque Victorian seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea where the very first automobile race took place on British soil on May 19, 1902.

The arrival of British motor racing

Leon Serpollet drives his Easter Egg car at Bexhill-on-Sea 1902 motor raceCredit: Bexhill Museum. Leon Serpollet competes in the 1902 Bexhill-on-Sea motor race in his "Easter Egg" car

At the turn of the century, the resort was popular with cyclists, with a purpose built cycling track and a cycling chalet offering lessons and bicycles for hire.

But after watching motor racing in Nice, the 8th Earl De La Warr returned home with lofty ambitions to put Bexhill on a par with its continental counterparts.

“In 1902, the cycle track became a one kilometre long motorcar racing track and the cycle chalet became the timing chalet," says Julian Porter, curator at Bexhill Museum. "The track was not on the road or the promenade but was the area between them, now under grass. This created separate zones for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.”

"One notable spectator was author and motoring enthusiast Rudyard Kipling"

Organised by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, the first motor race attracted international attention, with thousands flocking to witness the spectacle. Entrants included Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe in his Mercedes.

The race was won by Frenchman Monsieur Leon Serpollet in his steam driven "Easter Egg" with a top speed of 54mph.

The event was hailed a success, but not all were enamoured with the throb of the motors and the whiff of paraffin in the air. A seafront property owner took out an injunction, putting a halt to further races. But this was short lived, and the Earl continued to pursue his motoring ambitions with further races.

One notable spectator was author and motoring enthusiast Rudyard Kipling, who at the time lived at nearby Bateman’s, his beloved Jacobean house, nestled in the Sussex Weald.

Women drivers take the wheel

Although motor racing was seen as a male preserve, Bexhill welcomed female drivers at a time when women had not yet been given the vote.

The first female racing driver, Dorothy Levitt, competed at Bexhill in 1903. Dubbed “the fastest girl on Earth” by the press of the day, sadly Dorothy discovered she did not receive the same enthusiastic welcome elsewhere in the world of motor racing.

"Bexhill welcomed female drivers at a time when women had not yet been given the vote"

“When the racetrack at Brooklands opened in 1907, Dorothy was refused a place as they would not accept women racing drivers,” says Porter. But Dorothy made a triumphant return to Bexhill that same year to compete in the Motor Reliability Trials.

A new era for Bexhill motorists

Unfortunately, the opening of Brooklands in Surrey signalled the beginning of the end for Bexhill’s racing ambitions as the motoring set turned their attention to the new circuit.

Plans drawn up in 1906 for a huge motoring circuit stretching from Bexhill towards Beachy Head, complete with garages, restaurants and hotel accommodation, were never realised.

Nonetheless, adding to the town’s motor racing legacy, it was from a small garage in London Road that Elva cars were first produced in the late 1950s.

Elva was later to be seen on nearly one thousand racing, sports racing and road going cars of the era, not to mention in the movie Viva Las Vegas, with Elvis himself behind the wheel.

A 1958 Mk III Elva sports racing car takes pride of place in Bexhill Museum’s Technology Collection, alongside a replica of the 1902 “Easter Egg”.

The Bexhill 100 Festival of Motoring revived interest in motor racing in the early 1990s, including a “freewheel race” down the Galley Hill cliffs, mimicking those early runs. By the time it finished in 2002, it was the largest car show in the South East.

After the festival came to an end, the Bexhill 100 Motoring Club took up the mantle and has hosted regular events, including its annual classic car show at the Polegrove sports ground, ever since.

“At the last show we had nearly 600 cars, motorbikes, commercial vehicles plus trade stands,” says vice chairman Paul Brailsford. “The main thing about the club is that you don’t need a car—just be enthusiastic about transport.”

Bexhill's enduring motor racing legacy

De La Warr Pavilion on Bexhill-on-Sea's seafrontNot far from Bexhill's De La Warr Pavilion, a plaque marks the finishing line of the UK's first ever motor race in 1902

After 120 years, Bexhill is still enthusiastic about all things motor racing, with the Bexhill 100 Motor Club enjoying a recent surge in membership.

In the shadow of the iconic Modernist De La Warr Pavilion, alongside ornate Victorian shelters, ice cream kiosks and beached sailboats, a simple metal sculpture of Serpolet’s Easter Egg stands on the prom overlooking the English Channel. A nearby plaque marks the finishing line of the original 1902 race.

Ironically, a few metres away, a stern sign from the council reminds you that no motor vehicles are allowed on the parades.

But there is no missing the signs as you enter the town, informing you with pride that you are entering the real “Birthplace of British motoring”.

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