Cropley set a 38.65sec time at Shelsley
Regulars know Shelsley Walsh as a power hill with no margin for error
This is how many people you need to work a hillclimb
Timing strut receives attention after a pheasant strike on an early run
As the time ticks by, under 40sec is said to be respectable
To see heroics at Bottom Ess, park your bottom here
At this time of year, moss punishes bad lines
Ultra-accurate timing gear is used for the record run
Launch control aids the getaway, but stability control is disengaged
Getting heat into the tyres ensures a quicker getaway
It was the phrase “epic V8 super-truck” that did it. When Vauxhall launched the E3 version of its £51,500 Maloo pick-up last year, it used those stirring words to switch us on to its British-badged, Australian-built ‘Holden ute’ – longer than a Mercedes S500, as powerful as a 6.2-litre Chevy Corvette and pretty nearly as quick as either.
The Maloo was never going to be a big seller, even if business users were promised a VAT-free purchase at about £42,000. The expected few dozen copies found their way on to UK roads – built to special order – and all too soon it was time for the much-photographed chrome yellow demonstrator to be sold. However, before it drove off into the sunset, Vauxhall was determined to give it a rousing send-off, with Autocar’s help. The famous Shelsley Walsh hillclimb – world’s oldest motor racing track still in use – had never had a record for commercial vehicles in its 107-year history. How about using the Maloo to establish one?
The track organiser, the Midland Automobile Club (MAC), agreed to muster its best timekeeping marshals under clerk of the course Dave Nursey. On a quiet, sunny Wednesday, Vauxhall’s Simon Hucknall, late of Autocar’s road test team, brought the big yellow beast from the company’s Luton stable to the track, where I – an occasional and none too distinguished competitor at Shelsley – would have a go at setting a respectable time.
In bald description, the Maloo is not the ideal racing car. Its 5.1-metre length and 1800kg kerb weight put it dimensionally on a par with a Jaguar XJ, and most of its mass is carried over the front wheels – not ideal for off-the-line traction. But it also has strengths: an ultra-docile Yankee V8 whose plentiful peak power (425bhp) and torque (405lb ft) are delivered low in the rev range, a fuss-free six-speed manual gearbox with heavy-duty clutch, and an electronic launch control that utilises the ABS paraphernalia and a mechanical limited-slip differential to tame rubber-frying wheelspin. Actually, the Maloo’s power-to-weight ratio isn’t so different from that of the Corvette C6, which is why its healthy 0-60mph time of 4.9sec compares quite well with the sports car’s 4.4sec.
Shelsley Walsh is a short, steep hillclimb of just 1000 yards (914 metres) and seems deceptively easy to drive at first. But the closer you look and the quicker you go, the more of a challenge it becomes. There’s a steep uphill start, so you must get your car’s departure position and engine revs just right. After the hint of a right kink, the road disappears left between banks into Kennel Bend – easy in a road car as long as you feel okay about giving it full throttle into a blind bend. Then it goes left again into Crossing, a corner that goes on longer than you expect and needs both precision and bottle, because a powerful car like the Maloo is accelerating hard all the way through, so its chassis balance is changing all the while and there’s no room to stray off line.
Beyond Crossing, the track opens and you start climbing steeply into Bottom Ess, an unnerving place because as the car gets quicker – something like 80mph in the Maloo – you’re confronted by what seems an impossibly high bank, shaded by trees and peppered with seats that, I’ve always believed, provide spectators with the finest vantage point in Britain for watching competitors getting it wrong.
In fact, you can accelerate hard right into the shadowy jaws of Bottom Ess because the braking area is so steep that it washes off speed amazingly quickly as soon as you stop accelerating. Apex late, briefly hug the left-hand bank, then jink right to apex in Top Ess just beyond a geometrically important drainhole cover. Then it’s as much poke as you can muster (avoid climbing Top Ess’s high outside bank) for the straight-line blast up to the finish. At the line, you’ve climbed 328 feet (100 metres) on an average gradient of just over one in nine. Regulars know Shelsley as a power hill with no margin for error.
With the ‘no margin’ bit in mind, Nursey asked Simon Durling, a long-time Shelsley competitor at the highest single-seater level, to sit in with me for some shakedown runs. Learn the line and drive it, he impressed on me. Get off the start line cleanly. Carry speed into Bottom Ess, where most people are inclined to go slower than they need. Apex late. Never concede speed you don’t have to. It was all very helpful. With Simon on board, I did a brisk 45.88sec run to show that I could find the line. Then he stepped out.
The Maloo’s launch control is simple to use. Push a button on the console ahead of the gearlever. Give the engine 4700rpm, where peak torque is delivered, pop the clutch and it’ll maintain traction with a judder but very little wheelspin until revs match speed. If you have time, you can press the ‘Track’ button again to reinstate the disconnected stability control, but I didn’t have time. My first serious run was a reasonable 41.81sec as I found the right gears: first off the line, second, then the long-legged third out of Crossing for the sprint to Bottom Ess, which needed a swift change back to second under brakes. Then third out of Top Ess for the finishing straight, crossing the line just this side of 90mph. The car felt hearteningly stable, strong under power and brakes and turned in with surprising ease. No serious wheelspin, either.
For the second run, I shaved off a promising 1.8sec (40.03sec), then for the third I gave it all back as I muffed a gearchange into the Esses. For the fourth, I was rubbish off the line and slower still; for the fifth, I finally cracked 40 seconds (39.73sec), deemed by MAC’s all-knowing marshals as the threshold of respectability. The last run was the best: 38.65sec, with the Maloo standing on its nose into Bottom Ess and power oversteering a bit more than seemed healthy out of the top one. For the sake of the Vauxhall’s hoped-for auction price and my own reputation as a non-crasher, I decided to leave it there. A decent driver could have done a 36.
Thus Shelsley’s first official hill record for commercial vehicles stands at 38.65sec, set by a Holden ute. I predict its early eclipse. Still, I reckon I touched 80mph into Bottom Ess and probably tickled a true 85-86mph over the line. To put this into perspective, the current record, set by Martin Groves in an F1-style 600bhp Gould, stands at 22.58sec. His speed into Bottom Ess was 140mph. He crossed the line at 147mph.
This clearly leaves the rest of us room for improvement.
But then, in hillclimbing, that’s always the way.