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Freddie Dixon Climbing Kop Hill

12 December 2023

In 1910, motorcyclists looking for somewhere to fully use the performance of their machines found just what they were looking for in the steep Kop Hill road that climbs to the top of the picturesque Chiltern Hills just outside the town of Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire.

A ‘fore and aft’ Douglas twin leaves the start line at the modern-day Kop Hill Climb to re-create Freddie Dixon’s 1925 record run. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROGER COOPER

Within a year cars joined the motorcycles and the Kop Hill climb quickly became one of the major events in the motorsport calendar, attracting huge crowds thanks to Princes Risborough’s proximity to London and a direct rail link to the capital and other towns in between.

The crowds came to watch the greats of the day like Sir Malcolm Campbell and Raymond Mays in their Bugattis, Sir Henry Seagrave in his Sunbeam and the wealthy young playboy racer, Count Louis Zborowski who contested the event during its 1920s heyday.

It was Count Zborowski who set the record time for a car in his monster aeroplane-engine Ballot when he climbed the steep and narrow 900-yard hill in 26.8 seconds. But in 1925 a motorcyclist went even quicker!

The legendary Freddie Dixon, riding a twin-cylinder Douglas, averaged an astonishing 81 mph from a standing start to put the record out of reach forever. That was because fate was to step in at that event when a spectator who refused to back away from the course, despite the best efforts of the marshals, was struck by a competitor and had his leg broken. The RAC stewards stopped the meeting and within a week declined to grant any further permits for high-speed contests on public roads on the UK mainland. That situation still exists today and anyone wanting to see real road racing must go to the Isle of Man or Northern Ireland.

But against the odds, the Kop Hill climb returned in the 21st century. Permission to close the famous stretch of road and run the event was granted as it is no longer a competition but instead a celebration of the history of the car and the motorcycle. It is a chance to marvel at over a hundred years of pioneering transport progress, eccentricity and innovation with vehicles powered by steam, petrol and electricity in action and on show. So the Kop Hill legend lives on and in ten years since its re-creation the event has raised over a million pounds for local charities.

 

 

1931 Douglas.
Douglas quickly established a fine reputation for road and racing machines.

Meanwhile, although Douglas ceased the manufacturing of motorcycles in 1957, the famous name lives on in legend and its machines from the first 60 years of the 20th century are much sought after by collectors, whether racing or road bikes.

The earliest Douglas motorcycles used single-cylinder side valve engines and one such 350cc model won the Junior TT on the Isle of Man in 1912.

Douglas had also built racing and experimental overhead-valve engine machines in those pioneer days but their further development was interrupted by the First World War as the company concentrated on providing 70,000 motorcycles for the British Army.

The horizontally-opposed ‘flat twin’ with ‘fore and aft’ cylinder configuration.

When civilian production resumed after the war’s end, Douglas quickly re-established itself as one of Britain’s premier brands and became justly famous for its twin-cylinder machines. These had horizontally opposed cylinders but, unlike more familiar ‘flat twins’ such as those from BMW and others, they were in line with the drive chain and rear wheel rather than transversely positioned across the frame. Therefore they were popularly known as the ‘fore and aft Duggies’ and were the mainstay of the Douglas range for over a decade.

Originally made with 350cc capacity, these engines, in both side-valve and overhead-valve form, soon grew in size to 500, 600 and even 750cc and Douglas quickly established a fine reputation for road and racing machines.

The magneto and gearbox were mounted above the outside flywheel engine

In September 1921, an overhead-valve Douglas set new 350cc records at 200, 300 and 400 miles on the steeply-banked oval ‘speedbowl’ at Brooklands. A year later Cyril Pullin (who was also responsible for the engine design) became the first man to exceed 100mph on a 500cc machine and next came wins in 1923 for Tom Sheard in the Isle of Man TT and Jim Whalley in the French Grand Prix.

The IOM TT win was, in fact, a double victory, for not only did Sheard take the solo win but Freddie Dixon also took a Douglas outfit to victory in the sidecar race. This win demonstrated his talents both as a racer and an innovative engineer as he had created a linkage system by which the sidecar of his Douglas twin could be banked into a corner in the same manner as a solo rider would lean into the turn. Its banking action was controlled by a lever that was operated by Thomas Denney, the sidecar passenger, thus making him effectively, a second driver. The result was a machine that could corner not only faster but also safer than a conventional outfit.

Freddie Dixon, with passenger Thomas Denney in the ‘banking sidecar’. Note the disc front brake – Douglas was the first manufacturer to use them. PHOTOGRAPH FROM ‘THE MOTORCYCLE FILES’.

 

Four years later Dixon took his second Isle of Man win, this time when he won the 1927 Senior TT as a factory rider for the HRD team. It made him the only man to win both a sidecar and solo race on the Island.

He retired from motorcycle racing after injuring his hands in a crash during the 1928 TT and turned to car racing in 1932. He immediately became one of Britain’s leading drivers and also used his engineering skills to make his Riley one of the most successful cars of the 1930s.

Amongst his many car racing victories were two wins in the famous RAC Tourist Trophy in 1935 and 1936, although by then the venue for this famous car race had been moved from the Isle of Man to Northern Ireland. The change of venue notwithstanding, those victories made Freddie Dixon the only man to win TT races on two, three and four wheels.

Words: Bruce Cox

Static Photographs Courtesy of Bonhams Auctions

For more information on the Kop Hill Climb go to www.kophillclimb.org.uk

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