Full Throttle in a '31 Ford Model A at the Simola Hillclimb

Gero racing

The Simola Hillclimb attracts some fast and crazy metal each year but the Classic Car Friday event showcases some spectacular classic cars that run the hill in style. Cars.co.za journalist, Gero Lilleike, tackled the hill at Simola for the first time in a 1931 Ford Model A, an experience of a lifetime, but not without drama…

Words: Gero Lilleike
Racing images: Devin Thiart

The Simola Hillclimb in Knysna has become one of South Africa’s most anticipated annual motorsport events and not only does it attract a wide range of cars but it also sees hundreds of spectators from around the country flocking to the famed 1.9 km stretch of tarmac to watch  - and hear - the action in the flesh. For any hot-blooded petrolhead, the Simola Hillclimb is a must-do experience! 

The 2022 Simola Hillclimb took place from 6-8 May and as is tradition, the event kicked off with Classic Car Friday which is the “curtain raiser” for the main King of the Hill event. 

Simola Hillclimb

This year’s Classic Car Friday saw no less than 53 competitors take to the hill but it was also the first time that I would participate as a driver in the pre-war H1 class in one of the oldest cars in the field, a 1931 Ford Model A. 

The Ford Model A, produced between 1927 and 1931 in numerous body styles, was hugely popular with over 4.8 million units sold in just 4 years. The Model A is propelled by a 3.3-litre 4 cylinder engine that produces 30 kW and 174 Nm with an optimistic top speed of 105 kph. The rear wheels are driven via a 3-speed sliding-mesh manual transmission, which is also known as a crash gearbox. 

As raw as it gets

This was perhaps one of the most memorable driving experiences in my motoring journalism career. Not only is this Ford Model A the oldest car I have ever driven but it’s also proven to be the most difficult. This is as raw as it gets. You’re exposed to the elements as there’s no roof, no power steering and the crash gearbox gives you a serious workout. To make things more difficult and unlike a conventional modern car, the accelerator pedal and brake pedals are swopped around, which means you have to re-wire your brain when driving this car.   

Simola Hillclimb

The car is owned by Brian Bruce, a well-known classic car collector in Knysna, and this is not the first time that it’s raced at the Simola Hillclimb either as it has made numerous appearances in the event’s 12-year history. 

At this year’s Classic Car Friday event, the Model A was joined by 3 other cars from Bruce’s Classique Edge Racing team which included a 1965 Ford GT40 driven by Peter McPherson, a 1946 Austin Special driven by Callum Price and a splendid 1956 Jaguar D-Type piloted by Bruce himself. 

Ready to Race!

Preparation has a profound effect on how the car performs on race day, often with hard lessons learnt on the hill. The Ford Model A was running fairly well prior to the event but some last-minute adjustments had to be made to the carburettor tuning and steering setup in an effort to improve overall performance and handling on the hill. 

With very little time to familiarise myself with the Model A, it was time for me to put this 91-year-old car through its paces on the hill at Simola. 

Gero Lilleike

Using the push-button start (something I never thought I use on a car as old as this), the Model A’s lump rumbled to life in the cold morning air, a much-needed warm-up ahead of its first run up the hill. 

With very little warning, the pit marshals started signalling drivers out of their pits and a mad scramble ensued to get suited up.  

I was ordered out of my pit and I could feel my heart beating faster and faster as I approached the start line for the first time. Then, on the signal from the race marshal, it was all go! 

Ford Model A

The gear ratios in the Model A are very short so it’s a quick shift into second and then quickly into third where I’d aim to stay for the full run up the hill. I was advised to hold the gear lever in place as it has the tendency to slip out into neutral and this proved to be rather tricky to do whilst cornering. 

My first practice run was more of a “sighting lap” to familiarise myself with the corners and I wasn’t surprised to see a time of 1:39.187 on my first attempt. A slow start but a start nonetheless! My times improved dramatically in the practice runs that followed with a time of 1:36.902 in Practice 2 and a fantastic time of 1:31.698 in the final Practice 3.  

The H1 class was, for the first time, governed by a handicap system that makes it possible for a wide variety of cars (with vastly different performance abilities) to compete against each other. Based on my performance in the first 3 practice rounds, my target handicap time was now set at 1:29.00 which meant I had to try to shave up to 3 seconds off my best time, which wouldn’t be easy in the Model A.

Simola Hillclimb

I felt confident and with a bit of luck, quick shifts, tighter lines and better driving, I thought I could do it. The car was running fairly well but some unexpected issues started coming to the fore. On my final practice run, the accelerator pedal jammed in the footwell, forcing me to cut the ignition and stop to release the pedal at the top of Simola Hill. The wonderfully charismatic mechanics of Classique Edge Racing quickly worked to fix the issue in the pits. 

This, however, was just the start of what would be an intense 2 hours of problem-solving in the Classique Edge pits. After posting a time of 1:32.636 in Qualifying Round 1, the Model A decided it had enough. It was dead! 

The Model A wouldn’t start and the Classique Edge Racing mechanics were scrambling to find a solution to an apparent cooling issue resulting from a slipping fan belt. In the chaos, we missed Qualifying Round 2, leaving us with only one more chance to conquer the hill. 

Simola Hillclimb

Time was ticking fast but the team managed to get a slightly smaller belt fitted just in time for the final Qualifying Round 3! It felt like the Classique Edge team had performed a miracle!! The Model A fired up once more and I soon found myself at the start line for what would be my last run up the hill. 

I gave it my all and after completing the Qualifying 3 run in a time of 1:32.512, it just wasn’t good enough to proceed to the class finals and my debut appearance at the 2022 Simola Hillclimb had come to an end. I was thrilled to have taken part and even more thrilled to have done it in this unique-looking Ford Model A!

We'll be back!

Team Classique Edge

Despite the Ford Model A retiring for the day, it turned out to be a hugely successful day at the races for team Classique Edge with Callum Price placing second overall in the H1 Class in the Austin Special he assembled from scratch in the months leading up to the event, which in itself is a fantastic achievement! More so, Peter McPherson in the Ford GT40 and Brian Bruce in his Jaguar D-Type managed to achieve second and third place finishes respectively in the H2 class! 

Classique Edge Racing will no doubt return in 2023 for another burn up the hill and maybe, just maybe, the Ford Model A will make a return too!

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