7th Earl De La Warr started the development of Bexhill-on-Sea as a fashionable resort from the rural inland village of Bexhill in 1883. After the Earl’s son and heir Viscount Cantelupe married in 1891 the control of the Bexhill estate was passed to him and the Viscount assumed the title 8th Earl De La Warr when his father died in 1896.
It was the 8th Earl De La Warr who secured the town’s place in history by hosting Britain’s first automobile races on the 19th May 1902. The event was organised by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland and attracted international attention.
The races did not occur in isolation but were part of a campaign to promote Bexhill-on-Sea as a fashionable new resort and used the Bicycle Boulevard, which the 8th Earl had built along De La Warr Parade in 1896. The Earl’s interest in motorcars was also linked to his association with the firm Dunlop, of which he was chairman. The event was run along a one kilometre track with a flying start from the top of Galley Hill; the existing Cycle Chalet was taken over and used for timekeeping.
The races were deemed to have been a great success and more events were planned for later in 1902 and in 1903.
However, the excitement was cut short when Mr Mayner, a property owner on De La Warr Parade, took out an injunction against the Earl. This banned all future motor car racing.
During 1902 other important events occurred. Bexhill became an Incorporated Borough. This allowed the town to elect a mayor and have a borough council. Bexhill was the last Sussex town to be incorporated and it was also the first time a royal charter was delivered by motor car. Mr. Bradney William’s car was, in 1901 he had started Bexhill’s first motorbus service. The Crowhurst Branch Line, including Bexhill West and Sidley stations, and Bexhill Central Station were opened in this year.
The 8th Earl was divorced by his wife, on the grounds of adultery and abandonment, in the summer of 1902. This created a scandal in the town and preventing the Earl from becoming Bexhill’s first mayor.
Despite the permanent injunction against motorcar racing, another racing event was held in 1904. Presumably Mr. Mayner had somehow been pacified. Further speed trials took place on De La Warr Parade in 1905 and 1906. In 1922 and 1923 speed trials were held on West Parade. There was a Concours d’Elegance or car show in 1934 on De La Warr Parade, to be repeated in 1935.
In 1936 it was held in the newly opened De La Warr Pavilion. Jubilee Speed Trials were put on in 1954 to celebrate Bexhill’s motoring heritage and for the first time the focus was on historic rather than contemporary vehicles. The tradition was revived in 1990 with the first Bexhill 100 Festival of Motoring, an annual event that is still well supported.
As well as the early motor races there are other elements to Bexhill’s motoring heritage. Gustavus Green moved to Bexhill, aged 32, in 1896. He established a cycle making business at 5 Western Road and in 1902 opened workshops in Reginald Road. Gustavus Green designed a water-cooled motor car engine which was later converted for use in aircraft. Green’s engines were also used to power torpedo boats.
Frank Nichols was born in Bexhill in 1920. He opened a small garage in Pevensey in the late 1940s and later set up a garage in London Road, Bexhill, where he produced the first Elva car. Elva Cars moved to Rye in 1961 and ceased production in 1969.