In 1895 Frederick Richard Simms and Sir David Salomons founded the Self-Propelled Traffic Association for ‘horseless carriages’ in anticipation of the repeal of the 1865 ‘Red Flag’ Act. Shortly after that, Simms also set up the Motor Car Club with Harry J. Lawson. Before long, however, he felt that the latter organisation was being unfairly manipulated by his co-founder to promote his commercial interests so he resigned.
Simms visualised a ‘purer’ organisation that would foster and encourage the growth of automobilism across the whole country. Consequently, he and Charles Harrington-Moore established the Automobile Club of Great Britain (and later Ireland), with formal inauguration of the ACGB taking place on 8th December 1897. For their new organsiation they adopted, modifying where necessary, the constitution of the Automobile Club de France, which had been founded in 1895.
In June 1896, Simms had demonstrated a Cannstatt-built Daimler to the then Prince of Wales in the grounds of the Imperial Institute in Kensington, West London. The Prince’s life-long passion for the motor car was born through that meeting. His Majesty King Edward VII, as he had then become, decreed in 1907 that the ACGBI should henceforth be known as the ‘Royal Automobile Club’. Simultaneously, he afforded the Club the rare honour of using his profile on the Club badge.
The Club’s achievements on behalf of automobilism were many in the period leading up to the First World War. In 1899, it had organised one of the first motor shows (in Richmond, Surrey). Although a fine exercise in marketing, it incurred a major financial loss. When founding the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in 1903, Simms took on the responsibility for future such events with notably more success. In 1900, Claude Johnson, the Club’s first Secretary (Chief Executive), had organised the 1000 Mile Trial, an event pre-eminent in its time for promoting the cause of automobilism. A large group of cars travelled the length and breadth of the country to demonstrate to the general public the reliability of the horseless carriage. Many further trials followed in the next few years, all the time advancing this new technology of the ‘motor car’ (a term thought to be coined by Simms).
Meanwhile, the Club was espousing the interests of the private motorist through its Motor Union section. It campaigned vigorously for the 1903 Motor Act, which increased speed limits and removed other restrictive legislation. The Club’s Associate Members (Full Members had the ‘right of abode’ at the clubhouses) were soon to enjoy the ‘Get you home’ service for their broken-down cars and touring, legal, and insurance services all followed on rapidly. In 1905, the ACGBI started conducting basic driving tests and issuing driving certificates, a responsibility that the Government only took up thirty or so years later.
The first headquarters of the ACGBI were at 4 Whitehall Court (just two rooms); it remained there until 1902. Later it moved to 119 Piccadilly and offices in nearby Down Street. With exponential growth taking place in the automobile movement, the need for larger premises soon became all too apparent: the Club’s membership had risen from 163 at the end of 1897 to approximately four thousand by 1907.
A grand, state-of-the-art clubhouse was considered desirable to reflect the Club’s burgeoning reputation as the ‘Parliament House of Motordom’ and fashionable architects Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis were commissioned to carry out the project. They had already been lauded for the recently constructed Ritz hotels in Paris and London, and the interiors of some of the great ocean-going liners of the day. An eclectic mix of Classical, French, and English architectural styles characterised the new Pall Mall clubhouse, with painstaking detail being lavished on every area, seen and unseen. After three extraordinary years of construction, it finally opened in early 1911 at what was then considered the huge sum of £330,000. A ‘mini-palace of opulence and Edwardian hedonism’ was one exuberant description. From the start, its sporting and recreational facilities, especially the swimming pool and Turkish Baths, were especially admired.
In 350 acres adjacent to the world-famous Epsom racecourse, Woodcote Park was purchased as a country club for recreational purposes in 1913. Today the main clubhouse stands where once stood a twelfth-century abbey (a residence of the Abbot of Chertsey). Rebuilt by Richard Evelyn (brother of more famous diarist John) in the mid-1600s, it is recorded memorably in Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Tragically, it was extensively damaged by fire in 1934; efficient and exacting rebuilding work, however, by the Mewès & Davis company – Mewès had died in 1914 – saw it reopen just 21 months later.
Members had barely settled into their new clubhouses before the First World War broke out. Both were put at the disposal of the armed forces. Pall Mall became, to all intents and purposes, an officers’ club with the British Red Cross Society using it as well. By Armistice Day, it had provided bed, breakfast, and baths for more than 200,000 officers and served approximately 2,000,000 meals. Woodcote Park, on the other hand, became a centre for troop training and then as a convalescent hospital for mainly Canadian troops. It was also used extensively for agricultural purposes. Considering its location, the Pall Mall clubhouse was comparatively fortunate in the Second World War; it took just one serious direct hit – to its beautiful Great Gallery, in 1944 – while many surrounding buildings were destroyed.
The emergence of motorsport was a natural progression in the wake of increased manufacturing in the United Kingdom. The Club put on its first Tourist Trophy in 1905 – which to this day remains the oldest, continuously run motor race in the world. And, following the Great War, the Club’s sporting pedigree was further enhanced by launching the British Grand Prix at Brooklands in 1926. Then, in 1930, it organised that most famous of motoring events, the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, which followed the route of the 1896 ‘Emancipation’ Run. In 1932, the first RAC Rally took place from various starting points dotted around the country, with the final rallying point being Torquay. Following the Second World War, the prestigious Grand Prix d’Europe, was run at Silverstone in 1950, marking the emergence of the modern Formula 1 era.
Despite these many successes, the Club began to lose its sense of direction during the 1960s and 1970s and its finances seriously declined. After much internal scrutiny, the Club brought in a corporate form of membership and commissioned the informative Pell-Mell & Woodcote magazine. (its antecedent, the Club Journal, was never revived after the end of the First World War). The Club also embarked on an ambitious programme of expansion and refurbishment: the interiors of the Pall Mall clubhouse were restored to their former glory, an action that paid handsome dividends at the time and still considered a judicious policy today.
In 1998-99, the Club’s constitution radically changed. Breakdown and allied services, that branch for which the Club is best-known by the general public, was sold (‘demerged’) to Lex plc under the umbrella of ‘RAC Motoring Services’. Today approximately 12 million members make use of those services, more than a third of UK motorists.
Members today can enjoy many sporting activities, but most notably squash and golf. The longevity and success of both of these have played a significant role in the life of the Club for many decades. Approximately 1,200 regular squash players can lay claim to participate in the biggest squash league of any commercial organisation in the world – and Club members unquestionably formed the backbone of England’s amateur team during the 1920s and 1930s. The Old Course and the Coronation Course at Woodcote Park have long been considered two truly championship-standard golf courses, and have hosted many prestigious Pro-Am events, for example.
More recent additions to the Club’s full panoply of sporting activities include sub-aqua, skiing and cycling. Included within many popular pastimes that the Club runs are a photography group, book clubs, backgammon, and a choir. A steep rise in recent years of the number and variety of banqueting events – from wine and cheese tastings, jazz dinners and dances, members’ weddings, and lectures by leading figures in the arts and business – at both clubhouses, enhances the life of the Club member even further.
Many new facilities have been added to both clubhouses in recent years. The construction of a suite of treatment rooms and 22 new bedrooms at Pall Mall, was one such project. Likewise, in scale, at Woodcote Park extensive family facilities in the Walled Garden opened in 2021 and caters for all generations of Club members with its terraced café, multi-use games areas, and swimming pool.
Since the demerger, the Royal Automobile Club has reverted full circle back to its historic roots as foremost a private members’ club with the strongest of motoring associations and traditions. Once again there is an active programme of motoring events, trials, rallies, concours, and drive-ins, all overseen by the Club’s Motoring Committee.