The Automobile Club of Great Britain, and later Ireland, was established by Frederick Simms in July 1897, to promote the automobile in society and to champion the interests of motorists, at a time when mechanical vehicles not propelled by horses were met with fear by the public.
In 1907 King Edward VII decreed that the Club be henceforth known as ‘The Royal Automobile Club’ and he afforded the Club the rare honour of using his profile on the Club badge.
The first home of the Club was 4 Whitehall Court, where it remained until 1902. It then moved to 119 Piccadilly with some of the administration departments sited in adjacent buildings. By 1908, the need for larger premises had become all too apparent as membership had swelled.
The Club’s achievements on behalf of automobilism were considerable in the period leading up to the First World War. In 1899, it organised one of the first motor shows at Richmond and, in 1900, Claude Johnson, the Club’s first full-time Secretary, organised the 1000 Mile Trial. Vehicles toured the country, marketing the automobile as a reliable means of transport. The 1000 Mile Trial aided British manufacturers by highlighting how their marques could be improved. A further trial was held in 1903 to assess technological developments in similarly priced vehicles. Simultaneously, the Club campaigned vigorously at Parliamentary level, to protect and promote the interests of private motorists. The Club heavily influenced the 1903 Motor Act, which increased speed limits and required the registration of vehicles. The Club introduced basic driving tests and certificates, a responsibility which the government officially took up nearly 30 years later.
In the years between 1908 and 1912, touring, legal and insurance services were introduced to aid the motorist.
In 1911, a grand, new, state-of-the-art clubhouse was opened at 89 Pall Mall. Created by fashionable architects Mewès and Davis, the clubhouse was built on the site of the Old War Office. The Pall Mall clubhouse married the latest Edwardian facilities, such as a telephone exchange and electric lights, with classically inspired décor, to create a feeling of longevity, grandeur and history.
In 1913 Woodcote Park was purchased as a country clubhouse where large car gatherings and golf could take place. Sited in 350 acres the main clubhouse building is on land that was once owned by the Abbot of Chertsey.
Just 17 years after the formation of the Club, the First World War broke out and both clubhouses were put at the disposal of the armed forces. Woodcote Park became a centre for troop training and then a convalescent hospital. The Woodcote Park grounds were also used for agricultural purposes.
Pall Mall virtually became an officers’ club although a portion of the clubhouse was provided as a Headquarters for the British Red Cross Society. By Armistice Day, the Club had provided bed, breakfast and baths for more than two hundred thousand officers and served approximately two million meals.
Tragedy struck the Club in August 1934 when the Woodcote Park clubhouse was extensively damaged by fire. The efficient rebuilding work, headed again by Mewès and Davis, saw it reopen just 21 months later in May 1936. During the Second World War the Pall Mall clubhouse suffered direct bomb damage, whilst a Hurricane fighter had to undertake an emergency landing on the lawn at Woodcote Park.
Back in 1905, the Club had organised the first Tourist Trophy. To this day it is the oldest continuously competed for trophy in motorsport.
The Club was also the birthplace of motorsport in the UK. In 1926, the Club organised the first British Grand Prix at Brooklands and, in 1950, the first modern Grand Prix d’Europe at Silverstone. The Club’s Competitions Committee evolved into the Motor Sports Association (the governing body for motorsport). Now called Motorsport UK, the Club still has active membership on its board.
Many of the Club’s motorsport events, such as the RAC Rally (1932), the Tourist Trophy (1905) and the 1000 Mile Trial (1900) are still running today, offering new generations of motorists and fans unique motorsport experiences. However, the most famous motoring event in the Club’s history is the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, which the Club has organised since 1930, in homage to the Emancipation Run of 1896.
In 1999, the Club’s Motoring Services division was sold, including the breakdown services. As the oldest motoring club in the United Kingdom we enjoy celebrating our heritage whilst looking towards future developments, just as our pioneering members did.