In 1895 Frederick Richard Simms (1863-1944) and Sir David Salomons founded the Self-Propelled Traffic Association for ‘horseless carriages’ in anticipation of the repeal of the ‘Red Flag’ Act (1865) the following year. 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 adopted, modifying where necessary, the constitution of the Automobile Club de France (founded 1895). Using that framework, they established the Automobile Club of Great Britain (& later Ireland), with formal inauguration of the ACGB taking place on 8th December 1897.
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. His Royal Highness’ 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 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 surrounding offices in nearby Down Street. In the process of catching up with continental Europe, exponential growth of the automobile movement took place in this country in those first few years. Quite rapidly, the need for larger premises became all too apparent as the Club’s membership had risen from 163 at the end of 1897 to approximately four thousand members in 1907.
A grand, state-of-the-art clubhouse was considered desirable to reflect the Club’s burgeoning reputation as the ‘Parliament House of Motordom’. 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 for what was then considered the huge capital sum of £330,000 (including interiors). A ‘mini-palace of opulence and Edwardian hedonism’ was one exuberant description. And from the start, its sporting and recreational facilities, especially the Graeco-Roman swimming pool and the extensive suite of Turkish baths, were especially admired.
The Club’s achievements on behalf of automobilism were many in the period leading up to the First World War. In 1899 it organized one of the first motor shows in Richmond, Surrey. Although a fine exercise in marketing, it nevertheless 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, and with notably more success. In 1900 Claude Johnson, the Club’s first Secretary (Chief Executive), had organised the 1000 Miles 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’ (term likely 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 ‘Associate’ Member – the ‘Full’ Member has the ‘right of abode’ to the clubhouse(s) – was soon to enjoy the ‘Get you home’ service for their broken-down car (of which there were many in the early days). Touring, legal, and insurance services all followed on rapidly too. In 1905 the ACGBI carried out some basic driving tests and issued driving certificates, a responsibility that the Government only took up thirty or so years later.
Boasting a handsome 350 acres and sitting 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 (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, that clubhouse 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, a role it was to fulfil in the next war too. It was also used extensively for agricultural purposes, leaving scars that healed only very slowly in post-war reconstruction. Considering its location, the Pall Mall clubhouse was comparatively fortunate in the Second World War; it took just one direct hit to its beautiful Great Gallery in 1944.
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 the Club’s centenary year (1997) the entry list for the Run totalled over 500 pre-1905 cars. And in 1932 the first RAC Rally took place from various starting points dotted around the country, and 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. Clearly then from its earliest days, the Royal Automobile Club has been the governing body for motorsport in Great Britain. That position still holds sway today with an active role on the Motorsport UK (formerly RAC Motor Sports Association) Board. The President of both organisations is HRH Prince Michael of Kent.
Despite these many successes, the Club began to lose its general sense of direction over the 1960s and 1970s. Its finances seriously declined as well. The Club Chairman, called a ‘do-or-die’ meeting in the late 1970s. After much internal scrutiny, the Club duly ‘did’. It 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 one in three of all motorists in the United Kingdom.
Since the formation of the Club, members have enjoyed all forms of transportation, land, sea, or air. Members of the ACGBI went on to find the Royal Aero Club (1901), the Auto-Cycle Union (1903), and the Royal Motor Yacht Club (1905) as well. The ‘two-wheeled enthusiasts’ within the Club today, although a relatively small part of the membership as a whole, nonetheless maintain an active presence, putting on motorcycling events throughout the year.
The Full Member in 2020, with the total membership having been capped at 17,000 for some years [includes ‘Family’, ‘Spouse/Civil Partner’, ‘Young’, ‘Out of Town’ categories], can enjoy many other sporting activities, but most notably squash and golf. After motoring/motorsport, 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 during the 1920s and 1930s unquestionably formed the backbone of England’s amateur team. 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. And many new facilities have been added to both clubhouses in recent years. The construction of a whole suite of treatment rooms and a complete re-design of the 5th floor incorporating 22 new bedrooms at Pall Mall was one major project. Likewise in scale at Woodcote Park, an extensive Walled Garden Family Facility will open fully in 2021 and cater 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: a foremost private members’ club with the strongest of motoring associations and traditions. And once again there is an active programme of motoring events, trials, rallies, concours, and drive-ins, overseen by the Club’s Motoring Committee – which re-convened relatively recently. In that renewed incarnation the Club continues to flourish today.