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Racing back to Bristol (Nonesuch spring 2015)

Special Collections, University of Bristol Library (DM2094/6/8/2)

15 May 2015

This autumn, Rob Harris (1967-69) will revive Bristol’s 24-hour pedal car race, once an annual tradition during University RAG week.

I was studying Architecture when I joined the School’s pedalling team in 1968. I remember little except that it was cold, wet, exciting, exhausting – and an annual ritual. I was fit enough, riding a tandem from Hiatt Baker to Great George Street every day. The car was handed down annually and we raced at the former Whitchurch Aerodrome – foreign territory for most students after the race had outgrown College Green, or so we understood.

I've since learnt from historic copies of Nonesuch, the Students’ Union paper in which I wrote a music column, that the race originated in 1960 following an exercise for Mechanical Engineering students the year before. It had been expelled from College Green by the ‘City Fathers’ after excess littering in 1965, migrating to what is now Hengrove Park instead. Later photographs show other venues too: several from 1987 show the Downs by Parry’s Lane, while another looks like it could be Eastville.

I was also reminded how, one year, many competitors suffered respiratory problems from the combination of sunshine, tarmac and tyre rubber. One or two went to A&E, but, thankfully, all survived. When I raced, we didn’t have to worry: the weather was foul.

One consistent aspect rings true: Aeronautical Engineering students and apprentices made up many winning teams. I remember this when I took part: a winning team from somewhere called Filton – way beyond Clifton, Stoke Bishop or the University precinct.

I didn’t graduate in Architecture (I went to train in theatre instead), but returned to Bristol in 1981 as Stage Manager at the Bristol Old Vic, before freelancing in TV drama. The race didn’t cross my mind again until 2013 on a shoot at Berkeley Castle. Asking my assistant if he’d heard of it, I idly remarked: 'They should bring it back.' Three days later, I decided to do it myself. 

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Further information

Bristol’s 24-hour Pedal Car Race 2015 will take place on Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 October to raise funds for local charities. To enter or sponsor the race, please visit You can also follow Harris on Twitter at @pedalcarrob.

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