Sure, it lacked the glamour of the Long Beach Grand Prix, not to mention the hairpin turns.
But, in terms of quirkiness, Signal Hill’s Model T Climb — all 528 feet of it — was hard to beat.
Every May, daring Tin Lizzy drivers would attempt to conquer the 22% incline on East Hill Street above Obispo Avenue. A couple of thousand spectators would gather, including kids who would race the machines on foot.
The Climb originated in either 1956 or 1957 (accounts differ) after members of the Long Beach Model T Club spotted the hill on an outing. Some challenges were exchanged.
“Grown men would spend thousands of dollars” and put in “huge amounts of effort to make their car light enough and fast enough to be the king of the hill,” multi-winner Howard Genrich recalled in Dennis Morawski’s documentary, “The Signal Hill Model T Climb.”
And the prize? A car part on a plaque. After all, there were no sponsors. And the Model T club charged no admission.
The event appealed to gearheads for whom the smell of spilled oil was perfume.
“There’s no such thing as a Model T that doesn’t leak oil,” club member Rich Turner said.
As many as 100 Tin Lizzys challenged the one-tenth-of-a-mile course each year.
As a kid, Scott Gray told Morawski, he stood near the starting point because you could “see the determined look on the drivers’ faces (as they) gripped the wheel, kind of urging ( their machines) along.”
Some Model Ts pooped out, forcing their pilots to execute slow about-faces and coast down to the bottom. But one determined entrant became something of a legend by reaching the top in reverse gear.
The speediest hilltoppers finished in as few as 8 seconds, averaging about 45 mph.
Not that time was everything. Joan Dreesen was cheered for her unofficial “slowest clocking ever” — 2 minutes and 5 seconds (a bit under 3 mph).
Driver Grover Seguine adopted different themes, dressing up his 1925 Model T as a hay truck one year, a six-pack of Coors another, a medicine man’s rig still another.
Old-timers can remember only one accident — a fellow backing down lost control near the bottom, denting two lawn chairs.
But, as society became more litigious and housing popped up in the neighborhood, Signal Hill officials grew nervous. The Model T club was asked to take out an insurance policy it couldn’t afford, spelling doom for the event.
In the three decades since then, evidence of the race has vanished. The hill, leveled off near the top, has a median running down the middle, as if to remind Model T drivers there’s no room to turn around anymore. A race plaque near Temple and Obispo was stolen.
The event isn’t completely forgotten, though.
Genrich, 88, a retired schoolteacher, said that when he runs into other Model T owners around the country and tells them he’s from Long Beach, “someone will say, ‘Oh, my God! Do they still have the hill climb?’”
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