Downhill all the Way at the North East Soap Box Challenge

Prince, Michael Jackson and David Bowie needed a spanner to fix their coffin …

What’s the punchline?

Wait … no. This actually happened?


It’s Saturday, August the 18th at Herrington Country Park, and pit crews are making last-minute adjustments to their vehicles before they run the challenging downhill skidaddle of the North East’s inaugural Soap Box Challenge.

The Dead Celebrities have nothing to fear, since they have already met their fate, if they can just get a spanner. Thankfully, Handcrafted are in the next bay with the tools for the job, and more than willing to help out their fellow competitors by loaning tools. In the spirit of the occasion, which is a lot more ‘Wacky Races’ than ‘Formula One’, the competing teams readily admire each-other’s creations and wish one another the best of luck.

However, after all the hard work to get here, it would be nice to win, or at least stay the course in front of the cameras and the 15,000 spectators who have turned out.

Prototyping of the Handcrafted soap box began back in May, when a cancellation led to an opening for us to compete. While it would have been straightforward to treat the project like a commission and hand down the design and spec to the workshop on a docket, that’s neither fun nor creative or empowering. We felt sure our trainees could come up with something great, work collaboratively, and get a lot more out of the experience if we designed ‘by committee’. It sounded easy: just a box with wheels on isn’t it?

Initial efforts at the Gateshead workshop and the Durham workshop quickly blossomed into two prototypes that represented the stronger characteristics of each location. Gateshead, with its experience of bike repair, had the edge on the essentials when it came to wheels, brakes and bearings. At Durham, we deliberated hard over the rigid structure and how to make it work in wood.

Somehow from the wealth of ideas and opinions, the hilarious road tests and the picky rules of the competition, we arrived at a hybrid solution that looked assertively wooden and had the undercarriage to cope with the ramps and obstacles of the race course. In the final stages of combining the best of both prototypes, we benefited in particular from the methodical focus of Colin, who has a gift for seeing things through once he has put his mind to a project.

Oddly enough, trainees were not lining up to be the driver but extremely willing to volunteer someone else: “You should drive it; you’d be great.” I guess, we’d watched enough YouTube clips of the spectacular crashes at previous events to know that staying in one piece was not guaranteed. Ultimately it was Adam, who does all his own stunts, who agreed to put himself out there.

On the day, our creation, dubbed “2 SHY”, took its place among the 50 other entries at the starting line against the backdrop of the Penshaw Monument in the greatest concentration of colourful creativity and scrap-heap engineering the region has ever seen. For those who had contributed to the building or turned out to support, it was a proud moment. 2 SHY completed the run with a highly competitive time of 47 seconds in spite of having the rear axle slightly compromised after one of the big ramps.

The £500 first prize was taken home by Cushie Butterfield And The Herrington Kippers in their ship (37.4 sec), followed by Cardioproof’s ambulance-styled entry (41.4 sec) and the. Hill Billy Flintstones in 3rd place. The most successful entrants managed to combine solid engineering with a sense of fun and gave us plenty of inspiration for next year … yes NEXT YEAR we are going to give it another shot because we proved we could do it and we know we can do it even better!

What’s next for our iconic soap box? It seems a shame to scrap it for recycling, when it represents so many hours of teamwork and ambition. We’d like it to go on to a happy retirement and are open to suggestions or offers. Email us or message us on Facebook if you want to own this piece of soap-box history, bearing in mind it was built to be ridden by an over 18 year old, and it’s had a bump or two. We’ll pick the best suggestion.

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