The Torquay Rally Recalled

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Once upon a time the 1,003 miles of the R.A.C. Rally seemed quite tame going. But now, after years of couponised-motoring, the run seems to take on a new significance. So Hobley’s reminiscences are of interest, especially as the R.A.C. hopes to put over a Rally of sorts later this year. — Ed.

Ten years ago! Thinking of all that has happened in the years between that decade seems like eternity, yet this first spring of peace, with its prospects of good things to come in the sphere of motor sport, brings back vivid memories of that thousand miles perambulation over the roads of Britain in the R.A.C. Rally of 1936.

Bristol was our starting-point, and it seemed odd to think that the finishing-post at Torquay lay only a hundred miles away, yet we were to travel ten times that distance before we reached it! Ranking next to London in popularity, Bristol was chosen by 60 of the 274 entrants and there were few non-starters. A notable absentee was “Jackie” Astbury„ winner of three trophies in the Monte Carlo Rally that year; she was competing in the Park-Nice.

Severn-side gave us a sunny send-off in the late afternoon, and one missed something of the thrill of the midnight start for Monte Carlo from the lonely headland at John o’ Groats. There seemed a likelihood of fog when the warmth of daytime changed to the cool of evening — a contingency which fortunately did not materialise that night, though there was plenty of murky motoring to come at a later stage!

From Gloucester we struck northward through Worcester and Kidderminster, then veering westward for Bridgnorth, when dusk was falling, and so through Wellington to Whitchurch. Here the competitors divided forces. Making for the next check at Blackpool, some elected to take the more direct route to Preston by Tarporley, Warrington and Wigan; others, wishing to avoid that part of industrial Lancashire, went on to Chester, up the Wirral peninsula to Birkenhead, and through the remarkable Mersey Tunnel to Liverpool. We were among the latter section, and a run without incident brought us to Preston and so along the fine new road to Lancashire’s playground, which we reached in time for a belated supper before the control opened shortly after midnight.

From Blackpool our course lay over familiar roads to Glasgow. The slumbering residents of houses bordering A6 must have had their dreams disturbed that night by the almost continuous passage of north and southbound cars — all, curiously enough, making eventually for the same place!

Slipping through Penrith’s deserted streets between 2 and 3 a.m., we met the vanguard of the Harrogate and Newcastle starters — a procession which continued the greater part of the way to Clyde-side. Filling up with petrol at Carlisle, we came across Joan Richmond similarly engaged with the Triumph with which she tied for second place in the light car class at Monte Carlo the same year.

Through Lockerbie and Beattock, running the gauntlet of innumerable sheep on the moorland road, their eyes gleaming like glow-worms in the light of our headlamps, we came by Crawford, Abington and the almost unpronounceable Lesmahagow to Hamilton, and so to sleeping Glasgow as the first light of the new day was breaking.

Glasgow’s only sign of life was an occasional early riser on his way to work, and if you have ever seen Sauchiehall Street at its busiest, with its battery of winking traffic lights and its throng of people and cars, you will appreciate how pleasant it was to drive unchecked up that famous thoroughfare.

Rest and refreshment at the hotel control rejuvenated us for the next spell to Harrogate, and, as Glasgow bestirred itself for another day of bustle, we left it by the same road as that on which we had entered, and so to Penrith for lunch before leaving for Scotch Corner, en route for Harrogate.

Penrith had been bathed in sunshine but clouds hung low on the Pennines, and Stainmore and the stretch which followed on to the Great North Road provided us with an unpleasant belt of fog – a difficulty which the starters from other points, travelling northward, had encounterd at the same place in the early hours of the morning.

Happily the fog cleared as we travelled down A1, turning off through Ripon to Harrogate for a short stop for tea before checking out on the run to London.

Back on A1 at Wetherby, we were through Doncaster before the light faded. We had been told at Harrogate that we would meet fog further south, and fog there certainly was — drifting clouds of it — with a resultant restriction of visibility which slowed the progress of the Rally cars down through Tuxford, Newark, Grantham and Stamford. The cars ran in bunches, follow-my-leader fashion, which was all very well for everyone but the leader!

Eventually, however, the fog cleared and did not trouble us again as, by Baldock and Stevenage, we came to the outskirts of London, skirting the city by the North Circular Road, with its unceasing flow of speeding cars, to the control at a garage at Hounslow, on the Great West Road, about midnight.

A halt of an hour or two; then off on the last lap to Torquay, through Staines, Basingstoke, Whitchurch, Andover, Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Yeovil, Chard, Honiton, Exeter and Newton Abbot.

It was an uneventful run through the dark hours until daybreak in the neighbourhood of Chard — a grey, wet dawn which chilled the tired travellers mentally as well as physically. The only person so early astir in Exeter – a man from whom we inquired the way — had apparently never been abed, for he told us that he had missed the last train the night before!

Cafes and hotels in Newton Abbot had the surprise of early customers for a hasty breakfast. By now the roads in the vicinity were busy with Rally cars, for all routes had converged at Exeter, and, with time in hand, most drivers were sauntering to the finish.

So, in pouring rain, Torquay welcomed those who had hoped to find on that sun-favoured coast a foretaste of summer!

All but 22 starters arrived at Torquay. Competitors arriving early being penalised, the road approaching the final control was lined with travel-stained cars, as their drivers whiled away the time until they were due to check in. Then, passing the control as near as possible to the time stipulated on their route books, they went on to the official car park, where the cars were lined up to remain untouched until the eliminating tests the next day.

Heavy rain had softened the ground in the park and the passage of many wheels soon churned up the mud; one car actually became embedded in the morass and had to be dug out, precautions being taken to prevent this happening again.

All that remained to be done that day was the inspection of the cars for any damage or breakages incurred during the road section; 24 entrants losing marks in this examination. Eight, by the way, had previously been penalised for early arrival.

And so to breakfast, bath – and bed!

Next morning saw the competitors back at the car park bright and early to try to start their cars, using the self-starter only, within two minutes, all but a. few succeeding. Then to the Torbay Road on the front for the first test of acceleration, braking and ease of handling.

A writer for a daily newspaper at that time pointed out the benefit of the Rally to the petrol firms, and actually ventured to estimate the amount of fuel consumed by the cars on the road section. Just as those thousand miles meant much to the petrol combines, so must, the seven hundred yards of that test have enriched the tyre manufacturers, for how the tyres of those 250 cars screeched with the stress of quick starting and even quicker stopping!

There were some outstanding performances, the most notable being that of T. C. Wise, driving a T.T. V-8 Ford, who established the fastest time of the day with 44.4 seconds. Equally spectacular in its amazing acceleration, and second fastest, was F. R. G. Spikins’s Spikins Hudson Special, with two blowers; he clocked 45.6 seconds, and, incidentally, put up the best individual performance in the Rally as a whole.

The second test followed for each driver as soon as he or she had completed the first. It took place on a rough-surfaced hill, said to be 1 in 4 1/2, with a hairpin bend at the top. The competitors had to go so far up the gradient on to the steepest part, reverse a few yards, then continue up the hill and round the bend over the finishing line.

Here again there was some quick, clever work — and plenty of wheelspin as the road surface loosened with the hard wear to which it was subjected. All honour to Mrs. A. E. Moss, who, with her short-chassis Marendaz Special, was faster than anyone else, returning 19.4 seconds. Tying for second place were two of the then new 1 1/2-litre Singers of the Autosports team, handled by F. S. Barnes and A. H. Langley (who, with J.D. Barnes, won the Manufacturers’ and Club Team Prizes), and C. M. Anthony’s 1 1/2-litre Aston-Martin, each with 20 seconds.

On the following day the “beauty parade” took place, the cars entered in the coachwork competition undergoing the scrutiny of the judges on the front.

Alvis, secured two of the three premier awards — J. I. Sears’s 3 1/2-litre (open cars) and Charles Follett’s Speed Twenty (closed two-door) — and the third went to Colonel Rippon’s Humber (closed four-door).

So ended the fifth and possibly the most successful R.A.C. Rally of the pre-war series. Now for the next one!

By G. F. Hobley, co-driver of a Centric-blown Morris Ten-Six with R. J. Morton in the 1936 R.A.C. Rally.

Morton, incidentally, won the Aftenposten Trophy in the Monte Carlo Rally of 1939 for the best performance by a car of under 1,500 c.c. from a Norwegian starting point, driving a Vauxhall Twelve Four from Stavanger.