Vetreran to Classic - MCC Trials In Vintage Times

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That the Motor Cycling Club is the oldest such organisation for cars and motorcycles, having been formed in 1901, and that it continues to run its classic trials, with their traditional night sections, much as it has done for the past 86 years, starting with the London-Edinburgh run, earns congratulations from most enthusiasts and much satisfaction on the part of those who still participate in these long-lived trials. As the 1990 Land’s End will take place in less than three weeks, I thought it might be fun to look back on how that event was viewed, in what we now call the vintage years, 1919-1930.

It would be quite impossible to cover in any detail even this selection of “the great Easter adventure”, as so many competitors saw it all those years ago, so vast were the entry lists, so considerable the mileages involved. But we can pick out some of the highlights. Firstly, it should be said that then, as now, riders and drivers competed against the Club, not against one another, gaining awards by merit, a gold medal for climbing all the observed sections (steep hills) on the route card and successfully completing any other tests or timed ascents on the agenda. Lesser performances earned silver or bronze medals, later changed to Certificates of Merit as it cost the MCC rather less! Those who were 100% successful in all three of these MCC classics, the London-Exeter-London trial starting on Boxing night, the London-Land’s End at Easter, and the London-Edinburgh at Whitsun, were eligible for the coveted Triple Award, from 1926 in the form of a silver signpost pointing to all three destinations, mounted on a Meridian stone plinth.

Along the years there were variations in starting and finishing places and in the hills that had to be tackled, and after a time the out-and-back runs were changed to just getting to the outward bound destination — but spare a thought for the riders of primitive, gas-lit motorcycles doing the 1904 London-Edinburgh-London jaunt . . . For years the speed limit on these trials was 20 mph, observed by secret checks, a tedious thing in the faster vintage cars. Anyway, let’s look at some of the highlights of the vintage Land’s Ends . . .

It had begun in 1908 after ex-racing driver Lt.-Col. Charles Jarrott had been elected the MCC President and had put up a silver cup for motorcyclists for another long distance run, from London to Land’s End and back, a formidable 600-mile slog in those days. Cars were soon admitted, light cars at first but eventually all sizes, and by 1920, when the Land’s End was first run after the war, 33 light car drivers were prepared to spend most of Easter taking part. They included such famous names as Lionel Martin in an Aston-Martin, W H Oates in a Lagonda, W Brownsort for ACs, S C H Davis in his ABC, Kaye Don in an AC, Frazer-Nash in a GN, Paddon driving a Hampton and Others. This emphasises that then and for many years to come the Motor Industry regarded these long distance trials as good publicity, especially for new models, and got famous competition drivers to enter them. The weekly motor papers used to devote many pages to reporting these happy events, giving the results in full, and crowds of up to 6,000 per hill turned out to watch. The imposed low speed schedule and the good organisation, for years in the hands of Jackie Masters and his wife Bee, rendered the Police co-operative and these MCC trials had, and have, a fine reputation.

The Easter trek was a tough assignment 70 years ago, especially for the cyclecar fraternity competing in Morgan three-wheelers and improbable cyclecars like Tamplin, AV and Bleriot-Whippet. The feared hills were Porlock and Lynton, dreaded stoppers in those days. Parson’s chains helped here. The most meritorious performance was made by a 10 hp flat-twin Douglas. Gold medals went to 14 cars, silver medals to Myson, not as you might have expected if you read me last month in a Calcott, but in a Singer Ten, and to Tamplin in his tiny Tamplin. The motorcycle element prevailed, 70 solos and 69 sidecar outfits/three-wheelers starting, against 26 cars, of which 80%, 66% and 69% respectively, completed the 314-mile course. Among retirements was Rex Mundy’s 16-valve Bugatti, after it had tried to reverse up Porlock!

Car entries soon increased and in those vintage years racing drivers competed, as well as keen amateurs. Sammy Davis, Sports Editor of The Autocar and later a Le Mans winner, was a regular, sometimes in improbable cars like his own air-cooled flat-twin ABC, a very touring Palladium unlike the later more sporting model, even a Ruston-Hornsby and an Austin 12/4. He equally regularly reported on his experiences and was not against taking through unlikely cars with success, such as a Brooklands model Riley 9 with very little ground clearance and a FWD Alvis four-seater that might have been expected to spin its driving wheels more than most.

The contrast in runners was part of the fun. Capt. Howey would appear in the comfort of his 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce, complete with chauffeur, who presumably would drive it home, as only one driver was permitted on these trials, and Bainbridge was another who showed that a R-R Ghost could get its gold with the best of them. At the opposite extreme would be a ramshackle GN bought for £5, and an entry quoted as a Blank turned out to be an unspecified chassis, possibly a Morris, in which the experimental vee-twin aircooled Hotchkiss engine of the kind later used in BSA three and four wheeled cars was being publicly tested.

In 1921 the format was much the same. The first car left Hounslow at 33 minutes after midnight (Alan Hill’s Rover 8) followed by all manner of makes and types, including many forgotten ones like the friction drive Unit No.1, Silver Hawk, Orpington, Junior Sports, Kingsbury Junior, and more than one de Marcuy, with Myson now in a Secqueville-Hoyau, while who can say if the entrants of three 6 hp Cardens were unduly optimistic? (They were not award winners, but A C Hardy’s Blank got a gold and seven Rover 8s won silver medals). Porlock cost Davis’s ABC a seized piston, an AC a seized gearbox, a Swift a seized engine and the Orpington broke its transmission. An Eric-Campbell lost its tie-rod and completed the course steering only on the off-side wheel.

Entries and spectators increased but the organisation remained efficient, and the memorable breakfasts at Deller’s Cafe catered for hundreds of sleepy drivers and navigators on Exeter trials. There was no diminution in the variety of the entries. Col. (later Brig.-Gen) G M Giles, one of the founders of the Bugatti OC, at first had no luck with his 16-valve Bugatti but in later years the team of his and K W Bear’s and K Faulkner’s T43s and V L Seyd’s T38A were the envy of those like myself who did not see why something of a racing element shouldn’t be included. Yet even the 3½ hp Villiers two-stroke engined, friction drive springless Gnome, much featured in MOTOR SPORT at the time, had a go in 1925 and retired only after it had got up Porlock, a hill that in the early 1920s took nearly eight minutes to climb by successful competitors.

For the 1923 Land’s End a new hill, Greymere near Truro, was added as a non-stop section, with an average gradient of 1 in 5, six acute bends, and a bad surface at the top, and the inclusion of new hills formed the MCC’s policy as cars became more proficient. The difficult climb of Beggar’s Roost also formed part of the 1923 Land’s End route and caused many failures among the 122 cars, of which only 91 finished. Those who set out from Slough Trading Estate well after midnight on Good Friday numbered R C Morgan’s GP Aston-Martin, and whole fleets of GNs, Palladiums (two with four occupants), Rhodes and Morris Cowleys, and in spite of the ABC contingent having had to rebuild one useable car out of three in order to get home after Porlock calamities the previous year, a dozen came out in 1923. So fast was a Gwynne Eight up Lynmouth that a tyre came off, the inner tube ballooning, at the summit. That year the entertainment for the onlookers at the 1 in 3 Devonshire terror, Beggar’s Roost, went on for four hours. Chains removed, the drivers then encountered such appalling roads to Launceston that it was difficult to maintain the 20 mph average — and there were penalties for being late, as well as early.

So it went on, these MCC outings ever more popular. Indeed, by 1925 the record car entry of 407 came in, so that the first motorcycle was going through Trowbridge, 80 miles from the Slough start as, out of 144 entered, the last car was just starting its long journey. This time there were four capacity classes, with nine A7s in the smallest.

That fearful hazard near Perranporth, Bluehills Mine with its tight hairpin, had joined the route and the trial still ended at Land’s End in those days. Adventures were rife, as ever. At the very start a Douglas car broke a valve, and that hard-trier Bliss, in an old Fiat now with a Silvani ohv head, went out after a crash. It was the year when Cecil Kimber got his gold medal with the stark car which is often wrongly called MG No.1, and it was as much a free-for-all as ever. Cars like a Mathis Weyman saloon whose driver had come from Strasbourg to compete and Cocker’s Clyno saloon contrasted with the three sports Senechals which made light of Porlock, where the Mayor of Bridgwater presided. The slow but sure Trojans, to be immortalised later by A F Scroggs, had appeared, one driven by Monks from the factory and a misfiring supercharged Mercedes got no further than Lynmouth. That Land’s End cost the MCC 53 gold, 45 silver and eight bronze medals for the car finishers alone, and in 1930 the MG Midgets won 18 golds, Frazer Nashes eight.

As the years rolled on these classic trials continued their accepted role. Cars became more sporting and by 1930 221 started in the Land’s End. Drivers like Donald Healey joined in with his Triumphs, Dellar’s of Exeter fame got the breakfasts over in Taunton for Land’s End crews, and Sammy Davis, unlucky again in 1925 with an ABC, was in his own Bertelli Aston Martin by 1929. It was the greatest possible fun and anything was entered, even big American cars like the Gardner, Peerless and Willys-Knight that got golds in the Easter trial in 1929. That year no fewer than 27 Riley Nines were entered, the well-known motoring writer H E Symons driving one of them, but the Hon. Victor Bruce favoured a sleeve-valve Arrol-Aster saloon and E C Gordon England, the famed A7 racing driver, took a Morris, which was bothered with Autovac trouble. These were typically British happenings, which survived another war and, as I have said, the Land’s End Trial will take place again this Easter. As cars specially intended to defeat steep, rough and muddy trials hills appeared in greater numbers, the works teams of MGs of various kinds and the Singer Nines, A7 “Grasshoppers”, HRGs, etc, the MCC put in ever more difficult observed sections as “stoppers”, which worked well until the RAC banned knobbly tyres. Today, the MCC uses ingenious classes to sort out the diverse entries it receives and in general the format is well liked. Which is why, year after year, you see the same motorcycle riders and car drivers, often frozen and/or wet through after the night run, returning again and again to take part in these long-established trials. Be assured, they are well worth watching. If space permits, I hope to recall a little of the Edinburgh and Exeter trials at appropriate times. Incidentally, there were two bonuses which the Land’s End offered — drivers could take a holiday after it in the West Country, perhaps with a girl navigator, or on the Sunday trek back with the “Chain-Gang” Frazer Nash contingent and others, to compete or spectate at the Easter Monday Brooklands Meeting. WB

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