Out of the past, April 1992

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I know that the effervescent Glegg brothers, who created a series of Dorcas Specials, the last of which, using a Fernihough-prepared JAP vee-twin engine in a 4WD chassis, climbed Shelsley Walsh in 46.88 sec in 1938, had devised an antidote to off-season motor-racing. It consisted of seeing whether they could conquer the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales within 24 hours, a feat encompassing fast cars and tough climbs. I believe they used a Lagonda for these attempts, in the mid-1930s.

What I did not know, until a reader, Mr Robert Foster, sent me a copy of an article from the Fell & Rock Climbing Journal, was that a similar feat was undertaken in the 1920s, in 1926 to be precise. The ploy then was to stand on the summits of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, all on the same day. The hill-walkers were Charles Hadfield and W G Pape and the driver of the car was H P Cain, who was commended for his skillful yet courteous driving. The road mileage totalled 474, the longest haul being that from Auchintree to Seathwaite, 264 miles. Cain did all the driving, the schedule given to him being 24 mph from Ben Nevis to Ballachulish. taking into account the condition of the Highland roads north of Callander, 20 mph from there to Crianlarich, 24 mph on to Callander, and 30 mph thereafter, but with a reduced speed up to Seathwaite.

Two days before the attempt the adventurers had driven 260 miles, from Borrowdale to the Alexandra Hotel at Fort William. Beyond Keswick it was possible to try how quickly the journey could be accomplished, via Bothel. However, even 66 years ago, a great number of motorists were out on the Pass of Leny, so that Cain, who was the then-President of the Fell Club, had to take great care, especially among the parked cars along the banks of Loch Lubnaig. The descent of Glencoe was very rough, and although there was a splendid new road to Kinlochleven, the road round the north of this loch was very narrow, so scraping past oncoming cars, and coping with a puncture. reduced the average speed. Nevertheless, and with a slow pace after Crianlarich to view the peaks and take photographs, and a stop there for tea, the run had taken only eleven hours, overall. That completed the Whit Sunday’s drive. On the Monday it was discovered that a front spring on the car was almost in two pieces, but a garage made a substitute spring, and on the Tuesday the attempt began.

The rest of the story is mainly about climbing and descending of the mountains, the way to the summit of a snowy, mist-obscured Ben Nevis by the light from an acetylene bicycle-lamp. In poor shelter the climbers had to wait 5 minutes in rain for midnight, before descending Ben Nevis to the waiting car, which was a 1925 21 hp Chrysler, which made light of flooded roads up Glencoe, had to drop back on the unusually slippery going from Callander to Stirling, yet in spite of a five-minute stop for coffee, arrived there 52 minutes ahead of schedule. Continuing at 6.09am, an unusual noise was traced to the bolts holding the n/s rear rim to the wheel being almost adrift (Chryslers of those days had detachable rims). Near Carluke there was another puncture and petrol was needed at Beattock Summit. Yet they got to Seathwaite 82 minutes ahead of the intended time, and before the climbers came back Cain had forced the car nearly a mile above the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel to meet them — I bet that track is no more! The afternoon run saw Cain using his skill to negotiate crowded roads between Kendal to Chester, a reminder that in vintage days the open road was not always as “open” as one likes to think. . . “We must have overtaken hundreds of cars”, Hatfield says, “but never a risk was taken and never did Cain force his way through to the inconvenience of another driver”. Later, along the Gerrig straight, “in many years motoring experience I have never travelled so fast before”. (It was thought indiscreet to state the actual speed). Chester had been reached at 6.55, after starting from Ben Nevis at 1.42am.

To cut the story short, the ambition was achieved, and given luck it was thought that the round trip, back to the start, could be done in 24 hours. Perhaps this was what spurred on the Gleggs. But it was felt that, even using an aeroplane, an Irish climb would be outside the 24 hours time-limit: these days. using a helicopter? As it was, the Chrysler came in for much praise, on account of its speed, “extraordinary acceleration”, road holding, and small turning-circle, and its compactness. Incidentally, the promised better road round the north side of Loch Leven “would have saved almost 15 minutes”, said Hatfield; has it yet been built?

This feat resulted in some bad Press publicity, presumably either as risking lives or involving dangerous driving, due to a misunderstanding. Today, budding rally drivers might get some practice by offering their cars to Fell Club members, or VSCC members try to emulate this 1926 exercise in endurance.

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