Tough "Nor'wester"

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Rally enthusiasts seem to judge their enjoyment of various events by the quantity of mud, snow, ice, and rock-strewn narrow lanes encountered. Judged by these standards the London Motor Club’s “Nor’wester” Rally, held on October 17/18th, was a first-class event. The reason for our interest in this restricted event is that the organisers issued an invitation to members of the motoring Press to participate in the rally free of charge. This induced a number of entries from the Press, including the Motor Sport Austin Healey Sprite driven by Assistant Editor Michael Twite and navigated by London Motor Club member Bill Creed.

The Sprite had only the day before been fitted with a new set of pistons after indications that one or more of the high-compression pistons were beginning to “pick up,” so the 350 miles of the rally were to be used to run-in the new pistons. The starting control was situated at Basingstoke, where rain started to fall as the first cars began to leave.

The first section was a simple 99-mile run to Bridgwater, where the serious motoring was to begin. Since the Sprite had not been used in competition before we used this period to find out how it would behave. Since the fuel tank holds less than the maker’s stated six gallons capacity, three cans of fuel were carried on the luggage rack, but they made the rear end of the car rather skittish in the wet and two of them were removed at Bridgwater. The Dunlop Durabands are not happy in the wet if inflated above 18 lb. per sq. in. and to be on the safe side they were let down to 16 lb. all round, which seemed to give the correct handling qualities for the streaming wet roads encountered throughout the night.

Bridgwater was reached safely and after a short break competitors set out on a 15-mile route card section to Control 3. This took drivers into the narrow byways of Devon, where the required 30-m.p.h. average was already becoming difficult to achieve due to fallen trees, torrential rain and near gale-force winds. When the card said . . . turn right at the rock crusher . . . which appeared to be at the bottom of a quarry, we knew we were in for a tough rally! From Control 3 a marked map reference section began, although some of the references were not marked but had to be obtained from a displayed card at the preceding control. We made the fatal mistake at one of these of letting the marshal tell us the reference instead of reading it ourselves, with the result that we landed up in a completely deserted lane!

There were a number of short sections, several of them being only a mile long, and navigation had to be spot-on to cover these short sections in two minutes, although the correct roads were quite fair and non-chassis-breaking. Unfortunately the wrong turning led to the most unlikely places, and on one of these one of our twin exhaust pipes connected rather solidly with a rock, effectively restricting the flow of all gases from three cylinders. This was followed shortly afterwards by an excursion down a  respectable-looking road which led us into a sodden field straddled by an electrified fence. After an earnest discussion with other competitors as to what voltage this type of deterrent carried, we decided to retrace our steps, watched by some interested cows. 

At Control 6 some keen soldiers had set up a timed hill-climb. Unfortunately a competitor approached from the wrong direction and became stuck fast going down the hill, causing the timed climb to be abandoned. It now became obvious from the number of early starters encountered travelling in all directions that there were going to be few clean sheets on this rally. In fact, as it turned out, there were none. At one point we came upon a tree straddling the road, but the competitor in front of us bravely drove into the foliage and as his headlights appeared on the other side we drove into the branches and got through safely. Many early competitors had to lift trees and telegraph poles from the road before they could proceed. This did nothing to help their timekeeping and some hard driving was called for to regain lost time, although the road book reminded drivers that . . . this event is not a race . . .

On one particularly rocky section, when we had decided that the road was impassable, a Hillman Minx crewed by American Servicemen roared past, only to lose its exhaust system, break a spring, dent the front and rear ends and generally make a mess of it. After the rally the driver dismissed it with, “I guess we banged it up a little.” They get their cars cheap, anyway!

Being late starters we found that after Control 20 many of the marshals had packed up and gone home, so we decided to by-pass several controls and head back to Bridgwater. Afterwards we learned that at Control 29 dozens of cars became stuck fast in a muddy valley with a ford at the bottom. This was a great pity since some of them stood a chance of finishing up to this point.

Back at Bridgwater the hard-luck stories were being told, but fortunately few cars received any lasting damage. Bird’s TR2 went straight on at a T-junction and bent the front considerably. He was towed to Bridgwater by an obliging early-morning milk lorry driver. A Sprite went through a fence but regained the road without damage, and Lorkin’s Morgan broke its front near-side stub axle on the run back to Basingstoke, throwing the wheel over a hedge and skidding to a stop on the brake drum. Otherwise, all the rest of the field had to show for their labours was a thick coating of mud.

At Basingstoke the results did not take long to calculate since only ten cars, out of 82 starters, qualified as finishers. It was found that “Tiny” Lewis and his Triumph Herald, (which gained him a Coupe des Alpes earlier this year) had lost only 28 marks, followed by Stephen Clipston (29 marks lost) in, dare we say it, a VW, and S. D. Silverthorn (42 marks lost) in a Porsche — all having fully independent suspension!

The organisers had spent four months and covered 80,000 miles in planning this rally, in the hope that it will be upgraded to National status next year. Judging by the results and the enjoyment obtained by competitors, it stands a pretty good chance. Although members of the Press did nothing to convince rally competitors that when they write about motoring they know what they are talking about, at least we all seem to have enjoyed ourselves and most of us will be there again next year — if invited. — M.L.T.