Originality—in restoration AND usage?

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It seems droll that the more purist among restorers of veteran, Edwardian and vintage cars are often to be congratulated on their meticulous attention to getting even the details of their cars correct, yet seem quite undisturbed that subsequent usage departs, unnecessarily I feel, from the ancient tradition. I am thinking of those who fit the original carburetter rather than a more recent one which would give easier starting and better fuel consumption, are careful to match the date of their lamps to that of their bodywork, enquire about the correct colour in which a given pre-war car should be repainted, do this with brush instead of spray-gun, even use the right size of buttons, correctly spaced, when refurbishing leather upholstery of that kind—and then compete with the resplendent vehicle in some quite non-original form of rally or competition.

Why cannot current events, competitive and otherwise, for pre-war cars conform more closely to what, in fact, these cars could have undertaken when they were new, or nearly new, vehicles? Some organisations do make some rather lukewarm efforts along these lines. For example, the first imitation Emancipation Run of 1927 (when the early cars taking part were called “Old Crocks”, a term the Motor unfortunately still applies to veteran cars) went from London-to-Brighton, because that was the route of the original Run in 1896. It still does. But, although subsequently it was taken under the umbrella of The Autocar and then the RAC, it has had various starting and finishing points and has never gone from the Metropole, London to the Metropole, Brighton, or even followed very closely the pattern of the first Run, except that it is held as near as is possible to the correct Sunday in November without encroaching on Armistice Day—perhaps if 250 or so pre-1905 motor cars stopped for two minutes at 11 a.m. very few of them would restart afterwards!

If the VCC has erred a little over the historic elements of their Brighton Run—and I concede that limiting it to pre-1897 horseless-carriages would greatly restrict its scope!—they were very good about last year’s replica of the 1,000 Miles Trial of 1900, going over as much of the original route as possible, even to taking the Twyford loop away from the new A4 Bath Road.

Other clubs who profess to have history in their hearts have done far less in this respect. What VSCC fixture has any particular pre-1931 connotation? The Humber Register used to include some of the “non-stop sections” from the vintage-era Colmore Cup and Victory Cup Trials in a one-day frolic and on a larger canvas we have seen the David Thirlby-inspired Bolzano Raid of the chain-driven Frazer Nash fraternity, their later return to the Nurburgring, and the Lancia MC’s commemorative trip to Italy. Rolls-Royces of appropriate antiquity are apparently going to the Alps next year for similar reasons and there are probably other re-enactments I have overlooked.

By and large, however, there seems no great desire or effort to emulate the events of the past. The VSCC Light Car Section was instrumental in cooperating with the commendably tradition-minded MCC in launching some of its members over part of the vintage-years’ Land’s End Trial route on appropriate anniversary occasions. This was highly commendable and I am glad I was able to drive Arthur Jeddere-Fisher’s 1924 11.9 Lagonda in one of them and go as passenger in a 1929 Hillman 14 in another.

Seeking to maintain true traditionalism, I brought into being a revival of the earlier MCC London-Exeter Trials, the idea arising from my desire, in 1953, to start correctly from Staines in my 1922 8-h.p. Talbot-Darracq, at the exact time on Boxing Night when a similar car had been flagged away 31 years earlier, and drive over as much of the 1922 route as possible, the “observed” sections of Peak, Salcombe and White Sheet included, before returning to Staines, a distance of about 327 miles. I was foiled by an obscure ignition malady but went the following year, accompanied by the late Gerald Crozier in his Trojan. The thing was taken over by the VSCC in 1955 but they were a bit niggardly about it and we finished not at Staines but at Hartley Witney—“quite far enough, too”, seemed to be the prevailing opinion. I think, however, that my ideas had the backing of Jeddere-Fisher, first Secretary of the VSCC Light Car Section, who is a notably clear-thinking traditionalist.

Although Britain was at peace, with Europe at any rate, there was petrol rationing in 1956. In 1957 I hit upon the idea of throwing my “Boxing Night Exeter” open to Motor Sport readers. The festive-season start was a notable eliminator but the diehards turned out, understanding that there would be no awards, no publicity (apart from my own report) and definitely no TV coverage!

That year, after D.S.J. had enlivened Christmas Day by driving an F2 Lotus on the road, we did the 1922 route again, in Derek Graham’s Trojan. Five other vintage light-car stalwarts came too. By 1958 it seemed prudent to assay the 1924 “Exeter” route, as I had acquired a 1924 12/20 Calthorpe. Seventeen intrepid “competitors” tried it that year but I blush when I recall that we called it off, after a hectic Boxing Night and equally hectic subsequent morning and afternoon, at Lopcombe Corner.

This adventure grew quite popular. In 1959 there were 23 of us, running over the 1925 route. In 1960, when I borrowed a 1921 AC from the Montagu Motor Museum, the number was up to 36. The next Boxing Night we varied things by using the 1926 route, leaving correctly from the Slough Trading Estate and finishing (as in 1926) at Shaftesbury.

We were true traditionalists in these happy events, even to deliberately avoiding the by-passes at Egham and Bagshot on the outward journey and trying as closely as possible to emulate the timed section on White Sheet Hill. Alas, the thing became too big. We had introduced route-cards to counter complaints that it was a long way to motor if you got lost before tackling the hills. We had put in a breakfast stop in a helpful transport café near Honiton. It was becoming all too much like a real event, without an RAC permit. At the time the MoT was looking very directly at road events and had we been so unfortunate as to have had a fatal accident—there had been “moments” on ice-covered hills in 1960—the repercussions could have reached beyond the vintage-car circles. A halt was therefore called. I believe the original follow-my-leader, unofficial “Boxing Night Exeter” still happens, but the less said the better…

I had another idea a couple of years ago. In 1924 Wales had seen the RAC Six-Day Small-Car Trials, won by Chinnery’s Gwynne Eight. That very strenuous affair was for professionals. It involved two big loops out from Llandrindod Wells, taken alternatively, one loop per day, not to mention a return to civilisation via Birdlip Hill (observed) for a series of complicated tests at Brooklands. I put it to the VSCC that a replica might amuse their Light Car Section. The roads have vastly improved, the water splashes have gone, and obviously it couldn’t be for six days or go to Brooklands. But a two-day event, encompassing the original hills, seemed possible, doing one 1924 loop each day. I worked out that a fairly early after-breakfast start would get competitors back before dinner and meanwhile, at, say a 25 m.p.h. average, they would have seen some rather impressive scenery, and lunched, as in 1924, at Bala.

To give a mildly competitive element any stops needed for administering to the cars would have had to be logged. In 1924 they appointed “official observers” for this task—and one Lightbody got a special medal for pushing Poppe’s Austin 7 up Bwlch-y-Groes, which he need not have done—I suspect a desire to get out of the rain and back to the shelter of the “Metropole” prompted him, rather than heroics! I thought the need for extra “bods” could be obviated by swapping the passengers around, asking them to “observe” the cars they found themselves in. This, however, caused strong objections which I didn’t anticipate, even in this promiscuous age.

Anyway, the thing was vetoed by the VSCC as being too long, too strenuous. It never happened but good luck to the 750 MC’s proposal, even though there is presumably nothing traditional about it, to run Austin 7s from Land’s End to John O’Groats as part of next year’s Austin Jubilee… I suppose my “observers” would have had to be covered by passenger-liability insurance anyway—in the Welfare State it is difficult to win! To prove that in times when our present vintage cars were currently available enthusiasts were by no means chicken-hearted, let me quote the Ealing & D MCC’s London-Holyhead Trial of 1921, when drivers of things like TB and Morgan 3-wheelers, Carden Cyclecars, GNs and a 6.4-h.p. Jowett tackled the 336-mile route which included Bwlch and the Devil’s Bridge road, the state of which in those days borders on the indescribable. Dare I ask “Who’s for tennis?” in 1972?

Perhaps those who run painstakingly-restored-to-original vintage cars don’t care a fig for events run over original routes to original rules? I hope this isn’t so and that I shall be reminded of plenty of “traditional” fixtures I have forgotten to mention, or which are about to happen. (Memorials such as those at Brooklands, on the Gordon Bennett course in Ireland, and the TT pits in Ulster are not quite what I have in mind, excellent as was the lappery of the Ards circuit by ex-TT cars after the last named had been unveiled; nor do historic cars returning to their birthplaces, as with Sunbeams to Wolverhampton, Rileys to Coventry, Roesch Talbots to Barlby Road or Morris to Cowley count, in the same way that replicas of former rallies, trials, etc., do. Incidentally, I hear rumours of a long-distance VSCC race, to supplement the up-to-37 1/2-mile races they have at present; one wonders whether this will develop into a whiff from the past, perhaps a quarter of a JCC 200-Mile Race or an hour’s return to something akin to a vintage TT?)

Even when D.S.J. and I decided it would be nice if true vintage and p.v.t. cars were gathered into one car park at VSCC Silverstone Meetings, instead of being scattered amongst the modern cars, the Committee were decidedly dubious. They let us do it but never willingly, and only once or twice. Perhaps we offended someone when we turned away his 1931 Austin 7… Anyway, the idea was abandoned. It has since been revived, a piece of VSCC politics I have never fathomed. But which discourages the idea of a VSCC speed trial with only vintage cars permitted to line the railings at the start area (a photographer’s delight!). Anyway, straight-line speed trial courses are now hard to find since the RAC has decreed that gravel-surfaced drives are out. A less complicated ideal might be trials for the VSCC Light Car Section over some of the once-used routes and hills in the Home Counties. There were several day and half-day events held in Surrey and Middlesex, details of which, with rules, the early motor journals contain. To organise a frolic along such “original” lines would seem to involve no more effort than a Light Car picnic, a Lakeland Trial or an Eastern Rally which bear small resemblance to actual vintage fixtures (by all means have these as well). Perhaps, however, I am alone in a wilderness others prefer not to enter?—W. B.

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