MCC trials in the vintage years

As the MCC Edinburgh Trial took place last October and as I have dealt previously with the vintage Land's End and Exeter trials (Motor Sport, April 1990 and February 1991 respectively), it seems time to do the same for the London-Edinburgh trial of this old and much-respected club, which was formed as long ago as 1901.

The "Edinburgh" was the first long-distance event the MCC organised, back in 1904. It was, in fact, then a ride from London to Edinburgh up the narrow, so-called Great North Road, and then, note, back to London! In the days of motorcycles with single-speed transmissions, unsprung frames, belt-drive and gas lighting, it does not require much imagination to see what a tough test this was, run to a time schedule. Indeed, out of the 52 riders who started from outside the GPO building in St Martins le Grand (the days of the 1d-post), only 12 finished on time.

In later times the Edinburgh turned into a trial on the established lines of other MCC events, not returning to London but encompassing observed-sections on the hills of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors. It may not have had quite the allure of the Exeter trial, which was a great Christmas-time adventure under wintry conditions, nor of the Land's End trial, which was a sporting Easter outing embracing difficult West Country hills. But it was still a worthwhile competition, against the Club not against fellow competitors, which is the format still applying to all three of these MCC reliability trials. Moreover, from 1926, those who had won Gold medals in the Exeter and Land's End trials qualified for the rather nice "triple-signpost" award, the Triple Award in fact, if they could keep up this standard in the Whitsuntide Edinburgh trial, which was a reason for some of the entries.

Cars had been allowed to compete from 1906 and it is from that angle that we are about to look back at the Edinburgh trials of the vintage period. The event started again with full enthusiasm after the break of the war years. In 1920 the route diverted from the former North Road throughout runs, branching off at Doncaster so as to embrace the 1476 ft Kirkstone Pass, with a non-stop observed section from this ascent, over ground rising from Ambleside, and down the steep descent to Patterdale, a tough proposition, especially for air-cooled cars. The start was from the Old Gatehouse in Highgate, at 8pm, the distance to Edinburgh 410½ miles. The post-war situation had little effect on the entry, which, indeed, was a record 385, of which 68 were cars or cyclecars, not counting the two official cars, a big Chandler and Van Hooydonk's well-known Phoenix light-car which preceded the long cavalcade of motorcycle competitors. The first car to leave thereafter was W Cooper's Morris Cowley.

There was still a strong element of Trade support, manufacturers and agents seeing these well-supported MCC trials as good publicity, if the machines behaved properly. As well as attracting potential customers in the west, here was a chance to show their wares to those as far afield as Scotland. Thus Lionel Martin was driving his aged grey Aston-Martin, a trials "veteran" handled by his foreman Addis in the previous Edinburgh, who had another of the breed for the 1920 trial. Brooklands' racing had decimated the GN entry but Ellis was to go in his "peppery little Vitesse" and Mundy the KLG plug rep, Finch, and Burney were also in GNs, although Burney usually rode a De Havilland motorcycle. Oates was a Lagonda light-car competitor. Gedge, who was to frequent Brooklands, was Eric-Campbell mounted, and Sammy Davis was at the wheel of his faithful ABC. So big was the entry that Waverley Market had to be commandeered to house it at the finish, after the final check-point at Croall's Garage.

En route, the official hotel stops were at the George in Grantham for breakfast, with a second breakfast at the Middleton in Ilkley, for lunch at the Patterdale, and then a pause at the Ammerdale Arms at Moffat. So on the Friday night the famous time-keeper AV Ebblewhite dispatched the competitors at 30s intervals, a line that took 3¼-hours to pass any given point! Lots of on-lookers were there to see them depart. Some cars had lady passengers (navigators?) and brave girls occupied some of the sidecars. The GNs caused merriment by having mouse-trap mascots. It was suggested that the cheese may have needed the breeze! The weather was fine and warm, but before the star-dusted sky gave place to a feeble dawn, one Douglas car and Capt Macintosh's 15.9hp Mercedes had retired (with engine seizure), while a Tamplin cyclecar had been in bother with its lamps, the passenger holding the improvised rear one. The long line of vehicles, which Ebblewhite estimated could not have been bought for £100,000 (it would take an auctioneer to say what, had they all survived, they would be worth today!), was soon further depleted. The Baughan used lamp problems to excuse its withdrawal (but one of its kind, if not the actual cyclecar, exists still). The Wilton had plug problems, cured by substituting Bosch plugs, at a critical time for German products to be extolled! Kensington Moir's 20/25hp Straker Squire had a squeaking valve rocker, its engine reminding some of an R-R war-time aero-motor, and Westing's T-Ford had time to make up, from a late start. Alas, at Scrooby Bridge Oates' little Lagonda skidded and was badly damaged. Some drivers carried spare springs, knowing the bad roads after Kirkstone, which broke a screen support on Perman's Angus-Sanderson. The Ford added plug and radiator troubles to its plight, and heavy rain began to fall. But some there were who cleaned their cars at Kirby Lonsdale, where others just replenished their radiators.

A policeman indicated the turn in Ambleside where the first non-stop section began, up Kirkstone's 2¾ miles, culminating in the 1-in-4½ of "The Struggle". Here the official Chandler, with time-keeper FT Bidlake therein, had no trouble, and good ascents were made by the Morris, Lionel Martin's Aston-Martin and Gunn's Lagonda. But of the ACs, one stopped, Noble's just made it, whereas Taylor's did well. G M Giles, who as Col (later Brig-General) Giles was a Bugatti OC founder member, came up well in his little Bugatti but the Angus-Sanderson stopped near the summit. The Ruston-Hornsby managed better, although both were boiling. A tiny Tamplin was knocking, but climbed clean. There was a lot of baulking, but the very quick Warren-Lambert got by, whereas the other car of this make failed. Two T-Fords and the Hampton showed Kirkstone was no stopper, but a re-start after a baulk sheared a prop-shaft key on the latter.

In the rain the "Edinburgh" continued, the Patterdale descent burning out the brakes of both Fords and overheating many more, but the stricken Hampton was repaired and a slipping clutch on the Mendip light-car overcome. Water was in much demand after Kirkstone had had engines boiling, even Brittam's reserve tank proving insufficient for his Calthorpe's demands. Taylor's AC retired due to a broken gearbox ball-race. Others who found the trial too much included the DayLeeds, a Warren-Lambert and, of the cyclecar contingent, two Tamplins and an AV. Wasling was able to buy in Carlisle, and fit, a new radiator, proof of the excellence of the Ford spares service! The second of the Chandlers did well and another American car, the 25.9hp Velie, but very recently out of its packing-case, finished the long haul, as, in fact, did 44 out of the 54 cars that had started some 24 hours beforehand. But one Hampton only just did so, as transmission maladies had now set in on this one, and Paddon's was very late. Bidlake checked them in, hence his place in the official car.

If the "Edinburgh" had fewer exciting observed-sections than its two sister MCC trials, it continued to be popular, in spite of the ACU trying to ban motorcycles in 1926, unless the MCC joined it (what an affront to a Club that was the first of its kind!) and the troubles the General Strike caused. This ACU demand was rescinded and 240 entries came in, the start from Wrotham Park, Barnet, by permission of the Earl of Strafford. No such problems had confronted the 1925 event, representative of the mid-vintage period. The route had been changed and rather than observed non-stop ascents of the hills, a time-schedule had to be maintained on the hilly part between Ilkley and Appleby. The entry ranged from Sheret's 707cc Sherlet to Bainbridge's 40/50hp Rolls-Royce saloon and that it was not too difficult was seen when only seven of the 146 cars retired. That the advertising element was still rife was emphasised by the team of three 14hp Armstrong Siddeleys (with the new chassis sprung on ½-elliptic springs and with 4WB) painted red, white and blue and named St George. St Patrick and St Andrew. The new 14hp Vulcan was also there, as was a sports Rally.

In contrast, Havers chose to compete in an ancient two-cylinder Riley, but he had no difficulties. Bidlake was still in the leading car, a 12/50 Alvis, as time-keeper, the other official cars being a I 5.9hp Humber, van Hooydonk's Essex, and a Lea-Francis as tail-ender. As awards depended very much on time-checks, the officials had to be on their toes. The first of these was only 25 miles out, at Baldock. These checks resulted in drivers crawling along, even stopping in groups for a chat, for cars were now faster; this was to be a rather aggravating aspect of these MCC trials well into the future. Not so on the hills however, Cooper in the Morris Sports using the horn on Fleet Moor to try to gain a clear run.

On this windy night, with torrential rain later, some radiators were now boiling. Hay's aged GN managed to re-start and the Royce just sailed up the gradients. Hillary's Frazer Nash and Simon's Salmson played with the hills but on West Stonedale, which followed 1-in-5 Buttertubs, the Straker Squire and a Seabrook stopped and both a Palladium and a Galloway hit the wall at the corner, the latter nearly overturning. One Trojan had to reverse here but the other two made excellent efforts, as did an 8/18 Talbot, Richard Twelvetrees, Editor of Motor Sport, was fast in his 11.9hp Bean and a Rover Nine very quick, and able to cope with a re-start after the Straker had baulked it.

Goodwin's Bean 14 saloon had emulated Twelvetrees in having music from a radio. The patriotic Arrinstrongs were intended to run in formation but on the Putterdale descent one of them found its new brakes not too good and got out of step and one stopped momentarily on W Stonedale, as did an ABC. Clutson's Trojan, by the way, was on solid tyres. To the worry over the secret checks came a hailstorm, then a thunderstorm, turning the Devil's Beef Tub into a river. Which did not stop Alan Hill's Rhode saloon, Oates' Lagonda all-weather, Dudley Noble's new 14/45hp Rover or the stately Royce from going up fast. So this rather easy "Edinburgh" ran to the finish, now in sunshine. The Riley drivers had a celebration dinner that evening, only one of the 21 that started absent, as Phippen's had broken its timing chain. The MCC must have been abashed to have to award 129 gold medals, the only cars among the finishers to drop to "silvers" being a Swift, an AC and one of the Rileys. Which shows, perhaps, that this was the least demanding of these MCC trials, although like the others, there was the long night run to cope with. Two cars had been disqualified, five retired. Both the GNs and all five Trojans took "gold" and even big Americans like an Essex and a Flint took part.

In the 1930s these fine motoring adventures became more amateur-orientated, but still brought large entries; in 1930 133 cars started, only nine retired, but they were down to 92 by 1939. In 1926 Twelvetrees drove a T-Ford, and a tiny 7/12hp Peugeot won a silver medal, losing its chance of a "gold” on Askrigg, where a 3-litre Bentley, an Aston-Martin and a Delage were among the other failures, although the Hon Victor Bruce, four-up in his AC, was fast. To liven things up a bit, Park Rash and Tan Hill (with a re-start) were observed sections from 1930 and in the post-vintage years Middle Tongue, 1-in-3.8 Honister Pass, Talla Linn, 1-in-4 Summer Lodge, 1-in-5 Hard Knott, Costerton, Humble, Addertonshields, Gatton and Blackford were added.

Eventually the date of the Edinburgh was moved from Whitsun to October and this trial, dating from 1904, still survives. It and the other classic MMC trials are well reported in the Club's magazine Triple, edited by Tom Threlfall, and if you want to support this very deserving and oldest of motor clubs, the membership Secretary is M D Furse, 405 Chartridge Lane, Chartridge, near Chesham, Bucks HP5 2SL.