THE LONDON-EXETER TRIAL
THE LONDON-EXETER TRIAL. A PASSENGER’S LOG OF THE FAMOUS M.C.C. CLASSIC IN WHICH FOG AND RAIN-AND FINGLE BRIDGE-WERE THE CHIEF OBSTACLES.
WE got up at 3 o’clock, expecting almost any weather. The Exeter has a grim reputation ; snow, rain, fog and floods having played their drastic parts in previous years.
Having fortified the inner man with coffee and sandwiches and the outer with countless sweaters, scarves and coats, we sal/led. forth to the garage. Our first inapresSion of the night was not encouraging, a damp pall of fog making us wish we were back in bed. Such cowardly thoughts were soon removed, however, when we at last set forth for Virginia Water ; the snuglyfitting hood of the Nash kept the dampness out and the gleaming dashlamps gave the cockpit an air of cosiness.
The fog was bad : no thick patches interspersed with clear stretches, but a solid uninterrupted wall. A 24 m.p.h. average under these conditions would be difficult to maintain, but at any rate the main road was straight and fairly easy to follow.
At Virginia Water the usual scene was being enacted : a queue of cars waiting to be started and the rest of the big parking ground scattered with cars and drivers making last minute preparations for their long journey. We signed the timekeeper’s sheet, checked our watches frown his elaborate chronometer and then heard• our number being shouted by a starting marshal. We joined the line, the cars in’ front of us moved off at minute intervals and at last at 4.30 a.m. we were given the signal to go. On the main road the fog was not so thick and we managed to keep up a steady 25 m.p.h , Through Sunuingdale to Bagshot we crawled and the driver began to wonder whether this sort of thing was going to last all the way to Exeter. Suddenly came respite. Round the corner at the end of the short Bagshot by-pass we emerged from the fog into a clear starlit night. By this time we had caught up the preceding car, the new A.C. sports model driven by Pige-Leschallas, but with the open road in front of him ‘ Pige ‘
decided to make up time and his twinkling rear light soon disappeared from our sight. On the Basingstoke by-pass, we overtook C. V. Glass who was working on his Singer saloon. As he should have been
50 minutes ahead of us, it looked is though he had already lost his premier award. We had ten minutes to spare outside the
Popham Lane check, but we were quickly, away again on the Stockbridge road. There had been no more traces of fog and we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on a perfect night run when soon after, we ran into more fog on the high road across the Plain to Lobscombe Corner. We stopped for a moment to inquire how the troops were getting on but deciding that there might be some more fog before we reached the Salisbury check, we pushed on once more. Our fears were justified ; but we had a comfortable margin in hand and so arrived in good time.
R.A.C. and A.A. scouts were of the greatest assistance during the night directing the competitors at all doubtful turnings. Between Salisbury and Shaftesbury the night was broken in the east by a strip of light and with the dawn, the sky became cloudy and overcast. As daylight advanced the prospect of fog gave way to the certainty of rain some time during, the day.
By this time our early coffee had been long forgotten and we made all speed to the White Cross Garage where two gallant ladies had been up since three dispensing hot coffee and cakes to chilled competitors. The run to Exeter was uneventful except for a heart-stopping moment when a yokel on a bicycle, whom we were just about to pass, suddenly decided to turn off to the right. At Exeter we had over an hour to wait but at last we entered The Bedford garage, refuelled the car and attacked our breakfast at Deller’s Cafe. Little incident seemed to have occurred to competitors en route, ‘although we heard that Rollinghurst’s Morgan had retired at Shaftes bury through its back wheel collapsing. Before we were sent off once more we had time to notice and admire E. A. Prince’s
old pre-war Fiat, and we heard that it had had the misfortune to be two minutes late at the Exeter check.
On our way to Fingle Bridge we scrupulously maintained our schedule but when we arrived at the famous hill we found that our efforts were useless ; a queue of cars stretched before us and when we walked forward to the bridge itself we found that no fewer than sixty cars were waiting their turn to climb the hill. Allowing three minutes for each climb we reckoned on having three hours to wait and decided to see how the other competitors were faring on the hill.
The surface of the first hairpin was already badly cut up, each car doing its share of deepening two cavernous ruts and piling the earth therefrom into a central ridge of under-shield scraping dimensions. Apparently failures here were few and far between, although one or two over-enthusiastic people had failed to round the bend. A Bentley had burnt out its clutch and L. B. Henderson (Frazer Nash) had rammed the bank. As we stood there A. Gruzelier came up with a Straight-8 Delage, failed to get round, reversed and got away under his own power. Most of the cars seemed to find little difficulty in the gradient although H. S. Linfield’s J.2 Midget died for a moment and came to a standstill with what sounded like petrol starvation. Neat ascents were made by J. V. Hay’s old Morris Cowley and Garland’s sports twoseater Jowett. Oliver Bertram (Vauxhall 30/98) did well only tl chip the bank with his mudguard and changed up and then down again after the corner. Higher up the hill he was baulked but got away cleanly although four up ! The second bend was also in a bad
state, for the surface sloped steeply to the right immediately round the corner With the result that hubcaps were apt to make contact with the bank. Up and Up through the trees the road wound past two niore corners until the piece de resistance was reached. Here a large crowd had collected for most of the failures occurred at this point. Car after car came slowly to a standstill to be dealt with by a team of men or horses as the size of the car dictated. One of the best ascents we
saw was made by Alan Hess, the secretary of the M.G. Car Club on a J.2 Midget. Wisely keeping his rear wheels spinning he slid round the corners in great style. A climb which put many sports cars to shame was made by E. C. Weiss’ Hillman Wizard Saloon with a full complement of passengers. The rain began to fall so we returned to our steed and gradually moved forward to the foot of the hill. The rain was falling in a deluge and from beneath our hood we gazed with wonder at hardy wights with furled hoods and flattened screens. Then we were off speeding up to the first bend—bump, crash, we were
round, past the second, third and fourth until the dreaded stretch came in view, which proved to be our Waterloo. After such a long wait it was a relief to get going again on the main road. The
next hill was Harcombe and a good distance had to be travelled before this was reached. Then occurred an accident which nearly put us out of the trial. Rounding a bend we were faced with a herd of cows ; the driver put out his hand, braked and came to a standstill, suddenly there was a wild screech of tyres, a terrific thump in the back of the car and we shot forward among the cows. Our first thought was for the exposed rear tank but a glance at the pressure gauge reassured us ; getting out, we discovered the offending vehicle to be a Bentley which had struck us while in a broadside skid. After straightening damaged mud-guards we proceeded, keeping a wary eye astern lest the Bentley should draw too near again.
Harcombe was easy. It was nearly dark when we arrived but we negotiated the hill quite comfortably. At the top we came across a Singer straddled in the ditch but our combined efforts succeeded in bringing it back to the road. The rain fell without cessation and we pitied the officials at checks and on hills. Meerhay, we found terribly rough and in the darkness were unable to choose the smoothest path. Our undershield kept up a merry clatter as we bounded up the hill. The next obstacle was the timed re-start on Black Hill ; the scene looked very eerie, the timed stretch being illuminated by the headlamps of marshals’ cars. As had been the case at Harcombe and Meerhay failures had been few and far between. The last hill, Ibberton was as easy as the rest although a few of the bigger cars, like Porter-Hargreaves’ Alvis came to rest with wheelspin.
At Blandford there came a hitch in the otherwise splendid arrangements for competitors—for unless we were staying in the hotel no meal could be served until 8,30, an hour later. Donning soggy leather coats we went forth to find a café, where our hunger was finally appeased.