Third time unlucky!

The Editor goes on another “Exeter” with Neil Smith in the 1921 Tamplin Cyclecar

I had strong hopes when I rode up to Virginia Water in a Jowett Javelin at midnight on December 28th last year, to ride through the 28th MCC Exeter Trial in Neil Smith’s 1921 V-twin Tamplin-JAP cyclecar, that I could call the subsequent account “Third Time Lucky.”

That was not to be, but I hope the title I have been forced to adopt does not sound disparaging to the owner and driver of the Tamplin. Such is certainly not my intention, for no one could prepare more adequately, drive so sympathetically or work with such tenacity when trouble strikes as Neil Smith. As to whether one should enter such an old vehicle for the “Exeter,” my feeling is that definitely one should ! The whole essence of this great MCC event, which originated in 1910, is that it is a touring trial and that comparatively ordinary cars shall stand a sporting chance of getting up its very sporting hills. Whereas the long night run is a boring affair in a modern saloon and the observed sections “a piece of cake” for trials specials, both become adventurous when tackled in an unusual and grandfatherly car. We retired, it is true, but the Tamplin went from London and two-thirds round the route and back to London, and it caused no more delay to fellow competitors than others who failed on the hills. And, undeniably, the thing was enormous fun in a rather grim, tough fashion !

That these MCC trials are enormously popular is evidenced by the 1951 entry of 144 cars, 89 motorcycles, 25 combinations and five tricars, a total of 203. That the long night run and the length of the daylight section takes its toll is evident from the fact that, non-starters apart, 25 cars either retired or failed to get an award. I was glad to see that the “Exeter” is still largely the preserve of the ordinary cars—saloon, Hillman Minx, Lancia Aprilia, Jowett Javelin, Standard Vanguard. Fwd, Citroen, Vauxhall Wyvern. Austin A40, Sunbeam-Talbot, Triumph Renown, Ford Anglia and Prefect, and Pilot, for example, and an elderly Riley Nine. Hayward’s vintage Bayliss-Thomas, the Austin Antique, its top now removed, leaving jagged edges, Bingham’s four-speed “Chummy” Austin Seven, Denyer’s old Lea-Francis, besides sports MG, Singer and HRG, etc.

The scene at the Virginia Water start was typical. Cars parked under the trees beside the hotel, queerly-garbed men and women crowded in the lounge sipping coffee, girl navigators attractive under the disguise of helmets and duffle coats; a nostalgic scene, vividly lit up this year by enormous flares on the end of long sticks wielded by an intrepid member of the BBC television outfit. 

Smith took two links out of the Tamplin’s raw-hide belt, we put on masses of clothing, 1.44 am came up and cheered by the onlookers, we took off. This time all went well and, accompanird by the Javelin and Motor Sport’s Jupiter, we got along in fine style at a cruising speed of 40 mph. I was very early aware, however, that the close-coupled back seat of a Tamplin, and more particularly the restricted leg-stowage space beside the driver, must have been intended for strictly “occasional” use. I was to become increasingly aware of this before our 450-mile journey terminated! If one goes to sleep one is liable to fall out onto one’s head, as the seat has no back ; the effect of sitting upright for hours on end is tougher on the stomach muscles than rowing, and the more tired the passenger becomes the less easy is it to mount and dismount, the hood starts acting as an effective barrier to a human cocoon trying to slide in over the top of the flat wooden mudguard. How the lady-friend managed in the voluminous skirts of the early nineteen-twenties is beyond comprehension, but no doubt matters were even more interesting during the subsequent era of the knee-length skirt !

To offset the uncomfortable seat, the suspension absorbed shocks and my driver acted as a wind break, so that I never felt as cold as did occupants of some of the closed cars. We passed the spot where the.Tamplin’s fibreboard frame had split and caused our retirement in the last “Land’s End.” As we left Andover behind torrential rain fell, whipped by a gale, which after Amesbury turned to sleet, so that the off side of our faces froze painfully and visibility had to be provided by the Jupiter’s spotlight, shining close behind us. But we reached the Mere check with plenty of time in hand, had coffee, checked out, and paused to remove some more belt links. A Morgan three-wheeler had been spotted, presumably very late, but for us the main road run down A303 to rejoin A80 proved trouble-free.

About Honiton the dawn came and later numbers began to swish past. We overtook the Bayliss-Thomas, which seemed to be wandering about looking for somewhere to rest, and AH Clark, riding much behind time on his 123-cc BSA Bantam motor-cycle. At Exeter we had a good half-hour in hand before checking in. Then, transported by Jowett, we were at Dellar’s, eating the traditional, and excellent, “Exeter” breakfast, conscious, however, of a very damp seat ! Restarting, we triumphantly, passed the spot where the Tamplin had lost an exhaust valve cap irretrievably during the 1951 “Exeter.”

A long queue of cars at the foot of Fingle Bridge suggested trouble ahead. We had to start on a steep gradient and, although the Tamplin carried us manfully round the first corner, it stopped with belt slip immediately afterwards. We were manhandled up as far as the restart, where we parked by Westropp’s “PB” MG coupe, to await a tow to the summit of this twisting, mile long 1 in 5 hill by the official Land Rover. While waiting we saw Bingham’s “Chummy” Austin Seven make light of the hill and re-start. By well-timed bouncing on the part of two hefty men in the back seat of his Red “X” Special, RG Redford just got away, only to have clutch trouble before the finish.

While Fingle was taking its toll Smith removed more links from our belt (before the end of the trial he had removed twenty in all !), and we then proceeded along twisty roads to Stonelands, some 21 hours behind schedule. Here the belt jibbed at the “flying start” into the right-hand corner and we never saw what lay beyond. After the route card had given me some nasty moments finding the intended way through Moreton Hampstead, we came, without hope, to Simms, spotting Scroggs’ venerable Trojan (he was marshaliing) parked at the approach. The Tamplin went up the straight 1 in 3 climb non-stop—at the end of the tractor’s cable.

A long main-road .run brought us to Higher Rill, the West-Country sun casting a weird cyclecar-shadow on the road beside us. We drew off the slippery approach lane to remove more belt links and the Autocar arrived in an open Ford Prefect, said we deserved to have our photograph taken, and pushed us off. We continued strongly and had we been allowed a flying run at the hill, might have got up—the VSCC Light Car Section would be well advised to note how dampening is the “standing start” on a lightcarist’s morale ! More pushing, more belt-shortening, and we proceeded towards Harcombe, determined if possible to complete the route even if we couldn’t climb the hills. Alas, a tinkling noise that had begun to puzzle us got worse, was investigated, and proved to be the steel driving pulley on the gearbox countershaft coming in half. So, having paused while CE Neale’s Sunbeam-Talbot saloon had been extricated from a ditch, we pushed the Tamnplin into a field, spread the tools in the car’s capacious locker on an oilskin, and removed the pulley. Smith improvised rivets from brass screws, mended the pulley, reassembled, and on we went to see what Hareombe was like. But belt-slip stopped us before reaching the hill, so we turned round and came down, deciding at last to retire. It was now dark and, hoping that the Javelin might be awaiting us at Lyme Regis, where Smith’s brother had retired his Carden cyclecar in 1950, we sought to reach this delectable watering place. It was only five miles away, but great hills intervened, up which we pushed the Tamplin, driver walking beside it, a task that was no joke, clad as we were in hundredweights of clothing.

Just before Lyme Regis a friendly garage found screws with which Smith proposed to make a proper repair of our belt pulley, and in the town the Royal Lion Hotel made us more than welcome. The proprietor at once offered us the floodlight in his yard to work by, fed us well and discussed accurately Tamplins and contemporary cyclecars. A jolly post-Christmas party was in progress within and, before we left, many were the good wishes we received for a safe run home. Obviously the Royal Lion is a hotel to remember if you are stranded in Lyme Regis or intend to have a holiday there . . .

After dimmer, Smith patiently and effectively dealt with the pulley and fitted a new belt, whereupon, with, a certain annount of persuasion, the Tamplin climbed out of Lyme Regis bound for Chard, A30 and home. As I walked behind it I derived pleasure from its spidery silhouette, which was pure unadulterated 1921.

On all but the steepest main road hills the belt gripped and the vee-twin JAP had ample power. In motor sport speculation is dangerous, but I really think that, given all-chain drive, the Tamplin would have put up a convincing show on the “Exeter” hills, for the tiny section tyres do not seem to spin and the engine will slog happily at walking pace. Smith is likely to try again this year, perhaps, appropriately, in the VSCC Light Car section of the “Land’s End” at Easter, using a modified belt, and then we shall see …

We made good progress from Chard to Yeovil but here our lights were too dim to drive by and our spare battery was in the Javelin, which had gone on home. It was now about 1 am on the Sunday. At this grim hour West of England Cars, Ltd. offered us breath-taking hospitality. Asked if’ we could push the Tamplin into their yard, they insisted on putting it in the showroom and, producing a camp bed and blankets, led us to an adjacent flat, telling us we would be called at daybreak–service indeed, for which they made no charge. Our warm respect for West Country hospitality sealed, we recommenced at 8.30 am, and came through Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Salisbury (where an old Singer Senior saloon was seen) and Stockbridge in fine style, breakfasting near Lobscombe Corner. We must have averaged over 30 mph up A30, for I was home well before lunchtime. Smith, quite indomitable, went on to the far side of London, remarking that he would have time to wash the car down before tea ! For me the 1951 “Exeter” had ended, 36 hours after I had started out, what a wonderful place is bed !

Those who gained “Premiers” in this most enjoyable of trials are shown below. It only remains to express the hope that, no matter how trials-cars and mud-trials may change down the years, these MCC classics will continue virtually unaltered, as I am sure they will, even though “Jackie” Masters had to do a bit of pleading for them at the last RAC Clubs conference !—-WB.