Replica "Exeter"

Yuletime Fun with a Vintage Light Car

[Warning! This article is intended only for vintage-car enthusiasts and sentimentalists. Ed.]

On the evening of Boxing Day last year your Editor hit upon an excellent piece of “escapism” from Christmas excesses, by driving over the route of an early London-Exeter-London Trial in a car built at a time when radio was in its infancy and private television virtually unheard of.

The car in question was a 1922 8-h.p. Talbot-Darracq and the plot originated during 1953. That Christmas an attempt to emulate the trials’ enthusiasts of the early nineteen-twenties was made, but failed because of an obscure internal defect in the original Delco ignition-coil. Since then the little car has been provided with a modern Delco-Remy oil-coil (but retaining the original Delco distributor) and a hurriedly applied coat of blue Valspar, and has had its valves ground-in.

The obvious trial to emulate was the classic M.C.C. “Exeter” and the event of 1922 was chosen as representing the first in which the T-D could have been driven. “Jackie” Masters, famous secretary of this famous club, kindly had the correct route-card dug out from the M.C.C. archives and from it my inevitable accomplice, Tom Lush, had copies made. We planned to follow the correct route in its entirety, but not to keep strictly to the 1922 schedule of 20 m.p.h., because to do so seems needlessly tedious now that no such speed limit exists. We started on Boxing Night because that was the traditional night on which the earlier M.C.C. “Exeters” commenced, although, in fact, when Boxing Day fell on a Sunday the trial was run on the Monday. If, however, we cheated by leaving on the Sunday night, the weather did its best to follow tradition, for, as in 1922, a fine night was followed by rain in the West Country.

Starting time from Staines, the correct starting point, although the Bridge House Hotel of those days is now the Regal Cinema, was to have been 9.47 p.m., for the very good reason that this was the hour at which T.P.Manifold’s 8 h.p. Talbot was signalled to start in the London-Exeter-London thirty-two years earlier. (Mr Manifold drove an 8 hp Talbot at most of the contemporary trials and duly gained his “gold” in the 1922 “Exeter”. He and his passenger seem to have pioneered the wearing of woolly hats for competition motoring. If this catches his eye I would very much like to hear from him. Ed.) W.D.Hawkes, of Brooklands fame, failed to start with his 8 h.p. Talbot.

Actually, we did not leave until 10 p.m., because a spare can of “petrol” in fact contained turpentine or a similar substance, which grossly insulted our little Coatalen-designed o.h.v. engine and necessitated draining the tank before we could restart on our journey from the Allard premises in London, where the car had been garaged over Christmas, to Staines. Even then, for some miles we progressed in clouds of smoke, but the K.L.G. plugs remained placidly uncomplaining.

We had hoped to find other adventure-loving vintage “light-carists” waiting at Staines to accompany us, but although, in 1922, 108 cars and 14 three-wheelers, not to mention 185 motor-cycles, ran in the “Exeter” our self-imposed replica had drawn but one other enthusiast away from family and fireside, Gerald Crozier with his immaculate 1928 mid-engined two-stroke Trojan tourer.

Conscious that our tank was still all-but-empty, a pause was made at the Unity Motor Company’s garage at Egham for a tankful of National Benzole. This fuel is used in all the Editor’s cars, but seemed especially appropriate in the little Talbot-Darracq, because the value of benzole was well appreciated by vintage-day motorists, and a convincing 10,000 mile R.A.C. test of benzole fuel was carried out in 1919 in a Sunbeam car, ancestor of our 1922 light car.

For tradition’s sake we drove through Egham and Bagshot instead of using the modern by-passes and naturally we followed the correct “Exeter” route through Basingstoke and Whitchurch, to Andover and on to Salisbury. The crossing of the dreaded Plain provided nothing more eventful than a police car apprehending a lightless cyclist. We felt some sympathy for the luckless one, engendered only because our dynamo was charging intermittently and we were driving by the light of the sidelamps, which fortunately are of the generously-proportioned vintage variety.

Salisbury, on this Boxing Night of 1954, was like a City of the Dead and its complicated one-way streets in inky darkness. Not until we had gone beyond the station did lamps appear and we were able to call a lightless halt to conserve our battery and await the less-swift Trojan.

Soon we were on our way again and just beyond Yeovil an Austin A40 of Mr. Paget led us to the Haselbury Garage in Haselbury. When I remark that the hour was around 3 a.m., I need add little in praise and appreciation of such enthusiasm. The entire garage staff appeared to be up to greet us and Mrs. Staddons dispensed coffee, sandwiches and cakes, for which payment was sternly refused. We learnt that Mr. Staddons is rebuilding a vintage Maxwell tourer and stayed chatting for some time, for we had made up on the late start and were well ahead of the 1922 schedule.

After trying to convey our thanks to our hosts we proceeded via Chard and Yarcombe to Honiton. Both these hills were observed in pre-1922 Exeter Trials and a large touring car failed to ascend the former about that time, but we hardly noticed Chard, the sudden appearance of two stray horses in the dim light of our sidelamps proving far more interesting ! Yarcombe, however, is a long pull, with many interesting bends and the T-D was reduced to bottom gear, although it never felt like stopping. At Honiton we turned left and climbed into the mist and out of it again to descend into Sidmouth. Here Peak Hill constituted the first “observed section” No one, save perhaps the ghosts of early M.C.C. competitors, observed us tackle the long I in 6 or 1 in 7 gradient in the dark, but both cars got up successfully, although the T-D didn’t find it exactly easy. Had it been light, we should have appreciated the view of the coast far below us.

On the outskirts of Exeter another Austin A40 appeared as if by magic and Mr. Farrow escorted us to the Rougemont Hotel, well known to present-day M.C.C. trials competitors, for breakfast. Such hospitality and enthusiasm was as overwhelming as it was welcome, this concern for our well-being constituting a splendid gesture, for certainly we were no “Genevieve” ! Waiting for breakfast put us well behind the 1922 schedule but fitted in well with arrangements made for luncheon. And so we dallied, discussing cars, petrol and people with Mr. Farrow.

Our route, now in daylight, took us back to Sidmouth for the ascent of Salcombe Hill, the “terror” of the 1922 Trial. In those days this mile-long gradient of 1 in 6, rising out of the town, with awkwardly-cambered bends near the summit, where the hill rises at 1 in 4, was slimy with leaf mould. Some competitors resorted to Parson’s chains, T. P. Manifold using one such aid on his differential-less Talbot.

Failures in that contemporary “Exeter” included Col. G.M.Giles’ Brescia Bugatti, an A.B.C., a Hillman, the friction-driven Units, both of which boiled and one of which required pushing, while one Rover Eight paused momentarily low down the hill, the Cluley came to a standstill, and a Belsize-Bradshaw was obliged to shed two of its four passengers. For our “Exeter” the hill was tarmac-surfaced but it proved a sporting and difficult ascent. Indeed, we failed repeatedly with fuel starvation at the initial attempt, thereby losing conclusively our mythical gold medal. While this was going on Crozier caught up strongly in the Trojan, which was able to stop so that he could assist us and then restart without too much difficulty. Our trouble being traced to a partially-shut petrol tap, we had another try and climbed non-stop, but in bottom gear with the cooling water on the boil.

Both cars had lost some water but we were elated by the fun of tackling Salcombe, and in a village outside Beaminster, prior to tackling the long, straight 1 in 5 White Sheet Hill, were able to replenish from a convenient stream and add a little Castrol to the engine while our cars were admired by two keen schoolboys.

Before reaching White Sheet we had to cover the undulating roads to Bridport, alternately grinding up in bottom gear or lowering the T-D cautiously down in the same gear, in spite of relined brakes. This applied particularly to the descent into Lyme Regis, where Lush reminded us of how the Carden in which he was passenger all but ran away during the V.S.C.C. Land’s End Trial three years ago. However, correctly handled, vintage cars cause no trouble, and when Crozier’s single brake grew tired he was able to employ the Trojan’s reverse gear band. All the way we had had no particular difficulty in following the 1922 route-card, although one public-house in congested Bridport had been renamed since those times.

Before we saw White Sheet we were told that a locally-owned Morris finds it impossible, although the hill was resurfaced two years ago. It is certainly a tough proposition, but we got up without stopping and, needless to say, so did the Trojan, which, incidentally, Crozier uses as daily transport.

Stopping at the top, from which a magnificent view of the coast was seen through the increasing drizzle, our car refused to restart. Previously the engine had responded promptly to the handle (there is no starter) even when exceedingly hot, probably due to the benzole in the fuel, but this time there was a defect in the ignition wiring. It was soon rectified and just after 1 p.m. we rolled into Dorchester for the excellent lunch which M. Paget had arranged at the King’s Arms, after refuelling at Adams’ Garage.

During lunch Crozier regaled us with reminiscences of his many cars, including his twin-blower Ford V8 trials-car and the 8-litre Bentley “Whale,” and told us how he had bought the Trojan a few moments after setting eyes on it when the then owner stopped to enquire his way. Incidentally, a previous owner had toured Germany in the car.

The T-D is quite a reasonable vehicle for a long main-road journey for it will cruise comfortably at 40/45 m.p.h. and run at nearly 50 m.p.h. if called upon to do so. The Trojan is slower and so, remembering our failing battery, we now went ahead over that splendid road from Blandford to Salisbury, so appropriate to vintage motoring.

At Lobscombe Corner we forked left correctly (the “Exeters” of the ‘twenties did not finish until the competitors had returned to Staines) but have to confess that both T-D and Trojan took the direct route to Basingstoke, missing out Whitchurch, our excuse being that Lush was asleep, Crozier’s that after spectating at a motor-cycle scramble and doing this replica “Exeter” he had a motoring party to attend that evening.

In spite of this slight reduction in the route mileage it was our intention to return as far as Staines, keeping to the old road as far as possible. However, with our failing sidelamps and the heavy holiday traffic on the A 30, it seemed imprudent to motor after dark and the T-D was left at Sunningdale, the journey being completed with Crozier in his completely-unruffled Trojan. Later, that evening, with another battery installed, the Talbot-Darracq was driven back to its garage in Hampshire, having covered 373 miles in all, since leaving London some twenty-four hours earlier. As we closed the garage doors we agreed we had had fun. Better prepared, the T-D would have got its “gold” and the Trojan certainly so providing it maintained the required average speed, and assuming neither of us had been caught by secret checks!

This attempt to recapture something of the spirit and atmosphere of an M.C.C. “Exeter” Trial of the nineteen-twenties left us, not congratulating ourselves for having got round the course so easily. but marvelling that so many drivers and cars managed to succeed over the far narrower, rougher roads and up the slippery, rutted hills of those times.

Perhaps next Boxing Night other sentimentalists will decide to turn off the T.V., get out their vintage light cars, and see for themselves… It could be fun! W. B.