A Section Devoted to Old-Car Matters
THE “BOXING NIGHT EXETER”
Once again, at the close of last year, the Editor decided to combat senile decay by motoring to Exeter through Boxing Night in a vintage car. As before, he invited his more intrepid readers to accompany him and was faintly embarrassed when over 40 signified their intention of doing so. However, on the day, or rather night, the number reduced itself to more manageable proportions, due to various causes – pelting rain driven by gale-force winds probably discouraged some, although Dukes (Gwynne Eight) came all the way from Derbyshire and Ft./Lt. Doggett (14/45 Talbot) from Lincolnshire to join in, while Watson had brought his Austin Seven down from Rugby.
Others were less fortunate. Ted Hunter came to the start at Staines, but no further, declaring his very sporting 1931 International Aston Martin as unfit, Macpherson’s Lea-Francis saloon likewise remained behind because its dynamo had ceased to charge and Hatfield arrived on a bicycle to say he had unfortunately damaged his Austin Seven, which wasn’t roadworthy. A Trojan whined into the Market Place but wasn’t “competing,” its driver having come to navigate another car.
However, Franklin had been able to assemble the gearbox of his rare and nicely-restored 1929 Rover Ten sports-tourer in time to start, and anyone who happened to be in Staines Market Square around 10 p.m. on Boxing Night saw a couple of dozen vintage cars leaving on this replica of the 1925 M.C.C. London-Exeter Trial, a quite informal exercise of which the Editor had firmly pronounced that there would be no entry fees, no prizes, no protests, no responsibility and absolutely no ballyhoo – T.V. cameras definitely barred! He also tried to make it plain that the run would be an adventure only for Vintage light cars, because larger vehicles would take the hills and the route in their stride, but, even so, seven people came in those enormously powerful large vintage cars and one even elected to evade Editorial wrath and “compete” in a non-vintage M.G. Magna. However, the affair was entirely informal, the 1925 “Exeter” was not confined to 1,500 c.c. cars, and if some chaps needed heaters and closed bodies to comfort them, that was better than watching television and going to bed . . . Besides, had not Daniels come in a beautifully-preserved and exceedingly-spartan 1909 Jackson with a 903-c.c. de Dion single cylinder engine under its long and sporting bonnet ? – he had no protection from the elements; which perhaps is why be wasn’t seen again after Hartley Wintney.
So, with the rain finished but reports of wild weather in the west country, the 24 cars set off from under the lea of the Staines Christmas tree for whatever Boxing Night had in store. (Here a few words of appreciation about the extremely friendly manner in which the Staines police co-operated over parking and the generosity of the Fire Brigade, who kindly offered their canteen as a signing-on room.)
The Editor, his nostalgia for vintage motoring enhanced by listening, in the seclusion of his “minibric” on a rain-swept Hampshire Common on Christmas Day, to Freddy Grisewood’s B.B.C. salute to “Those Vintage Years,” had hurried back from Brands Hatch to sign-in his “competitors” and be now rushed off down A30 to collect from Hartley Wintney his 1924 12/20 Calthorpe and the Continental Correspondent; the latter generously acts on these occasions as starter-motor, navigator, engineer and wet-nurse to the aforesaid keen but indolent Editor !
The night was warm and mainly dry but the star-filled sky was full of weird flashes, suggesting a fierce electrical storm ahead, and there was a supercharged gale blowing. Soon a weird cavalcade of old cars was travelling the route over which 134 cars had set out on the “Exeter” on this night 34 years earlier, while in the willing Morris Mini-Minor Dr. Nelms, an American friend and the Editor’s eldest daughter went ahead on marshalling duties.
Between Andover and Lobscombe Corner Irvine’s 9/20 Humber stopped momentarily with a petrol blockage, Tarring’s 14/40 Humber tourer pulling up to assist, while Abraham, who had elected to celebrate his wedding aniversary by coming on this long night drive, was delayed with fuel feed trouble in his neat Singer Junior tourer.
However, at the Haven Cafe just above Lobscombe Corner most of the starters arrived safely and here Frater joined in with his 1928 14/40 M.G. tourer, which enjoys the luxury of a home-made heater. Sheers also joined in here in his 1930 Austin Seven.
After Salisbury came Middledown Hill, used in the 1928 “Exeter” and in later years a haunt of the Bugatti O.C. Here the Calthorpe squeezed past a stalled Austin Seven, Grey’s 1925 Austin Seven stopped and Vincent’s short-stroke Alvis 12/50 “beetleback” claimed an informal baulk. Then it was on through sleeping Yeovil, up the long pull of Chard Hill, round Yarcombe’s hairpins and into Honiton. The Calthorpe had been buffetted by fierce gusts of wind but with sidesereens erect, hood down except during one brief shower, it was as warm as in a modern saloon. Through the night we had caught glimpses of Ft./Lt. Doggett’s imposing 14/15 Talbot two-seater resting at various deserted garages, while Walker’s 1928 Austin Seven was reported by the Mini-Minor’s crew to cruise at a rousing 55 m.p.h. and Duke’s sporting crab-tracked “hip-bath” Gwynne at 55-60 m.p.h. Everyone seemed happy at the Honiton check although one Austin Seven had had a puncture and Hayward’s Fiat 503B tourer, which had joined in at Sherbourne, was having dynamo maladies. Come to that, the Editor went all the way without any dynamo charge, relying on a change of battery, quickly effected by the C.C. in a Honiton side street.
Resuming, we came upon a remarkable scene in the high street of this town made famous by the ficticious Archers of the B.B.C. A miscellaneous collection of vintage cars blocked the road and one Austin Seven was being violently rocked, presumably to free locked brakes. Two imposing police constables were operating a check and the sight of them at 4 a.m. on this Sunday morning had caused every driver of a vintage car to anchor with alacrity ! However, the policemen, as surprised as we were, good-humouredly waved everyone on.
Peak Hill, which is a long grind out of Sidmouth after an awkward r.h. turn, was taken in the dark but did not cause much trouble, though alarm and despondency was rife as normally sturdy cars called for bottom gear. The convoy now wound its way down Devonshire lanes to breakfast at the Black Horse Cafe on A30, which had opened specially and did a brisk trade. The next panic was petrol and most of the cars went into Exeter, where the only two garages open at 7.30 a.m. were rewarded by thus “striking gold.” Here the Calthorpe oiled a plug while waiting in a queue and was duly administered to and given a short lecture by the C.C.
Soon afterwards Honiton was re-entered for the sinuous ascent of Marlpits Hill, the C.C. sleeping all the way up as the Calthorpe whined round its fearsome bends to the summit in bottom gear. And so back to the outskirts of Sidmouth and the dreaded Salcombe Hill, once slippery enough to justify chains. Here the Calthorpe ground up in bottom gear past Watson, who was going well in his 1927 Austin Seven, in reverse. The authentic M.C.C. test should have been carried out on Salcoznbe but the marshal’s got lost, so it was abandoned – their excuse is that the route card was written for drivers of vintage light cars and a Mini-Minor is so fast that they missed a turning!
Some trying hills figured in the route to Beaminster, where the cars assembled in the square by 10 a.m., before ascending White Sheet Hill. Here another flat-nose Morris saloon seemed to have joined in, because there were three of these standing together. whereas only two, a Cowley and an Oxford, both 1929, had started from Staines. Abraham had the valve cover off his Singer Junior and thought that an exhaust valve had burnt out, but he intended to press on, while Oldham had obviously had a supremely comfortable journey in his little-used 1930 Austin Twelve saloon: he had nursed a lifelong ambition to take part in a “Boxing Night Exeter” ever since hearing about it on 2LO as a child, and that ambition had now been fulfilled!
White Sheet is a straight but steep hill, up which the Calthorpe just managed to pass Tarring’s sedate Humber in bottom cog. in a neck-and-neck dice. An Austin Seven failed, while Richard’s 14/45 Talbot tourer ascended slowly, puffing out a rich mixture. Walker’s Austin Seven brought three people up. Mitchell’s 1925 Morris-Cowley had a big load, even the dickey seat being full, but the worm-drive Rover sagely shed it’s passengers to take the special test. This, as in 1925 “Exeter,” consisted in covering 20 yards in 15 sec. or less on the steep part at the top of the hill.
There remained the run back through Dorchester, Blandford and Salisbury to the Haven Cafe, where a high percentage of survivors checked in, a Morris-Cowley greeting the end of a long run with a puncture. The Calthorpe came gamely back in the warm sunshine across the Plain, even if its oil pressure was a bare 1/2 lb. and prop.-shaft vibration contributed to the mechanical cacophony.
Most of the intrepid “competitors” seemed to have enjoyed themselves, only one crew wore comic hats, and the beauty of this “informal Exeter” is that the public isn’t inconvenienced, because even on the hills there were no spectators, so that to the world at large – mostly a sleeping world on Boxing Night – the cars pass unnoticed… – W.B.