A Porsche on the Exeter Trial

For the last two or three years W.B. and have talked about competing together in one of the MCC “classics”, the Exeter, Land’s End or Edinburgh Trials. As with so many things, lack of time meant we failed to move beyond the talking stage. This year the MCC, keen for Motor Sport to take part in last month’s Exeter Trial, forced our hand by arranging for a member’s car to be put at our disposal. Not any ordinary oar, mind you, but the Porsche 911 of Josh Sadler, one of the most successful cars in 1976 Club trials. I sensed W.B. pale on the other end of the ‘phone at the thought of accompanying me up the hills at the Porsche’s potential velocity and his later “I think it might be best if I report the event from a spectator’s angle,” was not unexpected! Instead, Motor Sport photographer John Dunbar joined me as navigator and, though results have not yet been finalised as I write this, we are hopeful of having kept this Porsche’s enviable record, which includes a Triple from 1976 classics by adding yet another First Class Award to its tally. Certainly, we “cleaned” all the hills with consummate ease and in exhilarating fashion.

With Steve Carr, Sadler runs Autofarm, a company in Iver, Bucks, specialising in Porsche spares, repairs and servicing (see Motor Sport, January 1976). With such facilities at his disposal he has an obvious answer to the spectator whom we heard decry the Porsche’s participation in this muddy, rough sport as “sacrilege”. A Porsche also happens to be potentially the most suitable production car for trials with drive, weight and bags of power at the right end. Sadler’s car started life as one of the first two right-hand-drive, four-cylinder 912s in Britain, though very secondhand when he bought it. It “grew” six cylinders of 2.4-litre 911T engine early last year. This is mated to an old-type (with 1st down to the left) five-speed gearbox from a 2.2-litre 911, weaker than the later boxes, which is presumably why Sadler broke one last year. Surprisingly, this yellow Porsche’s “Beetle” driveshafts have with satisfactorily the onslaught of 130-plus b.h.p. By Porsche standards the 2,343 c.c. T engine is not very powerful, but it has the advantage of producing its 145 lb. ft. of torque lower down the scale than the other 2.4s. In any case, this trials Porsche is much lighter than a T, lacking sound-proofing and other frills.

The suspension has been raised on its torsion bars to increase ground clearance and anti-roll bars removed for the same reason; in spite of Koni shock-absorbers this is the nearest thing to a Porsche blancmange when driven angrily on tarmac. Porsche purity of line is disrupted by the spare wheel, hung out at the rear on a bracket from the crankcase-protecting tow-bar to add weight over the driven wheels. Not a modification to be advised for ultimate handling.

In MCC trials circles this Autofarm Porsche seems to be looked upon with something of the awe afforded the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos in British rallying: a supercar amongst the mundane. We sensed this feeling from the spectators, though we also sensed from some competitor quarters the resentment that here was “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. Others were blatantly and happily envious. The resentment is largely misplaced: the eleven-year-old car cost Josh Sadler comparatively little from his position in the Porsche business and even an Autofarm retail customer could have built it for less than some of the later VWs at large on the Exeter. Though its handling on the road is not up to normal Porsche standards it remains a thoroughly enjoyable road car with first class reliability, an excellent dual-purpose car. We noticed nobody quibbling at the presence of Morgan Plus 8s worth considerably more.

From the choice of Lewdown, Cirencester or Reading we chose the last-named as our starting point on the cold and frosty Friday evening/Saturday morning. These MCC “classics” move at a steady pace to cater for the likes of anything from vintage Austin Sevens, like the hoodless one of Sadler’s brave wife Sue Halkyard, who started one car ahead of us, vintage motorcycles and BSA three-wheelers to the Porsche and Plus 8s. So from leaving the start at Penta Garage at forty-seven minutes after midnight we had 3 hr. 40 min. to cover 94 miles and clock out of the first time at the Frying Pan Cafe, near Sparkford. We were able to steal a welcome If hours’ sleep at the cafe before heading twelve miles through thick fog to the first section at Windmill Hill. Here we dropped into the routine of letting air out of Porsche’s 185 section, 15 in. Semperit M and S “knobbly” rear tyres whilst queuing the start. For this first hill I chose 15 psi for the rear tyres, 12 p.s.i. for subsequent sections. We had hoped to replace the well worn Semperits prior to the event, but had make do when the only replacement available in Europe turned out to be Vienna. At Windmill Hill we realised need not have worried: the worn “knobblies” churned their way meticulously through muddy ruts in pursuit of the darting head-lights, the flat-six on song behind the 40 m.p.h “length” of 1st gear, the only gear used on the sections.

That first section was a relatively easy climb to put competitors in the mood. On next to the ice-covered roads of the Honiton area and the more difficult problems of a new Stafford, where the MCC had thrown in a stop-go test for we of the “knobbly” tyre brigade. The road tyre classes escaped with a continuous climb. The motorcycle classes ahead had problems on this one, causing a long wait for we in the comfort of the following cars, but in those bleak conditions they had ow sympathy and admiration. For many the stop-go test was a problem, but not for the Porsche’s power and traction; we had to stop part way up the hill with all four wheels astride a line, then restart at the drop of a flag to cross another line higher up the hill with all four wheels, within 5 sec., before continuing to the end of the observed section.

Tillerton came next, remembered by me as, the first section in the 1971 Exeter when i’d cleaned it in a VW 1302S on the only other occasion I have competed in an MCC trial. Concerned faces amongst competitors watching and waiting at the foot of the hill showed that this time it wouldn’t be so easy; a stop and restart test had been thrown in on the steepest and roughest part. A real nasty one which saw failed competitor after competitor reverse down the hill, even the traction of the Imps and VWs directly ahead of us defeated. “Just give her all she’s got and the power will dig her out of the hole,” advised a sympathetic fellow competitor admiringly familiar with this Porsche. I did just that from the best starting point I could pick out on the line. There was a howl of Porsche cylinders and roar of tortured rubber on stones as we scrabbled forwards, picking up the speed we needed to tackle the next horror, the deep holes, galleys and proud rocks of a steep left-hand bend. Even the Porsche tremored, but I pointed it towards the apparently lesser dangers of the right-hand line, taking care not to understeer off, and we bounced our way through, part of the victorious few. It was confidence-inspiring proof of the Porsche’s abilities and we headed for breakfast and a time control at the Mercury Motel, Kennford, well pleased with ourselves. Having to pay £1 per head to the management of said motel for one egg, a piece of bacon, small sausage, small roll, butter and one cup of tea was less pleasing.

By Kennford we, and presumably all the other cars, had gone over our scheduled times following that delay at Stafford. When I inquired, with rally navigator’s concern, what would be the effect of such force majeure on our quest for a reward, I was reassured, “Oh, don’t worry about that, we don’t worry about time on the classics”. Such is the friendly leisureliness of these threatened MCC events.

Josh Sadler had assured me in notes on my route card that any new hills the MCC have thrown into trials in recent years have been very easy. He was perspicacious enough to add, “But you never know!” And what a terror the new Recornbe section turned out to be. It started on a gentle enough climb with a simple stop-start test within sight of the start. The young lady who was stopping cars at the stop-start line by stepping out in front of them failed to allow for the speed of an approaching Porsche and will never know how close she came to being covered with muddy Semperit marks. From the easily achieved restart we howled into a left-hand bend to be confronted by huge holes and boulders big enough to rip the bottom out of a car. We crashed and banged our way through in a way which I thought would demolish even the Porsche, but at last emerged on to a short straight culminating in a right hand hairpin. Here I almost got it all wrong by keeping the power on instead of lifting off slightly to bring the tail round. The Porsche understeered towards the banking to the concern of observers and ran up it, but by keeping my foot “hard in” I managed to keep us rolling, only to do the same thing at the following left-hand hairpin. Again Porsche traction saved the day and we cleaned this fourth section.

I realised that the understeer problem hadn’t been all my fault. Until then I had left the 165 section Dunlop Weatlaermasters on the front wheels at their original pressure of something over 30 p.s.i. They were not getting sufficient grip to balance the stickiness of the soft rear tyres. For the next section, a new one at Blakemore, I let the front tyres down to 18 p.s.i. and left them at that with great effect to the end of the event. Before tackling the tarmac road links between sections I had evolved the routine of putting into each rear tyre 50 pumps from an excellent hand pump josh had provided. To let them down to 12 p.s.i. before every section I depressed the valves and counted to thirty-five.

Blakemore was made up of two tests on a muddy, rutted, very slippery cart track. The first, timed for tie-deciding, as I have just discovered while re-reading the regulations, which is annoying because I took this one steadily, involved starting from one line, stopping astride another, reversing over it and accelerating forwards to stop astride a third line. The second test was a bit trickier. From the drop of a flag we had to dash along a straight to stop with all four wheels over a Line awkwardly placed on a bend at the top of a dip on very slippery mud, from which we had to find traction to reverse across the same line. Then a long thrash along deep ruts to a third line and a straddle stop. All this had to be completed within 40 sec.; we did it in 28.7, I believe. From there an easy stretch to the end of the section.

Next came Simms, a classic climb, the memory of which has been haunting me since I failed in that VW in 1971. A steepish climb on which a restart is placed leads to an awkward blind bend. Round the bend is the horrifyingly steep, straight, rutted and fearsome Simms. It is climbed by the minority and to cope with the majority a tractor and winch are sited at the summit. To make matters worse for me, there was W.B. standing on that bend. I just had to get it right! I gunned the Porsche from the restart, aimed for a line I knew should bring me out advantageously placed for the ruts of the hill and hoped I wouldn’t have an understeer problem. In fact we rounded the corner perfectly balanced. I turned the power on, kept the car straight and suddenly we were at the top, where I couldn’t get the full length of the car over the finish line because of a stuck VW. Because the Porsche had coped so easily, victory over Simms was something of an anti-climax, though the cheers of the crowd were pleasing.

Waterworks had a stop-go-straddle test and was pretty rough, but we had no problems here, so we headed for a time control, a half-hour rest, and another classic hill at Fingle Bridge. This was reached through a long and superb rally special stage type forestry road where my temptation to “have a go” was curbed by the Porsche’s soft trials suspension. Fingle Bridge is another of the classics, winding up in a series of hairpins through beautiful woodland from the picturesque bridge at the bottom. Here were two sections, one leading into the next, higher up the hill. The first was easy, from a stop and restart test which led into a relatively smooth right-hand hairpin. But the last section was much more demanding, a long series of sharp, steep and rocky hairpins, where I had to strike a balance between using too much power and understeering off, or too little so that the Porsche would stick in the rocks. The balance was right and we had cleaned the last section for cars; disappointingly, only the motorcycles were sent on to tackle Stretes, an extreme example of a rough trials hill, so we wended our way back to the finish at Sidmouth with a muddy but unbent and unbroken Porsche.

This Exeter Trial had been great fun, the only drawback being the long wait to climb some of the sections. These trials give the smell, scenery, communication with nature and a little bit of the thrill of rallying without the speed, the danger or the cost. The leisurely pace ensures some enjoyable, intermittently demanding motoring without the risk of exhaustion, though I speak not for the motorcyclists, brave souls. Our own performance can be put down to the power and traction of the Autofarm Porsche, undoubtedly the right horse for the course. As for how other competitors fared. W. B. has covered some of that elsewhere.—C.R.