Another "Exeter"

Our oldest motoring organisation, the Motor Cycling Club, founded in 1901, as the early De Dion Bouton engine incorporated in its badge reminds us, still contrives, in spite of increasing difficulties, to run its long-distance trials. Off these, the “London-Exeter”, dating back to 1910 and once a Boxing Night adventure, still attracts big entries of very diverse vehicles (over 300 this year, for the 200 mile run), in and on which some 500 or more enthusiasts continue each year to enjoy the fund and tradition of the thing.

So the “Exeter” is not to be ignored, and on the freezing foggy night of January 11th I set off from Powys for Devon, in the handiness and comfort of a Mazda RX-7 “rotor-motor”, a journey which, on the M4/M5, is now boring but very quick. By 4 0’clock the next morning the intrepid motorcyclists and that Moto Guzzi-engined Norwich built 3-wheeler began to trickle into the Mercury Motel at Kennford for good, if expensive, breakfasts. Already they had three apparently easy observed-sections, and two driving-tests, behind them. The first excitement after breakfast was Tillerton, short, steep, muddy, and rock-outcropped. We followed the photographer’s Ford Cortina to it, ice on both the section and the approach lane making things decidedly non-adhesive. This hill stopped several competitors and changes a wheel-rim profile on Stevenson’s Hillman Imp.

The next hill was the famous Fingle Bridge, picturesque in the frosty daw, but dry, so not the “stopper” it once was. It was taken in two sections, with no stop-and-restart. Tradition was maintained here, with Mr. Kelly, and his VW Passat, and Basil de Mattos as chief Marshals, even if the competitors no longer cross the stone bridge – conservationists have to be contended with these days, even though the trial happens but once a year. . . .

Unless you have several reporters out, it is impossible to cover properly a trial of this length; it is a sad fact that whereas, once upon a time, the weekly motor-Press published pages-long coverage of these MCC trials, these days they seldom so much as mention them. I decided that if I couldn’t cover the entire event I would at last make some notes which should outline the sheer versatility of the competing cars. thus, as they lined up to tackle the steep, hairpinned climb through the Fingle forest, Plummer was seen to e using an old 1.493 c.c. VW, the girls to be represented as ever by Sue Halkyard’s Chummy Austin 7, and Steery and his passenger to have braved the night behind aero-screens in a J2 MG, its SU also exposed to the elements. Groves’ Ford has picked up much mud, Knight’s Tricentrol Ford, representing the Sporting ODC, sounded off-beat, and Cooke was reminding his navigator that they should put some more oil in the gearbox of their Talbot-Sunbeam before reaching Sims.

Welsh (MG Midget) was wearing a flying-helmet, the most sensible headgear for winter motoring in an open car, and the “Wotinthat” Team of rear-engine 998 c.c. Sunbeams was running together, one of 30 team-entries, Clark’s ar having been hurriedly rebuilt before the event and Hirst’s refusing to resume until its plugs had been cleaned. Incidentally, Imps are very popular in the “Exeter” and it was nice to see so many Dellows competing. Skinner’s Hillman Imp possessed six lamps to light it through the darkness, the Cibies now covered, le Couteur’s Dellows was relying on one spare tyre (competitors can still choose whether to run in the plain or knobbly tyre-classes), and among the specials was Frost’s VW Buggy.

The Morgan Team of two Plus-Eights and a 4/4, led by W. A. G. Goodall who was having stone-shields put over his Carello headlamps, recalled almost every “Exeter” for years back, and had Sir M. Edwardes been a spectator he would have seen “Save MG” stickers on many of the cars, even impartially on Sibley’s Ford and Stephenson’s Imp, and across the entire bonnet-top of Coppock’s TC MG Midget. Ordinary cars included a VW Golf and a Peugeot 505.

Hirst elected to run with the sun-top open on his Sunbeam, Sibley’s Ford was three-up, Moxom’s Imp displayed an L-plate, Rule’s aged Ford has oversize front wheels to jack-up the front-end, and Laver’s Triumph TR3 a roll-over bar. A sporting effort was the entry of Wilson’s everyday-use, standard Fiat 126, and a very interesting car, not seen for years, was one of the actual TT Ford V8s, driven by Bowles. It was taking on a little water and was hampered by ignition trouble that was preventing the now iron-heads engine from getting its revs., and from some wheelspin at the Fingle Bridge start. But what a welcome sight, this big car with slab fuel tank and racing body.

That everything goes on the “Exeter” was emphasised by Langton’s 3.8 Jaguar saloon, on enormous back tyres. A further contrast was provided by the team of very smart, clean Team Heron Suzuki pick-ups, decked out in many decals, although there was rumour of a broken drive-shaft and murmurs among the anti-Jap fraternity, when one failed on Tillerton. Palmer had a diesel 2½-litre Daihatsu pick-up, Bazeley another VW Buggy, but this one with 1,200 engine, whereas Frost’s was a 1,600. Then there was French’s MG Midget disguised as an attractive fibreglass Special, and of course there were the Perpendicular Pips, those ancient but ever-game Fords, of which Child’s carried three occupants. Similar old Dagenham jobs included Turner’s Ford, which had had its side-valve power “thrown away years ago”, in favour of upstairs poppets above 1½-litres. But Smyth’s Ford had its correct o.h.v. 107E engine, and, he said, “the optional slipping clutch”. Stewart’s Perp-Pop had its correct side-valve 1,172 power, upped with twin carburetters, as did Flay’s Ford Popular, alas, now with a suspected blowing gasket under its Ford Eight head. Then there was Hilliard’s l.h.d. 1,172 c.c. Ford saloon.

And still they rolled up. Pipe-smoking Curtis was driving a Le Mans Replica Morgan 4/4, Turner a notably-clean ex-Dutch-Army four-door 1,600 VW, Foster a sunroof VW Beetle, and Edney had the screen folded flat on his TC MG. the cars of the Team Buckler Register, one carrying a plentiful supply of Duckhams oil, were business-like, with electric fans in front of their radiators, while Searle’s VW Beetle retained its former-owner’s “Beetling Magazine” and “Castrol” stickers.

The vintage cars, Tom and Di Threlfall in their irrepressible, radio-equipped Model-A Ford Tudor saloon made it all look like 1929, although then there were five such Fords competing, of which three won gold medals. . . . Tony Jones also made it look easy, as his 30/98 Vauxhall stormed throatily up Fingle Bridge with the back tyres at 20 lbs., a shore looked after by Jim Whyman; the crew had had a chilly night, with the windscreen flat in deference to the fog. Two “Cream Cracker” MG TAs were there, McKee’s 1937 car, and Barnacott’s larger-engined 1938 model, on their original reg. numbers, ABL 962 and BBL 80, respectively. The driver of a 1929  M-type MG Midget with four-speed J2 gearbox, its engine converted to a normal belt-drive dynamo and coil-ignition, had wretched luck when the sparks snuffed-out very soon after he had stared his ascent. He took it in very good part – “It’s not winning anything but the fun of doing the trial that counts”, said this keen competitor from Derby. On that note we left, to chase another scarp of Brooklands history, happy to have seen a little of another “Exeter” and to know that this classic event still gives pleasure to so many people. They no longer had a tractor, or the one-time horses, to pull failures up Fingle, this task now being done by recovery Land-Rovers of the All-Wheel-Drive Club. Otherwise not much had changed since Jackie Masters’ day, as the competitors went on to tackle Simms, Green Lane, Bovey, Clinton, Gatcombe, and Waterloo, and to try a few more tests, before signing-off at the Riviera Hotel at Sidmouth. - BillW.B.