The MCC "Exeter" Trial

A look back

Because snowstorms of record severity, combined with iced-up roads, prevailed over Southern England before the 1982 “Exeter” Trial, the Motor Cycling Club wisely cancelled the event. Sad, especially when you think about the great concourse of willing voluntary helpers and marshals, the hotels, cafes and petrol stations which were opening specially for the event and the disappointed competitors, numbering more than 300, but it would have been totally indiscreet to have run such an event, even had the hills been usable, with such a calamity sweeping the area.

From my point of view, Terance Barnes, who was to have driven his 1934 TT Singer S. had generously offered me his OE 30/98 Vauxhall which I duly entered, digging out my ancient Sidcup suit and “functional bad weather clothing” in readiness. It had occurred to me that as I am not a trials expert, nor very familiar with the ways of 30/98s, the 1982 “Exeter” aught well, therefore, have been in two parts, one starting before me and running more or less to schedule and the other starting after the Vauxhall and running hours late as I stuck on every observed section,

In the absence of a 1982 “Exeter” to report, let us look back to other years of this historic Trial. The first was held in 1910, a reminder that the MCC is Britain’s oldest sporting motor club. In those tougher times, the trial started on Boxing night (as did those Motor Sport replica “Exeters” which I organised from 1953 to 1961). The real London-Exeter Trial used to start from Staines and go to Exeter and back again along what we now call the A30. With the crude lighting-sets of pre-WWI days, and the inevitable rain and fog, this was a formidable task. It remained so after the war – organised by the inimitable Jacky Masters and his wife, Bee – 310 miles of winter driving, with the main road hills of Chards and Trim observed in 1919. AA patrols helped as far as Salisbury and that year there were 39 car entries, ranging from big Oakland and Buick cars to Kaye Don’s Tamplin cycle-car. Sammy Davis started his long association with the “Exeter” in an 11 h.p. McKenzie, which was reduced to only one gear when returning across Salisbury Plain. Archie Nash (GN) and Westalle (AC) had brand new cars and others relied on acetylene lamps, one driver even carrying spare oil lamps and another a set of road springs, just in case.

From 1920, Peak Hill was added, with Salcombe included the following year and in 1922 the long, chalky. White Sheet Hill near Beaminster was used. In those epic years, the trade saw useful publicity in these trials which were reported on at length in the weekly motoring papers, so works drivers in new cars were often sorely stressed. The AC people, for instance, decided to vent their overheated radiators into the exhaust system, after which they received glowing reports of ascending the hills without a trace of boiling! Legendary, too, were those early morning breakfasts at Deller’s cafe in Exeter, with astonished waitresses stepping over piles of temporarily discarded, and very odd, clothing and having to make dozing competitors when their eggs and bacon were ready,

From 1923, the pattern emerged of no hills to attempt before Honiton and nothing on the return route via Dorchester (tea at Salisbury). Later it got more difficult, there was a short timed test after the re-start on White Sheet in 1924 and a timed half-mile from the Salcombe re-start in 1925, the latter requiring average speeds of at least 12, 15 and 18 m.p.h. respectively from 1-litre, 1½-litre and over-1½-litre cars, the RAC turning a blind eye.

Entries had by now become enormous and formed an impressive, hours-long, winter cavalcade, amateur drivers turning out for the adventure and spectators to see how the well known competition folk would fare. Horses might still drag failures up the observed sections but 427 entries (152 cars, 17 three-wheelers and the rest motorcycles) were received for the 1925 “Exeter”. Why did they do it? The motorcyclists said that otherwise the car drivers would die of a surfeit of Christmas food, and one horror stricken glance at the clothes worn by the bike riders stopped any repartee. (Modern “Exeters” are well divorced from Christmas, and most motorcycle competitors now wear smart “Barbour” suits.)

It wasn’t until 1935 that the gold, silver and bronze medals were replaced by Premier and lesser awards, drivers always competing against the MCC, remember, not against one another. There were years of torrential rain, as in 1924 when the sea, encouraged by 60 m.p.h. gales, threatened to swamp Sidmouth – that was the year when Sammy Davis drove what he called a grave Austin 12/4, getting his gold medal in this fully laden tourer, and the long string of cars was tailed by a travelling marshal in a 13.9 h.p. Renault. an example of the great diversity of the entry and the improbable cars often encountered. By now there were six engine size divisions, and the 1924 entries included a big Excelsior, handled by Hornstead, a Chrysler, Stone in an un-named experimental vehicle and an ABC with four water-cooled cylinders (which sounds like another experiment), a side-valve Imperia (which got its gold medal), a staid de Dion Bouton – almost everything, indeed, from 7 h.p. Jowetts to J. P. Bainbridge’s 40/50 Rolls-Royce. Three Senechalls ran together and all scored “golds” and that 1924 Trial included two Morris Cowley Sport, a KRC, an Aurea, a DFP – in fact anything went, even an 8.3 h.p. Renault. Hay drove a £5 GN which caught fire and then had engine trouble and another GN lost a wheel.

I once said that almost every make of car was raced at Brooklands except the Trojean. In MCC Trials, these slogging two-strokes were popular and very successful. A Model T Ford and several Bugattis might finish with no awards while improbable small cars gained their gold medals. In the mid.1920s, more closed cars began to join in, a reminder that a snug Bean Coupe had essaycd the 1919 “Exeter”. Sports cars naturally predominated, than in 1924, 8 Salmsons scored 3 golds, 7 ABCs 5, 5 Alt, 4. 10 Rile, 5, 5 Lagondas 4, and 4 Lea-Francis 4 while H. J. Aldington and F. Hilary got two with the, Frazer Nashes. Even a friction drive GWK was also good for a gold, as were the GNs of Clerk and Heywood. Ian Macdonald, later a well known Alvis driver, was still using a 12/20 Calthorpe, but retired.

By 1926, the SMMT had barred such trade participation and by 1927, although the start had revert, to Boxing night (which the MCC had abandoned for a time) the open space by Staines Bridge was now deemed too restricted for the 377 entries, so the start was moved to the Slough Trading Estate. The route was still an out-and-home affair, the total mileage being 336, the first motor cycle leaving half a minute alter 8.00 p.m. and the first car scheduled hack at Slough by 7.26 p.m. on the Saturday. Quite a drive, although there were only 4 observed sections (one timed, one with a restart, compared to 13 and several special tests. some timed, for this year’s “Exeter”. Incidentally, in those days, Sidmouth was “in transit”, whereas this is where the “Exeter” now finishes.

The 1927 Trial was not to be it was snowed off. The Officials got their 33,180 Mercedes-Benz well stuck when checking the state of the roads and the Autrwar reported that while snow on the Sunday evening had delighted those who liked some additional adventure, by the following morning it had got out of hand. On the Tuesday evening, the marshals tried to get to their posts, only to find lorries embedded in the snowdrifts on the Reading to Newbury road. The Police telephoned to say that Salisbury Plain was impassable and the main Exeter road completely blocked.

The abandonment of the Trial was announced on a blackboard (only one starting point to mores’ about in those days, as competitors arrived in shoals. Some drivers wanted to try the run on their own, others persuaded a military band to play for them to dance to as the restaurant filled to capacity with people dressed like Arctic explorers. Until late at night those who could not be warned continued to arrive, the motor cyclists frequently falling off in the rutted snow, after the early arrivals had returned home. The luckless press photographers lined up any willing competitors in the deepest snow they could find and set off their flashlights.

Those were the vintage years. And I note that in 1927. A. S. Scruggs was in a Rover 10 instead of his famous Trojan or later years, that Moss Blundell had forsaken the Rhode which I owned in later days) for a Salmson, but Anthony was still using a Senechal and Michael May, the Alvin man, had entered a 10/23 Talbot, G. M. Giles would have been in a 2-litre Bugatti. R. L. Wise in a 30/98 and there were two dozen Austin 70 in the up to 850 c.c. class, opposed by three Singer Juniors.

The MCC reliability trials, as they were then called, have thrived ever since. The “Exeter” start was changed in 1930 to Virginia Water on the A30, and from 1928 a shortened route ending in Shaftesbury was used. As cars became more proficient, new hills were introduced. Harcombe came in in 1928 and was retained up to 1935, reappearing in 1939, but by then Famine, Berhag, Higher Real, Devonish Pit and Batcombe were introduced from 1929 with timed tests and the Black Hill re-start figured in 1930. For a while, the MCC had compromised by starting the “Exeter” the day after Boxing Day unless this fell on a Sunday, but by 1930 it reverted to the traditional day dating back to the beginning of the event. The score of mainly sports car awards in the 1928 “Exeter”, run under conditions of rain, flood, mud and fog, included golds by 4 of 6 Salmsons„ 7 of 10 Alvis including Davis with a FWD 4-seater), 3 of 3 Lagondas, 3 of 5 Lea-Francis, 6 of 9 Rileys, 4 from 7 Frazer Mashes but nothing better than a silver among 3 Bugatti, while 25 Austin 7s won a dozen golds, 6 silvers and 6 bronze medals between them. An amusing, but sad, story concerns the crews of some open cars who parked them in the only shed in sight at the start to shelter from the impending heavy rain only to discover later that the shed was roofless. Starters embraced an Austin 7 van and Wright’s very spartan and very rusty Frazer Nash JAP.

Fingle Bridge was used from 1932 onwards (I still have memories of being in the cramped back seat of Smith’s Tamplin cycle-car as it was towed most of the way up this hill in post-war “Exeters”) in which year it stopped 68 competitors. The splendid entry of 296 was achieved in 1934, when Simms Hill, discovered the previous year, stopped 212 and the MCC had to find only 13 golds for the whole event. This notorious section was used in two parts when the trials were resumed after the war in 1949, but the combined hill stopped only 12 of the entry that year. Windout figured from the 1937 event, joined by Woodhayes and Knowle Lane in 1938. The “Exeter” has continued in the old style up to the present, allowing all manner of cars, including vintage, post-vintage as well as more modern machine. Specials, such as Dellows, are included, but of course they must be legal for use on the road.

Had the 1982 event been held, we would have had to tackle Cricket, Stafford, Greenslinch, Tillerton, Fingle Bridge (in two parts, Fingle Woods (in three), Simms (just as difficult now as it was in 1933) and Higher Rochdean. When Michael Ware took the National Motor Museum’s 30/98 through the 1973 “Exeter”, it failed on Simms, Fingle (through running out of fuel) and Tillerton, but cleaned the other sections. So, that would have been our target in the Barnes’ 30/98, especially as the NMM car is one of the earlier side-valve E-types and not an ohv OE. I am sure it will all happen again next January, meanwhile, there is the MCC “Land’s End”, an even older event, the first being run in 1908, to enjoy on April 9th and 10th.

After all this, you may feel that the MCC is a Club worthy of your support – the membership secretary is A. L. Bonwick, 323a Blossom Field Road, Solihull, West Midlands B41 1TE. The annual subscription is a very reasonable £6. – W.B.