The MCC Exeter Trial in Vintage Times
The 63rd edition of that unique and long-lived event, the Motor Cycling Club’s Exeter Trial (known officially as the ‘Winter Club Run’ from its inception in 1910 until 1930) was held early last month (report on following pages). This adventurous trial and its MCC companion events, the Land’s End Trial at Easter and the Edinburgh at Whitsun, have remained justifiably popular along the years — in Peter Garnier’s standard work on the subject The Motor Cycling Club (David & Charles 1989) he tells us that by 1928 the Land’s End had attracted the record entry of 553, if you add the motorcycles, three-wheelers and sidecar outfits to the car entry.
Events not to be despised or ignored, and although Peter’s painstaking book nearly tells it all, there is always something to add. So let’s take a brief look-back to those `London-Exeter’ trials of the vintage years.
It had begun in 1910, after a winter run had been suggested, to supplement the London-Edinburgh-London and London-Land’s End trials which had been run, respectively, since 1904 and 1908. The winter weather was intended to compensate, in the idiom of difficulty, for the shorter route, compared to those of the other MCC trials. But note that in those tough pre-1914 days, riders and drivers had to return to London from Exeter, making a total route-distance of 322 miles. Not only that, but starting-time was on the night following Boxing Day, and so it remained for many years, although one might have expected some domestic strife over this, especially on the first post-Armistice ‘Exeter’, with loved ones only recently united (if there were lucky) after a long-drawn-out war.
The 1910 ‘Exeter’ was open to cars of all sizes from the beginning, as well as to motorcycles, and the first such run started from the Bell at Hounslow, took the old A30 via Salisbury, Yeovil and Honiton, and returned the same way. To gain an award the set ‘schedule had to be adhered to and to get a gold medal the out-and-back run had to be accomplished within 24 hours. As Peter reminds us, HFS Morgan was on his first competitive event, in a three-wheeler of his own make, and it anticipated the reliability and performance of Morgans in general by winning a ‘gold’. Despite cars being permitted, only two ventured out, a single-cylinder Cadillac and a four-cylinder Thames.
In spite of the problems that the aftermath of war created, 32 cars took part in the 1919 ‘Exeter’. The start was now from the road outside the Bridge House Hotel at Staines, W. Cooper’s new Morris Oxford leaving at 8pm on Boxing night, his hood not ready in time, so naturally rain was pouring down. Drivers like Capt. Archie Nash and Westall had to use brand new cars, GN and AC respectively, so short was the post-war supply of vehicles, and Addis, the Aston-Martin exponent, didn’t have a car at all, but Mason’s Morris Cowley had a dashboard plaque proclaiming that it had done the 1919 ‘Edinburgh’. The scene at the start, spectators huddled under umbrellas, was typical and was described as “Men garbed in raiment to delight the heart of the most cynical of comic artists hurried about bearing armfuls of quart oilcans, Thermos-bottles of unprecedented size, or staggered along with two-gallon tins of fuel. Some there were who made final and comprehensive adjustments, thereby coating themselves with oil before the start, as all wise competitors should, subsequent dirt then mattering not at all.” Words of wisdom from SCH Davis I think, who was driving a McKenzie. Other racing men were Brownsort (AC), Douglas Hawkes (GN) and Lt Kaye Don (Tamplin). Rex Mundy, the plug rep, drove a Wilton and photographer WJ Brunell failed to finish in a Morris Oxford. In those times the competitors had to return to Staines to complete the course and one car had to substitute oil lamps for its original illumination, while Pettyl must have been glad his Bean had a coupé body.
If we jump to 1925, nothing much will have changed, in ‘Exeter’ terms. The start was still from Staines, the finish likewise, but by now the wily MCC had put in some testing observed sections. In early times just the out-and-home run was enough of an incentive to adventure, and then came the observed main-road hills of Chard and Yarcombe, which reminds me of the year when I went down to watch with FJ Brymer, the well-known photographer, who had hired a Wolseley Viper to replace his laid-up Riley Gamecock. I thought this ohc saloon depressingly sluggish until, on the run home with Jim dozing in the back, I was able to announce triumphantly that at last I had got it up to 70mph. “I’m not surprised,” came the sleepy reply, “You are flat out down Yarcombe hill!”
To return to the 1925 ‘Exeter’, the competitors had to tackle Marlpits, Peak Hill near Sidmouth, Salcombe and White Sheet, making a loop from Honiton to do this, and never mind the RAC, the MCC had a timed-climb up part of Salcombe hill. The popularity of the trial was enormous, from the viewpoint of the spectators who watched it, the space given to it by the three leading weekly motor journals, and the importance attached to this and the other MCC trials by manufacturers seeking publicity for their cars. Thus famous drivers could be seen trying their skills on the uphill mud and stones against sporting amateurs. For instance, Douglas Hawkes had an Auburn, the only eight-cylinder car in the trial, MOTOR SPORT’s then Editor, Richard Twelvetrees, gave his usual 210 broadcasts from a Riley. Norris and Delaney were Lea-Francis mounted, the latter in a saloon, the Hon Victor Bruce had the expected sports AC, CMC Turner a Gwynne, but Sammy Davis was content to drive a 12/25 Humber tourer.
For this 1925 event the time-keeper-cum-organiser was again FT Bidlake, who had left his sick-bed to sit between Hares on Staines Bridge and check the survivors out and in. To avoid Sunday motoring, the traditional Boxing Night start had been changed to the Monday, but otherwise it was much as before. Organised confusion at the start, the first car off at 10.18pm, and as there were 134 starters, 70 miles of lights made a striking cavalcade, the leading car having reached Salisbury as the last driver, Rex Mundy, this time in an Oakland, left flaring portable lamps of Staines for the gusty, rain-swept night ahead. Two intending competitors, Porter and Heaton, had been eliminated when their Amilcar and Senechal collided on Barnes Common on the way to the start, and there were 16 other non-appearers.
Tough as the event was, anything seemed possible to a keen entrant, which remains just as true of today’s MCC trials. Four drivers actually put their faith in 8.3hp Renaults, 7hp Jowetts were popular, Dudley Noble was using a Rover Nine and Windsors were out in force. Of the sports cars, Alvis, Riley, Salmson, Gripper’s Aston-Martin and the like, WL Douglas favoured a 3-litre Bentley, GL Morrish a 30/98 Vauxhall, Driskell was in his DFP, and Frazer Nash contingent comprised Sir John Snow, Hillary, Jefferies, Veendam, Aldington and Paxton, the last-named racing up the hills.
To the two American cars aforesaid Strong added a 16.9hp Rollin, and other lone makes numbered Metallurgique, Star, Surrey, a friction-drive GWK, 14/40 Delage, Ansaldo, Deemster, and Phoenix, while there were a couple of 11/28hp Straker-Squires and Moss-Blundell had changed from his former Rhode to a Riley. Variety you see, was part of the ‘Exeter’ spice. Incidentally, horses were used to tow failures up the hills, sometimes in tandem. Five of the 1925 competitors had been on the 1919 ‘Exeter’. Cars may have become more reliable in the interim, but there were still troubles. The AV cyclecar blew one of its cylinders in half near Basinstoke, the Stellite didn’t last long, and outside Whitchurch, Aidington damaged his Frazer Nash against a wall. Rain changed to a cold night; welcome meal breaks came at the White Hart, Salisbury, at Moffat’s Garage, Yeovil, at Dellar’s cafe, Exeter. Rain in torrents for a time meant battling with hoods after Shaftesbury, two Rileys collided after Chard, the Auburn pulling the ditched one back on the road, and there were the secret checks and the observed sections to cause other bothers. On the whole however, the hills were easy, even the four little Renaults ascending “with power to spare.”
There were changes in the MCC’s celebrated winter trial, even in the vintage years. For instance, the return run to Staines was abandoned after 1927, the 1928 event starting from Slough and finishing at Shaftesbury. As time went by Trade entries diminished but the keenness of the private entrants never flagged. The MCC, against whom the competitors competed, for gold, silver and bronze medals, safeguarded their outlay by putting in evermore difficult hills, to match the improved performance of the cars the number of “stoppers” adding to the excitement of competing. This excitement could be increased by entering a seemingly improbable car, like the “30/-” GN of GFM Wright, which, alas, retired from the 1929 ‘Exeter’. That year GM Giles’s Bugatti was a gold winner and other exciting cars competed, such as an Alfa Romeo with its TT number showing beneath its scarlet paint and ten Lea-Francis, all or almost all of them supercharged. Michael May ran his Ceirano, three Chryslers were let loose to see how they faired on West Country hills, JA Daniell’s gaining a gold, Rileys outnumbered A7s by 24 to 22, and got five golds to one, the 1929 observed sections of Devenish Pit, Higher Rill, Harcombe, Merrhay, Batcombe and Ibberton perhaps being against low horsepower. Of nine MG Midgets, not one netted a gold medal but six took silvers. Most of the failures seemed to happen on Batcombe, hail and rain having given it a porridge-like surface. Yet The Autocar’s road-tester, HS Linfield in an improbable Citroen tourer was among the quickest to “clean it”; he was rewarded overall with a silver medal. The Frazer Nash drivers included Tommy Wisdom, the only one of seven to get a gold.
That year, 1929, the start had again been from Slough Trading Estate, a day after Boxing Night, which caused three drivers to arrive a day too early, and the bus taking competitors to breakfast at Deller’s now had pneumatic tyres. . . There were long delays before the hills — the ‘Exeter’ had become tougher. The car entry for the last “vintage year” (1930) of the ‘Exeter’ was up to 203, the start back to Boxing Night, but from Virginia Water on the A30, not from Staines or Slough. There were four classes, 850, 1500, and over 1500cc, which attracted 61, 75 and 65 entries respectively, Olive’s Standard, the Bugattis of Giles, Bear and DG Evans joining MG Six, Hotchkiss, Elgood’s and Wisdom’s Bentley etc, Couper’s Lagonda, lots of Fords, even Essex, De Soto, Overland Whippet and Chrysler, etc, in the latter category. Brymer was competing in his Riley and Fitt had a Morris Major, the variety being as strong as ever.