Vintage to Classic - Exeter Trial

. . . Go Out on a Midnight Run

It came as a bit of a culture shock I can tell you, standing in wind-driven sleet in the middle of a field in Devon on one of the worst nights of the winter, draped in camera equipment, waiting for the flicker of headlights through the murk to herald the passage of yet another car-load of people who were arguably even more eccentric than I was.

1991 was the 63rd edition of the event, which is still run with the original tenets of the MCC in mind — the emphasis being on regularity rather than sheer speed. Every person’s aim is to be able to finish the trial within the time schedule, with the least penalties on special observed sections, which are always hillclimbs of varying severity along country tracks. There are no winners as such, all entrants are simply trying to ‘beat’ the organisers to secure first, second or third class awards or finishers’ certificates by achieving `clean’ performances by climbing non-stop on all the special tests. The field is divided into eight car and four motorcycle classes which are set different tests on each climb, allowing everyone at least a theoretical chance of success. Class 1, for example, caters for front-wheel drive cars which are likely to the most disadvantaged (typically Minis and Citröen 2CVs!) while at the other end of the scale, class 8 is for trials specials and those cars where the driver and passenger sit almost over the rear axle (Dellows, Trolls, Marlins and various home-built specials). In between, the bulk of the entry tends to be made up of a parade of Morgans, Escorts, Imps, Sprites, Skodas, various kit-cars and sundry Beetles. In fact the big-engined versions of the latter seemed particularly adept at climbing through the mud, enjoying good ground clearance and an engine suspended behind the rear axle. Standard road tyres have to be used and it is strictly an amateur affair, advertising and sponsorship is definitely not encouraged by the club.

Starting at one minute intervals from three separate venues, Fleet, Cirencester and Plymouth a little before midnight on Friday, the field of over 300 bikes and cars toured through the night to converge at the marshalling point (and first meal) at the Cricket St Thomas Animal Park near Crewkerne. From there, the already bleary-eyed crews were flagged off in a gale to start the real work — 13 separate hills, with gradients between 1 in 6 and 1 in 3, along a course that took them out of Dorset and in a convoluted loop around Exeter and along the edge of Dartmoor, finishing at the Sefton Hotel Torquay, with the tail-enders clocking-in late on Saturday afternoon. Apart from the obvious disadvantages of the sport — like having to spend all night out of bed and getting thoroughly soaked-through in the constant rain and sleet (most of the hard ore competitors don’t bother with the luxury of using weather equipment , a cap and leather jacket seem to be de rigueur), the advantages seem to be the general bonhomie that permeates the event and the relatively low cost of being able to compete. Any non-4WD car can be used — the only other extras that are really needed being a set of OS maps, a torch (bolted to the dashboard), a tow-rope wrapped round the front bumper, to get you out of those places that even certain lagers cannot reach and a compressed air bottle and hose in the boot to allow you to reflate the rear tyres, which are softened for each stage assault. However, while we are talking about cheap equipment, consider the brave pair who thrashed round in an immaculate MG, with only racing screens, flying jackets, helmets and goggles for protection! Another who caught my eye, was the man in a Ford Popular 103E who scrambled and smoked most of the way to the summit of the horrific 1 in 3 Simms Hill, only to grind to a halt in a flurry of spinning rubber. It would be an understatement to say that as he reversed the Pop back down and off the section, hooking his front wheel up a bank and nearly tipping the car on its side, his face was something of a picture. . . . the loud guffaws from the crowd would have probably sounded familiar to Christians facing the lions, but it had been a long night — and we were all a bit tired I suppose. .

Night had turned into day, the rain stopped and the sky cleared to blue with scudding clouds, but this was still truly stuff for heroes or madmen. By mid-afternoon exhaustion had overcome my astonishment and I retired cravenly to my hotel and a comfy bed. Meanwhile, of course, some of the stragglers had some way to go. When I awoke, I found myself wondering how much it would cost to join the MCC and buy a nice tidy little Hillman Imp and a compressed-air bottle, after all the ‘Lands End’ is coming up on March 29th/30th. . . .

Our thanks are due to all the members of the MCC — but particularly Dick Apps and his team who scoured the darkness of Cricket St Thomas to find and help us — and to the club’s General Secretary, NW (“Tucker”) Tucker-Peake. IB