Tough Times In The Highlands

It is 1922, when times were tough in the Scottish Highlands, probably economically, certainly for drivers in the Royal Scottish AC’s Six Days Light Car Trials. At this stage of motoring history the desire to own a car was well advanced, the new generation of small cars, cheap to buy and economical to run, in full spate. Manufacturers were keen to tap this expanding market, and the RSAC presented them with this chance for the more confident to demonstrate their products to the public.

The rules of the event had been drawn up to ensure that only standard cars could take part, over a truly testing route. Only two cars per category could be entered by any one person and they had to be fourwheeled, with engines of 751 to 1600 cc. Classes were by price, as listed by April 1922, in five divisions, from up-to-£250 to over £500. Non-skid devices were barred but a second spare wheel could be carried. Observers rode in the cars to log time taken for repairs etc. After the first day 30 minutes were allowed for replenishing fluids, five for doing repairs, but the engine had then to be started within two minutes. Tyre trouble was expected to be prevalent, so an aggregate 60 minutes was allowed for the wheel changing, but tyre sizes had to be as listed. A tough time in the Highlands lay ahead that June…

There were some 100 eligible cars, although the lower cc-limit excluded the then-scarcely-known A7. Of these, who were the confident entrants? Well, 46 came in. They ran from two Stoneleighs and an i o e GN in the lowest-price bracket, to two 12 hp Talbot-Darracqs, a couple of Charron-Laycocks, an 11 hp Riley, a DFP, s v Aston-Martin and a 16-valve Bugatti in the over-£500 division. An 11.9 Lagonda, the famous old Phoenix, an AC and a Riley had already been through the MCC Edinburgh Trial, on the way to the start, the Six Days’ competitors being housed in the Storage Depot at Smith Street, Glasgow, for the coming ordeal. Facing their first trial were the two air-cooled Stoneleighs, a Rob-Roy, a Dorman-engined Vulcan and two Stars.

To face the rough roads some cars had their springs gaitered — Wefco still supply gaiters for vintage cars – corded or taped. The Vitesse GN had front Hartfords, the DFP rear ones only, and the Stars used Gabriel snubbers. Scottish hopes rested on the Galloways and the Rob-Roy with Glasgowbuilt water-cooled flat-twin Koh-i-Noor engine. So off they went, only the ABCs and the AM absent, Lionel Martin saying he was too busy with the TT Aston-Martins to do the Six Days. On Day One Rest-and-Be-Thankful caused little trouble (1706 yards, with 1-in-7 the steepest gradient), but the Stoneleighs, (on Trade plates!) leading the cavalcade of hopefuls, were hot enough for the smell of their lagged exhaust pipes to be apparent to the onlookers. One of Coatalen’s promising 8 hp Talbots overtook the Swift but pulled off a front tyre, the tube ballooning, re-opening the “differential or solid axle” controversy. A single securitybolt for the 26 x 3 cover was blamed. . . A Vulcan had an under-bonnet fire, from oil on the exhaust manifold, but did not stop, Alvis and Bugatti made racing ascents, but the observer inadvertently turned off a Riley’s petrol tap.

The Press were out in force, The Light Car & Cyclecar, which said that “never before had there been an event which provided the buying public with more useful data”, used a sports Enfield-Allday, The Autocar a works-hack Riley and a 20 hp six-cylinder Wolseley tourer, both of which had also covered the Edinburgh Trial. Lord Weir, Minister for Air, with Lady Weir, was an interested spectator, using a 15 hp Wolseley tourer. The efficient organisation was the responsibility of RSAC Secretary Mr R Smith and eight officials. A period touch — many drivers were trilby-hatted…

Racing drivers were also out in numbers. Blackstock in the Bugatti, Major Oates driving the Lagonda, L A Cushman the Vitesse GN, CM Harvey on an 11-40 Alvis, McVicar the Waverley, while tester H G Day was on one of the little Talbots. Bovier had come over to handle the Salmson, Brownsort was in the AC, JC Douglas on the DFP. The friction-drive Unit was driven by Grice of
GWK, Willy lowett conducted one of the flat-twin lowetts and W S Renwick, later of AM fame, the second Stoneleigh.

On that first day the cars went via Heel’s Glen and along the side of Loch Fyne, to the launch-stop at Hunter’s Quay. Afterwards there was a long haul up Glendarvel Bridge, a Stoneleigh stopping as the ignition was accidentally cut, only the driver to blame, as he was centrally seated, a lowett needing gear-lever adjustment and the 11.4 Citroen actually having a broken oil-pipe (noted by those prospective purchasers?) The Bugatti (XL-1266) was already in trouble, a lamp bracket breaking, after which valve problems put it onto three cylinders. By the end of Day Two it had lost 24Y2 minutes for bad starting, plug changes and ignition trouble, etc. Tea at Inverary saw most Day-One runners ahead of time at Loch Awe, on the way to Oban. Bugatti and Riley had tied for FTD up the “Rest” (2m 4.5s), but the expected tyre trouble was beginning, for the Phoenix, Amilcar and a flat-twin watercooled Wolseley.

Day Two took the cars from Oban across Loch Etive by the Cannel railway bridge to Ballachulish Ferry and to Killin for the lunch break. The day’s run ended at Pitlochry, having taken in some marvellous mountain, lake and woodland scenery. Most drivers got up the Pass of Glencoe in middle gear but one Mathis overheated, the Phoenix boiled and further on a Jowett lost 46 minutes before a loose wire behind the dash was found. The Bugatti’s engine was getting worse and an Alvis retired with a broken front spring. At the quickstart that morning an Alvis driver forgot to turn the petrol on — C M Harvey no less! Kenmore with its steep hairpins was a bottom-gear job for many but the BSAs used this gear only on the corners, making excellent ascents, and the Jowetts were good. One Vulcan found it easy, the other only just got up, and one Wolseley stopped (holding up the field with engines running by official edict, against fuel thrift for the special award) and the other Wolseley needed two attempts. The Unit was pushed and had to replace an oil-soaked friction disc. The AC screamed up with little in hand, the DFP needed help high up, the Amilcar raced up, then checked, and one tiny Mathis only just clambered over the worst hump… Best showing was by the Rileys, Galloways and an 8 hp Talbot.

A surprise speed-test on two miles of level road between Amulree and Aberfeldy gave FTD to a Riley (2m.8s), a second quicker than the GN Vitesse, an Alvis third. Next, a threemile timed hillclimb up Trinafour. An Alvis scored here (4min 25.4sec), followed by a Riley and a Talbot, all faster than the class-quickest Salmson and Stoneleigh, the last named needing 6m 48s. At the finish the Unit hadn’t arrived by 7.30 Pm and the Amilcar was very late, delayed by valve and magneto trouble. (Another item for the buyers to note!).

Day Three took the surviving cars past Balmoral Castle, after lunch at Aboyne, to finish at Inverness. The 178¼ miles were the toughest yet, with the route soon climbing steeply for 30 miles, with delightful glimpses of lock and burn shimmering in the sun. This blistering heat and a following wind tested engines up two-mile Cairn O’Mount with its 1 in 5.4 top hairpin. There was not much mayhem, however, air-cooling thus being vindicated (one day we must look at the pros and cons at this stage of car development, maybe?), but the standard GN was having an awful time, knocking at the first hairpin, stopping with the engine running, then being jerked up yard by yard on the clutch! Both the bigger Talbots and one 8 hp Talbot romped up, the other little Talbot was fast but boiling hard, as was one Vulcan, but its sister failed, until it had cooled off. The Amilcar’s choked jet again intruded but the thermo-syphon-cooled Wolseleys, Amilcar and Lagonda showed no steam, unlike both Rileys, faster than the fast AC; but the AC did not appear to boil. Most did, or dribbled water, including the sad Bugatti, but both Charron-Laycocks impressed the observers. A Mathis and the DFP failed, the driver of the latter blaming a “flawed cylinder”.

After Balmoral there were 40 miles of frightfully rough going over the Royal grouse moors, starting with the old Rin loon test-hill by Crathie’s historic little church. A respite over a few miles of good road up Strath Don, then it was tough going again up Cockbridge Ladder, to 200 feet above the snow line, with tons of snow glistening in the summer sun. Over this very long hill most cars were impressive, the two-seater sv Riley as much so as a sports model might have been. Milward, another racing driver, got his Charron-Laycock up fast, observer on its hood, the Stoneleighs, although slow on their 20-to-1 bottom gears, were described as “cool as a cucumber”, an athwart wind keeping all cooling systems happier than before. Only the DFP and Bugatti failed, with sick engines. Even the 760 cc Mathis of Cassie was praised for “a phenomenal climb for its size”. Still to come — the old test-hill at Bridge-of-Avon and 100 yards of 1-in-4 downhill at Tomintoul. The day had brought troubles! Milward’s Charron-Laycock thrice broke its n/s front spring and his wife had to bring a spare out to Inverness; the aforesaid Mathis, going without water to avoid loss of marks, seized near Grantown and its driver was observed to have removed the dynamo, to aid his tiny engine…

On the Thursday there was a 173-mile run from Inverness and back again, eleven cars still “clean”, but the Bugatti and DFP out. Again rough roads racked the chassis frames of these early small cars, but the remote scenery was superb, human habitation absent for much of the day, but narrow winding lanes encountered, where a slip could have put a car over the edge into sea, loch or mountain torrent, hundreds of feet below. A timed climb of Little Gruinard (60 yards of 1-in-7.8) saw fast ascents by the two-seater Riley and sports GN, the former 0.2 sec quicker with FTD. On the Friday Walsgrove’s Riley was out, its magneto duff near Fort Augustus.

Up Glendoe (880 yards of 1-in-7½/1-in-5) Dean’s 8 hp Talbot was quickest. Licht Hill was even worse, being the reverse side of Cockbridge Ladder (100 yards of 1-in-4 or worse. Nearby, Toplis, the taxi cab murderer, had hidden for weeks). Here a Mathis stripped its back-axle bevels. Harvey got the Alvis past Shaw’s failed CharronLaycock with inches to spare, but most got up this steep gradient without trouble. So remote was it that there were only five onlookers, two reporters from The Autocar and a farmer and his two sons. Three miles from the night stop at Pitlochry came a surprise brake and acceleration test. The former had the stop-line set where the time-keeper’s big Sunbeam had got up to 30 mph after coasting in neutral. And Brooklands’ famous Mr A V Ebblewhite had set yellow flags at 30-feet intervals on the wall, to measure braking distances. The cars slid on locked back wheels for some 50 yards or more, in clouds of dust, wearing the road into two grooves! The Salmson managed a best of 131 feet. In the acceleration test a cable was attached to the back of each car, turning a drum attached to a tachometer — I bet Mr Ebblewhite had brought this gear from Brooklands, where it was used to time early Test Hill ascents. . . Star and Charron-Laycock did 20.29 mph, the GN Vitesse 20.49 mph, better than a non-competing 10 hp sports car and a big six-cylinder tourer.

The final day took drivers from Pitlochry back to Glasgow, with en route more tests and a climb of Amulree, “as long, steep and rough as any uphill road in these Islands”. The double-hairpin resulted in all manner of drastic methods to get round, but all succeeded except Day, who ditched the Talbot, and Scott who twisted a steering pin on the Vulcan, which sprang back afterwards. The Salmson managed splendidly in spite of its sports 13 to 1 bottom gear. The i o e GN twice reversed unnecessarily. The final 30 miles into Glasgow were badly pot-holed, a last ordeal for the cars’ springing. It had been a very instructive event.

Just before this the Edinburgh & DMCC had held a six days’ trial in Scotland for motorcycles, in which 25 light cars also took part, only a Taylor Ten, with gearbox trouble, and a Rhode with steering failure retiring. Two years later the RAC held its own Six Days Small Car Trials, in Wales, ending with tests at Brooklands, the outright winner Chinery’s Gwynne 8. But the Royal Scottish AC had pioneered the idea, having held Scottish light-car trials in 1914 when small cars were just emerging, and it ran the toughest trials.

The 1922 event no doubt had buyers pouring over the results. The only outright winners were those meriting gold medals, the rest competed against the Club. These golds went to Anderson’s 11 hp Riley (987.45 marks), Day’s Talbot 8 (945.4 marks) and Herbert’s Stoneleigh (926.55) marks. The Stoneleigh’s performance was notable, because of the air-cooled Hotchkiss-base V-twin engine and the fact that it had to carry three people, whereas dickey-seat cars were not required to have passengers therein. A merit gold medal was given to Illiston’s 7 hp flat-twin Wolseley. The Citroen took the economy prize, with 41.1 ton-mpg. Tyre trouble was frequent, a reminder that this was an early vintage-years event. The retirements involved the Unit with transmission trouble, a Mathis with back-axle failure, a Riley with magneto trouble, the DFP with engine trouble, the Bugatti with valve problems and an Alvis and a Charron-Laycock with broken road springs.

Today cars of this kind are fun for members of the VSCC Light Car section. But up in the Highlands on this 1922 trial the drivers were out, not for fun, but to prove the cars in their care to the public. If you are holidaying in Scotland this summer, spare a thought for them; you may even be able to find some of the hazards that were presented to them.