Event of the month -- the 77th Exeter

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More than 70 crews claim gold as this famous trial’s toughest hills fail to claim their quota of expected victims. Report by Paul Lawrence

“Yippee!” shrieked July Phillips from the passenger seat of Adrian Dommett’s Wolseley Hornet as they conquered one of trialling’s most feared hills. Their joy was shared by a surprising number of crews who reached the Simms summit for the first time as the 77th running of the Exeter Trial got the season off to a flying start.

As ever, the Motor Cycling Club attracted a capacity field of 300 competitors for the Exeter, the youngest of the club’s three classic trials with a lineage back to 1910. More than 200 cars joined the two-wheeled contingent for the first salvoes of serious competition in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Eleven hills lay in wait before crews arrived at Exeter Services for a breakfast halt. It was a wild and windy night as gales hit Somerset and South Devon. “We’ve had rain and wind, but we’ve not seen any snow yet,” said Morgan Plus 4 pilot Phil Whatmough, while John Bennett recorded a “horrible night” in his perpendicular Renault 8.

However, as they regrouped at Exeter, the crews knew that the big challenges were still to come as the route headed deeper into Devon through the daylight of Saturday before the finish at Torquay.

Like many competitors, Gerald and Trish Burridge arrived at Exeter still unpenalised in their MG PB. “We are clean so far, so it’s going well,” said Burridge, part of a three-car pre-war MG equipe.

Lying in wait immediately after the halt was the notoriously rocky Tillerton. A stop and restart for cars in Classes 7 and 8 added to the challenge and the restart line was critically positioned just above a bare slab of rock. However, the hill offered a surprising amount of grip and fewer cars than normal failed to climb the narrow and rocky track. Any hopes of a gold medal, the coveted reward for cleaning all 17 hills, went out of the window for Pete and Carlie Hart (in one of the many Marlins) when their engine died on the Tillerton restart. The fuel pump switch had been knocked off as the car bounced up the hill. Frustratingly, they then drove out of the climb once the engine was up and running cleanly again.

The classic but relatively straightforward Fingle Bridge test followed before crews headed for Simms, the tough hill that everyone fears. A savage test of man and machine near Ilsington, it has a deserved reputation for stopping all but the most skilled triallers.

Perhaps more than any other hill on the classic trials schedule, Simms is the one that everyone wants to conquer, but in previous years few have reached its summit. However, the need to maintain the hill had led the MCC to fill in some of the larger holes in the run-up to the event. This helped an unprecedented number of teams to successfully attack the 200 yards of unfriendly steep and rocky hillside.

Yet this was still no easy cruise to the summit. Murray Montgomery-Smith blew the exhaust manifold off his Marlin and Peter Mountain’s Dellow broke its axle frame. Bill Rosten sent the front wheels of his Hillman Imp high off the ground as he bounced off the bank during his climb, the grin on his face ever bigger as he realised that his car was going all the way. Mark Tooth catapulted his VW Beetle to the top, while Dave Sargeant did likewise in a similar car, the driver working furiously to maintain his precious momentum. As expected, front-wheel-drive expert David Haizelden threw his VW Golf up the hill and moments later Michael Collins did the same to a round of applause from the large crowd. A gold medal awaited them — and 70 other triallists — as Simms again proved the pivotal challenge of a classic event.

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