Those "Boxing Night Exeters"

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I thought that, in this age of a great many highly organised events for the older cars and with the real MCC Exeter Trial approaching, it might be worth recalling some quite unofficial fun in which a few true vintage-car enthusiasts participated some years ago. I refer to the “Boxing Night Exeters” which Motor Sport and I ran back in the 1950s. The idea was to re-enact the earlier Motor Cycling Club Exeter Trials, from a time when these actually started on the evening of Boxing Night (a splendid way of getting over the effects of the Christmas festivities), were regarded as at least mild adventure, received long illustrated reports in the weekly motoring papers and attracted enormous entries. All credit to the MCC that this long-established event, dating back to 1910, along with the Land’s End and Edinburgh Trials, continues to take place virtually unchanged, except that the Exeter no longer calls for a domestic sacrifice imposed by starting the evening after Christmas Day. In recent years the hills have changed, along with the route, because all kinds of cars and motorcycles, not just vintage ones, have to be catered for, tested against the MCC, hence today’s tougher going.

These thoughts, along with a touch of that now despised “nostalgia”, had made me want to drive over some of the older Exeter routes in appropriate cars. “Jackie” Masters, the then MCC Secretary, who ran the Club’s long-distance night-section trials so effectively, helped by his wife Bee, kindly searched out appropriate route cards and the game was afoot. I decided that on Boxing Night 1953 I would drive over the terrain of the 1922 trial in my 1922 8hp Talbot-Darracq two-seater, starting correctly from Staines Bridge, of course. The little car was by then long past its original ripeness but had, in 1935, competed in the 1000-mile RAC Rally driven by H Hill, son of its owner, just for the heck of it. It finished the course without loss of marks, which not all the then-modern cars managed, the young driver’s father acting as back-up and luggage carrier with his Phantom Rolls-Royce. Knowing that the cars would have to undergo a quick-start test after standing out all night, Hill had removed the car’s starter-motor, on the assumption that the battery, and any spare batteries carried, would probably be too exhausted by then to turn over the 970cc engine, whereas he could commence it on the handle. Unfortunately, the officials disallowed this, so marks were lost. He won a third-class award nevertheless.

Having digressed already, I am going to digress again, with something which may just be of use to those running vintage cars with original Delco-Remy coil ignition equipment. As explained, in 1953 I set off for Staines with Tom Lush in the T-D. But we never got there. The engine stopped on the A30 with what appeared to be fuel starvation. Nothing would induce it to run for more than a few miles. We cleared pipes and jets, to no avail. So I took the coil (with porcelain insulator) to the makers, who had a depot on the Embankment, on the way to the Motor Sport offices. Phone rings; “Excellent spark on test-rig; wonderful for such an old coil”. I say “Could you try it for a bit longer?” Phones rings again. “You are right; no sparks now”. The reason being that, when hot, the condenser, inside the body of the coil, broke down. The symptoms suggested a fuel blockage, as the car would run for a while and then stop. The coil cooled as we blew through the petrol-pipes, we ran a few miles, then the trouble reoccurred. (I once abandoned for ever a 1923 Jowett because even the experts were baffled by this problem — fortunately it had cost only £3 with a spare back axle; but I regret it still.) Now, back to those “Exeters”.

In 1954 we went again, the T-D with a modern coil, accompanied by Gerry Crozier, of racing fame with his “zipped-up” Ford V8 Special and record bids with a very fast Speed Six Bentley, who wanted to exercise his Trojan. Of the self-observed hills, we stopped on Salcombe when the petrol tap vibrated shut and finally left the T-D at Sunningdale as it had by then no lights. National Benzole had laid on refreshments and free petrol during an outbound night stop. Thus encouraged, the VSCC agreed to run the thing in 1955 if we finished at Hartley Wintney. I took the T-D, with author Tim Nicholson, although it had to use side lamps only due to a “short”, the hood blew away, and we failed on Salcombe and White Sheet as the engine badly needed a re-bore — which it got, including a full engine rebuild with Renault 4 piston, many years later. National Benzole again opened the Hazlebury Garage for hospitality and fuel and 17 ventured out on the 327-mile run. Peacock came with a Gwynne 8 just back on the road, and the only retirements were Amold-Forster’s Trojan which broke a spring (made from modern steel), Wayson’s 1920 10/30 Alvis that broke its crown wheel and pinion while reversing into a car park, a 1925 Standard with magneto trouble and a 10.8hp Clyno that was never seen again. . . Eddie Wrigley, who had an 8/18hp Talbot with Ford back axle preferred, as Organiser, to use his 1927 Lancia Lambda saloon.

The Suez Crisis petrol rationing called a halt in 1956 but the following year, the VSCC not wanting to repeat the experiment, I thought, why shouldn’t we get Motor Sport readers to join me on the Boxing Night folly? The brief was — no entry fees, no prizes, no publicity and no protests. Just a fun-run — I recall how astonished a TV producer was when I refused all his offers to film us. . . After my Christmas Day lunch with the children had been interrupted by a ‘phone call from Jenks, who had gone off in a F2 Lotus for a 120-mile run but had broken a drive-shaft and needed rescuing, we went off the next night to cover the 1922 Exeter route in Derrek Graham’s Trojan. It got up all the “sections”, as used on the real trial 34 years earlier, successfully. Five others joined in. (As Jenks said, of all those who asked for where the start would be, only the really keen ones would actually turn up).

The run was to be for vintage cars, preferably of the light variety, as those in Bentleys, Lagondas and the like might find it all too easy. The five in 1957 comprised Peacock in his brougham that had been Trojan’s service and test car, Mike Daker, substituting his 2-litre Lagonda as suggested for Peacock’s Gwynne 8, Bacon’s 1923 Palladium, and Graham’s Trojan, which I was soon to learn to drive. For a few miles the Rev Atkinson’s 1912 Unic taxi followed us, until its flickering oil lamps were seen no more. The fifth car, Nelm’s Chummy A7, joined in at Hartley Wintney. All went well, Jenks with me in the 1927/29 Trojan; its brakes gave out on the steep hill out of Bridport but the epicyclic reverse saved us and adjustment took but a few minutes. From fog to glimpses of the sun glinting off the sea at Sidmouth and Lyme Regis, to darkness as we returned to Staines; as DSJ remarked, in his case from a single-seater 140mph car to the back seat of a 40mph one in two days. . . The final touch came when the Trojan ran out of Petrol and a Regent rep got us a gallon of Shell in a BP tin. . .

Having acquired a 1924 12/20 hp Calthorpe two-seater, I decided to cover the 1924 Exeter route for the 1958 “Informal”. We now had people joining in from as far away as Wales and Huddersfield (alas, the Trojan from the latter place was then in no fit state to continue) and Miss Teague (A7) deleting the return run only because she went on to holiday at Land’s End. We started in rain from outside the Staines’ Super Cinema where the traditional Bridge House Hotel once stood, under the eyes of a Police car — but never in all these runs did the Police intervene, even when surprised to see a cavalcade of odd cars, some almost lightless, passing by through the night, during a check for turkey thieves at 4am near Honiton. This time 12 came, to try Peak, Marlpits, Salcombe and White Sheet hills (observed in the real 1924 Exeter) and we did the timed re-start on the last-named, Daniels’ 1928 Austin 12 fastest, in 6.2sec. We had a Thames van as rescue car but apart from lighting troubles nothing very dramatic occurred. The Calthorpe got up all the hills but Jenks had to walk behind it up to the top of Salcombe. And after the finish at Lobscombe Corner, having spent the night adjusting the tappets and changing plugs, he had to toil for hours when the magneto expired and the wiring “shorted” on the run home to Hampshire.

By 1959 the “Boxing Night Exeter” had become quite an occasion — 23 supported it. They followed the 1925 route behind the Calthorpe, now feeling its age, the dynamo u/s so we took two batteries, the White Sheet re-start taking 15sec instead of the previous 7.8. To make the outward night motoring less boring we included Middledown hill near Shaftesbury, not in the MCC itinerary, but where the Bugatti OC used to have timed night climbs on one of its long-distance Honiton trials; was it the late Jack Lemon Burton who brought a GP Bugatti down on a trailer, just for the fun of a nocturnal speed hill climb?

I had hurried back from the Boxing Day races at Brands Hatch (we were not the only mad ones!) to sign-on the “competitors”, some of whom had again come from far afield. Two of the larger cars were Frater’s 14/40 MG tourer (with heater) and Richards’ 14/45 Talbot, fastest on our 1925-style timed special test on White Sheet (20 steep yards, in 15 seconds or less) with 10sec, closely challenged by Frater and Vincent’s 12/50 Alvis. Names familiar today included Franklin (Rover 10), Tarring (14/40 Humber), Abraham (Singer Junior), Hayward (Fiat), Collings (11.9 Lagonda) and Berrisford (12/50 Alvis).

For the 1960 Boxing night I used the 1921 Exeter route, having borrowed from the National Motor Museum a 1921 AC — the NMM does not keep its exhibits in cottonwool, using them frequently; I had been lent several of its veterans for the Brighton Run. On the occasion in question it was a fiasco, however. The AC boiled, needed a battery change, didn’t like the hills, and had clutchslip at the re-start. After Beaminster it lost middle gear in its back-axle gearbox, needed water from a Coombe Bassett stream and I had to nurse it back in bottom and top cogs. After which the museum engineer lost the transmission completely and had to be taken home in a modern Morris Minor. Ice had caused some havoc at Marlpits but an Armstrong Siddely 14 was among those which got up with a little help and Major Money’s £6 1930 Morris Minor gave no trouble on his 500-mile jaunt. We even had a Norton motorcycle among the 36 enthusiasts who started, and 1 Davy of Standard-Triumph drove the Coventry museum’s Standard 9. Hale came in a sporting ABC, B Gray (A7) sounds familiar, two girls rode in Hazek’s hood-down Gwynne 8 and Abraham broke the Singer’s half-shaft, had another sent out from London, and resumed. Keen, they were!

More variety was provided in 1961, by using the 1928 Exeter route, starting correctly from the Slough Trading Estate and ending at Shaftesbury, the Calthorpe low on compression but more or less willing, given some plug changes. Artic weather prevailed but 22 took part, including many “regulars”, led by a 1922 Morris-Cowley. An MG Midget crashed on the ice, the Morris spinning in avoiding it. The CUAC team of A7s was there, with Standard Vanguard support van and Erik Johnson, the Mercedes-Benz PRO, brought a 4WD Auto-Union recovery vehicle. Sadly, this was the last of my “Informal Exeters”. Why? Because, not wanting drivers to come a long way only to get lost and miss the hills and the breakfast stops I had thought to be necessary on later runs (Exeter’s Black Horse Caff did not object to bedraggled crews joining the Truckers, and The Turk’s Head at Honiton opened at 6.30am for us) I had issued a simple routecard. Hearing of this, the RAC implied that Competition Licences were needed and it would certainly frown on timed tests on public roads, no matter how short or how deserted the location. Although I was advised to ignore this. I was fearful that if drivers were black-listed, later entry into real motoring events might well be jeopardised. I believe that, without Motor Sport’s co-operation, a few stalwarts continued to go on the runs for a year or two. But I decided that from my standpoint they must cease, in case a bad accident and other factors bought about the wrath of the RAC. It was great fun while it lasted. But bureaucracy had killed what started out as an enjoyable adventure, sans licences, entry fees, publicity, protests or bally-hoo.

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