The British Trial and Rally Drivers Association recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee in its spiritual home of Cheltenham. John Clewer explains why this famous old institution is still the bastion of club motor sport in this country.
In 1988 the world of motorsport is very “high-tech” even for the clubman, with computerised engine management systems almost the norm rather than the exception. But fifty years ago life was very different. When the BTRDA was formed motorsport consisted of long distance trials and rallying as we know it today did not exist.
Essentially motorsport was a minority participatory sport because, of course, motor cars were an expensive commodity and not too many British citizens could afford them. Very little high-speed motorsport could be viewed by the interested spectator, road races took place on the continent or in Ireland or the Isle of Man, but not on mainland Britain. Some sand racing and speed-hillclimbs took place, Brooklands was in use but falling into disrepair whilst Donington Park was open but only a few times each year.
Rallies as such were popular but few and far between, usually run on a regularity basis with special tests along the way. These took the form of manoeuvrability tested against the clock, or attempts to climb severe gradients not normally attempted by the ordinary car user.
Thus were born both Trials and Driving Tests (now known as Autotests), and then, as now, ingenious and ambitious competitors began to develop their cars. The sports-cars of the day were obviously best suited to this sort of event, and trials entry-lists, which could amount to over 100, consisted of MGs in many forms, Austin (usually the various Seven models), Singer, Morgan, Riley, and perhaps a few Triumphs and HRGs, together with some foreign-built Fiats, BMWs or similar agile performance cars. Knobbly tyres were all the rage; though banned from 1939, ultra-low gear-ratios were tried, and some folk (Sydney Allard in particular) started to make special vehicles for sale.
Sufficient interest was created in the public eye to attract the publicity departments of the motor manufacturers, and some “works teams” were developed with specially engineered vehicles “sold” to their regular drivers and then “bought back” at the end of the season. Thus were born the two teams of MGs — the Cream Crackers (tastefully painted in chocolate and cream) and their compatriots the Musketeers (wearing bright red). There were also the Austin Grasshoppers using, initially at least, the Le Mans 24-Hour Race cars suitably modified, the Fiat team of pretty Balilla two seaters, the Singer team known as Candidii Provocotaries (White Challengers) and many more including the Allard Tailwaggers.
This then was the scene in December 1937, when the trial circus went to compete in the Gloucester Trial. It was not a good event. CAN May diplomatically says in his book, Wheelspin, that “There was a lot of discussion about it” calling it a “very severe event” in which only two entrants achieved “cleans”
Whatever went wrong doesn’t really matter. Suffice to say that the leading enthusiasts of the day decided they would like to influence the organisation of trials and provide a responsible body that the authorities and the public could recognise as such and who, perhaps, could help overcome the problems being created by knobbly tyres and long lines of muddy cars vvaiting on narrow public roads and frustrating local inhabitants. Thus was born the British Trial Drivers Association.
In early 1957 the BTDA changed its name to the British Trial and Rally Drivers Association, and slowly other committees were formed, joining the existing Executive, Rallies and Trials committees.
Nowadays the BTRDA comprises of some seven committees organising National Championships for Allrounders, Autocross, Autotests, Production Car Trials, Rallies, Rallycross and Sporting Trials. Leaving aside the sports of rallying and rallycross, where the Association has recently successfully introduced two new Clubman’s Championships, the two most popular areas must be autotests, with no less than 700 events listed in the 1988 RAC MSA “Blue Book” and Production Car Trials with 250 events.
The autotesting scene has changed over the years, though perhaps not as dramatically as many other forms of the sport. It is still concerned with the mastery of manoeuvres around a course defined by markers, against the clock, and is perhaps best described as a “canoe slalom on tarmac,” calling for expert car-control in a confined space.
Each driver completes a series of tests during the day, and the driver with the lowest total time is the winner. In addition to the actual time taken to complete a test, a competitor is penalised ten seconds each time he touches a pylon or fails to stop correctly astride a line. If he takes a wrong route he incurs a “maximum” penalty, which is equivalent to the fastest time by a competitor in his class plus 30 seconds.
The “Flather Star” Championship began in 1958 when it was won by Ian Mantle driving his Mini, and in those early days you could win your class or even make Fastest Time of the Day (“FTD”) with a virtually standard car. In the 1980s things are a little different.
The class-structure remains similar with classes for small and large saloons, sports-cars and specials, but the vehicles themselves are radically different. Most of the cars are modified specially for autotesting at the top of the sport, but it is quite possible to compete in club events in a completely standard front-wheel-drive “shopping car”. In fact a number of people will contest championship rounds in standard cars, driving them to and from events, and collect good results.
The prize of FTD can normally be expected to go to the “specials” — either to a front-wheel drive lightweight Mini Special (basically a Mini with no roof, back or sides) or to a rear-wheel drive machine such as David Haigh’s self-built Haigh Special, which started life as a trials car.
Competition is always fast, furious and spectacular, and at the end of the day competitors may be split by tenths of a second. The sports-cars always prove competitive, and in the other classes good competition can be had with a Mini or an Escort.
Along with all the BTRDA’s championships, autotests still feature a wonderful comradeship between competitors, and if anyone suffers a breakage then many hands will soon help. Once, a short time ago, a broken half-shaft would mean the end of a day’s sport and perhaps a tow home; these days it is just 45 minutes work on site.
The sport of Production Car Trialling has been in existence for over thirty years. The types of vehicle may change, but the black art of finding traction where none exists is still the challenge.
A Production Car Trial (“PCT”) is an off-road trial in which you attempt to drive your car as far as possible up a short section of given terrain, marked by coloured posts. This calls for skill, judgement, and an ability to discover where the most traction will be found, along with accurate and smooth throttle control. Each section (known as a “hill” in trialling jargon) may consist of steep gradients, adverse cambers, gullies and lock-defying turns, with each different surface offering a varying amount of grip.
PCTs will normally take place in a large field of undulating terrain, possibly with a few trees and bushes to make the site a little more interesting. They will normally consist of eight hills laid out across the site, with each hill being attempted four times during the course of the day. Each hill is normally altered slightly between each round, to either increase or lessen the challenge depending upon the conditions.
Correct vehicle selection and preparation, whilst different to most other forms of motorsport, is of no less importance. “Ah”, you may say, “but some cars are more suitable for this sport than others!” This is taken care of by dividing vehicles into seven different classes; overall positions are calculated by an index of performance, which measures the percentage improvement of the class-winner over the other competitors in the same class.
The regulations stipulate what modifications may be carried out to the car, what tyres and tyre pressures) may be used, and what preparation carried out.
If you are using the family car, it may entail removing the child safety-seat, the toys and the sweet wrappers. Down goes the back seat to provide not only a psychological advantage in weight transfer but also to make room for the spare petrol, wheelbrace, jack, foot-pump and picnic. A cursory pull on the dip stick and a waggle of the battery may conclude the mechanical inspection, and you are ready. The beauty of the sport is that, apart from the emergence of front-wheel drive, nothing has changed in the last fifty years. Keep it simple and be successful.
Both autotests and production car trials are non-damaging forms of motorsport and, with entry fees for events normally in the region of £8-£10, a good day’s sport can be enjoyed at a reasonable price. Closed club events can be entered using just a club membership card, whilst those events open to members of other clubs, or of National Championship status, require the competitor to hold at least a Clubman C-grade licence, which is available from the RAC MSA for £7.
The British Trial and Rally Drivers Association is the clubmans association. The initials BTRDA are said to mean: “Brings The Real Driver Alive”, and we hope we really do! If you would like more details of the BTRDA, or of the championships it organises, contact the association at Litfield House, 15 Cabstand, Portishead, Bristol BS20 9HW. JCC