Take the High Road

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Looking back, it seems odd that the reasons I decided to take part in the Historic Endurance Rally Organisation’s third Classic Malts rally in Scodand have nothing to do with those which will make me do it again. Sitting in airconditioned splendour as we thundered north, the brother’s Bentley anchored to the back of a colossal Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon (don’t let anyone tell you there’s a better car for such purposes), my motives were simple. To cruise around in an old family friend, meet like-minded people, indulge in a light-hearted competition and sample the finest liquor in the land.

You have no idea how much I underestimated this event. At scrutineering, located at the Glenkinchie distillery south of Edinburgh, all was lighthearted and classless. The 120-car entry covered a huge range. One couple in a RollsRoyce Phantom VI had a chauffeur in a tender car who stayed behind each morning to pack, then raced ahead to check out the evening’s accomodation. And there were two blokes in a Morris Eight picked up for a tenner in 1967.

But soon the serious crews started appearing. Teams of rally-prepared Triumphs and Healeys came complete with strange-looking instruments bolted to the dashboards with convincing electronic readouts. All we had was a speedometer guaranteed to read within lOmph of true and an odometer we discovered was a handy 24 per cent fast. We bought a stopwatch. In our class was another 4.1/2-litre Bentley and two Alvises, one a beautiful 12/50, the other a famous Brooldands Double Twelve referred to reverentially as The Green Car’. Our numbers were reduced by one on the first day when the other Bentley was run off the road, causing enough damage ix it to be unsafe to continue. As for the Alvises, both were so well driven by such experienced crews we rarely did anything but eat their dust Even so, we thought we had done well enough on day one considering the tiny lanes through which we had to thread the car with its ever more dubious brakes. The competition is split into three sections: there’s a road route from one place to another where the only imperative is not to be more than an hour late at a check; there are handling tests more suited to karts than vintage Bendeys, where pace and accuracy are the key. Finally, there is the regularity. Here you have to adopt a certain speed and maintain it down public roads, come what may. The tulip map on your lap is the only indication of what’s to come and there are hidden checks everywhere. Clock in a single second early or late 24 and you are penalised. Some of these runs went on for over an hour. The driver gets physically tired as the Bentley is some lump to haul over switchbacked mountain passes — but it is nothing compared to the mental torture suffered by the navigator. Everything depends on he who sits in the left hand seat; the driver simply executes instructions. Jonathan and I shared duties and each once suffered neural melt down costing us points, which would have been critical had we been doing at all well. In the event, it couldn’t have mattered less.

As the rally curled for 1500 miles around Scotland, from Edinburgh past Inverness to Brora, across to Cape Wrath, down to Skye, on to Oban and back to the capital, we became aware of several things which, at the time, surprised us.

First is the truth that the north west of Scotland is the most beautiful place in Europe. From Durness to Ullapool, it seemed there was an award-winning location around every corner. Second, this rally was a serious event taken on by serious people. There were those taking part for the recreation, but we learned the amount you got out of each day was proportional to what you put in.

It was six days before we saw Edinburgh again. During that time we had blundered our way up the Rest And Be Thankful hillclimb, passed the extinct Findo Gask circuit, trotted around Knockhill and sampled some of the finest malts on earth. Some cars crashed and a third Alvis burned just a minute behind us. But we had seen some fine machines. Jaguars were everywhere; there was a Sunbeam Tiger which won (as it had on the two previous years), a Dino 246GT, Lotus Europa and a Denzel driven with verve by the grandson of its creator.

And then there was David Ingram and Norman Gauk on board a MU Jaguar. Last year’s event was David’s first ever historic rally. This year they returned to finish as one of just five crews to be awarded coveted Gold Medals.

We clung only to Bronze awards. Still, we scraped into the top quarter of the field and, of the 30-odd historic rally rookies, we were third. Sadly doing alright on this event is far from alright We are hooked. Hooked by the competition, the scenery, company, cars, HERO’s organisation and, yes, the whisky too.

It’s not cheap: the entry costs 12350, the accomodation ranges from four star to B&B and you will have to buy most of your meals yourself But it’s worth it, worth it all just for the sight of the finish, seen by all bar 17 crews. As Jonathan and I rejoined the ‘Cruiser and made our way south again, Bentley in one piece behind us, the talk was of little other than ways we can improve next year. We’ll never get a Gold: the car is too cumbersome, its crew too dim-witted and the competition too hot for that. But a silver? Just maybe.