Distance No Deterrent

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I never tire of reminding you how much we owe to the MCC for continuing its famous long-distance trials, the Exeter, Land’s End and Edinburgh, which are formidable and respected long mileage classics dating back to before the First World War. But these were not the only such tests open to ordinary drivers in the days when cars were less accommodating, but more fun, than they are now.

I am thinking for the moment, not of the great adventure runs across Continents, like those well covered in the books of Tim Nicholson, or the seemingly endless endurance marathons sometimes undertaken by Mon Lecot and his indefatigable breed, nor National trials like the Scottish and Welsh Six-Days, etc. I just never fail to be impressed at the things less professional drivers used to get up to, for amusement and a challenge, in other far less well-known tests of a similar kind. For instance, in 1921 the Ealing & District MCC, hardly a leading organisation, decided on a 336-mile trial from London to Holyhead, with some tough gradients to be observed en route; at that time the classic MCC London-Exeter trial involved an out-and-back distance of 318 miles. It might have been surmised that, at this period not much of an entry would have been forthcoming. In fact, sufficient drivers took part in this long haul to make it worthwhile. They started from the Berkeley Arms at Cranford near Hounslow (then open country from where the first cross-channel air service had operated) from midnight, the first time-control at Ann’s Garage in Faringdon. All arrived to schedule, but soon Rex Mundy, the KLG plugs rep, was in trouble with his Deemster’s lubrication system, needing a temporary repair. The next check was in Gloucester, where time-keeper Gibb provided refreshments for the competitors. Now dust covered and weary, the driver of a little Le Zebre went to sleep and ran into a ditch, without any damage. But no doubt he was as pleased as any to take breakfast at the Hop Pole in Hereford. After Rhayader the going became tougher, with an observed hill to climb W Cooper, the well known Brooklands’ official, did well in his sports Morris Cowley, as did the Hon Victor Bruce in an AC. C M Harvey’s Alvis, and even the Carden cyclecars went up strongly. Then the schedule became harder, as the route ran towards Devil’s Bridge. (This road has been somewhat eased in the matter of blind bends but is still an interesting scenic run, banned to motor-coaches, so that timid tourists prefer the A470/A44 (if you can find it, there is an interesting road on the opposite side of river to the A470, as far as Llangurig).

In 1921 a dozen water splashes had to be negotiated on this section, but the Morrises of Cooper and photographer W J Brunell were untroubled. A 15mph average here included a hill at Stay-a-Little above Llanidloes (still the better scenic route to Machynlleth) which the TB and Morgan three-wheelers and the tiny Cardens ascended splendidly. The real obstacle was the notorious Bwlch-y-Groes pass, Here Billy Cooper and H F 5 Morgan seem to have been the best performers but Will Jowett in his 6,4hp Jowett came up slowly, as did Brittain’s boiling Calthorpe. The AC and a GN found the bleak gradient impossible, the Le Zebre shed its passenger for a short distance, and Cushman’s Bugatti stopped but got going again. Beatson’s big Hudson got to the top fairly well. The last check was at the Bala lunch-stop, after which the roads to the finish at Bangor were described as “defying description, dust rising in clouds”. However, 17 survived this long run.

Before this the Junior Car Club (junior only in name arid soon to achieve lasting recognition with its 200-Mile Race at Brooklands) had held its second London-Manchester Run, stiffened up since 1920 by the inclusion of Kelstedge, Man Tor and Castleton hills, but described as “just a day’s jaunt for pleasure” with some picturesque scenery included. All 67 starters, except the LM which appeared to have a slipping clutch, got up the 1-in-7 first observed hill. The Silver Hawk and Cushman’s 16-valve Bugatti took it as if a timed climb, sliding the corners, and even the leading red AV and the Cardens managed it, although the latter were inclined to four-stroke. Long before that, however, Harvey’s Warren-Lambert had a choked jet and a defective foot-brake, tyre trouble stopped others, a Fiat had to be towed to Towcaster to have its magneto repaired and a motorcycle had rammed an AC.

The Peak District took its toll, of a Richardson with a split radiator, the Surrey, a Carden with a faulty magneto, Harvey’s Warren-Lambert, and the Mercury — names that should excite historians — and the Zebre ran on precariously with its o/s front wheel adrift. Otherwise this long drive was accomplished successfully by 56 entrants, which included more now-forgotten cars, such as Tamplin, Unit No 1, Crouch, TB Meteorite, Hocstmann, Marlborough, Ashton-Evans, Eric Campbell, Deemster, Charron-Laycock, Temperino, Secqueville-Hoyau, BAC, Cluley and Castle Three, The Midland Hotel provided supper after the Run, and a JCC film was shown.

These were not the only clubs to offer endurance runs, for instance, the Midland AC organised a 24-hour trial in 1921. Nor is there anything new about LEJOG. Although in vintage times completing the route was regarded as enough, whereas in the 1990’s Land’s Ends-to-John O’Groats Run observed sections and tests are included, there was no lack of enthusiasm for this formidable haul in the 1920s, when it was part of the fare open to MCC members, on motorcycles, three-wheelers and cars. There had been single vehicle dashes between the far-spaced places from the very early days, starting with Henry Sturmey’s run on a 4hp Daimler in 1897. But for ordinary drivers in ordinary cars it was still a considerable feat of mechanical reliability and crew endurance.

In 1924, for example, when the MCC restricted its LEJOG to 36 car entrants, as well as 48 motorcycles and two three-wheelers, the list was quickly filled. Then, as now, Austin 7s were in evidence and well-known competition drivers entered, such as Walsgrove and Havers (Riley), Donald Healey and Sangster (Ariel Tens, the latter the designer of the Ariel flat-twin engine), Moss-Blundell in a Rhode, Tatlow with a LeaFrancis, Driskell (DFP), and Bliss in his aged Fiat, all ready to prove their competence. But the mind rather boggles at doing this Run in a Rover Eight, which is what one masochist proposed.

The first car left Land’s End at 5.25am on July 8 and was expected to arrive at John O’Groats by 8.45pm on July 11. Two ABCs were in the hunt and those who looked for a more comfortable ride turned to American cars, a 24hp Durant and a 15.6hp Durant-Rugby. Two Straker Squire lightcars, a Palladium, a Westbook and a Seabook were also listed.

The 875-mile route followed was Exeter, Worcester, Bridgnorth, Preston, Kendal, Carlisle, Lanark, Crieff, Kingussie, Inverness, Dingwell, Golspie and Wick, over roads unbelievably poor compared to those in post-WW2 days. The roads were somewhat trying in the industrial area of Lancashire. Breakfast was taken in Carlisle at the Country Hotel, after which the rain set in. Beyond Abington the roads got progressively poorer, and from Crieff and down the Sma’ Glen they were appalling. Yet the scheduled average speed was generally maintained, even in drizzle rain over the Grampians. Supper was had at Kingussie, no doubt to Driskell’s relief, as he had done the night section on a gas generator and one old Lucas motorcycle lamp tied to a front mudguard. More rain and darkness to Golspie, where a buffet breakfast was provided. Berriedale climb was no problem and the A7s of Poppe and Milton “buzzed along impressively”. The Palladium and Westwood carried a full complement of passengers but went up well. The only casualty seems to have been a motorcyclist who fell asleep and was taken into Carlisle in the competing Austin 20. In fact, all 30 cars completed this 48-hour run including two Scottish ones, the Arrol-Johnston and the Galloway, driven by the Leveretts. Tyre selection had been interesting, Abbott Brown’s sports 12/50 Alvis on 145mm Englebert low pressure covers, the Palladium also on balloons, while Healey had the new Avon I p tyres on his Ariel; Sangster’s Ariel was a sports model, named “The Tomato”. Non-starters included McCorquodale’s 30-98, a Gwynne 8, Seabrook, 25hp Vauxhall, an ABC and Lawton Goodman’s Whitlock light-car.

I do not want to labour the fact that even in earlier times many tough long-distance trials took place. But perhaps those doing the next LEJOG, and those intrepid A7-ists who hasten from John O’Groats to Land’s End may like to spare a thought for these indisputable feats from the past. W B

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