Trialling – bouncing a vintage car up a country hill to score points – is a great motor sport tradition which continues to thrive within the VSCC
By Damien Smith
Last year you might remember I accepted an offer to be bounced around in a rally car as co-driver to Tony Jardine. Well, I’ve been ‘bouncing’ again. But this time the actual bouncing was intentional and, perhaps surprisingly, served a purpose.
Trialling is an idiosyncratic branch of motor sport. Publicity is thin on the ground, and it’s something even we at Motor Sport rarely touch upon, at least these days. Remember when WB used to give the Exeter Trial the front cover every January? It wouldn’t happen today, I’m afraid.
Not that it matters, because publicity has little relevance to this world. Triallists do not compete for recognition, for plaudits. They are a distinct brand of purists dedicated to fun; to a social, highly spirited, energetic and, yes, competitive way of spending weekends in the country.
The Vintage Sports-Car Club, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, invited me to its popular Herefordshire Trial in March. As with rally co-driving, this would be new ground, only much less stressful.
As formats go, trialling is refreshingly straightforward. The Herefordshire runs over two days, with eight hills dotted around the county to tackle on the Saturday and seven on the Sunday. The choice of order is totally up to each crew and, unlike my experience of rallying, watching the clock on the roads between each trial is not an issue.
Each hill is marked out by 25 posts, running up the right-hand side of the course. Each post represents a point and the name of the game is to score a maximum of 25 by reaching the top, without stopping. If you slither to a standstill, that’s the end of your ascent.
The gap between each post depends on the type of incline and the length of the hill, which can vary from less than 50 yards for the steepest and roughly 150 for the shallowest. But whatever the length, the trials are not completed against the clock. It’s not about how fast you go, it’s how far – with one exception… More on that later.
Former Porsche ‘moderns’ racer Nigel Garland kindly allowed me to ‘bounce’ in his pristine and very original 1924 Vauxhall 30/98. It’s not exactly the sort of car I expected to see trialling. Apart from the fact it’s worth a small fortune, it’s a very big car. But in the VSCC any car is a trials car, even Bentleys, and never mind rocks and a bit of mud, they are all driven with gusto. Age and value are almost irrelevant; driving a car as it was born to be driven is what it’s all about.
So here we were, four up in the big Vauxhall, Nigel’s wife Shelley joining him in the front, me in the back with family friend George.
As we reached the first trial Nigel took a ‘recce’ walk up the hill, while us bouncers set to work on the rear tyre pressures, letting them down to about 13psi to ensure maximum traction up the incline. Low pressures are of course illegal on the public roads, so at the top we’d pump the tyres back up again.
I’d been expecting to get muddy, but on this day the Herefordshire countryside was bathed in sunshine. The trials were dry and dusty, easy meat for the big, powerful Vauxhall. We shot up most of the hills with a minimum of bounce.
Nigel is affectionately known within the club as ‘Toad’, the nod to the Wind in the Willows character obvious once you’ve witnessed him hunched behind the wheel gunning his 30/98. As he tore around the countryside (at legal speed of course) we chatted away, in defiance of blustering wind noise. This is sociable motor sport.
The first serious challenge of the day came on the Chandos trial, a grassy orchard behind a picture postcard farmhouse. At the top we faced our first ‘restart’, a short and very sharp incline. Nigel placed the front wheels on the mark, paused, then stamped on the centre throttle.
We took our bouncing lead from Shelley in the front, the technique being to rise and fall in rhythm. The big Vauxhall slipped and churned in the mud, and with a nod from the marshal we accepted a very respectable score of 20.
It would be a restart on a later trial that would bring a sad anti-climax to our day. This one was even steeper and as the car strained under power I heard an expensive clunk from somewhere under my backside. The rear axle had taken more than it could.
As we rolled to a standstill, Nigel called the AA to explain that his six-figure Vauxhall needed rescuing from a remote farm in the middle of nowhere. His disappointment was obvious, but his humour never failed: “As Ron Dennis would say, ‘that’s modor racing’!” he grinned.
I felt guilty leaving the crew stranded, but Nigel insisted I get a lift back to event HQ.
Adam Jones, a VSCC regular officiating rather than competing today, offered me a ride in his Austin 7. I squeezed in and waved a regretful goodbye to the crew in the 30/98.
Even at modest speed, the 7 is invigorating. On the way back Adam took a detour to Dean’s Place, to sample a trial we hadn’t reached. This challenging course wound through a quarry and was the only one to be timed. In the event of points tie-breakers, the times up Dean’s Place would decide who would get the prizes. I’d be reminded of its significance tomorrow.
Day two, and for me a new (old) car. Dr Jonathan ‘Jo’ Rose had kindly offered me a place in his Tim Dutton-owned 1930 Model-A Ford, relegating his mates Ian and Fraser to the jump seats. The bountiful torque of the 3.3-litre engine, a stream of banter and welcome nutrition from Jo’s wife Vicky (great muffins!) helped us fly through the trials.
Organiser Mark Garfitt had warned me he’d be up early to “prepare” the hills, and sure enough there were a few challenges awaiting us. Despite no sign of overnight rain, at least one start was mysteriously sludgy. The Ford’s tyre pressures could be dropped as low as 8psi and it was just as well. We’d need every bit of grip.
Halfway up Royal Bounty, we almost came to a stop in thick mud (no rhythmic bouncing with Jo – we just went at it hammer and tongs…).
A marshal indicated all was lost, but another confirmed we were still edging forward. Just as we thought it was all over, the tyres found some purchase and we scrabbled out.
But the squelchiest moment would come on Herbert’s Hump, where a grass-covered bog awaited us. Jo sawed at the wheel, the left rear-wing just missing a course marker post by about an inch. But still we made it to the top.
Finally to the last trial, Frith Wood. A couple of Specials ahead managed just a few yards up the sludgy start. Would the Ford fail us? Not a chance. Another 25 points were ours, and with it a perfect score of 375 over the two days.
We returned to the How Caple Court HQ triumphant, although overall victory would elude our man. His time on Dean’s Place fell short of Jonathan Miller’s effort in a Chrysler 66 Sport, but Jo was delighted with his well-earned First Class award.
There can be few motor sporting arenas where you can pick up a supply of the local cider and stow it in your footwell on the event. The VSCC’s strong family membership, which is encouraging a new generation to discover the joy of old cars, is keeping an eccentric, unique and fun arm of the sport alive and healthy. Long may that continue.
For information on events during the VSCC’s 75th anniversary year, log on to www.vscc.co.uk