Exeter revisited

[Although we devoted considerable space to the MCC Exeter Trial in last month’s Motor Sport, this was nothing to the coverage these popular sporting events received in vintage times. So we make no excuse for returning to the subject, with an account by Tom Threlfall, Editor of the VSCC Bulletin, about how his 1928 Model-A Ford fared in the 1977 Exeter – if only to encourage drivers of vintage and modern machinery to enter for the Land’s End Trial at Easter.- Ed]

Although the Exeter Trial was first held in 1910, a good many of the observed hills used in the early years are now main roads, and the others are either closed to motor traffic or not considered particularly testing for a modern car. The Trial settled irno its present format in the 19218 and many of the hills which were difficult then—Simms, for instance—still cause trouble today. Unlike some Observed Sections on the Land’s End Trial, which seem to be subject to the attentions of locals with JCB diggers or 500 gallons of old sump-oil, the Sections on the “Exeter” remain more or less as-found, and form a good basis for comparing the relative performances of ancient and modern. For 1977 the cars were divided into eight classes, according to number of seats, engine position, etc. Cars using “Town & Country”-type tyres were in separate classes from those using the more orthodox variety and were expected to stopand-restart on the steeper parts of some of the hills.

Around two dozen of the 180 cars entered for the trial were of pre-Hitler-war origin, though in the matters of lights and tyres most of them were showing signs of more recent developments. Although fatter-than-original tyres are aesthetically reprehensible on a prewar car, it is worth pointing out that such cars were allowed to attach to their wheels extremely knobbly tyres, bits of rope, or even chains to assist upward progress in the trials of their youth; fatter tyres were neither appreciated nor available then but the other aids are not permitted today.

I am seges est ubi Troia fuit. Freely translated, that bit of Heroides enquires politely what has happened to all the Trojans? For many years there has been a small posse of these cars in each MCC trial; last year them was but one on the Exeter and one on the Land’s End; this year there was none–what a pity! That sturdy breed of drivers who like to popple through the freezing 2 a.m. fog at 25 m.p.h. must finally have become extinct. The pre-war cars entered ranged in size from Sue Halkyard’s Austin Chummy to Barker’s expiring Model-A Ford; HRGs were fielded by Uglow, White and Newton; Hallam’s BMW-engined Frazer Nash was in evidence, but Still’s TT Replica was a non-starter. MGs were much in favour, although two of the J-types seemed to have later engines.

Judicious choice of starting point and posting date fin the entry form can determine a competitor’s starting time on these long-distance trials. Looking for an early start followed, DV and WP, by an early finish, we had opted for Cirencester; the other two possibilities were Reading and Lowdown, near Launceston. Our starting time turned out to boot quarter-past-midnight on the Saturday morning.

The Land’s End of 1952 was my first MCC trial, when I rode a Douglas which was dropped several times on most sections. Since then I have been more or less hooked, and have entered with anything which was to hand—from a Dellow to a VW ‘bus. This time the mount was a Model-A Ford, which was to the specification at which it left the Detroit works in August 1928, apart from the rear wheels, which were those from a 1932 Model-B, carrying 5.50 x 18 tyres instead of the 4.50 x 21’s originally used. A single 55-watt dipped headlight—quite legal on a pre-1931 car—which looked very like a foglight, had been fitted as deputy to the original 20-candlepower luminaries. To keep this greedy thing fed the third brush on the 6-volt dynamo had been pushed round to its full extremity and the cover left off, to assist cooling. The excellent navigation was by Mike Wood, a mug-printer from Bridport and one-time President of the Weymouth MCC, who had never taken part in an MCC Trial before, and wished to widen his experience. We were supposed to be running in company with Barker in the other Model-A, but he was late starting for some reason, and subsequently lost all the car’s electrics and a vital part of its head gasket. So he went back, home, darkly.

We drove first some 85 miles to the Frying Pan Cafe, at Sparkford, where the routes from the three starting points joined. There was a new gastronomic experience in wait for us—the Chipburger. With tomato sauce and mustard, and a little ash from your neighbour’s fag, the Chipburger is very filling. Hallam’s navigator was saddened to find no hot water here for her bottle. After an hour or so, at 03.33 to be precise, there proved to be just enough left in its battery to excite the Ford’s engine, so we departed for the first Observed Section—Windmill. This one, and its successor—Stafford—near Honiton, are really only appetisers and serve to give new navigators practice at letting-down tyres and pumping them up again in the dark. The approaches to Stafford were very icy, and when we arrived there at about 6 a.m. it was very difficult to stand up on the steeper parts. After watching the motorcyclists trying— with variable success—to remain upright, we came to the conclusion that our own troubles of over-ventilated knees and iced windscreen were, in comparison, negligible. The third Section, Tillerton, was some thirty miles farther on, a little to the south-west of Crediton. The Ford had ground to a halt the previous year, with three souls on board, in some deep ruts. This time the VW in front of us was unable to get off the start line, which at least showed where not to put the front wheels. The Ford’s performance was improved by being a little lighter now, and it climbed to the top like a startled slug.

Daylight appeared, the third brush was returned to its usual spot, and there was breakfast at Kennford, just south of Exeter. The next Section—Rocombe, south-west of Teignmouth—was new to me; it was quite steep, and surfaced with pebbles the size of footballs. Morgans and other low-slung things tended to run aground, but the Model-A managed to step over.

Some ten miles beyond Totnes was Blakemore, designated a Special Test. The test involved dashing backwards and forwards between some lines of Vito in a muddy but not very steep little lane. Providence took no account of our omitting to let the tyres down.

Notable climbers of Simms, the next Section, were the Halkyard Chummy (on the knobbliest 13-in. tyres I ever saw), the 1,500-c.c. J2 MG (?) of Moores, also on knobblies, and Fletcher’s more proper 847-c.c. J2 MG on standard “boots”. Newton’s HRG was unlucky to run out of fuel pump very near the top of the hill. “This can sometimes be remedied by giving . . . a few sharp taps with a piece of wood.” (Instruction book for 4 1/2-litre Bentley.) Newton chose to change the pump. The elderly Ford has never run out of power on a hill, and this one was no exception; grip, however, ran out at the steepest part, and the last 20 yards were completed in an undignified manner on the end of a rope. This loss of a first class award was celebrated with a tin of beer and a cold sausage before setting course via Waterworks —a picturesque but not very difficult section— for Fingle.

Fingle hill has been a regular on the Exeter route card since 1932, but Fingle bridge, over which the route used to run, was found to be too weak for cars at the end of 1975, and had to be missed by the car classes in the 1976 trial. Thanks to some excellent liaison between the MCC and the Forestry Commission the route this year avoided the bridge and led to the foot of the hill along some of the Commission’s roads. It was lunchtime, and there was a short pause for the consumption of this and that, during which time some grockles accumulated and started to express doubts about the Ford’s ability to ascend the hill. We were just about to start a book when the marshal returned from his lunch and bade us be gone, so we had to go. There were several hairpins, but the gradient was not very steep, and if there had been a problem it would have been fuel starvation, since the level in the gravity-feed scuttle tank was rather low; fortunately the machine, continued to function all the way up, and we pottered off via a piece of the new Exeter ring-road to the finish at Sidmouth.

The absence of Reggie Marians, the MCC’s President, from the finish was unusual. He has embellished finishes for more years than 100, remember, but this year he was sick at home, and we missed him. Also absent at the end were Hallam, Way (Austin 7), Moore (Singer Le Mans), Smith (PB) and several of the later starters from Lewdown, for whom the call of their own “locals” must have been too strong. Of the pre-war cars, seven claimed first class awards, two claimed seconds, four claimed thirds, one did not claim, and nine non-started or retired. That useful information might lead to statistician to conclude that while those funny old cars may be more fragile than their successors, they are undoubtedly more nimble.—T.J.T.