Peter Clark ponders upon “How were the ‘mighty’ fallen…!”
In this unusual article Peter Clark, as a successful trials competitor and for his exploits at Le Mans, is modest enough to admit early mistakes, which should be useful to beginners to ponder.—Ed.
Those of you who were at the “Rembrandt” party last September may remember my remarks about “spurious experts”. This is not a hit at Pomeroy, nor even at Sam Clutton. Nor am I, in this instance, thinking of technical knowledge. I am thinking of actual driving skill, or lack of it.
As we no longer have to demonstrate the state of our proficiency before a critical audience and against keen competition every week-end, we drivers (or some of us) now cherish an exaggerated idea of how good we were. I have therefore been looking through a collection of photographs showing myself in all manner of undignified positions. This has a salubrious effect, and in the hope that it may jog the memories of others who may not at present have access to their own albums. I have caused some of these miserable episodes to be here reproduced. Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce all of them, nor do the photographs always show the full horror I have, therefore, also tried to paint some sort of a picture in words, to which end I have been assisted (and greatly entertained) by looking through many old route cards.
Very often one got up the difficult hills and (swollen with conceit) failed on an easy one. I can recall climbing Simms and Boccombe in torrential rain in the 1936 M.C.C. “Torquay”, only to become firmly wedged on Waterworks, where I did not merely fail but did considerable damage to both running boards of my Jensen by crashing clumsily from bank to bank.
Four months later I put up a simply disgraceful show in the M.C.C. “Sporting” (Buxton). I like to think this was largely due to my listening to a learned dissertation by Alan Whiddington on how to climb Jenkin’s Chapel. “Look out for the lump of rock on the inside, and take it wide,” he said. I was so busy looking at the aforesaid lump of rock that I paid no attention to the outside, and the car came to rest with a monumental crash. On a subsequent occasion, with my Alvis “12/50”, I sailed round the difficult right-hand hairpin, only to run out of road on the far easier left-hand corner which follows. Reverting to that awful 1936 “Sporting”, I was so angry about Jenkins that I approached Taddington in a fury and very nearly failed on that too. It is one of the easiest hills in the British Isles and is often included unobserved. I did manage to get up Litton Slack, but had another expensive accident with the gateposts at the top. Bamford Clough is admittedly fairly difficult, and needless to say I made a mess of it in the mood in which I was.
I think I should like to apologise, once and for all, to all the marshals and other patient officials to whom I fear I may have been intolerably rude on such occasions.
I always liked the Kentish Border Club’s trials—probably because I was fairly successful in them. Nevertheless. in spite of climbing Stowting quite regularly, one was always liable to be caught out on the “trick” hairpin at Shrubbs Wood, of which more anon.
The 1936 “Gloucester” was another costly venture, as part way up Middle Drag the Jensen’s camshaft broke in the middle leaving me only four cylinders to play with. I have a photograph taken at the precise moment when this disaster occurred, but beyond a slight smoke haze behind there is nothing special to indicate the cause of the stoppage. A four-cylindered attempt at Hodgecombe was, of course, abortive. I was not in a friendly humour, and following an argument with my navigator-wife (who was right) took a wrong turning and skidded off the road in the snow into a ditch. My wife had to sit on the running board to prevent the car slipping further in and overturning, whilst I had to walk back to Hodgecombe, to enlist the aid of the official horse, “Major”. I had to wait until the entire entry had passed before “Major” was available, by which time we were both in a low humour. “Major”, in fact, broke his chains five times, by starting off at approximately 20 m.p.h. as soon as he was attached to the Jensen.
We arrived back at the Bear Hotel, Rodborough, in time to find almost everyone gone except Maurice Zwick, whose Rapier had blown up. We towed him back to London (on four cylinders). Readers may remember that, by sheer perseverance, Zwick ultimately made that car into a really excellent and reliable trials job; if I remember rightly, he threw away the body and fitted a supercharger in its place.
The Sunbeam M.C.C. trial on the “tank busting” ground near Bagshot was almost the maiden voyage of my Alvis “12/50”. As I have mentioned on a previous occasion, when writing in some detail of the various cars it has been my good fortune to own, this was my first attempt at home building, and it was too long and too light at the back for trials. But it was a grand car on the road. The 1937 M.C.C. Land’s End saw my Jensen teamed with another Jensen (Derek Silcock’s) and a sort of Hudson-ish device (Keith Silcock’s). I don’t think any of us drove very cleverly, and my chief recollection is of our frantic efforts, at each observed section, to dissuade Keith from his threats to drive home, and of our fears that we should find he had disappeared before the next section. Also both Derek and I had rather frightening punctures on the last leg to Land’s End in the dark; Derek was using Invicta Z-tread tyres, one of which came clean off and went into a field, where we had to go looking for it with torches.
In November, 1937, the Torbay and Totnes “Riviera” Trial was another of those ghastly exhibitions. I think it all started because I had my H.R.G. sent down by train in order that I could attend a business conference in London the evening before and come down myself on a sleeper. There was a good deal of delay and argument getting the car unloaded at Newton Abbott, and then it wouldn’t start because it was frozen. In the end I was nearly late for the start. which is always a bad thing. Anyway, to borrow an apt expression from Dr. Benjafield, “I drove like a housemaid”. It was a very difficult trial and I don’t remember getting up anything.
The 1938 Colmore was an almost equally disgraceful exhibition. Two of my photographs show me failing (a) on Warren and (b) on Nailsworth Ladder. In the former, the car has just sunk backwards into the retaining rail, breaking it (and my tail-lamp). I seem to be clutching the driving mirror, and my infamous beret has been shoved desperately to the back of my head. On Nailsworth I have just ended a perfect day breaking a crop of piston rings by over-revving. There are no photos recording my failures on Leckhampton and Juniper, nor of my team mate, Louise Redfern (Mrs. Gordon Claridge to you) standing up on her seat and roundly abusing me for mis-leading the team over a rocky field where she grounded her sump with a mighty wallop.
The 1939 Colmore was not much better, in fact I think I am allergic to Sunbac. This time I had Jack Fry as navigator, so that we lost our way frequently, added to which my 3-litre Bentley misbehaved for the only time in its normally blameless career, inasmuch as the exhaust manifold split and we kept catching fire. This was about the only occasion when I, too, became discouraged and failed to complete the course.
Another photograph (not reproduced here) gives, a picture of the Bentley marring a nice day’s Wye Cup (Margate and District C.C.) outing by failing on Shrubbs Wood. Most of the entry came sliding down straight at the camera-man, but I thought I had everything taped. A moment after the photo was taken I opened up too much, too early, and we went straight through the hedge on the right whence we were with great difficulty extricated; Ken Hutchison looking very scornful. I believe it was in this same trial that I held up the whole entry by getting a fair-sized tree jammed between the hand-brake and the body.
After these exhibitions, how dare the fellow air his views in Motor Sport?