As our reports of the MCC Exeter Trial seem to have been enjoyed, it was logical to cover the same Club’s Land’s End Trial at Easter. What better way than to compete in it, for which purpose a Hillman Imp was generously offered to Clive Richardson, who had “cleaned” the Exeter with an Autofarm Porsche 911. When domestic considerations prevented him from complying I readily accepted; it occurred to me that if I made a “rounders” of it on every observed-section Clive would be pointed out as having failed, because his name was in the programme. Compensation, if you like, for his tongue-in-cheek remark that I was afraid to passenger him on the Exeter because of the terminal velocity of the Porsche. Which, of course, was nonsense … !
It did seem to me that an I, might be more of a challenge than a Porsche for this type of event, especially one on non-grip tyres. I had happy recollections a the normal Imp and its variants, although I hadn’t driven one for years. In Wales this this is now a popular car, the old A35s and Morris Minors having been replaced by Imps; all the girls seem to have them!
Tom Lush was the obvious passenger on the Land’s End, there being a happy link here, as I had met him 40 years ago to the day, when he took me to spectate on this trial in his 1926 Austin 7 Special; it ran a big-end during the night, I remember, but we came back to London on three cylinders and Toni then worked through the Sunday night removing the offending rod so that we could make Brooklands on the Bank Holiday, in this now-567 c.c. motor car…
Driving to the London-start of the 1977 Land’s End, in the BMW, I was introduced to the Imp in which I was to have my baptism as a competitor in a modern trial only a short time before we were due away. It turned out to be a smart cream-and-blue car built by Chris Betson, who owns the Culverstone Service Station at Meopham. Its loan had been arranged by Norman Higgins of the MCC, an ex-motorcyclist who builds Ibex trials-cars.
Basically a 1975 Imp which Belson uses for Autocross as well as for trials, SAM 65N has a roll-over bar but not much additional strengthening. The engine has been bored-out to increase its capacity to 998 c.c. The power developed is very impressive. It comes additionally from an R17 camshaft, racing valve springs, a free-flow janspeed exhaust system with transverse silencer and cleaned-up valve ports. The carburetter is, however, the standard Stromberg. There is rear-mounted oil radiator, and the Imp’s water radiator is now virtually the header tank, a big additional radiator being used, at the front, domestic-like plumbing running beside the passenger’s feet from this to the engine. A Lucas sports coil looks after ignition, there are comfortable rally seats, and the sump was filled with Texaco oil. If the power is impressive the way this unit revs. is quite astonishing! Never have I given an engine more “stick” up trials hills, yet I was assured by Betson and Higgins that it is unburstable to somewhere in the region of 8,000 r.p.m. or over. I was told that all I had to do to vanquish the sections that lay ahead was to remain in bottom gear and keep the accelerator on the floor.
On the road 4,00 r.p.m. on the angled Smiths’ tachometer equalled an easy 6o m.p.h., 7,00o r.p.m. ‘,resenting some 75 m.p.h. Apparently Norman Higgins had “cleaned” the Exeter in this astonishing Imp, and it will so off Cooper-Minis in Autocross. As,,, drove to the breakfast halt at Sparkford the Carello headlamps gave excellent illumination and the lack of a heater and the persistent exhaust note and sundry rattles worried me not at all.
So here I was competing in the MCC Easter Trial, that splendid event dating back to 1908. It embraces a varied entry, a 392-mile route, some very tough and interesting hills, and fine scenery. Our number was 242. Reading David Thirlby’s new Frazer Nash book, I see he gives this as the total entry in the 1932 Land’s End; The Autocar makes it 254. The point I am making is that, in spite of rising costs, this MCC event is retaining its popularity, for this year’s entry numbered 334, Including the motorcycles.
Breakfast over, there was a simple re-start test, in the car-park of The Frying Pan Cafe. I had not previously done an up-hill start in the Culverstone Imp but, determined not to fail, I used plenty of those revs and all was well, although there was a strong aroma of hot clutch afterwards, the pedal-travel being short and the bite sudden. The first observed-section, Sug Lane, was a long hill. I thought the engine would poke its rods out as the Imp screamed up bottom. We hit a cross-gulley an almighty thump, but surged forward again. The light steering gives very little directional control but somehow the right-angled bridge was negotiated and we continued non-stop to the top. This gave me confidence, for clearly Betson’s Imp knows about trials and was in its element on 13 in. Uniband Remould rear tyres. But those revs!
Dawn broke during the long road-section ahead, a mini-Grand Prix terminating for us when the n/s Uniband went flat. The ploy was to change the tyres round, so that we continued with Fisk Premier radials on the back wheels and a Dayton Mustang sharing the front with the surviving Uniband. These were run at 22 lb./sq. in. throughout, obviating the customary trials’ chore of constant re-inflating. We had fun up Porlock (not observed) and descended Countisbury, to await our turn up the dreaded Beggar’s Roost. Again revving unmercilessly, we romped up, only to have the engine cut-out a few yards from the main road, well clear of the section-ends notice. When the engine came up solid on the starter I was convinced I had dropped some part of the valve-gear. The BMW and Higgins’ Vauxhall Firenza soon arrived, and Betson set to work. It was Higgins who removed the distributor cap to reveal an absent nut, which had deranged the ignition timing. I had also turned the fan-belt inside out (those revs!). It was a simple matter to cure these maladies and we were soon off towards the next observed-section, Orange, now even more optimistic. This muddy track proved no bother at all. We then followed Gray’s Singer Le Mans along rolling main roads into the Devon lanes, to descend a horribly rocky wet track to Sutcombe. Amid the hiss of escaping air from other cars, as tyre pressures were lowered, we sat tight, and when its turn came the splendid Imp made easy meat of the winding hill and the restart test, although for a moment, as I tried to save the engine, the revs dropped a shade and we hesitated momentarily.
It was then on to Darracott, another “terror”, set in a wooded valley of primroses and tall trees. We were followed there by the courageous Sue Halkyard and girl-friend, in her Chummy Austin. There was an ominously long delay here.
When we were called up, the Imp was positioned astride the gulley at the start and got away well, to storm up the twisting steepness. I did not see the notice ending the first part and roared on up. Spectators shouting made me realise the mistake and as they said I could drop back to the start of Darracott 2, I did so. Lush was over the back, adding his weight to that of the light-alloy engine, but I kept more or less on the track and we then repeated the sure fire demonstration the Imp had given on the first part of Darracott. The Land’s End was taking its toll, however. Even at the start we had encountered the luckless Ladd with the sump off and the prop-shaft out of his MG J2., curing an oil leak onto the clutch. Later Way’s Austin Ulster, on 4.00 X 19 Dunlop Trials Universal tyres, had broken a half-shaft and retired. Now, as we followed Sing’s VW Beetle to the section, its spare wheel perched on its roof, Blackburn’s Singer Le Mans looked to have its back axle in pieces.
The Imp was behaving marvellously. Before me there was a huge vertical oil-warning light, fortunately not glowing, oil-pressure remaining at 50-55 lb./sq. in., and water heat at 60 deg.C. A route-card error of some 10 miles made us worry about finding Crackington, but after we had turned back a lady who was waiting to see her son go by directed us and the right-hand turning and the left turn by a chapel duly showed up. Disaster lay ahead, alas. I took the little car safely through the water splash, which this year was deep, so that water came onto the floor. But when I came to do that surging take-off, the engine fluffed, and repeatedly dipping the clutch gave only a mediocre start. We cleared the long, steep, rocky section quite well and came to the very deep mud-ruts near the summit. I cased off as the wheels began to spin, Lush bounced, and we inched forward, urged on by the spectators. It seemed we might make it, but it was not to be. We stopped high up, so required only two pushes to get us going. Betson had run up behind the Imp and he confirmed that its engine sounded flat. Water on something, perhaps? Which is all part of the MCC ploy! It was very disappointing, as I had hoped to do well for the honour of the remarkable little motor car. I had just got the feel of it on mud, too, remembering that there is no power below 3,000 r.p.m.
Never mind! There was still fun to come. Barrats Mill, a long, rutted, muddy gradient, was a 1st-gear climb, amusing as there was no real directional control at the bends, the power at the tail-end, with a little “drive-shaft “doughnut” wind-up, and the Moto-Lita steering wheel trying to escape one’s grip poking us anywhere (I believe these doughnuts gave trouble in the 1976 Land’s End). Before we started this hill, Mrs. Blight had reassured us that it was easy her husband was at the top, no doubt thinking that his p.v.t. Talbots would have made light work of it! A picturesque approach over a river bridge brought us to Ruses Mill and the double restart. We followed Keat’s effective Hillman Avenger, and had no bother. Up the lane approaching Warleggan we spotted an early Albion Oil-Engine truck, obviously still in service the hill was interesting but not a stopper and I was able to go into 2nd on the excellent Hillman gearbox. Next there was the Special Test at Galgeth Mount. Finding reverse gear elusive I let the Imp roll back over the reversing line, gunned it in sprint fashion to the finish, only to stop too early for the marshal’s liking, thus losing a second or so moving over the line. No matter speed was only a tie-decider…
Finally, in the evening sunlight, we arrived at the sea, and Bluehills Mine. It is very steep, with alarming rocky outcrops. Chris had suggested I ease the Imp over these “Pity to break it on the fast one”. I now felt I could control the urge and it was simple to go round the left-hand and right-hand hairpins slits new approach and gun it up the straight bit. The power, as the I pulled itself up the step inside of this second hairpin, was most impressive. There was no doubt that we would get up both sections of Bluehills, In fact, I stopped a little early before its re-start pad and the marshal said I could go forward, to a better spot. Off, and a flying finish, tempered by respect for the outcrops. I confess I did not see a stop sign, and continued non-stop to the Common. Chris seemed pleased. I was delighted, if sorry about the failure on Crackington. This hill was first used by the MCC in 1936, when it stopped 40, only Hustyn (with one more failure) and Beggar’s Roost (45) being more troublesome. It got 34 in 1937, against 74 on the Roost and 107 on Bluehills-2. Only five stopped on Crackington in 1938 (97 on Bluehills), and it vanquished 43 in 1939 (Bluehills 95). It wasn’t used immediately after the war; today they say the locals treat it with diesel-oil and what-have-you… So, although a Crackington casualty, I was pleased to have completed the course, with the Imp in one piece (those revs!). Until, that is, I heard that a pre-war “Chain-Gang” Frazer Nash had “cleaned” everything and that Ghosh’s 30/98 Vauxhall (see page 518) had done extremely well, Threlfall’s indomitable Model-A Ford had come through, too, although defeated by the more severe sections.
Much of the fun of these MCC Trials lies in the mixed entry. We had fleeting glimpses of Perpendicular Ford Pops, a converted Ford van used by the Route Officials, an Austin 7 box saloon, elderly 1.7-litre Mercedes-Benz saloon, many more Hillrnan Imps, a “Cream Cracker” MG, an odd Austin Big-7, a Dellow, Austin-Healeys, lots of VW Beetles, the inevitable trials’ Specials the list is endless. We were in Newquay, by about 7.30 p.m., having made up much of the two-hour delay, after a most enjoyable night and day. There were the “ifs” and “buts” to chew over, of course. If we had not been on our “second-best” plain tyres, if the engine hadn’t fluffed a bit on Crackington… But the Culverton Service Station Imp had gone far better than I had expected, and it has only cost its owner around £1,000 to build, including stronger back springs, Koni shock-absorber, Triplex laminated screen, etc. Although devoid of interior trim, it is great fun on the road, as well as up those MCC observed-sections. My sincere thanks to those who provided the experience. The faithful BMW was awaiting us at the finish, so after a comfortable night at the Mellanvrane Hotel we returned home, having driven some 800 miles since Friday evening. Typical motoring Easter! W.B.
N.B. The MCC’s Edinburgh Trial will take place on October 8th, starting from, Coventry.