To The Top Of Ben Nevis

Most mountains afford a stiff test of a car, if they are steep and possess the additional hazard of tight hairpin bends, especially when they have to be ascended to a time schedule, as in the famous Alpine Trials etc. But to defeat the unused track of a real mountain is something else again. . . It was the late Sydney Allard, ever ready to accept a challenge, who decided to try to achieve the summit of Ben Nevis, the well-known Scottish mountain, rising to some 4400 feet, to the north of Fort William. It had been climbed in 1911 by a Model-T Ford. Now Allard was anxious to see if he could improve on that performance.

Having cut his teeth in racing and trials with Morgan three-wheelers, a four-wheeled Morgan of his own construction using a BSA rear-end (I used to see this scuttling along roads in South London on test but never knew what it was until much later) and a 14.9hp Model-B Ford tourer (UU 4922) bought for £125 and given the 24hp engine from a Model-BB Ford truck. Sydney Allard now had a much more effective trials car, his Allard Special (CLK 5). This was made from a crashed Model-48 coupe, the chassis of which was cut down to give an 8ft 4in wheelbase, with the Ford V8 engine and the GP-tailed body from a Bugatti (no cries of sacrilege, please).

After a great many trials successes (17 awards in major events and four team prizes) Sydney set out on August Bank Holiday, 1936, for his intended conquest of Ben Nevis. Unfortunately, while crossing a cleft the supporting stones under the car gave way and it rolled gently over on to its off-side. The driver suffered a few bruises, the car wasn’t too badly damaged, but the difficult challenge was abandoned, as time was running out. So how did the Model-T do it? I have recently unearthed a document which throws some light on this achievement.

The car was an early tourer (S1171), brass radiatored of course, stripped of mudguards, front doors, hood and windscreen. The climb was made by a young Scotsman, Henry Alexander, and the Ford remained at the cafe at the summit of Ben Nevis until London reporters had arrived on the Scottish express in a specially chartered sleeping-car, some 50 all told including photographers and — in 1911, note — cinematograph operators, who were then transported by a fleet of cars to Inverness Castle, from where they got to the mountain on ponies, in order to interview the driver and photograph his car. They had used the track from Auchentee. The next day Alexander took the car down to Fort William, scorning the Observatory track at the start of this perilous decent for a boulder-strewn path. He stopped at the Halfway House for more photography, both static and moving-picture. It had been another demonstration of the adaptability and go-anywhere utility of the Model-T.

The fact had already been the subject of a speech from the Observatory roof by the factor Mr Malcolm, where Mrs Cameron Lucy, who owned the Ben, permitted access to all the visitors. In Fort Williams the Ford was preceded by a pipe-band and it proudly carried, on a stout pole, the Scottish Standard. It was greeted by the populace and the driver was presented with a cigarette-case to commemorate the first climb of Ben Nevis by a motor-car. No doubt this assault on the highest point in the British Isles was arranged by Percival Perry, later Managing Director of Ford in Britain, who was present. I don’t suppose Sydney Allard expected any such reception had he succeeded! Alas, he never had time to try again. But Henry Alexander did in September 1928, with a Model-A tourer (SC 2328) which, stripped of front mudguards and windscreen glass, got up in 9 1/2 hours, including a delay about a mile from the summit while replacement back wheels were brought up by pack-horse. (Unfortunately one of the horses, bringing up provisions, fell off a bridge, rolled down a ravine and was killed — a sad aspect of the adventure). The Ford made the descent next day, in heavy rain, in two hours.

This did not exactly open the flood gates, but it did encourage the owner of an Austin 7 to take a passenger up and down the mountain in one day, to claim another first, this attempt also being made in 1928, by a Mr G F Simpson of Edinburgh, who got up in 7hr 23min and down in about two hours, no trouble being reported — a tribute to the ubiquitous A7, a worthy miniature successor to the Model-T Ford. WB