Tackling muddy hills by car is a long-standing British tradition. Bill Boddy recalls the experts trials he rode on
Motorsport has many facets. Trials represent a different approach from events in which speed is all-important. Particularly before WW2, trials (‘mud-storming’) were very popular among amateur and professional drivers. Hills of reasonably steep gradient (but not so severe as the freak uphills of 1-in-2 such as Alms Hill, Rosedale Chimney or Rosemere Hill, etc) were the obstacles, with suitably muddy, sometimes rocky, surfaces. These could be tackled by quite ordinary cars but low bottom gears and rearwards weight distribution were a help in achieving good results, such as were found in production MGs from the J2 onwards. Competition-tread rear tyres were almost obligatory, until banned by the RAC in 1938 as carrying too much mud
onto adjacent public roads.
In the early 1950s the older-type trials were joined by the RAC Trials Championship, contested by highly specialised devices, often Ford Ten-powered, but with light spaceframes, engines set far back, ‘fiddle brakes’ and other aids to adhesion on extremely slippery uphill going, whereas more ordinary trials continued to attract less specialised cars. As ‘championship’ specials were somewhat less than road-legal, the events were usually in one location. Great fun for some, but the other trials, for both competitors and spectators, had the appeal of excursions through the remoter parts of the British country side. It was a healthy sport, adopted by legions of regional clubs, with the MCC adding its long-distance fixtures, as it continues to do.
Austin, Singer, Fiat, Allard and others put up works and semi-works teams, and the MG Car Company for one supplied tuning kits free or at reduced cost to successful private entrants. A peak of this happy sport was perhaps reached when in 1933 the Mid-Surrey AC held its invitation ‘Experts Trial’. So popular were trials that the JCC and the WASA girls held trials on the same October day, using some of the same hills, which resulted in a rocket from Authority.
The Experts Trial was repeated in 1934, as a true experts’ event, as competitors had to have gained at least nine First Class Awards or six Second and six Thirds in previous selected trials. All credit to Alf Langley (Singer 9), who alone cleaned Cloutsham with its boulders, rock outcrops and 1-in-4 S-bend and was the only driver to lose no marks. For 1935 the Mid Surrey Club banned such aids to adhesion as locked differentials, superchargers and even ‘knobbly’ tyres, long before the RAC ban on the latter.
Traditionally, the start was in Dunster and the route around Exmoor; the hills were Slade Lane, Howetown, Edbrooke, the long, steep wooded Widlake, and Yealscombe, plus two driving-tests, to finish at Exford. Again, only one driver ‘cleaned’ the lot, H G Symmonds (FN-BMW). The top drivers like Toulmin, Bastock, Macdennid (MGs), Fitt (Ford V8), and FIJ Aldington (FN-BMW) were there, Doreen Evans (MG) and Miss Goodman (Singer) were beaten for the Ladies’ Prize by Mrs Moss, Stirling’s ma (Singer), and Powys Lybbe and Elgood made the stones fly with their vintage cars, an Alvis and a 3-litre Bentley.
The 1936 mute was much as before, but Cowcastle was by-passed after Miss Watson’s FN-BMW had almost sunk without trace in the river leading to it and had to be towed out by two competing MGs roped in tandem. Mid-Surrey had reversed its rules, and now not only were trials tyres, blowers and locked differentials allowed, but so were non-skid chains. Picked Stones near Simonsbath was the worst hill but Ken Crawford cleaned it and won outright with one of the new ‘Cream Cracker’s s/c T-type MGs.
For 1937 this rough, tough event included a new hill: Colly, near Luxborough, featuring a deep ditch rising between banks and tunnelled by overhanging trees, so much mud, and a steep right-angle bend, continuing upwards over ruts and rocks that formed a flight of steps. It was the period when big cars like the Allards and Ford V8 Specials were a challenge to the MGs, Singers and other small cars.
Sydney Allard was running his V8 Allard CLK 5 with independent front suspension, and Ken Hutchison his V8 Allard. Disaster struck when Sydney Allard was going fast up Colly. The vee-bottomed ditch made car control problematical and the Allard overturned, pinning driver and his wife beneath it. They were not too badly hurt, but the car’s removal was a problem – and moreover it had been sold beforehand to Guy Warburton and had been borrowed for the trial!
I was invited to ride in the 1938 Experts with Hutchison in his Allard, a fearsome brute ripe for the job, even before it was given a V12 Lincoln engine. This was a signal honour. ‘Hutch’ had been a well-known competition driver of Frazer Nash and GP Bugatti cars and was a keen and capable mud-stormer with his Allards. He also raced a 2.9 monoposto Alfa Romeo after the war. A wealthy man who lived in a country house once occupied by Sir Malcolm Campbell, he had married Kitty Brunell, the daughter of the photographer, who had taken part in Monte Carlo Rallies.
I had done trials before, with Leslie Ballamy and others in supercharged Ford V8s and LMB Ford 10, in the MCC classics with Mr HE Richards, who lived with his sister and a friendly Airedale near Coulsdon and drove in trials as an alternative to golf, with an MG Magnette, and a blown P-type MG. But to go with ‘Hutch’ in FGF 290 on the Experts was something else!
I went to lunch at Hutch’s Wimbledon Common flat (I still remember the Siamese cats and the wonderful chocolate pudding served by the maid) before we drove down to Dunster in the Allard, Kitty having left the day before in the Railton saloon. The trials car weighed only 17½cwt and had its high-compression engine set well back in the lightened chassis, which carried a two-seater aluminium Whittingham & Mitchell body with pointed tail. I had been warned that it had no hood and no passenger screen, and deciding that I might need a scarf to supplement flying helmet and leather coat, I bought the only one I could find in a hurry in a local Woolworths, of orange and brown stripes. On seeing it Hutch said “You aren’t going to wear that, are you?”
We were soon cruising at an easy 70mph towards Minehead when a broken mudguard stay shorted the lamps. We swung into a small wayside garage. “We are just shutting,” said the owner. “I need my lamps fixed,” replied Hutch. Soon we were on our way, re-lit; he expected to get what he wanted! The last rays of the sun were setting over the darkening countryside. After an evening in the company of the other Allard crews, playing table tennis and consuming sherry, we set off the next morning for Dunster. It was all very satisfactory except for the thought of Sydney’s 1937 accident, the hill now disguised as Ditch Lane!
In fact this fearsome section was skilfully negotiated by Hutchison, although by then my hands were blistered from hanging on to the route-card, his goggles-case and keeping my seat, for the ride was anything but smooth. The Allard, competition tyres all round, broke the wing-stay again and liked to boil, hut its driver mastered both special tests and got up the dreaded Kersham with much wheelspin. The rest of the sections were no real bother until we stopped, momentarily, on Wildlake; Stokemill was more of a test than Ditch Lane, long, with deep mould for a surface, but ‘Hutch’ coped splendidly. Results worked out, it was the s/c A7 of All Langley that showed up the big cars, winning outright from Lawson’s HRG. Sydney led the Allard brigade.
Having to return to London that night, Tom Lush had brought clown my vintage A7 Mulliner coupe in which three of us rode home, his ploy of using its wiper tubing to blow into the tank when the petrol was clown to near-nothing fortunately working over Exmoor in the dark. All of which recalls the intense satisfaction of watching these mud-trials, seeing all the runners pass, then planning how best to by-pass the next section or two, so as to see them all again.
I can still recall the smell of warm mud on hot exhaust pipes, and burning rubber smoke from spinning tyres. I hope it is as much fun now at those trials which remain, as it was when we went to see how the private owners would fare against the MG ‘Cream Crackers’ (named after the biscuits), the MG Three Musketeers’ team, the Candidi Provoratore Singers, the A7 ‘Grasshoppers’, and the Allard Tailwaggers’. The war, of course, washed out the 1939 Experts Trial.