2003 Exe Valley Trial

Exe Valley Trial Report or, A Day with Roger Bricknell
by Doug Hagerman

This past spring I was poking around in the Classical Gas website and realized that I might be able to cadge a ride in the Edinburgh trial since I would be England in early October. I mailed a request to Simon Woodall about this possibility, and eventually after my schedule changed and some other stuff happened it worked out that he was able to arrange for me to ride as passenger with Roger Bricknell in the Exe Valley trial. This is a report about what I found out on my day with Roger. Some readers don’t know about trials, so to start from the beginning: In a trial you drive your car or motorcycle up narrow lanes and try to avoid getting stuck. Penalty points are awarded and low score wins.

Of course any sort of activity like this is ultimately a social thing, and the personal welcome and hospitality that I encountered was great. Simon suggested a terrific B&B near the start, and on Sunday morning I met him and Barbara at the Cat and Fiddle pub in Clyst St Mary, near Exeter. There was a big crowd of cars and people, mostly holding coffee cups as they queued up to get their car numbers and route sheets. Event registration was handled by a friendly committee and everybody was quite cheerful and optimistic, although I did hear someone say that they were experiencing pre-event stomach nervousness. 26 motorcycles and 46 cars competed.

Simon introduced me to Roger and to several other people – whose names I’ve forgotten, of course – and then it was just me and Roger for the rest of the day. The trial was sponsored by the Crash Box and Classic Car Club, and put on by Roger (not the same one), James, Greg, Phil, and Ron, each of whom I was probably introduced to.

The organizational mechanics of a trial are almost exactly the same as for a U.S. time-speed-distance road rally. There’s pre-registration by mail, then on the day of the event you get a car number and a route sheet. You start on your assigned minute and follow the instructions on the sheet. Since there’s only an overall time limit, you don’t need to worry about staying exactly on speed, but then you can’t afford to waste time, either. Then at the end of the day you meet back at the starting point and turn in your car numbers and have a drink. Results are computed on the spot, but not many people stay to the end. Scoring complexity is similar to that of a TSD rally and takes some time to complete.

The essential ingredient for a classic trial is unpaved English lanes. Surprisingly, from the American viewpoint, there are thousands of miles of public roads in England that are only one lane wide. Furthermore, they are often bordered on both sides by stone walls or high hedges so that visibility is extremely limited. This is a unique part of driving in the U.K. and has to be coped with by everybody–even the access roads to subdivisions and grocery stores may be these tiny lanes. There is a considerable amount of slowing down to peer around corners, backing up to a wide spot to allow overtaking, and generally pokey driving as a result of this road configuration.

In addition, some of these lanes are unpaved. Now, averaged across the whole country I would say that America has many more miles of unpaved roads, because in rural areas across the U.S. there are huge networks of gravel and dirt byways. But these are almost always two lanes wide, and in almost all cases they are level enough to be graded on a fairly regular basis. Except in a few remote mountainous areas like Vermont or Colorado, there are essentially no single-track public roads in the U.S. And none of them have the high walls or hedgerows seen in England.

And, then finally, some of these public lanes go straight up the sides of mountains. “Unsuitable for motors” is a fairly common sign, although exactly what these roads ARE suitable for is an open question.

As you follow your route sheet you eventually come to an “observed section” of which there might be 15 or so in a typical trial. You may have to wait for a few minutes depending on how hard the other cars and motorcycles are finding the section. The motorcycles all go before the cars, and we only saw a handful during the whole day.

The observed sections are typically fairly short, perhaps a hundred yards or so long. Some are up unpaved lanes, either steep or very loose or muddy. Others are on paved lanes with very steep gradients, or on wet grass hillsides. When the section is clear the observer signals that it is ok to proceed, and you attempt the section. Usually there are numbered signs along the side of the section with decreasing numbers: 12, 11… If you stop forward motion, you get the number of points of the sign you just passed, with zero if you “clean” the section. Some sections are “clean or fail” which means that you get either 12 or 0 points.

Some sections have “restarts” in the middle. This means that you have to stop with the car astride a line, and then on a signal from the observer you must continue on up the hill without rolling backwards. Of course the restart is chosen to be in a place where it’s hard to get restarted, either because of the gradient or because the surface is loose or slippery. If things go well you make it through the observed section, come out the top, and continue on your way. At the end of the day the observers turn in their sheets to the organizers for scoring. If you make it through all the sections without penalty, you have a “clean sheet.”

There are also “special tests,” sometimes called “speed tests.” These are used as tie-breakers, and are particularly important in events where the conditions make it possible for many contestants to have clean sheets. The Exe Valley trial had two speed tests, each only a few yards long. The first one had a sharp turn right after the entrance, then about 50 yards of unpaved lane, and a line where you had to stop, reverse, and then exit after another turn. The second was even shorter, with perhaps 10 yards from entry to reversing point, and then an immediate exit. Roger had some difficulty – just a brief hesitation, actually – engaging reverse gear on the second test, which had a big effect on our final score.

Of course mostly what Roger and I talked about were the cars. So let me tell you about trials cars. First you have to understand that there are different kinds of trials: Production car trials, classic trials, and sporting trials, each requiring a more specialized car. What makes a trial a “classic” is the format of the event, not the use of old cars. By following the classic event plan which has considerable on-road driving (Exe Valley trial was about 90 miles), competitors are forced to have street-legal cars that are at least nominally useful as transportation. Sporting trial cars are sort of a cross between a motorcycle and a grocery store buggy, and are completely impractical.

Anyway, to make things fairer there are several classes of cars. Class 1 is for front wheel drive cars, which obviously have the most trouble with steep hills and deep mud. Class 8 is for cars that are pretty specialized. Roger’s car is in class 7. It’s a Vincent, which is a modern kit car replica of a 1930s Riley, which looks to American eyes like a cross between an old MG TC and a Lotus 7. While there are a lot of cars that can be used in a trial, this is a particularly good choice as will be discussed below.

The Vincent is a two-seat tube-framed car with a fiberglass (“GRP”) body. There are two spare tires on the back, no provision for a roof, and a very long hood (“bonnet”) covering a 2 liter Ford engine and transmission. The front axle is from a Triumph, but most of the other mechanical bits are Ford, chosen because they are used in racing cars so there are a lot of transmission and axle ratios, strengthened parts, and tuning accessories available.

The trial rules require open differentials (no LSD or lockers) and street tires. Roger mentioned that he uses tires popular in sporting trials with particularly soft sidewalls. While big knobby tires would work a lot better, they are not allowed. Partly this is because they tear up the sections, and partly it’s because it would change the character of the sport, which is mostly about not getting stuck using street tires in English mud.

Because of the restarts in the observed sections, it’s very important to have a good handbrake. Roger’s car just has a regular cable operated brake, but I noticed that some other cars had hydraulic staging brakes (as used in drag racing cars) which might be an advantage. Sporting trial cars are allowed “fiddle” brakes, which are independent hand brakes for each rear wheel, but classic trial rules prohibit these. With a fiddle brake setup you can stop a spinning wheel to transfer the power to the other side, which is a huge advantage on loose surfaces.

Upon entering the car you first notice the generous leg room. This is because you sit practically right over the rear wheels so as to get as much weight as possible rearwards. In fact, the trunk (“boot”) is a veritable slag heap. There is a complete selection of tools, spare parts up to and including driveshafts and differential innards, spare tubes, a tank of compressed air (more on this later), and as if that’s not enough, there’s ballast! Roger explained that the whole point is to get weight over the driving wheels, and that sporting cars take this to such an extreme that you can’t even steer them without the fiddle brakes.

The second thing you notice is the lightweight construction. Everything is small, simple, and lightly constructed. The doors are particularly feathery. The car weighs about 1500 pounds, but with a 2 liter engine fed by two big twin-choke Weber carburetors, the power-to-weight ratio is in Corvette territory. Roger explained quietly that there were some situations where power was required, which I found more about later…

There’s a Lake-style exhaust pipe on the passenger side so you have to be careful not to burn yourself. And I was warned not to use the door or windshield as handles. Comfort-wise the car is actually not too bad, although it was a sunny and warm day for this event; I imagine that in January it’s pretty cold!

We talked about transmission ratios, because in motorcycle trials the bottom three gears are very close together (so you can choose exactly the best one in an observed section) and the remainder are travelling gears used for the transit sections. Roger said that he had tried this at one point but with only four speeds it doesn’t work out that well, and that his current gearbox is fairly normal although there is quite a gap between second and third.

The car has a heater, and the cooling system has an electric fan controlled by a dashboard switch. As the day went on I wondered why Roger was turning on and off both the cooling fan and the heater, and he mentioned that the car might be having a bit of a cooling problem. But I also noticed that he ran the fan whilst waiting for an observed section to open, after a long transit zone. Perhaps there is an advantage to starting a section with a slightly cooler engine?

Other cars in the event ranged from fairly standard-looking sedans to quite specialized cars, mostly based on the old air-cooled VW bug chassis. Incidently, the motorcycles used are enduro bikes, not trials bikes. Trials bikes are comparable to Sporting Trials cars in their non-practicality.

Simon mentioned that Roger had carefully chosen his car for classic trials competition. Based on what I saw, it seems to come down to two things. Firstly, the car itself is lightweight and powerful, and fairly close in overall layout to the all-out sporting trial car design. Secondly, by following the regulations for class 7, there is a bit of an advantage in the event. This is because of the way restarts are assigned to classes. In this particular trial there were 13 sections altogether, with no restarts in seven of them, restarts for all classes in two sections, and restarts for classes 6, 7, and 8 in four sections. There was a separate starting line for class 8 in one section, and a different (harder) restart location for class 8 in one section. What this all means is that if you want to get an overall win, class 7 might be the best option because the lower classes have no hope on some of the tough sections while class 8 is penalized more than any other.

To be more specific, looking at the results, the Rebel’s Way (grassy hill with separate class 8 starting point) and Simms (steep hill with separate Class 8 restart) took points from almost all of the class 8 cars and none of the class 7 cars. On the other hand, the class 1, 2, 3, and 4 had trouble on Windout (paved lane with restart on loose surface) and Rebel’s Way. None of the class 7 cars were stopped on Rebel’s Way or Simms, and only one on Windout. Four Class 7 cars turned in clean sheets of ten finishers. Of the six class 1 cars that finished, three turned in clean sheets, while in class 3 there were ten finishers and four clean sheets.

In the special test sections, the combined times for all clases were about the same, and the overall winner ran in class 1 so it looks as if the tie-breaker mechanism is pretty consistent across classes–there’s no obvious advantage to one class in the special tests.

In this particular event, the Tipley observed section (“Rocky track with ruts. Rough around re-start area. Moderate gradient in places.”) was the make-or-break point for most people. Roger and I almost got stopped there on the very slippery restart where your wheel tends to fall into a hole. Most of the bikes and class 8 and 7 cars failed this section, while nobody in any of the lower classes failed, because they didn’t have a restart.

I would guess, based on zero experience, that mud would make all of the sections a lot harder, and would distribute the penalties a bit more evenly between the classes.

I also noticed that Roger – like successful rally competitors in the U.S. – has a very scientific approach to the event. Ready at the start, on time, with a properly set up and equipped car. No fooling around. Hustle to the first section, and then to the others, too: No dilly-dallying–at least not until the very end of the day when there’s plenty of time to make it back to the restaurant. Carefully check the route card for surprizes. Very careful to check the description of the section, paying particular attention to which classes have restarts. Understand the special tests.

From a tactical viewpoint, most of the activity seemed to be concerned with tire pressures. Excuse me, “tyre” pressures. I think the lower limit at this event was 14 PSI, which is pretty low for road travel, so Roger let his tires down and then pumped them up again several times during the day. Not between every section, but maybe four times altogether, depending on the length of the transit zone. Some cars carried foot pumps, but we had a tank of compressed air so it was pretty quick and easy to make the adjustments. Also, the tank serves as ballast.

Roger mentioned that trials was mostly about “pace” in the sense that you have to carefully use the available traction and power, sometimes straining to keep the tires from not slipping, and then other times spinning them heartlessly to get heat into the rubber so they can get grip on a slippery rock. There were two or three times when he “gave her full Welly” (i.e. full throttle) in a section, which was pretty exciting.

The main job of the passenger, besides properly following the route card, is to provide moveable ballast. I was instructed to get over which ever wheel was spinning–which is hard to know because you can’t see them from inside–and to bounce up and down like crazy if we stopped forward motion. The idea is that by bouncing you will cause the tire to catch and pull the car out of whatever hole you’ve sunk into. I practised bouncing a few times, but because of the dry conditions it wasn’t needed in most of the sections.

Another thing I saw was a determination amongst the successful competitors to not give up during the event. For example, you can see the pictures of car 141, driven by Paul Bartleman, who came in 4th in class 8, with it’s axle out and being hammered on and when we came up to them near the end of the event they had the half-shaft up on a post and were bunging on it with full abandon! They finished the event, and so did Simon even though an ignition problem caused him problems early on. So it’s probably like anything else worth doing: Never give up!

So anyway, to make a long story just a bit longer, our event went smoothly from start to finish. We, or I should say I (speaking as navigator) got a bit lost at the famous “continue to T where straight on” instruction, very similar to the road rally “straight as possible at T” instruction encountered sometimes here in the U.S. We had no problems in any of the sections in the morning, even on Rebel’s Way which looked suspiciously wet but wasn’t too slippery from the class 7 starting point. Roger was concerned that we might be penalized on Tipley, but my efforts at bouncing got us out of the restart hole in time–or maybe it was Roger’s driving… Simms was ok (other than being scary because of its steepness), but it was obvious that the class 8 cars would have trouble at their unique restart location. Roger cautioned me to be ready for vigorous bouncing on Waterless Lane, but it was only surface mud, nothing very deep, and we really just motored up it cleanly. I was warned that he would make it all look easy, and he did!

We saw a guy driving an old 1930s Bentley. We stopped for “petrol.” We ate Cornish pasties for lunch. The sun shone. It was almost hot for a while in the afternoon.

Then finally, we lost the event in the Copse Lane special test. It was very short, just a burst forward for a few yards to a line, then reverse, then forward through the exit gate. Roger had a bit of trouble selecting reverse, which hardly seemed noticeable to me at the time, but he was quite concerned about it. Sure enough, in the final results there were 14 cars with clean sheets so the event was decided on special test times. Our total was 32.3 seconds, but Nick Farmer had 32.0 seconds in his class 1 car so we ended up second overall. We did manage to take the team award along with David Turner and David Heale, both in class 3 cars. Congratulations to Nick! And Roger!

Overall this was the most fun I’ve had in cars. Well, in cars where driving is involved. Or whatever. In any case, I must say that observed trials is really a uniquely English sport, partly because of the special character of your rural public lanes, partly because of your awesome cars, and partly because of the general English acceptance of eccentric sporting events. Trials people are friendly and the surroundings beautiful. And their cars are cool. I seriously hope to be able to arrange another trip over there to take part in a trial where there’s some good, deep mud!

Thanks Simon, Roger, and everybody else involved!

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