1929 Exeter Trial

Six New Hills Cause many Failures. Heavy Rain and a Gale of Wind Make Conditions Very Severe in MCC 15th Winter Trial.

The 1929 London-Exeter Trial of the Motor Cycling Club will go down in history as one of the most difficult and most sporting of the series that have ever been run. There were, so to speak, five and a half new test hills of unusual severity – the “half” taking the form of a new approach to Harcombe Hill, near Sidmouth. Taking it all round, however, the new hills – as entertaining for the onlookers as for the competitors – caused fewer failures than were expected, and 127 of the 166 who started from Slough on Friday reached the finish at Shaftesbury last Saturday afternoon, December 28th. The start of a big MCC night trial is not like anything else. It has an atmosphere entirely its own, and in all main respects one such start is usually exactly like any other. Last Friday night, however, two features of the proceedings struck one as being ‘different’. First, the weather was comparatively warm and the heavens – for a change – were closed. Secondly, the usual boisterous good cheer of everybody was largely absent. There seemed to be no particular reason for this, unless it was that your real MCC man is positively disappointed when not beset by barometric and thermometric difficulties.

The several hours before the first car competitor was scheduled to start the Trading Estate resounded to the mingling notes of well-tuned sports engines and on every side drivers were making final preparations for the long trek into the West. Within the canteen the local brew was being consumed by those who could defy their sleep-defying powers, while others sat and talked prospects. The departure of entrants (at 30 secs intervals) was an unexciting proceeding enough, the peace being disturbed only when a late arrival went off with smoking treads and much innocent fun with the gears. P L Farquahrson drove an 847 Midget , in place of his Salmson, E J Kehoe took over K C Cole’s 747 Austin, and P J Urlwin-Smith was found to have misdeclared the capacity of his big Vauxhall. All three started, with, it is understood, official sanction. The car which did not contain at least one skiing cap was a rarity indeed, while amongst the ultra-sporting fraternity every variety of motorcycling attire deputised for adequate hoods, screens and mudguards. The route this year led through Maidenhead and Reading to Newbury, where a cross country road was followed to Andover. Therafter came the main road to Salisbury, after which, by way of a diversion, Middledown Hill – no longer observed – was climbed before, by devious paths, Shaftesbury was reached .Here there was an hour’s rest while supper was consumed, after which the old route was followed through Yeovil and so far as the summit of Chard Hill, where a new cross-country course led to Honiton Common, avoiding Honiton itself.

At this stage the competitors were sent off down a steep hill into Farway village, where they had to turn sharply to the right and climb through an exceedingly narrow, muddy lane to Devenish Pit, a fairly wide, very loose and very stony gradient. Owing to the darkness it was not easy to ascertain who had failed , but the hill was too much for quite a number of the competitors. It had to be climbed in the dark, of course, which made it all the more difficult. This obstacle overcome, there was only Peak Hill, the 1-in-5 gradient out of Sidmouth (which was not observed this year) to tackle before reaching Exeter and enjoying an excellent breakfast at Deller’s Cafe. Just under two hours were allowed in the cathedral city, and, heartened to face the ordeals to come, the competitors started off bravely on the 12 mile of good road which led to the second of the observed hills – Higher Rill.

Perhaps it was just as well that Higher Rill – used for the first time on this occasion – came directly after breakfast, when competitors were reacting to the cheering effect of daylight. It was certainly a difficult hill and would have been a lot worse if the motorcyclists had not first carved a path through a foot-deep layer of extraordinarily slippery leaves. Even so, there were many who courted disaster by scorning the beaten track, preferring the undisturbed leaf mould. Down near the bottom was a very sharp right-hand bend. The road started by being just wide enough for a car, cleverly driven, to get through. Successive attacks by platoons of cars on the banks, however, soon cut away the sides until there was nearly room for a lorry. Those who took the corner too fast got badly shaken and narrowly escaped being shot through a hedge and into a field on the right. After a couple of Morgan cyclecars had created a diversion by overturning at the first corner K G Marsh came up in the first four-wheeler to appear – a very pretty little blue Triumph Seven. He was making a good climb when, quite near the summit, he was baulked by Satwell’s Morgan. Behind him came hordes of Austin Sevens and MG Midgets, with an occasional Morris Minor, Triumph or Singer. H J Jacob’s Austin was really exciting, so fast did it swoop up the hill, his performance being just about equalled, if, indeed, it was slightly improved upon, by V L Brook’s MG Midget. E O Hector (Austin), J F Smeaton (Singer) and C A E Paget (Morris) were among the early failures on the upper slopes, although they had successfully negotiated the difficult corner at the foot. This point soon became the most spectacular in the unusually long observed section, and the crowds of watchers were kept amused for a good couple of hours. The most amazing performance was put up by J O’Donnell, who tore up the corner much too fast in his red Austin Seven, hit the near side bank good and hard and overturned. He skated along on his wings for two or three yards, righted miraculously, and flashed to the summit without stopping

Beyond the summit of Higher Rill a long, narrow lane led to White Cross, after which a mere cart-track – grass grown. muddy, rutted and sometimes very slippery – led steeply down to a good tarred road which led to the next ‘terror’ – Harcombe – which was scheduled to be climbed only a quarter of an hour after Higher Rill.

Although Harcombe was stiffened up a bit by the inclusion of a side road which led the competitors half way up the hillside and then joined the Harcombe Hill proper, it did not prove so insurmountable as we expected by many of the spectators. In fact, it was comparatively easy, for provided one maintained a fair road speed the surface was good enough to ensure a firm grip for the driving wheels. In appearance the hill was deceptive. It looked worse than it really was. The rain running down the surface gave it a soft clayish aspect, but it was only a thin coating, underneath which the road was hard. The sharp right-hand bend into Harcombe Hill is approached by a narrow lane with a fair gradient up to the sharp rise of the corner; after this Harcombe rears upwards with a fairly stiff gradient and two good bends. It was on the corner that several cars evinced shortage of power and all but stopped. Generally speaking, however, they climbed easily, fairly fast and well. Of ten or so Austin Sevens, those driven by E O Hector, J M Toulmin and C B Moss-Blundell failed owing to insufficient power; G H R Chaplin wore a worried expression, his engine being very new, he explained.

Meerhay Hill was dreaded by quite a number of competitors who were familiar with it, and expected some dreadful acclivity of the 1-in-3 order. Actually it did not prove very bad, although the ” mortality ” amongst the 850 c.c. cars was fairly high, but the two lusty horses thoughtfully provided by the organisers to drag the unfortunates to the top were not much in demand. The hill is fairly straightforward having no sharp bends and a gradient of about 1 in 5, its only difficulty lying in a stony surface through which large boulders were sticking in a very unpleasant fashion. Despite the rain, which descended steadily on their heads the whole time, quite a crowd of spectators bravely stood at the roadside and on the steep, muddy banks to watch the performances. No fewer than 15 Austin Sevens tackled the hill, and of these eight made clean climbs, whilst of the two Morris Minors one made a good climb and the other failed. Then there were four Triumph Sevens, three of which found no difficulty, E H Williams and H W Wells making particularly good ascents.

Batcombe Hill is a long pull with a moderate gradient lying just to the north-west of Cerne Abbas. The surface is normally very fair, but last week’s wet, coupled with the passage of so many vehicles, caused it to disintegrate rapidly, and the later numbers on the ” Exeter,” including nearly all the car drivers, found the hill in extremely bad condition. The test imposed by the MCC looks in print somewhat complicated. Each driver had to stop on reaching the beginning of the observed section, restart on the marshal’s signal, and then halt again at a point marked by flags. Again a restart had to be made on a signal and the getaway had to be made inside seven seconds for a distance of about 10 yards. Following was a further non-stop section to the summit of the hill. The test had to be completed within a minimum time, which was fixed at a figure 5 percent slower than the average time for each class. A good crowd had assembled by the time that the first motorcyclists were due, and spectators continued to arrive for the rest of the morning. They certainly got plenty of amusement for their journey to this somewhat inaccessible spot, as the hill took an extremely heavy toll. Before No. 1 made his ascent rain was falling heavily and the downpour continued without intermission, rising at times to quite exceptional severity. Indeed, the centre of the road soon became a torrent and the conditions, for drivers and observers alike, were anything but pleasant. The passage of the motorcycles and cyclecars cut up the. surface quickly, and by the time that the cars were doing their restart the bill was in about as difficult a condition as can possibly be imagined.

The light cars were, to be brutally frank, anything but impressive, and the standard of driving was, with but few exceptions, disappointing. Several of the Riley Nines were noted as being capably handled, but on the whole the smaller machines put up a poor display, and the majority received the assistance of the spectators to a greater or lesser degree. The larger cars were rather more impressive; under such conditions a comparatively long wheelbase is inclined to be helpful. But once again failures were numerous, due, as it appeared, chiefly to the inexperience of the drivers concerned. Here, as elsewhere, the 1929 ” Exeter ” provided an eye-opener to motorists whose driving has hitherto been confined chiefly to main road conditions. Endless lanes with innumerable gates led through Cerne Abbas, Chesilbourne and Ansty Cross to the top of Woolland Hill, where competitors were timed before descending into the valley, whence they must approach the greatest ” terror ” of the run – Ibberton Hill – which had to be overcome before Shaftesbury – and lunch – could be reached.

It was fondly hoped by the organisers that Ibberton would undo those who had passed unscathed through the preceding hazards, and the Clerk of the Weather did his manful best in support of this scheme. From the time when the first car was seen in the distance threading its way along the hedge-bordered country lanes, Jupiter Pluvius opened his floodgates, and it rained and rained – and went on raining. Ibberton Hill has a most fearsome. It climbs up and up, round an acute left-hand bend, with a gradient of about 1 in 6, the course lined by a fence and the banks cut into steps for pedestrians, then up past a little country church, to a right hand bend of some severity, followed by a gradient of 1 in 4. The surface is a chalky gravel, which soon deteriorates into a creamy ooze under the combined influence of weather and squealing tyres. For the early entries-considering the downpour-the surface was not very bad, but the bends and the gradient accounted for several, failures-much to the delight of a large, damp and appreciative audience. The first up was K G Marsh Triumph), who climbed steadily, leaving behind him the fumes of a hot clutch, to be followed by H C Jacobs (Cup model Austin), whose ascent was among the good and steady brigade. G H. Strong (Austin) rushed up to the first bend in great style, sobered up, and finished well. C A Shelbourne’s Midget came up well, neatly passing a motorcycle on the corner, and then a loud screaming exhaust was heard. heralding the approach of E H Williams (Triumph), who bowled round the bend only to conk out a little farther up. Willing hands pushed the car off the course, where the driver did a little tuning.

Delays now began, and the vanguard of the 1.5-litre class was very behind schedule. A A Mauleverer’s Lea-Francis came up well, and after a lapse of several minutes. D Duncan Smith’s Frazer-Nash shot round the corner and careered to the top at speed. C Boss-Blundell (Austin Seven) now put in a belated appearance, and had to be pushed up. M.W B May (Ceirano) was baulked by the push gang, but restarted and finished the hill healthily. Lester Williams (Alvis) was imbued with very Grand Prix ideas, for he shot round the first bend at hill-climb speed and nearly ditched himself higher up. N. A. Berry (Frazer-Nash) was another who behaved ferociously on the lower bend. Whatever the proceedings lacked in joie de vivre – what with the steady rain and one thing and another – they took a turn for the brighter when F T Williams brought his Alvis up much too fast, cornered joyously, and slammed the left bank with his off-side front wheel in a most abandoned manner. “Blackbird ” – a local horse – was brought into action, with the ultimate result that the Alvis-evidently undamaged-careered up the hill behind a galloping Blackbird “! W J Haward (Bayliss-Thomas) also thought it was a race, for he careered from bank to bank on the lower corner, and eventually, having averted disaster here, pitched up with a horrible rending noise against one of the fence posts a little higher up, which tore his Hardy coupling adrift, and forced him to abandon ship. H. W. Blaw (Bugatti) ran back on the upper reaches and straddled like Apollyon right across the way, from which position, however, he was eventually extricated. So they went up, for the most part well-judged climbs, spoilt by wheelspin and sometimes failing with lack of power. The Ulster Lea-Francis models went up very impressively, E H Grimsdell (Alvis) only just got round the bend , D S C Macaskie (Riley) ceased motoring on the bend, P DWalker (O M.) joined in the game of hitting things and spoilt a wing on the posts at the corner and later stopped, E. Midgley’s Ford climb was amazingly good, T. W. Wilder’s ” Leaf ” required ” Blackbird’s ” aid, but the Hon. A D Chetwynd’s Ulster model was a brilliant contrast.

The entry was running later and later, the bigger cars being about an hour and a half behind schedule at time. Much time was lost by pushing and hauling failures to the top, what time others waited at the foot of the hill, until at last all had ascended with varying success, the rain ceased. and the spectators went home.

As novelists used to say, “little now remains to be told”. An almost needlessly complicated route led back 15 miles to Shaftesbury, where weary competitors, after eating enormous luncheons, dashed back to London or dawdled endlessly, relating their tales of woe or success. But they nearly all agree that, despite the rain, despite the hills, despite the mud and general beastliness of it all, the 1929 “London-Exeter” of the MCC was quite the ‘best ever’.

(Reproduced from the Light Car)

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