The MCC Edinburgh in the Fiat 850, 2nd October 1998
by Brian Alexander
First about the car. To me all motorsport is primarily about cars. It is, after all, the car that wins the event (or doesn’t). As has been said about Formula 1, the driver is really only a component, he can always be changed. I am always upset by a published set of results which lists only the drivers’ names, to an outsider this is meaningless. How many, like me, only get to know people by the cars they drive? So why a Fiat 850? So often am I asked this question, usually by people who dismiss all Fiats as rust heaps. I find this somewhat blinkered view rather sad. I have owned a series of Fiats over 35 years and rust has, surprisingly, never been a serious problem, but in this time I have become so appreciative of their other virtues, far too numerous to record in this article, that it has become something of a mission in life to achieve some recognition for the talents of the engineers who still, apparently, held sway at Fiat at a time when most of the British car industry appeared to be ruled by non-technical managers, accountants and salesmen.
What better way, then, than to tackle the classic trials world using the most humble and basic 850 saloon, in as near as possible standard trim and using only bog standard variations available in the 850 range (with the exception of longer rear springs, shockers and sump guard) and demonstrate its off road capabilities of ruggedness and reliability. So far it has survived around 35 classic trials (and PCTs too numerous to count), failing to finish in only 4, and apart from a couple of clutches and two very high mileage gearboxes, it is still on most of its original running gear. Although well battered and patched all body panels are still original and intact, which, for a 25 year old car, must do something towards undermining the rust heap theory. Neither can its mechanical longevity be attributed to gentle driving, as many passengers and observers will probably testify!
Its previous record on the Edinburgh has been four starts, four finishes, 1 Bronze, 1 Silver and 1 Gold. For 1998 I have a new navigator, my 14 year old Grandson, Andrew, on his first ever classic trial. The first, and for my part, one of the biggest challenges of the event, getting to the start at Toddington in good time, complete with all documentation, spares, tools, food and everything working, was successfully achieved and, running No 129, we were able to relax while cruising up the A5. Andrew was getting used to following the Route Card and the Fiat was running sweetly, with its latest gearbox (found in a garden near Bickleigh, as a result of a lead provided by Mike Furse) proving so much quieter than either of its predecessors. By the time we had reached Hinckley most traffic had disappeared, other than the spaced out train of competitors’ rear lights ahead of us, snaking into the distance on this fine, clear moonlit night. At the time control we were well ahead of schedule, and, whilst queuing for petrol, we found ourselves being filmed by a camera crew.
All was still going well as we approached Agnes Meadow, however, after joining the queue for this section, the engine stopped and on restarting it began to behave erratically. It was not possible to investigate, as we would have blocked the section, so we had no choice other than to attempt the hill. By a stroke of fortune Agnes Meadow was one of the easiest sections and, in spite of a spluttering engine, which almost cut our several times, we made it ……(just)….. to the top, where it stopped completely and refused to restart. While Andrew was pumping up the tyres and I was peering desperately into the dark void of the bonnet by torchlight, looking for clues to the problem, we were descended upon by the camera crew again. “May we film you?” they asked politely. “Who are you filming for?” I replied – “Sky TV”. Oh my god, just what I don’t need at this moment, evidence of my beloved Fiat’s unreliability broadcast worldwide – Oh No!
However the crew were very useful, shining their lights into the bonnet, whilst I rummaged in desperation, born of near panic. “Have you checked for a spark?” Of course why didn’t I think of this in the first place, well it was four o’clock in the morning. Sure enough no spark, surely it could not be that new electronic coil I had fitted? Well I had to start somewhere and I had a spare coil in the boot – tools out to undo the coil mountings – what’s this? – nut already undone, earth bonding wire flopping about, who didn’t tighten it up properly? Two or three turns of the spanner and we are back in business – I hope they don’t use that bit of film! So we were off again to the breakfast stop at Hatton, where our friends from Sky were again in evidence at the Salt Box, filming kitchen staff and close ups of steaming greasy breakfasts and sleepy eyed competitors.
Then we were off on the serious business. Clough Wood was no problem and we cleared with power to spare, the motor now running beautifully & inspiring confidence. So it was on to the dreaded Litton Slack. The Derbyshire scenery is at its very best here and the views were magnificent in the early morning sunshine, however the peace of the countryside was rudely shattered by the crescendo of over revving engines, as they struggled for grip on the infamous glutinous ruts. Here we indulged in the luxury of a splendid view of earlier competitors tackling the climb. The FWD cars were in all sorts of trouble, as was a Morgan, the 2CVs struggled valiantly for grip, but a Dellow absolutely flew up, as did Bob Saunders’ fantastic sounding Mazda powered Imp. Jim Scott’s Class 4 Imp appeared to have no problem at all, but Stuart Cairney’s broke a drive shaft do’nut immediately after leaving the line. Our turn, the Fiat got away well, but after initially gaining momentum, I felt we were beginning to bog down and I decided to try my luck on the grass, bad idea, the rear wheels refused to follow and we slewed sideways to a halt. Another lesson learnt the hard way, Goodbye Gold.
I do not recall much about Swan Rake, except that it was steep and very rocky, handing out much punishment to the poor old Fiat’s sumpguard and softer underparts. The approach to Barleg was down a steep track with three ruts, which were not at all compatible with the 850’s wheel track. We were in all sorts of trouble climbing in and out of the ruts and ended up mounting the bank at the side and coming perilously close to rolling it. I think Andrew’s reaction of climbing over on to my side as we teetered on two wheels was the only thing that stopped us going over. We managed to reverse off very tentatively and regain the track. After this, by comparison, the section itself presented little problem.
The Old Longhill Special Test was completed successfully, if not as quickly as it should have been, as the engine fluffed out twice on high revs. This is an, as yet, unresolved problem which only manifests itself on the later stages of a trial. It is something to do with Weber carbs, I think. We had to go back and help push out a following Morgan, which had got itself stuck immovably in the restart box. Next it was on to lunch at the Marquis of Granby and to join the queue for Bamford Clough. This was the only time we had to wait for more than a few minutes all day, which says much for the organisers. Bamford was in a more benevolent mood than usual and it was surprisingly dry, with lots of grip. However, no one can say it was easy and one had to be very brave (or mad) to charge over those rocky steps and gullies without lifting off, knowing that to do so is a certain failure. The Fiat climbs well, bounding across the steps, completely airborne in places, the engine not faltering and we still have momentum as we clear the section, albeit at the expense of a badly battered sumpguard. Great exultation – a medal should be on.
Haggside was next and we were in high spirits as the gallant 850 made light of the tricky restart, crashing over the vicious rocky steps to another clean. Back at the Marquis we top up with fuel and exchange experiences with our West Country friends from the Strensham start and then set off for Great Hucklow. Here is a new challenge – we have to tackle the steep section off to the left, normally only attempted by Classes 7 & 8, and there is a restart! It looks impossible, but as we shoot off the restart there is grip and it looks as if we are going up. Then there is a momentary hesitation from the engine (it really does pick its moments) and we lose momentum. There goes our Silver. At Jacob’s Ladder the car is going as well as ever and we romp to the top. Next is the second timed test at Deep Rake. This one is a bit tricky, with a tight 1800 corner over a steep bank, which seems to upset the carb again. Having stopped in the box it seemed to flood and it took ages to pick up. Never mind it’s all academic now. Putwell 1 seemed much easier than last year, but Putwell 2 nearly lost us our Bronze when I came to rest on a loose boulder, almost causing a run back.
All that remained now was the drive back to Buxton and the Finish, with the navigator showing his first signs of fatigue. We arrive bang on schedule, having had a splendid day, with no hold ups or delays – full compliments to the organisers. Above all the little Fiat has done it again. A flickering oil light and an ever increasing oil leak on the way home to Devon seemed ominous, but all sounded well, and the problem turned out to be a dislodged oil switch lead and a damaged sump plug. As for young Andrew, he was asleep as soon as he sat on the bed at the digs and could not be roused until the next morning, 14 hours later.