1998 Exeter Trial

Crackered to Torquay 
by Jonathan Toulmin

Tom Dark, that wizard with pre-war cars, – especially those with octagonal pistons (I’ve heard it said!) – decided to go skiing in early January and I was delighted. Whilst Pat & I take to the slopes each year also, and I am pleased when others enjoy the same pursuits as I, it was not for this reason that I was gad that Tom was going skiing, but selfishly because it left a vacant passenger seat in Ian Williamson’s Cream Cracker MG. So it was that I was delighted to accept Ian’s offer of a “bounce” for him for the Exeter Trial, in place of the absent Tom. It was a particular pleasure for several reasons. I have competed in many Exeters, but not in recent years, since my duties as Clerk of the Course of the Clee Hills Trial (which takes place just two weeks after the Exeter) preclude the time necessary for preparing the Marlin and taking in the event. But since the first owner (In December 1935) of Ian’s Cream Cracker MG was my father, I could not pass up the opportunity of experiencing the thrill of rushing up Fingle or Simms in Dad’s old car. It was particularly appropriate as the competition debut of this particular car was the Exeter Trial of 63 years ago.

The Exeter Trial is always the first weekend in January, and the Clee Hills Trial is two weeks after that. Now having just posted out the supplementary regulations for the Clee, I knew very well that my event would take place on Sunday January 18th, so the Exeter was obviously Saturday January 3rd. Having accepted Ian’s invitation, it came as something of a shock to discover that the MCC had slipped the date of the Exeter by one week. So the very day that I was suppose to be wandering around the South Shropshire hills putting up notices warning walkers and riders that one week later their tranquillity would be “disturbed” by some strange vehicles driving in odd ways in unusual places, I would be bouncing my way up Tillerton! But a commitment had been made, so lateral thinking was employed to resolve the “being in two places at the same time” dilemma.

My first trial (only as bouncer) was in Steve Dear’s Cream Cracker [now owned by Alan Grassam] over 25 years ago. Steve’s advice, on what to wear, was to go to the wardrobe, take out (and put to one side) my Dinner Jacket and Sunday Suit – and wear everything else! I took his advice : and I was still cold! Since then, I have discovered thermal underwear! This year I was too hot – such is the vagrancy of the British weather. If this is global warming, give me more!

My long suffering and understanding wife was persuaded to collect me from Torquay at the end of the trial and (she hadn’t realised) to drive me to Ian’s house in Burford before the start. Ian and I left Burford in his MG more or less on the stroke of midnight for Cirencester. Ian let me drive the Cracker which was a real thrill : its Marshal supercharger making a wonderful scream at high revs and giving the little car excellent performance.

On arrival at Quarry Motors, we met many old friends and enjoyed a delicious cheese burger from the mobile food van parked on the forecourt. Having started my first Exeter from this garage (which has been considerably improved over the years), I was sorry to learn that it will no longer be available to the MCC for future Exeter starts. It seems strange that 100 odd competitors all buying petrol doesn’t make it an attractive business proposition. Time does not stand still.

At 1.30 am, or thereabouts, we set off, stopping briefly to let the other teams members (Grassam MG PA Cream Cracker & Bill Bennett J2) catch up. We ran together for 3 hours through a moonlit night, the route taking us down the Fosse Way for a mile or two, then down the A429 around Malmesbury to Chippenham. Here there is a superb new by-pass which adds about 5 miles to the route! Then we rejoined the familiar A350 to Melksham and Warminster. After passing the Deverills (which appeared slightly sinister as the moon was partially obscured by cloud), the route turned west along the apparently never-ending A303 dual carriageway. I told Ian that there is no point in hurrying as one only has to park in a lay-by to avoid penalty for being early. But I checked the route book, and there was no mention of an “ETA”, so we kept going.

At the Cricket St Thomas breakfast stop, parking tidily on the steep grass was more difficult than some subsequent sections! Even before an observed section has been tackled, there was the normal array of competitors doing major repairs to their vehicles – like changing the crankshaft or fitting a new radiator. The MG seems in fine fettle so we went straight inside and enjoyed (?) the uniquely prepared breakfast of bacon, beans, tomatoes fried egg & bread etc. etc. at 5.20am. After breakfast I spoke to team-mate Alan Grassam who said “I’m just going for my bananas” [I’m told that these are supposed to help you stay awake, but I think that they may have side effects as well].

We started Section 1, Gatcombe Lane, at 6.10. My driver advised 15 psi, so after a short hiss from the rear tyres we set off on the slightly greasy start, mud on a stony base. It was a nice tidy drive by Ian with no problems whatsoever, and then a long lane to the tarmac.

Shortly before 6.30 am (and still very dark), we arrived at the bottom of Norman’s Hump. There was a 40-minute queue, so it was obvious that ‘The Hump’ was failing a substantial proportion – its one of those sections that is worth waiting for. The track appears to rise almost vertically through the trees with a surface of light brown mud. We debated tyre pressures. My experience is that anything below 10 psi is risky unless the tyres are bolted to the rims. The MG is on new wheels and does not have the usual bolts, but Ian said that “other measures” had been taken, and he decided on 8 psi for this section. It was very muddy and squelchy underfoot, but a very warm morning. I spent the time checking the route book, and to my dismay it was apparent that Class 2 would be required to tackle the whole section, whereas in previous years, ‘Section Ends’ for Class 2 has been at the cross track half way up. After this short, and level mid-point, the track gets even steeper, and even muddier! This would be a real challenge – confirmed by the huge number of failures. I have struggled up the top half in the Marlin in previous years with 4 psi in the tyres (tyre bolts fitted!).

Eventually it is our turn. It is still dark, Ian had the Cracker on the rev limiter, supercharger pop off valves going, in fact everything going as we stormed up the steep and difficult , very slippery, top half of Norman’s Hump in a virtuoso display of Cracker driving. The elation at the top is tremendous. It was just beginning to get a little bit light, (7.15 am). It seemed like Bill Bennett and Alan Grassam had also cleared it, so the team was clean so far. I was over optimistic – we met a reversing JB 3854 (Alan’s Cracker) at the cross track on our approach tom the section (Clinton) which is in the same woods as Norman’s. On our approach to Clinton we passed a very dead Austin Mini, which we think probably retired from the 1974 Exeter and is still awaiting collection. Unfortunately for the owner, other people have collected parts of it in the intervening year. Then behold we came across a second but older Austin (7), but this one has Jeremy Flann’s legs hanging out and his head is under the dashboard.

Having stormed up Norman’s, we thought that Clinton would be easy. Ian took a good line round the tight right-hand hairpin at the start, and floored the throttle for the steep initial climb. Suddenly the engine revved like mad, again on the rev limiter, and I immediately thought that the car had jumped out of gear. We came to an immediate halt. We reversed to the foot of the section and found the right rear tyre completely flat. The “other measures” for keeping tyres attached to wheels had not worked. This was a bitter pill. We were quiet in contemplation as we left the section at a quarter to eight. The marshal at the crossing of Norman’s Hump has just waved us through, as we see a failure, an MG Midget I think. The cross track here is very muddy, very gooey, like over thinned cement. We drove now without the headlights.

Ten minutes later, we had arrived at Waterloo, and wait behind the Austin 7 of Richard Clarke. We had brand new tyres at the start of the event, but after Clinton, the right rear is a partly worn tyre, and that is the most important one for first very sharp right hand corner on Waterloo. We agree on 10 psi this time! Ian has the measure of Waterloo, and skilfully slides the Cracker round the hairpins of this superb section. But at the top we were in for huge surprise. Clear passing “Observed Section Ends”, we continued up the track, when with no warning whatsoever, and apparently emerging from the hedge on our left at about 20 mph was Tom Goggin’s Ford. In fact, the “Fails” route joined the track here, but there was no mention of this in the route book, and we did not know of the Escort joining “our” track, and clearly Tom did not know that the MG was joining “his” track. A very close run thing. Could have been very expensive, and it was my side : pre-war MGs were not fitted with side-intrusion beams in the doors!

Immediately out of Sidford, it was nice to see Bill Bennett, in his J2, waiting for us, we overtook him and he followed us up the narrow lane. A competitor in front of us missed the right turn in the town and was seen disappearing up the main road.It was 8.25 as we arrived at Section 5 (Stretes). No problem at Stretes, we waltzed up – only problem being that my money was being shed into Ian’s seat, so he may have made a profit on this trip! At the top of the section we discover that we have lost one member of our team – it seemed that he was having trouble with his bowels or something else at the rear. We went on without him, being assured that we could do nothing to help. John England’s Escort (141) was parked at the side of the road and seemed to be in mechanical trouble, with Alan Selwood (also Escort) giving assistance. Ian Blackburn looking on in his usual knowledgeable fashion, offering advice or moral support.

It was 8.40 as we approached Honiton and the sun was up – a little bit misty, but a blue sky – a beautiful day. At 9.20, and as we were approaching the Greenslinch Special Test, we have passed some horses and riders, where two lovely (and very attractive) young horsewomen smiled at us as we drove quietly past – a missed opportunity? We then turned left down what the MCC amazingly called an “unmade” track. We were about to find out what they meant by “unmade” – are they not all unmade, or perhaps they are all “made” (must have been ‘made’ by something! When we got there it looked like every other muddy track !! – between banks, with a few brambles to catch your eye, and heading for a special test.

Perhaps this will be where we will see how much power the MG has. (Ian told me it has xxx horse-power -that is amazing for a 939cc engine, even with a large supercharger, but he said that it was secret). There was some delay, – now that’s novel for a special test! The track has a hard surface (probably) so was there some hidden terror. Without waders it was impossible to walk forward for a preview.

Mr Jones, Mr Peter Jones (MG TC) has just taken a photograph of us and now wants to take a photograph of a proper car – we might get in twice! Windscreens are being folded, (I wasn’t sure whether this was an astute move or a foolish one – I had forgotten to bring my spare eyes. Ian is going for a British compromise on the tyre pressures at 14. We would like a pee, but with Francis Maynard two cars behind (the boss’s lady) we had to forgo the pleasure. In the delay, Ian and I had a guessing game here. There were two large plastic bottles, which appeared to have milk in or they might have had Vim to mark the lines, which would be an entirely fruitless exercise, as we were in something resembling slurry – allegedly an unmade track is a slurry bath. The special test was through soup, oxtail soup. You could loose a “Silver” by getting it wrong, so the MG’s horsepower is not necessary and Ian takes it leisurely, but gets it right. From line A, drive forward through slurry to an ill-defined line B, and then forward again to line C – possibly the most boring special test undertaken.

At last, at just after 10 o’clock, we arrived at the M5 Exeter Services. Gerald and Trish Burridge are here, as our supporters club. 3 months after winning a much desired Triple, Gerald is still smiling (or is the pain in the wallet necessary to get the PB back on the road?) “Put him down Trish – you don’t know where he’s been ” I advised Trish as she gave Ian a big hug “I do actually” retorts Trish. (I wonder what she means, does Gerald know?) After a short stop for swapping of liquids and a cheese-burger, we filled up with fuel and caught up with Alan Grassam who seems to have resolved his rear end (banana?) problem and we were still running with Bill Bennett in his lovely green J2. I had given Ian’s car a 189 mile service : I opened bonnet and the engine was still there, there was oil everywhere so that was OK, I checked the radiator, which appeared to have the correct amount of milk in it, and the gear lever was still in place, so we were ready to depart.

At exactly 11.20, we arrived at Windout, which is certainly twisty and there are some good corners on it. There’s a good ford at the bottom, and we parked behind the Citroen 2CV of Nick Ikin. At Windout Ian decided to adjust the front tyre pressures – for reasons, which for all time, will remain a total mystery. Bill required a torch and was suitably impressed when we had two – other people have twin carburettors, or even twin camshafts or spare wheels : we have twin torches! So Ian’s PB is having a 226.9 mile service (check front tyre pressures), Bill’s J2 has its front number plate polished and Alan’s PA – well it was just bloody dirty, basically, except it has clean front and rear competition numbers – front number plate illegible, all the badges except the Triple M one totally illegible, could be anything, fairly prominent blue discs scattered liberally around in some feeble attempt to persuade marshals to exonerate him from doing restarts. It was good to see Anne Templeton marshalling at the bottom of Windout, and I gave her a big wave, but Ian was already on his way up the section, so unfortunately there was no time to chat up the ACTC Vice-President!

We were on the A30, cruising along at 3,400 rpm, when, a Austin 7 goes screaming past (they are not allowed to overtake Cream Crackers!) It was Winston & Isabel Teague! Soon we were at the bottom of Tillerton, at almost midday. Ian did a 14psi job on the tyres, the ford was not very deep, there was a little watery sun through a slightly cloudy sky, but with little bits of blue. Tillerton is a fabulous section – if you’ve never done it in the wet, you haven’t lived! The restart can be a real challenge on smooth slate, but our blue disc let us off that difficulty and we were clear. So far, only the tyre falling off on Clinton had spoilt our run. The MG sounded wonderful through the Devonshire lanes, the exhaust echoing off the dry stone walls. What do the MCC mean by QQ in the route card?!

We met John and Jenny West (again) at the diff test at the bottom of Fingle, and Robin Moore at the special test at the top. Although an easy section, Fingle Bridge is magnificent. It is in truly superb countryside, and is a series of hairpin bends, which go on and on and on. I have a photo of my father doing it in the 1930s – as a timed climb !! Now that would be fun (MCC please note).

toulmi1Then a short run to the bottom of Wooston Steep. The approach to the track is a very sharp left turn down a very steep hill. Ian sees the turn too late. He slams on the brakes. On old MGs the handbrake is much more powerful than the footbrake (Safety Fast?). The handbrake was my side, Ian called for more brakes, so I grabbed the handbrake and pulled hard – still the MG rushed on – I pulled more! The handbrake was into my seat, I thought it was going to come off in my hands. It didn’t! Eventually it stopped, a short reverse, and we drive down the muddy track to Wooston Steep, and park behind the Golf of David Haizelden and the 1172 Ford of David Child. It was 12.50 pm and we were only about 8 minutes behind schedule. There was quite a queue here, so I had time for a nice chat with Roger Pole, who has sold his Marlin to a good home. Ian Blackburn, deciding the underside of his Singer 9 needed attention, was doing a bit of his own special mountaineering – 9 out of 10 for initiative. He got the front wheels up a very steep bank and crawled underneath! Suddenly we are ready for the fray.

There is a huge queue for Simms, so we availed ourselves of the facilities provided : delicious sausage rolls, cake and coffee were purchased and eaten whilst chatting to John Arrowsmith. There were dozens of spectators walking up and down the steep and very narrow approach road, and even whilst still a hundred yards from the section, we heard a round of applause for an earlier competitor. Again we debated tyre pressures. It is agreed that what we need is speed, at least 30 mph round the corner!. There was a good crowd at Simms and they give a round of applause for the last competitor. Ian gave it everything – and a good deal more : we both knew it would be very difficult. Despite the power, the speed and the sheer will to succeed, we came to a halt on the slippery polished rock slab – and it stopped everyone else who came after us.

So the “Silver” had gone too. Just Slippery Sam to go. This is another section that was used in the 1930s and is still worth driving up today. After the long wait at Simms, there was no delay for the last section, and apart from driving over a huge stone (the size of a football) in the middle of the track between the two very sharp hairpin bends, it caused no trouble. Immediately we gave the MG a bath – in the pink soup that fills holes the size of the MG on the exit from Sam. And so a short distance to the finish at Torquay and a desperately needed pint! The trial has surpassed all expectation and the MCC must be congratulated on putting together the best Exeter for many years, the weather helped, but the sections were intelligently laid out, the timing was a big improvement over previous years, and if you didn’t do it, you missed a treat!

Pat was there at the finish and picked me, and soon I was asleep as she drove me home to Stratford on Avon. The next morning at 10am I was sticking signs onto trees in near Bridgnorth for “my” trial one week later!

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