HOW GOING UP HILL IS RAISING THE BAR
Trialling has been around for most of the UK’S motorsport history and the wonderful Vintage Sports-car Club hosts an annual season of trials for Pre-war cars. Just as has been the case since trialling started more than 100 years ago, the desire to pit cars against muddy hills burns as strong as ever.
The ethos is simple. Set out up to 15 hills on muddy slopes, on forest tracks or old lanes and try and climb them from a standing start. Public road sections link the hills. The VSCC is slightly quirky in that it generally scores the hills from 1 to 25, so that the day’s highest score is the best. To make things even harder on some hills, a stop and restart can be added, requiring cars to stop and then start again on a marshal’s instruction and some hills can even feature more than one route to suit the climbing capabilities of different classes of car.
On a perfect trial, one car will successfully climb, or clean, every hill. Along the way the drivers and passengers will bounce up and down to try and find elusive grip and maintain essential forward motion. In cars with four seats, or even more, synchronised bouncing has become an art form. It is all done in a spirit of sportsmanship, camaraderie and fun that is so often lacking in contemporary motorsport.
Considering that all of the cars are at least 80 years old, and the oldest go back 115 years, it is remarkable that the VSCC trialling movement is booming. Demand for places is such that if competitors don’t enter on the day that entries open, they will probably not get a slot.
All of the events are either oversubscribed or full and that’s probably the only one of the VSCC’S varied disciplines where that applies. Of the seven events that run each year, most have a capacity of between 100 and 110 cars. Only the Scottish Trial has a smaller field.
Tania Brown is a director of the VSCC and heads up the trials subcommittee. “It’s the best way to have fun in an old car,” says Brown. “The VSCC is all about competition and we have 300 people competing on some trials. It is the soul of the club. It’s a huge thing for families to come and do, because the kids can take part as bouncers. They need to be over 12 years of age to be in the front, but can be in the back of the closed cars at a younger age.”
The season starts in the southwest in February with the Exmoor Trial and takes in the John Harris in Derbyshire, the Herefordshire Trial and the Scottish in the spring. After the summer break, the season resumes with the hugely-popular Welsh Trial in mid-october and concludes with the Lakeland and Cotswold events in November. They all have tradition and history and such events have long been a big part of the VSCC’S sporting calendar.
Importantly, the trials draw business to the host towns and the Welsh Trial brings the sleepy Welsh borders town of Presteigne to life over a mid-october weekend. The town traditionally welcomes the trial with open arms and local traders have a bumper weekend. Scrutineering takes over the main street and the overnight stay on Saturday night fills the hotels, pubs and restaurants.
“Trials are generally nondamaging and not designed to break cars,” says Brown. “But we do need some testing sections and more ground clearance is sensible. The cars of the 1920s and 1930s were built for rough and un-surfaced roads so they cope really well and it is a hugely competitive branch of the sport.”
A decent starter car, like the ever popular Austin 7 or Ford Model A, should be no more than £10,000 and running costs are limited to fuel, entry fees and the occasional breakage. Costs of getting started beyond the initial car purchase are also pretty modest. Licences are inexpensive and there is no mandated safety kit for the crew, although decent waterproof clothing is essential, particularly at the top of the Honister Pass in the Lake District in mid-november.
Of course, there are cars that are worth considerably more than £10,000 and it is to the credit of those who support this branch of the sport that Bugattis and Bentleys are still taking to the hills. Cars from manufacturers like MG, Vauxhall, Alvis, Lea Francis, Riley and Singer are all out there getting muddy.
Away from the common marques, there are some real rarities in action. The 1923 Helix two-seater campaigned by Susan Hill from Newtown in MidWales has been in the family for many years and is the only known surviving example.
Almost as rare is the 1930 AJS twoseater made by the company better known for its motorcycles. It is one of two such cars owned and used by Philip Milne-taylor, who competes alongside his two daughters.
“It is great to do these events alongside my daughters,” he says. “It’s all about the camaraderie, the fun and the scenery.”
The oldest of the lot is the amazing 1903 Mercedes 60HP of Ben Collings, which is remarkably agile for a chain-driven 115-year-old car. It is also incredibly adept at climbing hills as the nine-litre engine chugs along at unfeasibly low revs.
Michael New is a regular competitor in his 1928 Morris Oxford Special. “It is great fun, with fantastic camaraderie,” he says. “But you have to enter on the day that entries are released. If we don’t get an entry, we go and marshal. Trials take us to some of the most beautiful parts of the country and to places we’d never normally get to. It’s not terribly expensive to compete and we drive the car to most events. This is the best kept secret in motorsport.” ■