WINTER SPORTS : Car Trialling for Ancient & Modern

October saw the first snow falling in our part of the country. Not that it stuck, but it did suddenly remind me of how close winter is to the end of summer. Autumn seems short. At the start of September I was at Prescott hillclimb, the trees were green and the temperature was still comfortable although the daylight hours were getting noticeably shorter. We camped, as usual and it was really very pleasant. It felt like the end of summer rather than the start of autumn. Only 4 weeks later I was back at the same venue and waking up in the dark to frosty mornings with frozen feet, to the scraping windscreens and unfreezing of door locks! It was getting dark by 6pm and felt like winter.

Within a couple of weeks of that I spectated on two contrasting car trials and it struck me that for a petrol-head this constitutes proper “winter-sports”! None of your skis or snow boards… this was charging up a muddy track without grinding to a halt, all wheel spin and revs while you could see your breath in clouds and feel the cold seeping up through your boots. It was like being back in the 1980s and watching the Lombard RAC Rally in it’s heyday. Back then the ‘Lombard’ was the start of winter and something to look forward to.

Times have changed and for me the Welsh Trial is now the first wintery event I look forward to. It runs over an entire weekend, criss-crossing the hills along the Herefordshire/Radnor border. Something over 100 cars took part, the oldest from 1903 with wooden wheels and chain drive, the youngest from 1930 – a mere 88 year old! There are chain driver GNs and Singers Juniors and Ford Model A’s, Austin 7s of every variety and a lot of delicious curiosities : an AJS, a Humber Dogcart and that veteran chain-drive Mercedes 60hp. Through the mud they slosh, wheels scrabbling, trailing steam from hot exhausts, passengers in woolly hats bouncing energetically to help traction. Great fun. And age was no signal of ability, the Mercedes climbed hills better than many a sporty Riley or MG, the spindly air cooled GN cycle cars lasted the route in the same way as the mightily engineered 4 ½ litre Bentleys and a large car with 4 passengers seemed as capable or incapable as a small two seater at clearing a section without penalty.

 And the drivers varied from gnarled veterans to enthusiastic teenagers, the passengers from grandparents to great grand children. This is a type of motor sport that appeals very widely. Yes, one might say that to own a vintage car suitable for such en event requires a certain financial stature, but those humble Austin 7s can be bought cheaper than the average family hatchback sitting on any suburban driveway. It’s rather different if you fancy entering a Bentley of course… but of clearly you don’t need anything so exotic to be competitive.

A week later, as November loomed, the Kyrle Trial, run by Ross Motor Club, negotiated a broadly similar concept within the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley: Follow the route between steep slippery hills dispersed in quiet spots around the countryside and try not to get stuck on any of them.

The Kyrle, in it’s 40th year, is a single-day event and the entry was around 30 cars so it’s not quite in the grand manner of ‘The Welsh’ which traces it’s originals back to the 1930s but it was just as much fun to watch and no doubt to take part in. The entry was for ‘moderns’, as one of my fellow petrol heads refers to anything post-war. Not that most of them were very modern in the strict sense, a large part of the entry comprised classic cars and in particular VW Beetles – not the recent variety but the ‘proper’ ones with air-cooled engine in the tail. And that’s half the reason of course. The weight of the engine is where you want it for maximum traction while climbing a muddy hill. There were also assorted beach-buggy style devices , many with the same VW running gear, but that didn’t guarantee success.

To my great surprise the event was a 1-2 for Reliant Scimitar SS1s (above right) which managed to clear most of the hills without penalty despite being low slung, front engined sports cars! Not that a low slung sports car was exactly the winning-recipe either as Mazda MX5s, BMW Z3s and even a Smart roadster all failed to negotiate the hill (more properly called “observed section”) on which I was watching. And what an obstical this was!

I’ve never seen a ‘modern’ trial before and it was striking just how steep and grip-less the ‘section’ was. In the middle section is must have been about a 1-in-3 incline on a bumpy loose muddy gravel surface. You looked at it and immediately imagined no one was getting to the top. But they did, and without any traction control , limited slip differentials or even ‘mud and snow’ tyres (all banned to make things more interesting!)

Then there was the matter of getting back down as the road went to a dead-end. What went up , must come down. And that looked pretty terrifying at first, but there were no untoward incidents. No one went slithering off course into the brambles. It was very impressive.

Within an hour of the first car acending the hill it was all done and dusted, all the cars were elsewhere doing a different section, the markers were cleared away and there was very little evidence of anything having taken place. It was all very neat and tidy. My guess is most of the locals hardly knew it was happening.

Great winter sport. And numerous trials, for the “ancients ” and the “moderns” take place until the spring, neatly dovetailing with the start of the racing season and the arrival of…hopefully… better weather!

I’m so taken with trialling that plans are a foot to end my own 15 year ‘sabattical’ from active motor sport and take part on some of them next year. My daughter , Charlotte, who’s been my loyal assistant on the book stall all summer, is keen to act as passenger/navigator so watch this space…



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