Darkest Before The Dawn…Especially With No Lights. 2022 Exeter Trial

We’re sitting in a little lane in south Devon. It’s early January and just after 7am. It’s dark.  The engine stopped five minutes ago and we coasted down a hill to try and find somewhere safe to park. Eventually there was a farm gateway up ahead, but it wasn’t easy to see as the lights had gone out even before the engine expired. And just beforehand the wipers had dragged to a halt. Here endeth our Exeter Trial for 2022.

Our Suzuki X-90 and others at Haynes Motor Museum awaiting in the start

Rewind five hours and we were arriving at Haynes Motor Museum on a winter Saturday. This was the start venue and the car park was filled with a dizzy array of cars, motor bikes and sidecar outfits. Almost 300 in all.

Hughie Walker’s amazing Austin 7 special “VAT 69” with an ABC flat-twin engine from a vintage aircraft.

The early runners had already departed, we were starting  a lowly number 184 at 3.04am . It’s the sort of hour where you want to get on with things and get going to avoid dozing off to sleep ! We resorted to a game of I-SPY to stay focused…. “Something beginning with D” “Darkness?”    “correct.”

Simon & Charlotte Just before the start at 3am

My passenger and navigator is my 15 year old daughter Charlotte who’s been competing in car trials in this capacity since she was 12. We’ve competed in the other major long distance trials ; the Lands End and the Edinburgh ; but this was out first try at the Exeter, an event that dates back to before the first world war and boasts some of the steepest and most feared trials hills in the country.  All of them are new to us and although we start quite late the mid-winter date ensures about half of them will be tackled in darkness, which always adds a little trepidation and a lot more atmosphere to proceedings. And it’s raining as we take the start. But at least it’s not freezing like it was back home.

Gareth White’s Marlin heads off into the darkness.

Away from the Haynes museum site the route wound through Crewkerne and Chard with only the occasional fellow competitor on the empty roads and it was while before we ran into any traffic as such, this was on the second Observed Section , known as Underdown where after a left turn into a wood we suddenly found there were cars everywhere.  VW Beetles, SS1 Scimitars, Marlins, MX5s, Rickman Rangers and a good few Suzuki X-90s, like ours. Some deflating tyres for maximum grip, others emerging from a side road having just finished and parking up to re-inflate them again for the following road section . The section started  deep in a wooded valley and must have been causing some problems as there was something over half an hour’s wait before we had the chance to attempt it ourselves.

Mike Briggs’ Troll T6 in the long queue for Section 2

The weather was pretty nasty by this point and the marshals were ankle deep in mud.  It was good fun blasting back up through the trees with tight hairpin bends suddenly appearing in our headlights  and ghostly tree branches whisking past the windscreen.  Back out on the road we  headed out to a Passage Control, located at a petrol station doing a roaring trade for 5am. Most crews were taking the opportunity to refuel their cars and bikes with petrol and themselves with hot coffee, crisps and chocolate bars from the forecourt shop.

Musbury Garage at 5am. Josh Hassell’s VW Beetle directly ahead of us.

It was a perfect example of how an event helps the local economy in rural outposts like this.

An hour or so later we were deep in another wood and queued up once more for a ‘section’ that was stopping quite a lot of runners. Two prosaic Honda C90 mopeds wind there way back through to find a way out having failed to reach the top of the curiously named ‘Norman’s Hump’ . Using unlikely machinery is something of a tradition, the entry boasts a couple of 3 wheeled Reliant Robins as well as three more of those little Honda.

At this point I switched off the engine to save fuel as we were clearly going nowhere for a while. And that’s when the problems started. On trying to restart it was clear the battery was almost dead. Luckily we were on a downhill section and able to bump-start in the old fashioned manner, but on closer inspection the faint glow of the battery light that had been present throughout the previous event and given no hint of trouble was back and somewhat brighter. The alternator wasn’t working. Hearts sank. We could keep the engine running and try and make it to day light. But at some point we needed fuel and there was a long way to go. Almost another 100 miles in fact.

Eventually the queues moved on and we had a go at the section. I’d seen it on Youtube but the reality was so much steeper and very bumpy. It climbed to a plateau then climbed steeper again and the bumps set up a sort of bunny-hop that kept the front wheels airborne for a good proportion of the time.  Having successfully made the finish there was a long loop back round to the next section, Clinton, although only about quarter of a mile away as the crow flew, and another long wait as car after car seemed to fail.

Waiting for the start at Clinton

So long was the wait that Charlotte took the opportunity for some sleep and I found that if I held the throttle at 1200rpm the battery light almost (almost) went out. Would this save our event? My right foot was almost asleep by the time we got moving.  The line finally cleared ahead and it was time to try the section ourselves. There was a dip half way through and a fork in the road. For a split second I hesitated before realizing which way to go and nailing the throttle . That was probably all it took, we bounded up the following hill but the bumps again proved difficult and we literally came to a grinding halt just at the point where a restart box was marked out for the higher class cars (the intention being to equalize overall performance by making the more technically capable classes stop-and-restart on several section where the rest of us kept on going) and we got beached on the ruts. Undaunted we started moving around the car in the pre-arranged “left-right-left-right” motion to try and find grip, all the while the rear wheels kept on spinning and soon we were disappearing in acrid tyre smoke. No dice.

Grinding to a halt on Clinton

We’d failed and had to reverse back to the fork and take the exit route. “If we fail two more we’ll lose any medal….” I said to Charlotte “..so we’ll retire and save the car, OK?” She agreed. We never got to that point.

Half an hour later, having cleaned the following section easily, the air pump started to slow right down as we re-inflated the rear tyres . The battery was on it’s way out. On the next element, a timed Forward-reverse-forward-stop test, the lights started to dim. As we trundled down hill after this the wipers stopped completely. Then the lights went out…

So that was were our event ended, 72 miles into a 161 mile route and with all the daylight sections and the spectator’s favourite hill, Simms, still some way off.

It was fun while it lasted and we were back home on a recovery truck by lunch. Just in time for a nice long afternoon nap to make up for lost sleep!

Stuart Highwood’s Scimitar SS1 exits the Underdown section

Citroen 2CV at the start

Lester Keat’s Hillman Avenger at the start

Duncan Welsh’s Lotus 7 lookalike “Racecorp S1” at the start