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Short & Not Very Sweet : 2023 Exeter Trial

Short & Not Very Sweet : 2023 Exeter Trial

After a three month rebuild, following a pretty dramatic head gasket failure on October's EDINBURGH TRIAL,  much delayed by the December snow and subsequent rain,  we finally got our Suzuki X-90 trials car back in action on the first weekend of January! This was on the EXETER TRIAL, one of the oldest motor sporting events in the world (first run 1910). Due to covid, among other things, this was only our second attempt at the event even though we started competing in trials 4 years ago. 

So on a very stormy January evening my daughter Charlotte and I set off for the start at Haynes Motor Museum (above) near Yeovil and a start time of 01.22 am.  The Museum was actually open for competitors to look round at this ungodly hour by special arrangement. Pretty impressive it is too! Charlotte rather fell for a red Porsche 356 and I was smitten by an AC 428 of the type driven by Tara King in THE AVENGERS when new (below).

And Graham Hill's  Embassy Lola  F1 car from 1974 in what looks surprisingly unrestored condition.

 We met fellow Suzuki runners Barry &  Graham Redmayne and Jeremy Salter, all looking round the collection and had a quick chat, but time ticked by unusually fast and before long we had all headed off into the Somerset darkness full of expectation. A gentle drive through deserted Yeovil, Chard and Crewkerne all artistically soaked by the rain and glistening in the street lights, led us to an initial timed test (forward-reverse-forward-stop…more or less). 

Sat in the queue for the first timed test behind one of many VW Beetles entered in the event

That went well enough and led us on to the first proper Observed Section deep in a very muddy wood at Underdown. That was good fun, although the rain was lashing down now and the mud was Somme-like in many places. Blasting up a steep woodland track between puddles and pine trees, round sharp bends and over humps and bumps got the attention even at 3am!. Easy enough but equally easy to make a mess of and get stuck.

Underdown by headlights,  as seem from the driving seat of our Suzuki X-90

 We popped out of the exit road and parked up. Steam swirling around ahead of us in the headlights seemed the least of our concerns as we pumped up the tyres . After all, there was steam everywhere from warm engines and exhausts as cars arrived or left the section in pouring rain. Steam, mud, rain, wind. It was a pretty foul night already.

Another Suzuki X-90 exits UNDERDOWN in a Turner-esque burst of light

Our biggest worry was a sudden lack of air pressure from the wired-in pump and the slow progress of inflating tyres from the 12psi  we run for traction on the bit that counts, to something suitable for the following 13 mile road section . Charlotte looked pained at the apparently flat (brand new) left rear tyre she was attending to. The gauge on the air line read zero. She tried our spare tyre gauge and that gave a reading....12psi. After 5 minutes it hadn't pumped up at all.  Time was slipping by and car after car was getting ahead of us in the running order. Then I found a hole in the airline. A thumb securely applied over the breach produced results. A quick wind of insulation tape more or less gave full function and soon we were up to road pressures. However there was still the worry of a length of tail pipe that had sheared off the exhaust system and was hanging loose, yet refusing every effort to actually detach it from the rubber mount . The trial wasn't supposed to be this much of a…trial! Well, not quite so early in the event.  At least we could now get a move on and clock in at the next Passage control without too much more lost time, surely?

But we couldn't. The car bogged down and struggled out onto the main road,  picking up speed slowly.  Clearly it wasn't healthy. A few miles further on the heater stopped clearing the windscreen . A bad sign. No heat meant no water in the matrix. There was a leak somewhere and most of that steam had actually been ours!  In the heat (cold...) of the moment I missed a left turn towards Musbury and had to do a quick U-turn, but before re-joining the route I stopped in a layby. The wind almost wrenched the door out of my hand as I got out to look under the bonnet. 

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Trialist…  Simon gets the bonnet open in the teeth of a gale

By now the gale was at it's peak, the rain lashed in horizontally at 50mph, and within seconds my jeans were soaked (Note to Self: Buy some waterproof trousers !). Steam was whistling out of a small joint between a rubber hose and the inlet manifold. The old fashioned spring clip holding it securely had seemingly lost it's spring and with the hose very soft and felixible from the heat build up on section 1, it had been squeezed out of place and was no longer sealing. Worse, it was in such a position that touching it risked a jet of scalding water or a burn from the adjacent, perilously close, hot metal. 

The wind howled, the rain stung and the occasional HGV rumbling past only added a further buffeting. All the while Charlotte sat patiently and uncomplaining in the car as I struggled for almost an hour to get a grip on that spring clip with a pliers. After removing a few bolts, a bit of the engine mounting and some other pipe work in order to get a better purchase I still could not get the clip back into the correct place. It just dug into the pliable rubber and refused to budge. Eventually in desperation I tried a cable-tie instead, refilled the now-cool radiator, and figured we might still get a medal even if it wasn't a prized Gold one as we were likely to get penalised for falling behind schedule.

Trials cars parked up at the Passage Control at Musbury Garage around 4am 

But the tie didn't tighten enough to maintain the water pressure and as we parked up at Musbury Garage for the Passage Control, the ominous sound of boiling could be heard from the expansion bottle. We found a handy layby, about a mile or so down the road, and waited, and waited for that giant kettle under the bonnet to stop. Clearly we were risking another head gasket failure (we had one on the Edinburgh Trial when the radiator holed) if we continued, assuming one had not already occurred, so had to admit defeat. 

It was a truly horrible stormy night , but at least the Suzuki X-90 has a roof. I felt for all the dedicated marshalls standing out in such conditions and anyone who didn't have a closed car to shelter in. The rescue truck arrived a couple of hours later. We were on our way home even before first light and back in time for lunch. 

The End . Collection by the rescue truck some time before dawn

That's two long-distance trials in a row that have ended on the roadside in a cloud of steam, for different reasons, it must be said. However we did avoid the engine damage of last time, which caused us to miss both the Kyrle and Mechaincs trials, and took the better part of three months to fix.  Most of the Exeter issues were solved within a few hours of getting back thanks to daylight, a lack of driving rain and access to a selection of jubilee clips. (Note to self: Pack lots of those in the car from now on!) .

Crossing the ‘New’ Severn Bridge in the rescue truck with ‘Monkey’ on the back…

Not our best experience on an event but (and here we clearly must be mad or hopeless addicts) we both enjoyed it! 

All part of life's rich tapestry I guess? 

Next stop the shorter but no less daunting Clee Hills Trial in Shropshire on January 22nd.