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Wednesday 15th April 2009

PistonHeads Goes Vintage Trialling

We experience the mud and glory of trialling in a pre-war car. OK, not the glory...


Here at PistonHeads we like to think that we're a broad minded bunch. We have wide ranging tastes in cars, as do our members, but we're united by one thing; a love for and fascination with all things motoring. So when PH was offered the chance to take part in a classic trials event, we jumped at the opportunity. It turned out to be quite a day; a car with a laughably small engine which turned out to be an absolute hoot, a couple of deeply scary moments and mud. A lot of mud.


So what is trialling? Like many forms of motor sport below the high profile (and big money) track based series, trialling is followed by a relatively small but resolutely hardcore bunch. Like most such disciplines it seems at first glance to be simple and, dare I say it, unsophisticated. Wrong on both counts; this is a sport requiring real skill, deftness of touch, engineering ingenuity and no small measure of mechanical sympathy. Oh, and no fear. Blind faith in your car's ability to tackle the seemingly impossible is a bonus too.

With its roots going back to the 1930s the basic principles of classic trialling are simple; these events are tests of both vehicle, driver and passenger, usually over a 70-100 mile road route punctuated by observed off road sections. Designed to take the car to the limit of its capabilities, a typical section involves a steep short hill or track where no production vehicle would normally venture. The aim is to 'clear' the section - to keep the car moving through a combination of throttle, clutch and 'bouncing' the car to eke out grip in conditions where there would seem to be none. Bouncing is necessary to shift as much weight on to the back (driven) axle, and is the only competitive motor sport where being a bit of a fat bloke is positively encouraged.


Team PH (actually me and mate/race preparation guru Patrick Blakeney-Edwards) were taking part in the Falcon Motor Club's March Hare Trial, set over 90 miles and 15 sections in Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire. Our ride for the day was a 1930 Austin Seven Ulster rep. A pretty and recently restored car with performance statistics that hardly look blistering on paper; 747cc, 3 speed 'box and a swooping (for an Austin Seven) body style that belies really rather modest performance. Add in two un-waif like blokes and a total mileage since restoration of 2, and it didn't look hopeful. I've 'bounced' for Patrick on plenty of Vintage Sports Car Club trials, but this was my first time behind the wheel and the little car's first competitive outing.

An early start at scrutineering control saw team PH concentrating on the important things in life - namely bacon buttie and mug of tea procurement. Duly armed, we put our little car through the rigorous testing process needed to be let loose on the road. Apparently our fire extinguisher was slightly too small and there was much sucking of air through teeth about various under bonnet matters, but nothing to prevent us being released as part of the first group in two minute intervals, our time being 8:40am.

Too clean and shiny for our liking
Too clean and shiny for our liking
On the road the Seven is actually surprisingly agile. Just as in any low, open car the sensation of speed is readily achieved - our car has an open drive shaft (thank god I'm wearing loafers - a stray lace at 7500rpm would be no fun) and whilst the gear change needs a good dose of revs on the down shift (no synchro, and DSG wasn't an option back then), I soon get the hang of it and we're making good progress. We've even got brakes - a pleasant surprise, as most vintage car drivers will attest. Our group consists of a handful of other Sevens, and so strong is our pace that we've overtaken most of our group before the first section. Buoyed with confidence in our car's abilities and relief at our ability to navigate using the (excellent) route book, pretty soon the first of 15 sections looms into view.

As with all motor sport, preparation is key and every section involves a subtle transformation from road to off-road mode. It's crucial to maximise grip on a section so the tyres lose around 30 psi, we also lower the windscreen for added visibility and that's it - ready for the off. Our engine is small but newly restored and perfectly balanced. Dial in more revs than you'd think possible (or safe) in such an old car, hold the thing on the handbrake, wait for the nod from the marshal and we're off. And then we bog down completely. Not good. I've discovered the hard way that two things that are crucial for trials success in a small car; keep your foot in as hard as possible, and hold your nerve. Over the next two sections I keep making the same mistake - the car will rev to around 7000 rpm with ease (although with no working rev counter we can only guess) but the power is right at the top of the rev range and I soon discover that the trick is to 'give it death in 1st' and keep it there whilst concentrating on finding whatever grip the section can offer.

An Austin Seven. Out standing in its field.
An Austin Seven. Out standing in its field.
By section 5, I'm really starting to crack it, and having huge fun in the process. I've cleared a couple of sections, although possibly more by luck than judgement, and I'm really learning from my mistakes. We've realised a couple of things that the car needs - definitely a lower ratio differential for starters, and possibly a lower pie count for driver and navigator. Our road pace against the other cars in our group is pointless on a trial where all points are awarded for mechanical grip on slippy off road sections, and we watch other Sevens roll off the top of sections without seeming to need our maximum attack approach.

The Falcon MC chaps have put a great deal of effort into providing a really mixed bag of surfaces and sections to test the cars. Taking place roughly between the A5 at Luton in Bedfordshire and the Brickhills, the route provides surfaces as diverse as chalky, dry and super steep woodland mud punctuated with axle breaking and puncture inducing tree roots (check out the video - it isn't a chainsaw that you can hear, it's me at what passes for full pelt), and technical exposed sandy sections where we did particularly well until I failed to notice that we had driven into a foot high mound of soil and proceeded to set fire to the clutch.

A Skoda Estelle you'd want. PH first?
A Skoda Estelle you'd want. PH first?
Our fellow competitors are trialling in a diverse range of machinery. There are trials specials such as Dellows and Lieges, purpose built for just this sort of sport and driven by similarly precisely clothed and prepared drivers, and a smattering of vintage stuff such as ours. What really caught my attention though were the production cars such as Pug 205s or even a Skoda Estelle (I found myself coveting one of the latter - an entirely new experience) with subtle modifications to enhance fitness for purpose; jacked up rear suspension for ground clearance, stripped out interiors and the addition of prominent and hardy towing points for the inevitable rescue when things get too sticky. I've also discovered where all the Suzuki XC90s went; they're being trialled, apparently.

You're doing it wrong.
You're doing it wrong.
As the day wore on inclement weather arrived, and with it the realisation that vintage motoring can be cold, wet and frankly bloody painful for the bald driver when it sleets. I discovered two things about driving through sleet at 50mph in an open topped car; firstly that a peaked cap is essential kit if one is to have any chance of seeing where one is going or other vehicles, and secondly that I did not appear to be in possession of a peaked cap. Bugger. Success in motor sport is about strategy and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and at this point sporting director Blakeney-Edwards decided that respite from the weather in the form of a country pub, a pint of IPA and a sausage bap would be good for morale and our chance of finishing without hypothermia. Sensible bloke.

The discomfort and rain soon passed however and, after a particularly challenging woodland section in which navigator Blakeney-Edwards finally conceded that he was too fat to be of much use on a muddy section and climbed out to take some photos, it was time to return to base. All day we'd noticed that the car tended to move around at the rear above 35mph (which, with engine singing at 7000rpm+ and the road clearly visible through the floor, felt twice as quick) and on the way home we discovered the cause. Rounding a reasonably quick downhill bend, a sudden clunk signalled the departure of our left offside wheel, which carried on for a few hundred metres before embedding itself in a bush. The beauty about an Austin Seven is that it is light and reasonably robust however, and despite a 100m scrape of the rear drum against tarmac bearing 200kg of slightly panicky crew, the car was none the worse for wear. With Blakeney-Edwards supporting the car Bruce Banner style, I relocated the wheel and off we went.


So what was the end result of all this slightly baffling (to the outside at least) Motor Sport? My ineptitude, a laissez-faire attitude to completing all of the sections and some stiff and experienced competition ensured that we didn't trouble the silverware, but we had great fun and learned how to make the car more competitive for its next outing. It needs a lower ratio diff to harness what power the engine has, and I've learned how to drive it hard. Huge thanks go to the organisers and marshals of the Falcon MC for putting on such a great event. We'll be back next year for sure, this time with peaked cap, low ratio diff and fully tightened wheel nuts...

PH thanks:

The organisers and marshalls at Falcoln Motor Club

Blakeney Motorsport

Images: Dave Cook and Mike Leet

Stuart
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Author Discussion

FestivAli

Original Poster:

973 posts

122 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
"GAAAAAAWWD!"

Hilarious. Nice looking little car though, I get the impression that it's hugely satisfying finishing a rough stage?

Ferg

15,242 posts

141 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
My Father-in-Law used to do Trials in a Ford Model A with the VSCC.
It was a real laugh with four of us in it!!!! biggrin

Fane

805 posts

84 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Looks like you had some fun there, Stuart. VSCC Welsh Trial next?

Silent1

18,907 posts

119 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
When's the next one.

We could organise a PH gathering.

Stuart

11,585 posts

135 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Fane said:
Looks like you had some fun there, Stuart. VSCC Welsh Trial next?
Yep, think so. I've bounced on the Welsh a few times but never driven. The car has the new diff now, so it should have no problem on on Smatcher!

ETA - presumably you'd recommend something long wheelbase and American though, Fane? wink

Edited by Stuart on Friday 10th April 10:35

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Mafioso

2,193 posts

98 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Sounded like he was revving the nuts off it! When will it go kaboom!? smile

Fane

805 posts

84 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Rumbled!

Stuart

11,585 posts

135 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Mafioso said:
Sounded like he was revving the nuts off it! When will it go kaboom!? smile
I know, it sounded like a chainsaw and I literally had my foot down as hard as it would go. The engine has been properly balanced though and the owner (my co-pilot) was adamant that I should just give it death and go for it. He runs a race preparation/restoration business, so wasn't too concerned about the bill if it went pop.

Kinky

34,297 posts

153 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
A brilliant write-up Stuart thumbup

As Oli says - when is there going to be a PH one? You can count me in.

I would be willing to volunteer as a co-pilot for you ..... but my pie-count is twice that of yours - which would exclude me wink


crankedup

10,400 posts

127 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Sounds brilliant fun you had, I discovered the fun of vintage motoring a few years ago but have yet to summon up the courage to enter for trials. Good to read of vintage motoring here for an change.

purple haze

158 posts

108 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Fantastic article - I must see if there are any trials events down here in deepest Somerset - it's part of my motoring education that's been sadly missed. I imagine it's the type of event you can do on a relatively modest budget

gdaybruce

584 posts

109 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
Great to see something different on PH. In my youth membership of the motor club meant having a go at rallies, autotests, production car trials, treasure hunts, etc, etc. And all in the same car, of course!

Variety is the spice of life.

deviant

4,316 posts

94 months

[news] 
Friday 10th April 2009 quote quote all
That looks epic fun!

I love how the chase cam can run up the hill quicker than the car hehe

Pow!

3,296 posts

70 months

[news] 
Saturday 11th April 2009 quote quote all
Fantasic! clap looks awesome biggrin

i was expecting just a farting noise from that thing but it does put out quite a good note!

austin

859 posts

87 months

[news] 
Saturday 11th April 2009 quote quote all
Nice to see a write up Stuart. I've done my fair share of trials in Austin 7s, (even won a couple!) and now own an Ulster rep as well. Trialling is great fun, (and relatively cheap.)

They are great little cars but I very much doubt it revs up to 7,500 rpm, mine certainly doesn't but it will do 65 quite happily on the flat

williamp

12,379 posts

157 months

[news] 
Saturday 11th April 2009 quote quote all
Fantasitc. Would love to have a go at trialling sometime

Ian Davis

4 posts

64 months

[news] 
Sunday 12th April 2009 quote quote all
Great story Stuart. I was marshalling on the March Hare Trial and I have to say you are being very modest. On my section you scored a very spirited clear of the hill where the other two Austin 7s foundered, despite both being regular competitors.

Pistonheads wanting to go trialling can find out more here: www.actc.org.uk There is a link on the home page for beginners. There's also an explanation of what cars do well in the various classes and a calendar of events. The really big trial - the Lands End - was actually yesterday but you can read all the history here: www.themotorcyclingclub.org.uk

The next big one for spectators is the Ilkley Trial, funnily enough on Ilkley Moor on May 17th. Being a bit of an eccentric sport we then shut down for the summer before starting up again in September.

If there's enough interest we may be able to organise a PH intro trial - how many would be up for that?

Silent1

18,907 posts

119 months

[news] 
Sunday 12th April 2009 quote quote all
Ian Davis said:
Great story Stuart. I was marshalling on the March Hare Trial and I have to say you are being very modest. On my section you scored a very spirited clear of the hill where the other two Austin 7s foundered, despite both being regular competitors.

Pistonheads wanting to go trialling can find out more here: www.actc.org.uk There is a link on the home page for beginners. There's also an explanation of what cars do well in the various classes and a calendar of events. The really big trial - the Lands End - was actually yesterday but you can read all the history here: www.themotorcyclingclub.org.uk

The next big one for spectators is the Ilkley Trial, funnily enough on Ilkley Moor on May 17th. Being a bit of an eccentric sport we then shut down for the summer before starting up again in September.

If there's enough interest we may be able to organise a PH intro trial - how many would be up for that?
Can i bring an L200 Warrior?

Or the rather tasty pimped up wrangler from the village?

Kinky

34,297 posts

153 months

[news] 
Sunday 12th April 2009 quote quote all
Ian Davis said:
Pistonheads wanting to go trialling can find out more here: www.actc.org.uk There is a link on the home page for beginners.
Ian - thank you for that thumbup

And welcome to PH wavey

Got some reading to do this afternoon smile

V6

2,971 posts

105 months

[news] 
Monday 13th April 2009 quote quote all
Ian Davis said:
If there's enough interest we may be able to organise a PH intro trial - how many would be up for that?
I would very much be up for it, we do like to partake in the odd scuffle and this seems to be a scuffle with slightly more direction to it, ideal!

Great article, thoroughly enjoyable. Tally ho, pip pip!
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