John Harris Insists You Try

It’s Grin up North…

All images: The author.

Car trials are practically as old as the motorcar itself. Take a vintage automobile and point it in the direction of a steep hill. Throw in muddy, rutted tracks and/or forest areas. Combine this with unpredictable British weather and you have the makings of a most rewarding, if rather sodden day out.

The Setting: A former limestone quarry in the heart of the picturesque Derbyshire dales. Now verdant and a haven for walkers and bike riders, its industrial heritage has become well hidden unless you actively seek it out. A perfect location for the Vintage Sports Car Club’s (VSCC) annual trip to this corner of the Peak District for the annual John Harris Trial[1], named in honour of the man who organised the event for many a long year.

They’re called Chummy for a reason…

Over 100 vehicles have signed on with only a smattering of retirements throughout the day. Competing cars must be roadworthy, their crews requiring not only keen navigational skills but a healthy sense of the absurd. While meteorological conditions preceding the event had been inclement to say the least, the day itself proves almost precipitation-free, although a sharp wind scudding the clouds overhead makes the bones chill. But with engines silent, one can hear the birdsong over the flowing river, while buzzards serenely wheel above.

It’s all in the weight distribution. Pedigree Chum with a look of dogged determination.

The Cars: The VSCC employ a strict set of rules to ensure a level playing field. The trials are light-hearted in spirit but nonetheless, someone has to be victorious. Entrants are graded into four classes. Classes 1a and 1b are dominated by Austins; Seven, Chummy and Ulster, in a plethora of (open) body styles. In addition, we find the occasional Riley and MG, with a 1922 Bugatti T13 and 1929 Ford Model T hogging the celebrity limelight on the day.

Class 2s are where the bigger boys and girls come out to play. A handful more Rileys; Nines, 12/4 Specials, but also Morrises; Bullnose and Cowley, a Vauxhall 30-98 Wensum[2] and a Bentley 3-litre. Getting louder and lustier, the iron from our American brethren; Chryslers 60, 66 and 75 alongside fifteen Ford As, once more in an array of differing bodies. Entrants range in antiquity from the most recent, 1937, to the oldest, 1920. 

Truly scrumptious. Vauxhall Wensum with children as ballast.

Time-proven engineering is the byword here, yet the mind also wrestles with the notion that, despite appearances, these old warhorses, mechanically cherished as they may be, are punished to within an inch of their suspension travel once under way.

The rules state that all cars must carry a driver and co-driver. Should your vehicle have more seating capacity, feel free to fill ’em up, the extra weight and up-and-down motion may well facilitate your upward struggle. Or maybe not, since those added pounds could instead cause your steed to bottom-out.

The Aim (in the quarry): Each car must attempt both Clough Wood and Mill Close Mine courses. Small metal flags marked 1 to 25 are posted at intervals to measure progress. The trickier the sections, the closer the flags. For example, halting between the 10th and 11th flag scores a 10. The maximum would prove impossible on the morning runs on both courses, Clough Wood seeing a best of 16 the whole day, but as the day progressed the Mill Close Mine layout would become more passable.

Failure to proceed. The yellow markers evident here. This section scored a ten.

Perhaps it was a case of greater momentum, a tail wind, better tyres or grim determination, but 25s would steadily become more frequent, if by no means a given as the day progressed. A century old Morris Bullnose failed to negotiate past twelve, right by my feet, for one can get as close to the action as one cares to. Marshalls and helpful spectators seem only too keen to assist with pushing a car through the mud to an escape road, even if that means reversing down the slope you have just attempted. Escape roads prove equally tricky to navigate, but a VW Amarok sees (fairly constant) use to retrieve stranded relics.

Sights, Sounds and Smells: Muddy clumps fly amid dogged driver (and passenger) determination. Front and, occasionally, rear wheels lift three feet or more off the ground. Passengers frantically bounce in their seats to improve traction. Steam and smoke pour from radiators as muddy water envelops the bonnet. Tortured clutches keep on going, regardless. Cries of encouragement and rounds of applause greet that coveted 25 score.

Comments from participants vary from, “She drove that like she stole it.” or “That was hairy!” and “Christ, I was scared!” After a once-yellow 1929 Austin 7’s exhaust falls off as it bottoms out in the mud, we hear, “We gave it our best shot but it’s so shitty!” Exhaust notes vary from fruity to guttural. Emitted engine sounds alternate between dulcimer-sweet to banshee howls. The heady aroma of exhaust smoke, fried oil and burning clutches hang in the air but seconds later, a chill wind whips it away.

Understandably, modern (sadly garish in hue but washable) apparel is the predominant attire worn by the mud-splattered competitors. Some opt for waxed jackets, often more patinated than even their vehicles. Beards are in shorter supply than expected, as are leather jackets, but headgear tends to be more varied.

The Potter family out for a weekend jaunt with father looking almost ambivalent.

Footwear choices are equally diverse: some opting for modern training shoes with disastrous results upon contact with the muddy ground, while for others, only full leather boots and gaiters or trusty wellingtons suffice. And upon egress, while those under thirty might leap from their mud-halted bolide, those of more mature years would often grimace and creak more than their now-mired vehicles.

Many competitors choose to inspect the course before attempting a run, harrumphing at the conditions. Approaches differ: some gunning the engine from flag one, while others preferring a more nuanced effort. Both methods pay dividends. An engine or two might flood through the pools of water, but all those stranded eventually extract themselves from the oozing mud.

An all-female team garner the full 25 points from their 1928 Ford Model A, whereas a young fellow vaguely resembling Harry Potter steers his family in a sweet-sounding Chrysler B70 Tourer from 1925. A youngtimer (1935) Austin 7 completes the Mill Close Mine course only to suffer brake problems upon exit. Rolled eyeballs and some frantic moments releases the cable in order to continue in under an hour.

Serious dicky (seat) action here. ‘It all happened in a blur, guv…’

If enthusiasm could be bottled it would be VSCC John Harris flavoured. No histrionic TV interviews, just decent, honest competition and jocular banter. For a chill Saturday in early March which cost me nothing but fuel, this was priceless entertainment, providing a grin as broad as the Dales to accompany me home.


[1] Following John Harris’ passing, the trial was named in his honour.

[2] The Wensum was billed by Vauxhall as ‘an ultra-sporting body’ on the Prince Henry chassis. This lightweight boat-tailed body is believed to have been inspired by the fast motorboat works manager (and racing driver) AJ Hancock kept moored on the River Wensum, a popular boating area near Norwich. [ED]

Crews must locate and attempt other trials within the vicinity, some of which do not allow spectators, being on private land. Aside from the trials, cars will easily cover 150 miles in the day.

A 12 minute video of Austin Seven number 120’s day in the trial.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “John Harris Insists You Try”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Hillclimbing is a form of motorsport about which I know next to nothing, so thanks for your vivid description of the event. Having an aversion to mud, it wouldn’t be for me, but its good to see it providing great entertainment for a modest budget, and giving those old cars an airing. I’m sure any damage sustained can be fixed, and at least they’re not atrophying in a museum.

    1. Great start to an Easter Saturday Andrew. I share your aversion to mud, Daniel, but can assure you that those who indulge in this particular pastime love it. They were probably once those babies who manage to get their food everywhere but in their mouths…. As for the cars, they do indeed suffer damage, almost entirely mechanical, the repair of which often involves great ingenuity; thus helping to keep otherwise lost skills alive, either at the small businesses which undertake them or simply men in sheds. And all a reminder that using a car can still be lots of fun.

    2. Good morning, Andrew. Like Daniel I know almost nothing about hillclimbing. I wouldn’t say I am averse to mud, but in my jungle there happens to be asphalt 😉 But it’s good to see hillclimbing and the skills that are connected to it are kept alive.

  2. I marshalled at a sporting trial once – fifty or so years ago – but there were no vintage cars , they were all proper trials cars (Canons etc) . Someone had left me an old Land-Rover at the top of ‘my’ hill, which I had to use at least once to pull a stranded competitor to the top. My only chance to drive a real ‘Landie’.

  3. An amusing report and read, Andrew, thank you! Seems about as far removed from the often aloof and oddly sterile atmosphere of a concours d’elegance as you can get within the realm of the automotive hobby.

  4. Another excellent article Andrew with a nice play on words for the title too! I have never been to a hillclimb event but the images of yours have got me thinking from a photographic perspective.
    Our son’s recently deceased Mercedes W124 Estate had to have some work done in local garage a while back in Hay on Wye. I went to collect it for him and in the middle of the floor there stood a car used by the owner for Hill Climbing. Unsure what it originally was but certainly a mixture of very old bits and pieces put together for just one thing. Getting up hills quickly! Lots of welding and use of various parts made it quite successful I was told.

  5. In the Seventies I practiced the two wheeled equivalent on a Bultaco Sherpa trials bike.
    Compared to circuit racing or other speed oriented activities you nearly always get a positive echo because you’re less fast and don’t make lots of noise.
    For yourself it has the advantage that the vehicle is much cheaper and easier to maintain and it’s far less dangerous as the worst that can happen is badly aching arms and back and some kind of hematoma and bruises.

  6. Thanks for sharing the pics, and the entertaining text. I’ve seen a video of a similar competition once, it does look like a lot of fun.
    Interesting that you also wrote about the “fashion” side of the event. Every time I go to any car-related event, I always pay attention to what the gear heads are wearing.

  7. Since no one has mentioned the Lotus Mk I…

    Here she is with the future Mrs. Chapman

    And in battle, helmed by the sartorial ACBC.

  8. I absolutely love this motorsport! I found videos on Youtube of this a few months ago and got totally hooked, watching them for hours. It’s so simple and joyful and seems like a grassroots form of rally that’s more focused on fun rather than speed. I showed my younger brother and he was gobsmacked that people really just take out these old classics and ‘bounce’ them along a muddy path!

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