It’s Grin up North…
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, named in honour of the man who organised the event for many a long year.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Following John Harris’ passing, the trial was named in his honour.
 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.