The 88th Exeter Trial 6th – 7th January – Ed Wells

Well we finished – and there is a very real disconnect between my head and my current reality, it’s rather like jet lag combined with the phantom motion that stays when you get off a bumpy boat trip. Sit in a Dutton Melos with no sleep, climb 14 hills and do a couple of special tests and you will know exactly what I mean.
You may recall my appetite for the long distance MCC trials started to emerge after I rode as passenger with Richard Andrews in his Dellow on last year’s Land’s End Trial. I subsequently entered Class O on the Edinburgh Trial in the Dutton just to see if I could deal with an entry level version. We came away with no award simply because I fancied doing restarts when I clearly wasn’t supposed to – my fault (note to self -read the instructions). In truth I found that driving without enough seriously challenging hills didn’t really do it for me. So it was time – I entered the 88th Exeter Trial. And now I have learnt that there are five things that you really must get right – Preparation, Scrutineering, Navi- gation, Timing, Driving and Climbing… And all of those elements caused us some problems.


I had rarely been so cold and wet as I was on that Land’s End Trial so I went for multiple layers (and lots of them) topped off with water proofs. The summer modifications to the Dutton altered the rear springs, weight distribution and the final drive and these changes have combined to deliver a couple of Classic Trial class wins (I just need to be care- ful when attacking bumpy steep hills as the front has a nasty tendency to go airborne). The only other bit of additional prep was that MCC scrutineering on the Edinburgh had told me my auxiliary lights on the rear must be wired into an illuminated switch so that I never accidentally leave them on. No problem, apart from I should have done that well in advance – you will see why. My preparation also included a detailed Exeter hill briefing from Richard Andrews – so I thought we were ready, and with my passenger/navigator Stan Howitt we headed off for our allocated start point – Harebushes Services, Cirencester. The real deal had started – The 2017 Exeter.

The weather forecast for 6th and 7th January looked ok. Unseasonably mild with a slight chance of some rain, that very mild forecast then turned into the possibility of fog. We set off from my house on May Hill around 19:20 PM in drizzle for our allocated start at Cirencester. Standard start time was issued as 19:30 PM. I was running number 110 so our actual start time is 110 minutes after standard time – 21:20 pm. Given the timings we had plenty of time to spare for scrutineering, fuelling and warming up with a cup of coffee. We got there and straight into the queue for scrutineering, everything had been fine – except we failed because the brake lights had stopped working. I carry a lot of tools with me on classic trials, but circuit tester, brake switch and all the other possibilities were a problem – the clock was ticking and the drizzle had now turned into light rain. We tested the rear lights and bulbs – no problem. We bypassed the brake switch – no problem. So it was somewhere between front and back in the rats nest of a very tired 1970s Ford Escort wiring Loom – now I was sweating! I decided to make and break all the electrical connections I could. Meddling around in the wiring entrails behind the dash did something – a minor miracle occurred – the brake lights started working. We quickly loaded all the kit away, blast the left rear light had stopped. A quick fix, a badly seating bulb – all now working. Five minutes from our start time with fingers crossed we passed scrutineering. Stan my passenger asked –“Do we need fuel?”. I said I had loads but as we had a full two minutes left I thought I’d fritter that time with a top up – and thank god I did. Over £20 of petrol tells me we were down to the last 5 litres – so the final drive change now equals a seriously thirsty Melos (50 mph on the road now equates to over 3500 RPM). Still we got away on time and headed out into the night, peering through my creaking wipers with what little could be seen through my 1970s Ford headlights – well, it stopped me driving too fast! We were finally heading in the right direction for some hills whilst I was marinating nicely inside all my protection layers. Onwards…


Effectively, despite the multiple start points (Cirencester, Popham and Sourton Cross) all the competitors congregate for the proper start at the Haynes Museum, Sparkford based on 00:00 standard time which adjusted for us meant 1:50 am Saturday. All we had to do was navigate cross country where the MCC club had already stated there were no road markers. To ensure a sat nav was no good we had a special test to find, in the dark, in the rain, on a public road in the middle of nowhere with no road signs. So again a tad stressy – the route instructions were wrong at one point where traffic lights had turned into a roundabout so we sailed on oblivious looking for instructions to match what turned up in the headlights through the rain and now fog – yes fog had arrived as forecast. After four or five miles we decided we were wrong – I pulled over. Five other trials cars went by so we decided we were right after all, so we followed them. Little did I know they had been following me (tail-gating in the gloom). My wiper motor was sounding terminal now so I decided to flick the wipers on and off only when I thought absolutely necessary – so we then lost our fellow competitors as well. And without a road atlas we had no idea where we were, where we were going or how to get back to wherever we had come from… A 24 hour petrol station supplied a road guide for £1.99 and we decided to return to the obvious route problem point, which we did finally manage – all alone, late and in a state of damp despair. We found the special test (eventually) and finally arrived at Haynes Museum around 40 minutes behind our time – but still early enough to comply with the compulsory one hour’s rest break and make our original start time of 1:50 am. Deep joy, in the dry, in the warm – and back on track hoping the wiper motor would last or the rain would stop.

Driving and Climbing

We left Haynes Museum on schedule at 1:50AM now paying better attention to the route guide and using the road map to continually cross reference. That approach worked well, but the fog and rain was getting worse and the wiper motor was making some terrible noises. The night was long and hard, hard because of the fog, rain, navigation, wip- ers and increasing fatigue. We found all 6 night hills and climbed them clean – stress levels were high as the Melos glow worm headlights gaily shone a few feet into the foggy sky which was of little or no use when driving a muddy hill and dodging trees. There was a delay on one of the hills and we had also deviated a bit on the route so we arrived 40 minutes late for the breakfast stop at Crealy Park, near Exeter. There is a one hour compulsory halt here and our adjusted start time moved from 7:20 to 7:32 – Great only a 12 minute time penalty. But what past for daylight had finally arrived – still raining, still foggy but at least the headlight problems were now history.

Breakfast stop – the gloom was lifting…

To cut this story short, we were clear and having a great trial. We found Stuart Harrold and the Ross guys on Tiller- ton. This hill had a very challenging restart – but we were still climbing and clear. We arrived at Wooston Steep at around 11 am. Reading the instructions in the route guide Classes 7 and 8 had to ignore the end hill boards and keep climbing, The Melos was climbing really well and shot up the early part of the climb and entered the top hill section reserved for Classes 7 and 8 only (so it was hard). Unfortunately the leaf mould sitting in the ruts was hiding just how deep those ruts actually were. The Melos diff was grinding and finally ground us to a halt, like an anchor. First hill failure, bugger! A precarious slide back down to the bottom then off we go again…

There were plenty of other really challenging and memorable hills and my confidence was soon growing again – but we hadn’t got to the infamous Simms yet. When we got there the rain had stopped which was great for the huge crowd watching. The long queue indicated Simms was challenging; the wait wasn’t helping my nerves either as the crowd’s groans, shrieking engines and tyre smoke indicated that very few were getting up. We discovered a bashed rim and a puncture so changed the driver’s side rear before we went in. A sharp right followed immediately by a re- start meant get it away and try and keep it going. Richard had advised keep left – so we at least had a plan. I did the same restart approach as Tillerton which was a robust clutch drop, grab the grip by easing the foot off the throttle and then try and keep it moving. A great plan but far more grip on the restart than I was expecting, we hit a new bump on the left and the front went airborne and we veered right – which was not the plan at all. The momentum disappeared as I landed the front and tried to rescue the situation on a slimy, shiny flat angled slab. We were moving, but not nearly fast enough to get up this absolute pig of a hill. So with Simms we had now failed two hills. We climbed all the rest despite their reputation – so according to our count that may just have put us into a bronze award position.

We drove to The Palace Hotel at Torquay and signed off (late again but mainly due to the Simms delays). No idea if we will actually get an award because of the way in which time penalties may or may not impact the results, plus un- beknown to us there had been a serious accident behind us and Colin Butt (number 228) in a Marlin was dead.
So we completed the real deal – we climbed a lot of serious hills in very challenging conditions and enjoyed it im- mensely. Our rough plan was to join the other crews in the Palace Hotel for a pint and some food, but as it was we were hanging. Stan said “I need to get my head down for half an hour”, I said “No – you will never wake up”. We changed out of our mud men costumery and went and got a belly full of really good fish and chips. We went to the pub next door and watched karaoke for a bit then back to the hotel. Talking to some folks in the bar I realised I was being rude by having already gone to sleep three times during one conversation. I made my excuses and staggered off to bed at 21:30 – it was 8 am before I woke up – even Stan’s snoring couldn’t rouse me!

Refreshed wasn’t the phrase I would use – more almost functional. We didn’t fancy breakfast so I drank tea while Stan sprayed the television with milk sachets he couldn’t quite get the hang of. I packed, then loaded the Melos and checked the oil, water and tyre pressures. A very lovely Allard had turned up next to the Melos overnight. Some of those late runners must have had to do Simms in the dark!!! And that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Serious dedication: a 1948 Allard J1 – just shy of 4 litres

We slowly returned home via back roads which included a lunch break at Glastonbury (I really couldn’t risk the motor- way at 50 mph flat out). Got home just before dark on Sunday but again intermittent rain and fog all over the Mendips and the Cotswolds – the bike competitors must have been in a shocking state.
But we had made it, the real deal, and we didn’t disgrace ourselves. I now get it – 100% I get it. We must all be bonkers but having now completed the Exeter I know why so many keep coming back year after year. I know why people who have done it in the past still make the pilgrimage to watch on those serious hills. I know why Fifth gear’s Tiff Needell was whooping like an idiot when he got up Simms. And I know I’m coming back, better prepared and more determined. Simms will fall, there is no doubt in my mind – SIMMS WILL FALL. Every night before I close my eyes I will see that pesky slab of slippery nonsense and I will see myself at the top and hear the crowds cheering. In your dreams, Ed? Well, without dreams we have nothing – dig deep and see how far your determination can take you. I’ll stop now because I’m sounding a bit like a Land Rover advert – I just thought I’d write this while I’m still buzz- ing.

Vic and Neil were having a good day running Vic’s Beetle in Class O. I think he was clear up to the afternoon tea stop – hats off to all the seniors who refuse to take to their beds and keep coming back for more. They were at the rest stops, power napping, popping pills, emptying catheter bags (not V or N) and dreaming of great things – and that’s all it takes to keep old folks going, a purpose.

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
– T.E. Lawrence

As I finish this report I am told that Colin Butt 66, from Cullompton lost his life having rolled his Marlin on Wooston Steep. His passenger was also injured. Our thoughts and condolences go to his family.

By Ed Wells