The RAC 1000 Mile Trial runs from Epsom to Edinburgh and back on some of the UK’s best driving roads, taking in regularities, tests and a concours d’élégance. Robert Coucher had an eventful ride…
In 1900 there was a degree of scepticism about the newfangled automotive contraption. Automobiles were seen as unreliable and untrustworthy devices that could not be relied upon to travel any distance. The Royal Automobile Club was founded in 1897 (King Edward VII awarded the Club the Royal title in 1907) with the intention of promoting the motor car and its place in society. Seems it has been rather successful…
Claude Johnson, the first secretary of the Club – known as the ‘hyphen in Rolls-Royce’ as the marque’s managing director – arranged the first Royal Automobile Club 1000 Mile Trial in 1900. In this, intrepid motorists travelled the length of the country for 20 days at up to 12mph. Charles Rolls was the eventual winner in his Panhard. That was a long time ago, so now’s a good time to have another go.
The Royal Automobile Club 1000 Mile Trial 2014, organised by the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (HERO) in association with EFG private banking, Hagerty Classic Car Insurance, Motors TV and Octane magazine, fires up 114 years later at the impressive RAC Woodcote Park clubhouse. Many believe Woodcote Park is a golf club – in fact, the premises in Epsom were purchased in 1913 as a country retreat to which members could drive their motor cars from the London Club on Pall Mall. Toot-toot!
On Saturday 12 July the rolling sprawl of Woodcote Park is filled with the sound of vintage Austins, Alvises, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Jaguars, Lagondas and Invictas as the motor cars arrive for scrutineering, then line up for a concours d’elegance on the manicured lawns in front of the clubhouse. Crews from ten different countries have entered, including Britain, Europe and as far away as Australia, in 45 vintage cars.
The concours is deservedly won by the immaculate and important 1934 MG K3 of Alan and Tina Beardshaw. RAC Chairman Tom Purvis then welcomes the competitors to the gala dinner, where the delicious meal is prepared by several top chefs.
The RAC 1000 Mile Trial route travels north up the west of England to Tewkesbury, then on to Preston and up to Edinburgh. The return leg is south to Slaley, then Leeds, Silverstone and back to Woodcote Park. That’s 1200 miles, including 26 regularities and 23 tests. Time for an early night.
At 08.01am exactly, Sunday 13 July, car Number 1 roars off on the first test along the Captains Drive in the normally tranquil grounds of Woodcote Park. ‘Roar’ being the operative word. Driver Jonathan Turner is at the wheel of his mighty 1934 Triumph Dolomite 8C with RAC Motoring Committee chairman Ben Cussons on the maps. Turner takes full advantage of the straight-eight engine, never mind that it has come directly from a full rebuild at Blakeney Motorsport the day before. Withsupercharger screaming, Turner set the pace: fast .
Then it’s our turn. Car No 2, which is also owned by J Turner, is the 1925 Bentley 3 Litre works entry at Le Mans of that year, the first-ever works Bentley driven by Dr Dudley Benjafield and Bertie Kensington Moir. Chassis number 1138 was doing well in the race but ran out of fuel on lap 18 and failed to finish. Maybe I should have taken note of this fact…
Nevertheless, I find myself squeezed into the Bentley with Duncan Kensington Moir, great nephew of Bertie and a proper Bentley Boy who knows this 3 Litre very well. Moir grabs the car by the scruff of its neck and blasts off with enthusiasm.
Soon we are charging through the lanes, and John Able and Martyn Taylor in the imperious Lagonda LG45 set the rally bar high on the first day by dropping just one second in the regularities and cleaning the tests, with Alistair Caldwell and Catriona Rings close behind. A highlight is the final test up the famous Prescott hillclimb. We make it to the evening stop to find that a brass plug has blown out of the exhaust manifold. No problem: supporting spannerman Peter Banham sets to the Bentley and fixes it in a trice. Throughout the rally many of these vintage cars need some kind of attention, and the back-up team of mechanics is most obliging.
HERO offers this level of service to the competing teams. In addition, heavy luggage is delivered directly to everyone’s rooms at each evening stop, and every day finishes in good time for a cleansing ale or two after long, hard drives on some of the most beautiful roads in the Kingdom. A paramedic team is also on standby. Perfect.
Day two is sunny and bright but the regularity sections are less ‘jogularity’, with more traditional map and speed-table reading required. We don’t have any speed tables and the Monet trip-meter has stopped working, but that doesn’t deter Moir as he presses on regardless, keeping ahead of the big Bentley 4½ being manhandled incredibly well by the slim and elegant Katarina Kyvalova with Knud Sassmannshausen on the maps, followed by hard-charging Duncan Wiltshire and Keith Gapp of EFG in another fast 3 Litre.
The first test is at Throckmorton Airfield, where Moir muscles the Bentley around the cones with intent. Being the slightly more svelte member of our team, I’m instructed to get out and do the Le Mans-style running start included in the second test. Moir remains comfortably ensconced behind the wheel. Shelsley Walsh hillclimb is a highlight of the morning, followed by yet another regularity in the Shropshire Hills. My brain is beginning to hurt… The Bentley starts to misfire a bit and we realise that we are low on petrol. Moir drives gently (at first!) as the route book indicates a fuel station a few miles ahead.
Through the ever-narrowing lanes we round a corner to be met by an eight-wheeled milk bowser. It is not taking up most of the road – it’s foursquare, taking up the entire road. Moir hits the brakes but we are not going to stop in time. Fortunately he reacts instinctively and does the right thing: parks the Bentley aggressively in the hedgerow. I do a Norman Dewis and dive under the dashboard as hedge and glass fly past. Moir headbutts the windscreen and gashes his nut and soon claret is flowing.
We check each other for damage, and apart from his cut head we are OK. Clambering out, I run back, put the red warning triangle in the road and get the cars behind us to re-route. HERO managing director Patrick Burke is immediately on the scene, and the lorry driver is very decent and exclaims he has told his company not to send him down these lanes in a huge eight-wheeled rig.
With the Bentley extracted from the hedge we consider taking it to a local garage to have it straightened out, but owner Jonathan Turner is on the phone and says no, the car must go back to its restorer, renowned marque expert William Medcalf. William has the 3 Litre collected that evening and his mission is to have it back on the rally three days hence. He accepts.
Fortunately, Hagerty Classic Car Insurance chaps Angus Forsyth and Marcus Atkinson are on the Trial in their Austin Seven, and Turner has the Bentley insured with them. They both confirm the car is properly insured and agree the fixes required will be covered.
With Moir also mended, we hop into the RAC support motor car, a very serene new Rolls-Royce Phantom driven by Peter Foubister. We rejoin the rally, first stopping at a camping shop to pick up an icebox and then ice at a supermarket so as to keep the on-board refreshing beverages nice and cool.
Next day it’s onwards to Edinburgh, where the scenery is sublime and the roads quiet and challenging. The final test of the day is at beautiful Bowhill, one of the homes of the Duke of Buccleuch. That evening we all scrub up at the trendy Malmaison Hotel in the recently gentrified docklands area and head to the Royal Yacht Britannia for a black-tie dinner. The yacht is an impressive 412ft long. For a vessel of such size, it’s interesting to see the Royal quarters are so small and plainly decorated. ‘A giant granny flat’, someone acerbically observes. Decommissioning Britannia was not one of Tony Blair’s best-advised decisions.
Day four is damp, but Moir jumps enthusiastically into the RAC’s 1938 Alvis Short Chassis Tourer and enjoys a morning of navigation with Peter Read and Claire Mackintosh. We visit the Jim Clark Rooms in Duns and have tea at the impressive Alnwick Castle, where the first two Harry Potter films were shot. Abel and Taylor are still in the lead, with Graves and Palmer in second spot.
After Alnwick I take the wheel of the Alvis, with Moir on the maps. The rain comes down hard, so we put the hood up and the Alvis remains impressively watertight. A great car with sweeping Vanden Plas lines and lusty six-cylinder engine, it even has a synchromesh gearbox.
Day five includes a stop at the Bowes Museum, which houses the famous Silver Swan Automaton. The roads remain superb, with two tests at the Harewood hillclimb. Arriving at the overnight stop at Oulton Hall Hotel in Leeds, we see the works 3 Litre Bentley parked proudly on the forecourt looking ship-shape and ready to go. William Metcalf has exacted the fixes and driven it back from West Sussex to rejoin the rally. What an effort and what a result. Celebrations continue late into the night.
On the penultimate day it’s time to man-up and drive this bloody Bentley. It’s heavy, it has a central throttle pedal and the chunky gearshift is devoid of any synchro. This car requires muscle and concentration in equal measure. With Moir coaching my double-de-clutching, I finally learn that the first to second change is slow, second to third is quick, and third to top is easy. Top down to third is a b’stard.
The day includes a test at Fulbeck karting track, then it’s lunch at the magnificent Belvoir Castle, finally arriving at Whittlebury Hall near Silverstone. Unfortunately Philip White and Ian Wallace in the exuberant Austin Seven Ulster ‘Lawnmower’ flip on a test. They suffer a bit of road rash, but are later in the bar and continue to smile.
The final day is thankfully short as the cars and crews are tired. John Abel and Martyn Taylor are still in the lead and I think we’re in last place. But at least I can now change gear in the Bentley. Two tests at the impressive Bicester Heritage Centre are fun in the wet, even if Moir makes a Horlicks of his gearchanges (yesss!). Coming into Epsom we remain on beautiful country lanes almost to the end. Things go awry when we discover two pages of our tulip map have been torn out. Very funny, ‘Yorkshire’ Turner and ‘Soapy’ Cussons. Note in Dispatches: their freshly restored Dolomite finishes the 1000 Mile Trial with no issues and will be seen at the Hampton Court Palace Concours in September. Impressive.
We finish with a flourish – a final blast back down the Captains Drive at Woodcote Park, exhausted but elated. The final black-tie dinner ends with the unsuspecting and diminutive Austin Seven Ulster of Angus Forsyth and Marcus Atkinson being carried into the bar. A fitting finale to the RAC 1000 Mile Trial, because this is not just a golf club: it is an automobile clubhouse to be enjoyed by vintageants. And how
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