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Highland Fling

in English

 

25 Feb 2011

Classic Cars

What could be better than tackling the Scottish Malts in afeisty sporting classic? Answer: tackling it in two feisty sporting classics


Through the windscreen I can see the deep blue of the Scottish flag against the racing red of our Alfa Romeo GTV’s bonnet; the white Cross of Saint Andrew, overlaying Italian racing stripes. Nextto me my Ifs-yearold son Josh is frowning at the thick spiral- bound road book. ‘Thirty seconds,’ calls the marshal and instinctively I press the throttle a little; metallic valve chatter and exhaust bark cutting through the skirl of the bagpipes close by.

I glance at Josh who looks up through the windscreen then back at the book. It’s his first time on an event like this (and probably his first time up before 11.30am in weeks) and although he gets the idea of tulip diagrams, he’s just trying to work out where we are in relation to the hotel car park.
We’re at the Turnberry, agraceful five-star golf resort on the Firth of Clyde, at the beginning of a trek that over the next five days will take us more than 1000 miles, up to the Isle ofSkye and back.

Where wealthy golfing Americans normally decant from the airport shuttle there are now 21cars taking part in the Scottish Malts Regularity and ReliabilityTrial, organised bythe Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation, or HERO for short.

It’s a varied field of mainly late-Sixties/early Seventies classics; models with some pretty serious competition credentials, such asthe white 1974 Ford Escort MkI RS2000, looking not unlike the car in which Roger Clark won that year’s Mintex Dales Rally. There are three Porsche 911s – a very tasty-looking orange 1971 911S with a powder blue roll cage having the most direct link to the model’s Tour De France and Targa Florio days – and a stalwart Volvo 122S (Amazon), a force to be reckoned with on the-Scandinavian forest events and the Monte-Carlo rally ofthe late Fifties. There’s a splash ofelegance in the form oftwo Jaguar E-type Sl.sand sheer cheek from a bright yellow 1972 Lotus Elan Sprint – though there’s substance too from its 1.6-litre ‘big valve’ twin-cam engine. And sitting serenely near the back of the pack is a beautiful silver 1951Jaguar XK120 roadster, sporting the purest of William Lyons lines as well as a lengthy roadracing pedigree, including the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia, Tulip, and Alpine Rallies. Judging by the crew’s all-weather gear, four-point harnesses and flying helmets, they aim to carry on that tradition.

‘Twenty seconds.’

I look at Josh again and then at the book – that first symbol does look a bit ambiguous – not one we’ve practiced. Which way are we going? ‘Left: comes ahissed whisper, and clerk ofthe course Peter Nedin winks as he holds the flag steady across the bonnet. ‘Ten, nine, eight…’

The flag’s up and the Alfa pulls away cleanly, rounding the first turn and the landmarks as called out by Josh: ‘Right ofgate post, speed ramp, speed ramp, left turn, stop’, !

Thirty seconds brings us to the first test where, down the slope, we can see other cars negotiating amanoeuvrability and handling challenge in front ofthe Turnberry’s spa. That orange 911looks abit handy.

Watching an E-type tackle a radius it really shouldn’t, Josh and I discuss how he should talk me through the cones and driveways while half ofmy brain tries to sift through my experiences oflightweight Alfa Giulia GTAs at Mugello for anything that might help here; nowt.

But this 1750GTV shares many ofthe multi-race-winning track car’s attributes, not least its Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed looks, while its name commemorates one of Alfa’s pre-war Mille Miglia greats. The GTV capacity of 1779cc came in 1968 when Alfa bored and stroked the previous 1570cc unit. It has better low-down torque, pulling well from as low as 1500rpm. That’s the kind ofheave we’re going to need here.

All too soon ahand isin front ofthe windscreen counting us down and we’re away into a slalom of too-tight turns and missed commands. ‘Right of the cone. No – right.’ Then stopping on or astride various white lines before accelerating up the hill as quickly as possible. Stop.

It looks like the first few miles will be a steep learning curve, as much in how we communicate as anything. Maybe I should have brought his sister – she’s had years of constantly telling her father whattodo.

The next test is better and then we’re out on to the road and a link stage that will take us to the next new experience: a regularity.

The Malts, like many of its kind, is made up of three main driving experiences. Tests: usually on a track or car park, the point being to get round cones and corners as quickly and precisely aspossible. Link or transit stages: long, untimed, scenic sections taking you to the next trial- or lunch. And regularities: turning offthe main road, aslightly surreal looking, un-manned sign proclaiming ‘Self start’ tells you that you’ve reached one ofthese.

The point of a regularity isn’t to blast your way through as fast as possible, but to make each way point at exactly the right time check, and therefore keep as close as possible to a set average speed, usually between 24mph and 30mph. Does every point have to be correct? Well maybe not, but at one of them (you don’t know which) a polite, Barbour-clad pair ofmarshals will appear who have probably been on that spot since dawn. They take your computer-chipped clipboard and click it into their all-knowing timing system, smile and send you on your way. Get your start time wrong and it distorts your performance; miss a few way points and the whole section starts to unravel. These are going to need concentration, asteady eye and right foot and excellent communication.

The first day will take us north-east across the rolling farmland of East Ayrshire, the countryside a deep green and as yet no more intimidating than the hills of middle England. The Alfa is ajoy on the A-roads, easy to wind up from low down on a long straight, but not stalled into abreathless dawdle by having to slow for meandering hillroad bends. Still, a free-revving down change is always better than trying to haul yourself back up in one gear. It’s poised too, its live axle and trailing arm rear suspension responding best to flowing well thought-out cornering lines and smooth steering-to-throttle choreography – ifwith alittle more roll than I’d expected.

This is one of HERO’s own cars, stripped ofits back seat and equipped with a roll cage and four-point harnesses. It’s part ofthe organisation’s ‘arrive and drive’ programme, so even ifyou haven’t got aclassic you can hire it and enjoy events like this.

As Josh turns each page his manner becomes more relaxed and it looks like we’re getting the hang of it – but every endurance event will throw acurve at you and during the afternoon the Alfa starts to falter. It feels like it’s running out offuel but surely it has half atank. Topping up doesn’t help, gunning it or nursing it have no effect, and soon we’re standing by a farm gate to let other cars through. We need help and it arrives quickly in the form ofthe HERO support van.

Out step John Bingham and lan Gracie, with solid careers as AA patrolmen behind them and a wealth of experience in building Ford Escort MkI rally cars (Ian) and restoring classic Triumphs (John). They have the calm, unflappable manner of professionals who’ve seen it all, coupled with a slightly fatalistic humour but the tact not to laugh at every plonker rally crew that’s made abad situation worse.

What has made our rather puzzling situation worse isthat we find the fuel filler cap has come off – or been taken – and alot offuel has sloshed out. Whatever the cause, sediment from the bottom ofthe tank has got into the fuel system and the potentially temperamental Weber carburettors. John and lan exchange glances at the thought of arebuild on the road and endeavour to do their best.

The afternoon and evening turn into a battle of wills between the mechanics and the Alfa, each remedy providing momentary relief and a return of the coupe’s Italian panache followed by a decline over the miles into stuttering and coughing. As we make for lnverary and the Loch Fyne Hotel we almost fail to see how the landscape is changing, the high ramparts ofthe hills rising to arain -filled, overcast sky around Loch Lomond.

We’re not the only casualty: the support crew and sweeper car have been bringing in the wounded. A Jaguar Mkl will spend the night in a local garage having a blown clutch slave cylinder replaced while the mechanics see what they can do with an Austin Mini Cooper’s broken CV joint. Had this been HERO’s famous and gruelling Le Jog test, it could well have been the end for, all three cars, but the Malts is different, as Peter Nedin explains: ‘It’s aimed to be as much aholiday as it is a competition. Yes, competition drivers can do it and have a great time, but it’s also for someone who’s never done anything like this before, so we want to help people get going again and enjoy it.’

One crew who benefit from this attitude are Derek Reynolds and Edward Beedie in the orange 911.’We brought our Porsche 912, but it broke down before the event started,’ says Beedie. The organisers stepped in and lent them the 911, which belongs to one of HERO’s backers, Tomas de Vargas Machuca. ‘We met Tomas on the Malts last year,’ adds Beedie. It’s quite an upgrade – though it has its original 2.2-litre engine, the lean, stripped out coupe was prepared by Bob Watson Engineering and has a limited-slip differential and close-ratio five-speed gearbox ideal for endura~ce events. It looks like we’ll all keep running one way or another.

The next morning sees a steady drizzle as Escort RS follows XK follows E-type into the gloom. The Alfa has seen some serious fettling from the mechanics and Josh has been given some navigation tips by competitor liaison officer Tony Davies, himself a much sought-after professional eo-driver. We’re away with renewed confidence, and soon climbing through pine forests, glimpses ofsteel-coloured water shining through the trees. We’re running with two more HERO cars, aTriumph TR6 and a bumper-less Le Mans lookalike MGB roadster, hustling through the single-track lanes and glad ofour car’s sump shield as water hisses and gravel sprays against the underside.

But it won’t last – the malady returns and in Oban the Alfa finally sits down and sulks. The support crew appears almost instantly, but this time they reckon there’s nothing more they can do.

By the afternoon we’ve swapped to the MGB. After the Alfa’s airy cabin the all-black interior of the ‘B seems cramped, though it’s well presented, clean and the roof doesn’t leak. Gone is the florid twin-cam song, replaced by agruff English burr from the Austin-derived pushrod four-pot. Still, this is the later and stronger five main-bearing engine, and we’ve lost about 20bhp, but shed around 90kg in weight too.

But for the first time the car isn’t the centre of our attention. Above Oban theA828 winds around the Loch Creran and the Lynn ofLorn, the mountains across the sparkling water cast in browns, greys and blues. At Invergary we turn left towards Kintail and the ferry for Skye and, as the A87 descends between the Five Sisters and Sgurr na Sgine (the peak ofthe knife) you realise that the mountains are no longer simply earth and rock, but a vibrant elemental force, and we humans merely momentary flashes ofnoise and light in their aeons of stillness.

Still, it’s marvellous to watch these machines moving through them – catching the E-types running in tandem, the early sun glinting along lithe curves, or the white 911,honey-coloured in the sunset atop the climb from the Glenelg ferry. And each crew has a passion for the drive to match the majesty ofthe scenery.

The crew of that 1981911SC, Mark Ford- McNicol and Sara Duckworth have come over from Hong Kong for the Malts. ‘This is actually my 18th 911and the oldest I’ve ever owned,’ says Mark. ‘We wanted to keep acar over here to campaign in Europe.’

The E-type owners have gone to the other extreme – both crews took their cars on aJaguar tour in New Zealand. ‘We’ve also done the Trophee en Corse,’ says Maurice Bowman, here with wife Annette in their 4.2-litre coupe. ‘Wejust gotthe bug really – we wantto do as many tours as we can.’

Like many owners on the tour he looks after the Jaguar himself, servicing and adjusting where necessary but making no special preparations for the marathon. clhris Forrest, who owns the usually gleaming XK120, tells a similar story: ‘I do brake shoes, pads and stuff – old Jaguars aren’t hard to look after.’

In the rally’s explorations of the Speyside distilleries Chris and wife Lesley experienced another dimension to touring in Scotland. Turning the XK to park up for a control in Grantown, a big Scania Ie-wheeler came up behind the slowing cat, its flat grey front filling their mirrors. A sudden blast of its air horns brought a sweeping hand gesture from Chris, stuck waiting to turn. The truck driver seemed annoyed and pulled over with a hiss of air brakes, climbing down from his cab and walking briskly over to the crew in their exposed roadster cockpit, his frame looking as square ashis wagon. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said calmly. ‘I wasn’t honking at you – it was that prat over there.’ He points to some Eurobox commuter. ‘You folks enjoy your time in Scotland.’

All the crews have enjoyed this time – though many drivers are starting to walk like John Wayne in his later films. ‘It is an endurance,’ reminds Peter Nedin quietly; ‘for cars and drivers.’ And during the latter part ofthe rally I’ve warmed to the MGB too. It’s been unfailingly gutsy, and its stiff construction has kept the car taut and rattle-free. I was perhaps prejudiced, but so many’Bs are poorly sorted; you notice it most in the bends where incorrect steering castor shows in the heft you need. With thicker anti-roll bars and uprated front springs their behaviour is transformed. This car’s point-and-go handling has been invaluable on the tests – the odd gravel.slide not withstanding.

But now, descending top-down through a honey-coloured sunset on the Grampians to Loch Rannoch Hotel, it’s a good time to take it easy and reflect on the Malts and what it offers. As Nedin said, it is both tour and endurance rally and if you’re thinking of taking on one of the tougher events it might be agood idea to try something like this first. On the Malts you can test your own and your car’s mettle knowing that spares or atow truck, or even just ahot bath, are nottoo far away.

At the end ofthe day you feel you’ve done so much more than apointscoring regularity – you’ve also made like-minded friends, eaten far too much very good food and driven through some of the most ethereally beautiful landscapes on earth. And you almost don’t care ifyou won or not. But who did win?

In among the glamorous GTs and breathy German techno-sportsters came the old Rover P4, crewed by Rob and Susan McClean. Nothing would have particularly drawn your attention to it, though the meaty throb at tickover gave notice that this was actually alate P4100 with the seven-main bearing, short-stroke 2625cc engine (developed from the P5’s three-litre), yielding 104bhp. The car was rescued from a scrapyard in 1995 by mechanical engineer Rob and restored over five , years. By the time it crossed over the Turnberry finish line to win the Malts itwas aveteran of56 events including nine punishing Le Jogs, five Rally ofthe Tests and the Monte-Carlo Historic.

Rob and Susan’s secret? ‘Team work, understanding and a solid reliable car.’ And the secret of the Scottish Malts to attract all these cars? Understanding what the passion to drive is all about.

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