England’s mud warriors fight in the fields and in the hills, never surrendering
“Welcome to the secret world of the vintage Sports Car Club,” begins the YouTube video. “This is the story of fast cars,” continues the young woman in a dulcet, upper-class British accent, “of mud, of competition, and of true British eccentricity at its best.”
What follows in this video from 2013 is, as promised, totally mike-foxtrot eccentric. It’s 15 minutes of valuable old cars being mercilessly pummeled up rutted tracks and through muddy pastures as their ancient engines float the valves at the wailing limit and their tires sling roostertails of sticky mud, the occupants violently bouncing in the seats. Called “trialing,” it looks like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang meets Deliverance meets Downton Abbey, and it makes no more sense to a Yankee than the two other major British sports obsessions, cricket and cheese rolling.
Of course, we had to try it, so one full year after first laying eyes on Harriet Collings and her YouTube exposé, we were there. Two Americans standing ankle deep in muck. In a pasture on the soggy sceptered isle that William Shakespeare called “this precious stone set in the silver sea,” watching a local put his finger up the tailpipe of our 85-year-old Austin Seven as if giving a rectal exam to a Holstein. He pulled it out, showed us the water on it, and declared that we needed to change the head gasket. There. Now. Just as it was starting to snow.
Trialing, or the participation in trials, is a very old and serious form of car “racing.” But it is as far from Kyle Bush ripping donuts at Bristol as the writings of John Keats are from the collected works of Hank Williams. To understand trialing, you must imagine England as it was in the early 20th century, a lushly verdant quilt of bucolic farmsteads and manor estates interlaced with dirt paths barely wider than the mostly horse-drawn brakes that served them. Cars were a relatively new invention, doing their best to triumph over a landscape that was frequently sloppy.
Out in the vast shires, a motorcar’s ability to traverse ground without getting stuck was far more important than its top speed. Eager to market their new Humbers and Vauxhalls and Singers and Austin Seven Chummys, automakers engaged in events that took their inspiration from the steeplechase, in which horses bound over hedges and streams to test the capability of the mount over varying terrain. Fast-forward eight decades, and trialing remains an active British pastime—no doubt in part because it is the only form of racing that fully embraces English weather, in that the trialing season launches in September and concludes in April, before summer arrives to make Britain’s weather too fine and dry for the liking of the mud warriors.
The newest cars in the trials held by the Vintage Sports Car Club are 88 years old, although slightly later Austin Sevens are allowed. Being Britain’s Lilliputian answer to the Ford Model T, with a 747-cc side-valve four-cylinder with 7.2 horsepower, and having the dimensions of Molly Brown’s handbag, they were produced with only minor changes from 1923 to 1934. Still being relatively affordable, Austin Sevens of various species represent perhaps half the field in any event. It’s hard to understate the size of an Austin Seven. A couple of adults in full winter gear look like two grizzlies sharing a Radio Flyer wagon. People must have been smaller back then, or at least so happy not to be on horseback or walking that they didn’t mind being mashed into a buggy that is three feet shorter and almost two feet narrower than the original Mazda Miata.
Through a series of leads, we were directed to an available car, a scarlet red 1933 Austin Seven converted in more recent times into a replica of a so-called Ulster racer, with cycle fenders, cutouts instead of doors, twin Brooklands windscreens, a side-pipe jauntily slung over the rear wheel, and a wasp tail. It needed something American on it, but also period contemporary, so I pasted on the squadron mascot of the Lafayette Escadrille, the all-volunteer band of American World War I pilots whose planes bore the image of a screaming Sioux in full-feathered headdress. Henceforth, our Austin became known simply as the Chief. Needing a “bouncer,” I sent Collings’s YouTube video to my oldest friend, also named Aaron, currently working as a U.S. State Department visa officer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After watching it, Aaron, who at 49 is once again under the care of an orthodontist, wrote back: “My braces will probably become dislodged from my teeth, but that would be welcome anyway.”
On an especially frigid Saturday this past March, when a churning overcast sky threatened mayhem and a 20-mph polar wind knifed easily through four layers, we two Aarons arrived in western England’s ridiculously quaint Wye Valley for Day One of the Herefordshire Trial.
The meeting place for the event, How Caple Court, is an old manor house and popular wedding venue that abuts a 13th-century church. In the yard, mixed in with the many battered and mud-spattered Austin Sevens, were a few cars of noble distinction that had been in families for generations, including a couple of prewar Bentleys that looked like they hadn’t been washed since granddad Bertie went off to war. You could tell their owners apart because, unlike the Austin crews dressed in modern nylon outerwear and Timberland hikers, the fancy stuff was manned by nobles in oilskin coats and Harris Tweed.
We had reports of sightings of Harriet Collings herself, British trialing’s one celebrity, there to drive her family’s 1903 Mercedes. We had hoped to meet the Siren of Muck, but by the time we arrived, scrutineering was largely over and most of the 114 cars entered in the event had departed for their first hills. Anybody who has raced cars knows that once you’re behind the clock, it’s hard to catch up. After we coaxed the safety marshal away from his tea and back out into the cold, he gave a halfhearted tug at each of our wheels, checked to see that we had the mandatory extra throttle return spring and fire extinguisher, plus a “spill kit” amounting to a plastic bag with a piece of absorbent cloth. (“I’ve never seen anyone use a spill kit,” said our car’s previous owner, Jeremy Brewster, “even when the cars were spilling fluids everywhere.”) Our risk of dying in the trial deemed acceptable, we were sent on our way.
But to where, exactly? In a trial, the “hills” can be spread across 50 miles of countryside. Before jumping with his bouncers into his own 1930 Lea-Francis and roaring off, Jeremy had kindly supplied us with a marked map indicating the locations of the day’s hills. Copilot Aaron Braceface turned the map over and over, picked a direction largely on prayer, and we puttered off into the byzantine maze of damp country lanes.
The published rules for trialing are incredibly short and, to an outsider, completely incomprehensible. “The point of failure,” begins one passage, “will be considered to be that at which any marker is first struck, or the point at which the boundary of the course is first crossed by all wheels of the competing vehicle.” It continues: “Should this point of failure coincide with the division between two subsections, the marks lost will be those appropriate to failure in whichever of the two subsections provides the greater penalty.”
Yeah. What you need to know is this: Unlike normal racing or rallying, in trialing there is neither a stopwatch nor any passing for position. Nobody knows or cares how fast you go or how long you take to complete the “hill” or the measured section of some challenging dirt trail that is defined by small flag poles and numbered markers. Your score for the hill is based on how far up it you go without stopping, blowing up, or otherwise getting stuck. Along the way, the numbered markers indicate to the scorekeepers standing next to the trail how many points you’ve earned as you pass each one. A hill can take anywhere from a minute to five minutes to climb, and if you make it to the top without stopping, you get the maximum number of points, usually 25. As a sort of extra credit, some hills feature a “stop box” marked by spray paint. You must fully stop your front wheels within the box and then get going again to earn the extra points.
By the rules, your starting hill for the day is selected for you. After that, you are free to do any of the hills in any order you like. The organizers had graciously paired us rookies with a veteran, one Simon Blakeney-Edwards, who looked a little like Mr. Bean in a scarf and ski hat. As with the Lea-Francises, Humbers, Rileys, and Singers running in the trial, his hulking black 1930 Amilcar M2, a large fabric-roof touring sedan, sported yet another long-extinct name from Britain’s glorious automotive past.
The chipper Blakeney-Edwards met us at our first hill, called Deans Place, which everyone assured us later was the worst hill for a rookie to start on. He bade me climb out of the Chief and walk with him up the hill so I could see what we were getting into. From the starter’s position, an initial steep two-track incline went up a few hundred feet before turning sharply into an ancient sandstone quarry that was filled knee-deep with mud.
“There, stay right,” Simon advised, pointing to a section of the quarry’s brown ooze that was slightly less oozy than elsewhere, “then left, then wheels straight and bang on, full throttle!” The next incline the cars were meant to follow out of the quarry was so steep and slick that Simon and I could barely climb it without slipping. “It’s easier if you drive,” yelled a wag from above. At the top, my guide pointed out the hill’s next slope as well as the optional stop box and then said, “You probably won’t make it this far. We didn’t.”
Back in the Chief, Aaron and I braced ourselves, having no clue what to expect. The marshal waved us on, and I gunned the tiny engine. A vapory exhaust plumed from the eensy side pipe, pouring a surprisingly loud brrraaaap! into our ears. The Chief stormed confidently up the first section and then slithered through the quarry like a marsh snake. Hey, this was easy! I aimed the nose at the next ramp but, mindful of Simon’s advice, found that I already had the gas pinned. The car climbed about 10 feet, wavered, and then, with its wheels still spinning furiously and my copilot bouncing as though trying to dislodge a kidney stone, started sliding backward on the slime.
A volunteer dressed like Mr. Gamfield, the chimney sweep from Oliver Twist, came over and marked our card: 18 points. Not so bad, but not so easy, either. I gingerly backed the Chief out of the quarry and through the gate that served as the exit for part finishers. Well, at least we weren’t dead, and all four of the Chief’s pistons were still in its block.
As in any competition, there is technique involved. For one thing, you want to air down your tires for maximum traction. The rules establish a bottom limit of 7 psi, and veteran competitors know to glue their tires to the rims to prevent them from spinning on the wheels at low pressure. Once done with the hill, you air up again to transit to another hill, which could be miles away. Which is why the competitors all carry foot pumps or, in the nicer setups such as the Chief had, an onboard electric air pump with a coil hose.
Another critical technique is the bouncing, in which the passenger(s)—and the driver, if possible—bounce in the seats to momentarily load the rear tires with additional weight. Bouncing actually has subtechniques. Sometimes you want to bounce up and down, sometimes side to side, and sometimes not at all because it’ll actually make traction worse. However, we never really decoded that one. Aaron would look at me and say, “Now?” and I would say “Yeah!” even though I was usually trying to avoid a stump or a ditch deep enough to swallow a Chevy Tahoe.
After airing up our tires, and feeling pretty good about our first hill, Aaron and I followed the big Amilcar and another Austin Seven to the next hill at Chandos Manor. A country château straight out of Harry Potter, Chandos stood slightly saggy against the march of time, with stone and half-timbered walls netted by leafless winter ivy. Three soaring chimneys spiked the jutting gabled roofs, and somewhat haphazard stone pilings served as wall buttresses. A huge, plump pig grunted and snuffled from its pen at the waiting cars.
Chandos is a favorite of the event because the hill course winds up through an orchard that is scenic and fairly easy on the cars. Plus, the owners of the estate, Richard White and his wife, Ali, laid out a royal spread of tea and cakes for the trial trolls, most of whom were already thoroughly coated in cold mud. When I asked White, who still goes by his schoolboy nickname of Chalky (White, blackboard chalk—get it?) how old the house is, he replied, “Well, we know it was rebuilt in 1554.” Listening raptly, Aaron and I bit into chocolate and caramel confections called millionaire’s shortbread and nearly fainted, they were so good.
The Chief liked Chandos. It tackled the first slippery section with ease, a 20-degree grade that led through a livestock fence to the second section, where the cars slalomed around some trees and then gunned for the stop box. Simon and I had already walked the course, watching a sleek and sporty Wolseley Hornet spit clods 30 yards off its back tires as it scrabbled up the hill. At the box, Simon had suggested jigging left to take advantage of a slight slope that would help the Chief get going again out of the box. In the driver’s seat, I heeded his advice and jigged left as planned—but a little too far, brushing a course boundary marker. No points for that section. The marshal seemed as disappointed as I was, although we did collect 14 points for the lower part (don’t try to keep track, just go with it). Deflated, we rolled down the hill as a 1923 Bugatti Brescia pottered past, looking cartoonishly French with its pearshaped grille and crescent moon of a windshield.
The trouble began at Marcle Hill, the next stop. Climbing the long, forested grade to the top of a high ridge, the Chief was earning points until, suddenly, it started losing power. Eventually, our car could go no farther, quitting with just five points added to our folded-paper scorecard. Getting a push to the top, we tried to follow the Amilcar to the next hill a couple miles away, but the Chief was having none of it, coughing and refusing to accept more than a quarter-throttle. We limped to the next hill, the Hyde Halt—the hill names are so fabulously British: Pelham’s Penyard, Sipping Cider, Jim’s Joker, James’ Jolly, the Ancient Briton—and went in search of Simon.
Soon a team was gathered around the Chief, peering at the tiny flathead engine through its butterfly-hinged hood and tossing around theories. The ignition points were deemed fuzzy and burned, so we scavenged a new condenser from the line of waiting Austin Sevens. When that didn’t work, Simon discovered the water in the exhaust pipe. I called Jeremy—luckily, we both had cell service— who was at another hill but headed our way, and he was able to scrounge a new head gasket from another team, because Austin Seven drivers come fully prepared for disaster.
With the Chief’s water drained and the head off, Jeremy looked at the top of the engine dubiously. “Does that look bad to you?” he asked, holding before me what looked like a perfectly sealed head gasket. No, I had to admit with growing dread as well as a loss of sensation in my frozen fingers, it didn’t look bad. “I think we’ve been led down the garden path,” he said with sad resignation. At that point, there wasn’t much to do except slap the new gasket on, fill the radiator with water from the farm, and see if it helped. After a half-hour, we had the head torqued down and the engine running. I drove it around in circles in the farmyard and it felt maybe a little better, but it was still stumbling. “Go up the hill,” Jeremy commanded, then he jumped into his Lea-Francis and whisked away, determined to finish the remaining hills.
Mindful of words of Sir Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” we bounced up Hyde Halt, a short, steep ascent through a thick wood that was nonetheless mostly firm ground and thus not too challenging, and headed for Foxhalls, the next hill. There, I spent more time playing with the Chief’s throttle linkage to its single, tiny SU carburetor as it was refusing to return to idle. Cars passed headed for the hill. Maybe one of them had Harriet Collings aboard, but we were pretty absorbed. A young guy named Nick stopped his ratty 1929 Vauxhall to chat. He was wearing a fleece-lined leather bomber jacket that made him look like a waist gunner on the Memphis Belle. When I told him of our troubles, he said, “Aw, never mind, mate, you and I are just here to make everyone else look good.”
Foxhalls was the longest hill yet, a grueling incline up to windblown cell towers on one of the highest points around. Rain and snow runoff had eroded a deep ditch to the outside that pulled cars into their sloughy doom. Teams that had failed the climb came back with advice to hug the left embankment all the way up to avoid this chasm, no matter how much brush the poor codriver had to take to the face. As Aaron found out, it was quite a bit, but the Chief kept going, even as I felt the throttle again go limp about halfway up. We bounce-nursed the car to the top to collect our full 25 points, but it was 5:30, quitting time for the day. We would get zeros for the three hills we missed, a bitter letdown because the Chief was clearly a pretty competent mud slayer when the engine was running on all four of its little pots.
We limped the Austin back to How Caple Court, there to meet Jeremy and deliver the news of the Chief’s continuing problems. Attention now turned to the carburetor. As the heavens finally split open and giant Christmas-card flakes began piling up on the cars and ground, Jeremy disassembled the simple carburetor and fidgeted with its parts. By using the car’s air hose, he was able to blow a few specs of dirt out of the needle hole. After putting it back together, the Chief once again ran like a 7-hp Grand Prix car. So it was dirt in the carb all along.
We retired to the group dinner. Tales were told of an all-women team that “selected second and third gear at the same time” and was forced to do a transmission repair in a field. “They just got on with it, didn’t they?” said the storyteller, exhibiting that endearing British habit of ending a statement with a question. The team seated next to us as the roast chicken was served lamented a lost day of only three hills done because a nut holding the steering wheel onto their Riley 9 Tourer Special kept coming loose 89 years after it fell out of warranty. “These cars should all be sitting in museums, not being flung at rocks and trees,” said Andrew Read, the car’s owner, down from north of Liverpool. “I hope they don’t do that to me when I’m 89.”
As we tucked the Chief in for the night in the central square of the old market town of Ledbury, a passerby came up and said, “Austin Seven—could’ve bought one for 500 quid, could ’ave.” Another older gent with a beard ran his eyes back and forth over the Chief’s mud-encrusted body and kept saying over and over, “You lucky man…you lucky man…” If England has one automotive sweetheart, it’s the Austin Seven.
We collapsed into our beds, having renewed confidence in the Chief’s engine and having formulated an attack plan for Sunday’s remaining six hills. It was in vain, however, as when we awoke in the morning, four inches of snow lay on the Chief as well as the rest of western England, enough to completely paralyze Her Majesty’s subjects and their pitifully small fleet of plows and salt trucks. About 7:30 a.m., an email from the organizers confirmed that the rest of the event was canceled, and there was nothing to do but toast some proper English crumpets and sit around bemoaning our wasted plan.
We cried out in agony to Harriet Collings, the YouTube siren who lured us onto these rocks of disappointment. Her agent never returned our calls.