Elise and I both love driving and the experience we have gained competing in classic cars over the last year has been amazing, so when HERO announced that they were running a vintage car rally and that it was recreating one of the first motoring events in the UK we were so excited.
We hired HERO’s newly acquired 1934 Austin 7 for the London to Edinburgh and back trial, I took it out on the summer trial as a shakedown a few weeks prior to the 1000 Mile Trial and despite a few mechanical issues, my navigator Sean and I finished the event and really enjoyed the two days.
This was to be seven long days in the car to complete the journey, if the car made it all the way round, and Elise and I had agreed that it was probably going to be our toughest challenge to date. Driving an older car requires a lot more focus and effort than usual, not to mention that you are completely open to the elements.
Scruitineering was held at the start venue, Woodcote Park in Epsom, on Saturday 12th July. The country home of the Royal Automobile Club, close enough to London where the original event started but not too close that competitors would meet London traffic. We calibrated the trip against the measured distance and Elise had her first go at driving a vintage vehicle, she found going forward ok but struggled with reversing.
The evening culminated in a welcome dinner with all the cars taking part lined up on the green outside. Everyone was in high spirits and anticipation filled the air.
London to Cheltenham
The day began damp and overcast, we packed up the groundsheet and jumped in the car ready to begin the daunting drive ahead, planning to take each day as it came.
The drive to the start arch was a mere 50m but straight away we realized that the battery wasn’t charging, the left nearside brake was catching and the trip connection was loose and we hadn’t even officially begun.
There was no time to dilly dally about though as soon as we were waved off the start line, with the original events flag (114 years old), it was straight into a test which comprised of a hillclimb in the grounds of Woodcote Park and recording a few codeboards.
All too soon we were out in the Surrey countryside beginning our journey north towards Cheltenham. Due to being one of the smallest engines on the event it wasn’t long before cars started to overtake us and with the trip acting very temperamental, we weren’t looking forward to the practice regularity or the following regs.
Our prediction that we would get wet if it rained came true with a sudden brief downpour, it took us 2mins 15 sec to get our full waterproofs on and carry on down the road. It was then that a funny noise began under the car. It sounded like something scrapping or catching so we stopped and checked the underside of the car, nothing! I drove with Elise running alongside to try and work out the noise. Nothing.
With the mechanics at least an hour behind us we chose to carry on at a slightly slower pace, if we could get to lunch even if it meant skipping the regs, the mechanics would know what was wrong. We continued for twenty minutes until there was a bang and something fell off the car. At the time we had no clue what we had lost, we looked for the unknown piece of car, and checked the bits we could in the engine, but to no avail.
She was still running ok so we pushed on just hoping that it wasn’t anything too important. Approaching our half an hour penalty free lateness we were debating skipping the regularities but that would require going off route and if the car did break down we would never be found. With our trip having given up completely we decided to just drive through the regularities without doing the timing to see if we could make up on lost time.
Lunch was a glorious sight to see after such a stressful morning and we managed to clock in with under a minute before the half an hour lateness was over. The mechanics started work on the car and we rushed in to grab a quick bite to eat. It was such a treat to find out that even though we were really late we still had 45 minutes for lunch.
Turns out the thing that fell off the car was the sensor for the trip hence why that had stopped working. Luckily the mechanics had a spare and fitted it during the lunch break. All of the mechanics are absolutely fantastic and we owe a lot to them since we began rallying so a big thank you goes out to them!
We were starting to get used to the fact that the other cars would always overtake us and that we would be bordering on our lateness at each stop, afternoon coffee was a dash in to get the time and push on. It was a shock to us that the car made it to the end of the day and we hadn’t yet picked up any road penalties. Results to the end of day 1 saw us 28th overall and 4th in class. Can’t believe the car made it this far!
Monday 14th July
Cheltenham to Preston
We woke on the Monday a little apprehensive of what the day might bring. We were delighted we had finished the first day, but we then realised we had 6 more to go. If we were going to get to the end, we needed to be aware of everything the car required and make sure we NEVER went wrong, because we wouldn’t be able to turn the car around quick enough.
After leaving Cheltenham, we started the morning with a quick swimming session. Both my sister and I looked at each other when we saw the ford, thinking we wouldn’t make it through. However, if we didn’t try, we couldn’t judge. As we edged closer, we were suddenly engulfed and the water covered the exhaust. Our hearts raced as we were submerged into the water and it was 5cm off coming into the car, a close call, but we made it through, catching the secret check on the way out.
It was then off to Throckmorton where two tests waited for us. As Elise looked over the navigation, she realised the next text was not an easy one. Not only was it long, it was also difficult navigation wise and needed a lot of concentration from both sides of the car, although, this did lack slightly. As the marshal commanded ‘Go’, we sped off the start line (at 5mph) to find the first cone. Sneakily, it was hidden amongst some bushes making almost impossible to see until you were on top of it. Sharply, we turned in and Elise stated ‘Keep left of A’, but at the last minute I remember it was go through A and we perfectly executed the first cone and we emerged from the bushes, even though it was a bit confusing which side of the bush we went, as the bushes weren’t marked on the diagram.
The test continued around Throckmorton, until we approached cone E, Elise remarked to go through gate E, but for some reason I wanted to go right of E. At the last second Elise looked up and yelled ‘through, through E’ and we pulled through just in time. Finally, after 5 minutes of twisting and turning around the airfield, we made it to the end of the test. Both Elise and I were relieved we had actually done it correctly even with our last minute corrections.
Throckmorton was not over yet. The next test was a Le Mans Start, consisting of one member of the crew to run and jump into the car as quickly as possible, to then complete the test in the fasted time. We nominated Elise, and she eagerly ran over to the starting X. The count down started and I could feel the adrenaline pumping to finally hear, ‘GO’. Elise ran over and was in the car in a speedy 6 seconds, much to my surprise, therefore I was not ready for the marshal to say go, meaning we lost a few seconds whilst I started up the car (although with our small engine, I doubt we were the quickest).
As we made our way further up the country towards Preston we encountered Shelsey Walsh Hill climb, an iconic motorsport hill climb, just after afternoon coffee. We hopped in the car and immediately started the hill climb with no time for preparation. Elise wasn’t ready with the test diagram, but we both soon noticed this would not be a problem as we had little power. The spark plugs had become dirty, causing us to do the slowest hill climb of the event. As we chugged up the hill in first gear, we had time to chat to the marshals on the way and even crack some jokes. When we made it to the top, a lovely marshal greeted us and waved us back down Shelsey Walsh. I must say, we were a lot quicker at going down and probably halved our time.
The final regularity of the day was a challenge as it was the first regularity, solely on maps with speed tables. For some strange reason, Elise found it just as easy as the jogularities and managed to collect only a few seconds. Even the sneaky ‘white’ road was spotted and we were only delayed due to questioning and a rough surface.
The final test of the day was a quick dash on a private concrete road leading to Arley Hall. It was superb way to finish the day leading us straight to high tea as we watched the final cars stop astride the end of the test. It was then time to head towards Preston, where we would be spending the night. As we pulled into the hotel, we took the Austin to the mechanics to change the spark plugs and to make sure there where no other mechanical problems. As we turned up after being stuck in the M6 traffic, I had a fantastic surprise from my boyfriend Sean, turning up at the hotel. It was amazing to see him and thank you to all those involved, it truly brightened up the day.
Still, I can’t believe we had completed two days in an Austin 7. Even with our slowest hill climb, we had climbed up the leaderboard and ended up 14th overall and 2nd in class.
Tuesday 15th July
Preston – Edinburgh
We kicked off the day with a fast test at Waters Farm where we were greeted by many known faces in classic car rallying. It was fantastic seeing so many familiar faces, however we were concentrating so hard on making sure we went the right way. As we drove the long straight to the finish line, I was aware that our brakes were not the most effective, therefore I had to pump them to make sure we stopped. Even doing this, the car continued to roll onwards towards the finish line. It was at this point Elise didn’t think we were ever going to stop. As the finish line was on a slight downward hill, it meant all braking power was relying on the little Austin and we stopped JUST on the line – luckily.
Our first tea stop was at Tebay services just off the motorway. After having the oil leaking all over us, we were eager to get there early, however, we arrived with 5 minutes to spare and rushed the car to the mechanics where one of the other Austins – Little George, was waiting. Whilst the mechanics analysed the car to find the problem, the other Austin pulled up to the mechanics. It was ironic how all the Austins discovered slight mechanical problems at the same time, so we had a team Austin celebration. Luckily, all problems were minor and once we had a plastic water bottle over the oil breather, our issue was solved.
Finally, we had made it to the Scottish borders, with a glorious stop at Bowhill House in Selkirk. Elise loved this place as we could see it as we drove down a hill for the end of the regularity. As we were running only a few seconds late on this regularity, Elise took the time to enjoy the view and point out this stunning mansion. Little did she know we would be having lunch here. As usual, we drove the Austin to the mechanics but this time it was because she kept stalling for no reason. It had been extremely difficult on the tests, as I had to keep heel toeing her to make sure we didn’t stall on a stop astride. The mechanics saved us again by tweaking the fuel to air ratio, meaning we could complete another day.
The morning regularities were starting to get a little more competitive, meaning Elise had to completely concentrate to make sure we went the right way and stayed on time. Although for us in out little Austin, things were about to get really tough. With only 750cc the hills were a massive challenge meaning we started to lose minutes as soon as we came across a hill. This was really setting us back as we would pick up 64 seconds on one regularity but 60 seconds were from one control. It was such a disappointment to us as we were trying our best but could only chug up the hills. I felt like we were in a canal boat competing against powerboats when the big Bentley’s sailed past us. One good thing was that we saw everyone everyday making it extremely sociable. However, only sociable on the roads, because we were always late for coffee and lunch, so it was a quick pit stop then back on the road.
At last, Edinburgh was in sight as we made our way down one of the main routes into the city. Little did we know that our 50 mph is extremely slow for some people. As the dual carriageway became a single road, all we could see behind us were cars and lorries. We were holding up LORRIES!!!! It did feel good to not be held up for once but it was a little embarrassing to have such a long tail back. We did plan to pull over, however our biggest fear was that we would never make it back onto the road, as we were so small and slow.
The Royal Yacht Britannia was waiting for our arrival as we all glammed ourselves up ready for a celebration of making it half way. It was absolutely spectacular to be honoured with boarding and dinning on the Royal Yacht and we both had such a fantastic evening, finishing it off with some positive results. We had moved up to 13th overall and 2nd in class. Amazing considering how slow we could be, even the other Austin’s over took us on the straights. With this in mind we headed for bed, hopeful for the days to come, but overwhelmed with the fact that we were still going and had made it to Scotland!
Read Part Two here