The RAC Rally Of The Tests: Where Modified Classics Are Wrung Out On Muddy British B-Roads
Photography by Will Broadhead
November in England: the weather we enjoyed during our hottest summer in decades is a receding memory, the trees are holding onto the last of the leaves displaying the bronze and gold of late autumn, and the mercury is down into the single figures for the first time. The all too familiar gales and slanted precipitation are back in situ as well, holding court over the land as normal service is resumed. I’m not complaining—it’s still better than winter—and there are others who have it much worse than having to deal with some brisk wetness.
Still, it isn’t the typical time of year one would expect enthusiasts to be pulling the covers off of their classic car for, but there are always a few who wring out the season so to speak, getting the last bits of seriously competitive driving where they can find them. While thousands headed for the warmth of the NEC Classic Motor Show this past weekend, a pocket of hardy competitors prepared for one of the highlights of the endurance rallying season instead: the Hero Events RAC Rally of the Tests.
Featuring 750 miles of rugged and just generally challenging driving through some of the British Isles’ rarely-used, sometimes stunningly narrow backroads, the whole route seems to take place on ribbons of pavement so slender that a pair of bicycles would be considered a touch on the wide side, and the oncoming traffic consists of free roaming cattle that found apparent pleasure in waiting around the backend of every blind turn, with the occasional tractor or disoriented tourist adding a human element to the population out here.
Alongside the challenge of the regularity sections, there are of course the tests themselves that give the event its name: no less than thirty tricky assessments of driving skill and machine handling are run in a mixture of obstacle-strewn car parks and Forestry Commission fire roads meant to bring the cars and drivers to the limits of traction and the ability to find it, respectively.
These tests hark back to the RAC rallies of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Jack Kemsley, as chairman of the organizing committee, introduced the special stages to the event consisting of speed tests across terrain that was often described as “undrivable.” Indeed, his initial approaches to the Forestry Commission were spurned, as they held the opinion that the roads were too rough to be driven on by older cars at higher speeds. “That,” responded Kemsley, “was exactly what I wanted!”
The Hero event runs in the same tradition today, including tremendously difficult driving tests and a navigational challenge on top of that. They require traditional maps to be used in the rally that traverses a route from Harrogate in the north, through Wales, and then around the West Country in the south of England.
This is much more than an homage to history though without true competition attached to it, and while the RAC Rally itself may have evolved into something else, the ninety or so crews competing in this event are doing so with the same spirit and will to win that their peers displayed some sixty years ago.
I joined up with the Rally of Tests this year on its second day on the grounds of Chillington Hall (what a place to spend an English winter…), and despite the welcome sun on the day of, the waterlogged grounds of the estate were plenty of evidence of the real state of the weather. The cars themselves were looking less than concours-ready as they snaked and slid around the parkland of the sixteenth-century manor house.
The decadence of the venue shouldn’t fool you into thinking less of the challenge faced by the crews though, and as the day drew on and the rains came down, the muddy terrain became ever more difficult as we pushed into the rural foothills of the Brecon Beacons.
The roads were treacherous even in the comfort of my modern saloon, and while I enjoyed the benefits of traction control, ABS, and modern heating, I thought of the crews navigating their way in their decidedly less comfortable cars and I was envious. It seemed like a tremendous amount of fun, and though I wasn’t about to ask to trade seats with the people in the Bentley Derby Coupe as the rain beat a tattoo on my windscreen, I did wish that I was competing with something. But such is the way of a photographer on events like these, and it was a treat to be documenting such a wonderful event on some of the best driving roads I’ve seen in the UK—indeed the only real difficulty for me was finding safe places to park (read that as abandon) the camera car so that it would be sufficiently out of view.
Through fords, forests, and fields, the crews pressed on, and the weather on this day was as varied as the scenery, with a mixture of downpours and cloudless blue skies separated by the mile and the minute at times. Not every car made the finish under its own steam, but regardless of this you can’t help but take on a staunch admiration for everyone that entered this magnificent rally. It has always been my opinion that classic cars should be driven and enjoyed if possible, but the special breed of enthusiast that enters into truly challenging rallies of this variety should be applauded that much more. For pushing their cars, but also for giving those of us that haven’t a glimpse of what’s capable if the will is there to make it happen.