Why Being Covered In Freezing Mud Was More Fun Than Going To Goodwood
Photography by Will Broadhead
Whilst the rest of my friends and Instagram feed were enjoying the prestigious cars at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting this past weekend despite the snow flurries, my press invite appeared to have been lost in the post, but not one to let my envy get the better of me I enjoyed a weekend full of mud and history in the Herefordshire countryside instead. Just a swift jog away from the Welsh border, it’s a car trial put on by the Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC), and given the weather report it was bound to be a messy bit of fun and a unique alternative to the events in Chichester.
I have to say, as I awoke on Saturday morning to the sight of snow cascading by my bedroom window, the predicted meteorologic doom coming true didn’t bode well for the comfort of the day ahead. Still, I reasoned that it would be less detrimental to an off-road trial than it would to a circuit-based race, and so if they were doing it down south they surely would be up here.
On the driver over I wondered what lay in store for me at my first visit to a vintage car trial, though the idea is simple enough: drive a car from Point A to B, with a score based on the total distance each crew manages to cover in each section. Easy. Only this is off-road, up steep hills, around complex corners and chicanes, and as I would learn soon enough, on a constant surface of thick and sticky mud. Oh, and this was all to be attempted by pre-war cars only. Each one is also mandated to carry at least one passenger along with the driver, otherwise known as “bouncers.” The bouncer’s job, is, well, to bounce. More specifically, to use their body weight to compress the suspension and increase the traction on the drive wheels during the slippery and abrupt inclines on the stages.
As I headed west through the thankfully diminishing snow flurries, the scene of one hundred or so decidedly geriatric cars taking turns careening up and more than likely straight back down muddy hillsides was a recurring and entertaining mental image, and as I arrived to sign in, a makeshift paddock of vintage metal awaited my curiosity. There were plenty of miniature Austin 7s in their various guises from sports models to the carriage-like one known as the Chummy; a mighty Allard faced off against MGs; Bugattis lined up against Bentleys; and Fords, Rileys, early Vauxhalls, and even a Chrysler were amongst the marques on this pre-mud parade. The field was a wonderful mix of cars from the 1920s and ‘30s, representing not just a oft-forgotten period of the automobile, but also the historic form of motorsport they were about to take part in once more.
Car trials like this are one of the oldest forms of racing, and these feature-based events first became popular when it was decided that distance trials were simply not enough of a challenge for production motor cars that could chug along with breaking down relatively easily, so things moved on to these shorter, more complex trials which were often more rigorous tests of endurance and skill than driving along public roads. The hills and quagmires ahead of this crop were going to be a thorough test of the ability of the machines indeed, not to mention the skill of their crews who would have to navigate the tight sections on skinny tires sunk well into the wet earth.
Despite the testing conditions and stages though, it has to be said the participants and marshals were some of the friendliest and most easygoing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at any motorsport event. As I became caked in more mud from the spinning wheels of yet another Austin 7 tossing filth around, the warm atmosphere from those around me experiencing the same thing caused a big toothy grin to crack through my involuntary face mask instead of any curses aimed at the weather.
Success or failure on the hill seems to come down to what the drivers do with their right feet, not about who’s got the most cash to spend on chassis development and stacks of sticky rubber; out here in this frozen woodland, all that mattered was who could maintain his or her momentum through the slush, artfully searching out the bits of grip offered underneath the mess.
Not only is it a very pure form of driving in the analog sense, but it also appeared extremely accessible, with the variety of the cars being matched only by the diversity of the entrants. Young and old, male and female, parents and their children, it was fabulous to see such an enthusiastic group of people. My clothes and hair having turned almost fully brown and my introduction to this niche sport complete, by the close of day I was trial racing’s newest fan. It’s a change of pace from the big vintage racing events for sure, but that’s not a bad thing.