Trialling in an Austin Seven

Serial-Austin Seven collector Andrew Wright talks us through his experiences in trialling; one of the oldest forms of motorsport in the world

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As an unofficial dictionary definition; 'Trialling', one of the oldest recognised forms of competitive motorsport known to man, involves competitors careering up ridiculous inclines to see how far they can get towards the top of a hill.

It’s a uniquely British affair and each year around 200 members of the Vintage Sports-Car Club take their pre-war machines off-roading. Usually with mannerisms that would leave some 4x4 enthusiasts reaching for their smelling salts.

Just to make things more interesting, cars are required to use road-going tyres and keep their open differentials to ensure driving is tricky and passengers soil themselves. You would have to be mad to believe this was a relaxed pastime and bonkers even to consider such activity.

So, in late 2014 I went out of my way to buy an Austin Seven Special. It had been hacked about and re-bodied, re-axled, re-sprung and re-engined. Travelling from Cumbria down to Cornwall for it, the humble little Austin marked my entry into the world of pre-war motoring. Just six months prior I had witnessed my first car trial, marshalling on the Vintage Sport-Car Club's spectacular John Harris Trial in Derbyshire.

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At that first event I watched in awe as drivers fought their way up an impossibly muddy bank, passengers bouncing wildly - doing so to ensure the wheels found grip - while clinging on for dear life. Engines revving freely, all for that elusive 25-point score at the top of the hill. Forget all that political and money orientated Formula One nonsense, I’d found a motorsport I wanted to try. A motorsport to separate the men from the boys. The Jim Clark spirit from the Lewis Hamilton mantra.

Loading a pretty little Austin Special onto a borrowed trailer to drag back home, it's destiny as my racing partner was sealed. The next three years fast became a learning experience of crunched gears, broken springs, soaking clothes and, at its finest moment during the climax last year, a broken crankshaft complete with holes in the side of the crankcase. Boy, was that a spectacularly stomach-churning moment.

Fast forward to winter 2017, and I was raring to go for the VSCC's new trials season, my third as a competitor, my first with a newly rebuilt engine, and a colour change to go along with it.

I typically compete in a trial organsied by the Preston and District Vintage Car Club as a warm up to my season, however this was called off due to waterlogged ground – leaving me and my bouncer Cress straight into the tough stuff with the VSCC Lakeland Trial in November. Home turf for me, and to my delight the new engine was marvelous, and the first ascent of the day, up Fleetwith Pike, was a good test of it.

It’s a twisty, hair-pinned, slate track up the Pike, and in centuries past was used by the Lakeland miners. Today, it’s one of the best places to watch vintage cars in action, with spectators lining the steep section for oily, catastrophically dramatic action. With 25 points in the bag, it set the tone for the rest of the event with the surprisingly dry weather making for a high-scoring trial.

The other sections of the Lakeland are typical of many trials, muddy paths through forests and sizeable road miles to keep the cars, and navigators, working. The last hill of the day saw us staring down a usually unproblematic green lane, however a deviously placed optional stop and restart was catching many out. A quick tot of the score between Cress and I, and we decided not to take the gamble this time, back at the pub this paid off and we took home a 2nd class award, a good way to start the season! 

The Cotswolds followed, which was a day of hammering rain and biting cold, with acres of slimy mud to contend with. The bouncer and car performed admirably, although the driver’s lack of experience shone through. Some way off the awards I consoled myself with a pint of Prescott Ale after loading the car for the trudge back to Cumbria.

After Christmas we were back to it in February for the Exmoor Fringe Trial, another event in a glorious part of the world. Once more the three of us (driver, bouncer, car), worked well as a team and we only narrowly missed out on an award. No matter, we coined our own - The 'Most Frozen Team' of the day award. Never has a cold pint felt so warm...

We were beginning to realise that the car now had the potential to be up there with the best, and perhaps the Lakeland result wasn't just a lucky fluke. The weight distribution was suited to trialling with a nice heavy fuel tank over the rear, passengers on top of the axle, and the new engine yearned for high revs and abuse.

The John Harris Trial for 2018 was sadly called off as the ‘Beast from the East’ dumped snow across the region, perhaps for the best as I’m not sure the modern wagon would have got the Austin to the accommodation. It certainly would have been a cold drive in the Austin the night before! 

Despite missing this initial chill, we managed to feel the full force of nature just a few weeks later for the Herefordshire Trial, a weekend event blessed with spring like weather in previous years. Not so this time, my feet were colder than Katie Hopkins' stare during scrutineering, and things didn’t warm up as the day wore on.

Highlights included the optional 'Hyde Halt' stop and restart where, in a reverse of the Lakeland at the start of the year, we took the option. There’s an art to getting into a restart successfully, carrying enough speed to get into the box, and not too much to overshoot, all the while knowing how well your cable or rod brakes will perform on the loose surface. Unfortunately while scoping out the hill I witnessed a couple of people overshoot the mark, a little thing but enough to build doubt in your own mind when you’re sat on the line waiting for the marshal’s whistle.

A blast through a steep rutted section follow by a sharp left hander brought us to the restart, where we stopped bang on where we had to be. The marshal’s flag dropped, I built the revs, dumped the clutch, Cress shifted her weight to the rear axle, and away we went with a minimum of wheel spin.

Climbing out the top of the section, we were ecstatic to have won the gamble, bagging an extra 10 points for the achievement. The rest of the day was equally kind to us, as we ‘cleared’ every hill barring the exceptionally tricky ‘Chandos’, a deceivingly flat-ish field which is devilishly slippy once the grass has been taken off by the first few cars.

Being a weekend trial there’s a dinner held on the Saturday evening for competitors and marshals where the ‘half-time’ scores are announced. We were delighted to be joint 6th in class, and we knew if we could hold on for the next day we’d be high up in the awards.

We awoke on Sunday to snow - and significant snow at that. Some of the drifts were larger than the little Austin itself. Over breakfast it was announced that the second day’s hills were cancelled due to safety reasons. While we missed out on Sunday’s hills, it did mean we had won a 2nd class award and I returned home feeling that I might be starting to pick up this trialling lark.

When I bought the car in 2014, I wanted it to be a bit of fun, to see what it was like. Three-and-a-bit years, a few dozen trials, and much money later it’s become an obsession, from vintage rookie to trials driver, I’ve loved every step of the way.

It's something you can get involved with, too! You don't need scary amounts of money to join in, either. Here's how...

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