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North Devon Or Bust in Holsworthy motor club's classic trial

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: September 26, 2013

ONE-OFF: Dudley Sterry at the wheel of his MG J2 during the Roger Pole Taw and Torridge Trial. Picture: Mike Southon. To order this photograph call 0844 4060 269 and quote Ref: BNMS20130922A-012_C

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DOWN a woodland track, beside a stream, deep among the beech trees, the Sunday afternoon peace is shattered.

The farther into the woods you walk, the louder the noise grows.

Every minute or two an eye-catching car comes by, bumping along the unmade surface until it brakes to a halt where the noise is at its loudest.

Some resemble the cars in Monte Carlo Or Bust, the 1960s wacky comedy film about a rally across Europe, featuring Tony Curtis and Terry Thomas.

On this occasion, the finish line is not in glitzy Monaco but at the top of a muddy steep hill near the North Devon hamlet of Tythecott.

The noise is that of engines revving as driver after driver tries to thrash his car up a devilishly slippery narrow incline without fear of sliding back or damage. Never mind that the car might be a head-turner worth £30,000 or more.

As the pheasants scatter, you cannot help but admire the incongruity of it all. Take Bill Bennett's shining green MG J2, which had started the day's competition in immaculate condition but is now parked on remote rough ground looking the worse for wear.

"I guarantee now that when you look at the car it will look like it is out of the showroom," assistant clerk of the course Andrew Martin had said. "At every event the car is pristine. He might knock her into a tree, rip a wing off or whatever, but the following weekend it is immaculate again."

Now Bennett, 69, is taking on the Holsworthy Motor Club Roger Pole Taw and Torridge Classic Reliability Trial – a round of the Association of Classic Trials Clubs 2013 Championship.

A competition for cars and motorcycles, it starts at Clovelly and follows a route of some 60 miles on public roads and multiple sections on private land.

The road element is non-competitive, purely a method of travel between the scoring sections dotted around Clovelly, Torrington and Holsworthy. The sections challenge them to drive up twisting, narrow tree-lined, muddy hills. The farther up you go, the fewer penalty points you incur.

A complex scoring system means all results will be provisional for a few days but, subject to confirmation, Bennett wins Class Two for production cars originally manufactured prior to 1941 and MG TC, Morgan 4.4 Series One, HRG 1,100 and 1,500 and various specified Ford models.

Bennett's vehicle is a 1933 MG he bought in 1986. After using it as a road car, he began trialling in it eight years later.

As he climbs out of his mud-spattered pride and joy, he explains why he goes to such lengths to present his car as if it was about to undergo royal inspection. "A lot of people like to see the old cars and we owe it to them as much as to ourselves," he says.

At least there are no new scratches or bumps to repair. Not that he worries about that during the rigours of competition. "Absolutely not," he says. "I am here to win."

And the value of his wheels in the woods? "Difficult to say but standard road-going J2s are making £35,000 to £37,000 and mine, I think, would be worth more because of its competition history – it could be another £10,000," he says.

David Golightly, provisional winner of Class Five, for front end production sports cars and vehicles built from pre-1941 components, drives what to the untrained eye looks like a torpedo on wheels.

It is, in fact, a Morton and Brett Ford, based on the most advanced aerodynamic technology of the 1920s, value £30,000 to £40,000, he thinks, if it performs well in vintage sports car events over the next two years.

Proving that, even at 86, you are never too old to try something new, the car is contesting a trial for the first time.

"It used to do short oval racing on boards," says Golightly. "They used to take these tracks from town to town, set up on a Saturday night and do a quarter-mile.

"I bought it from a Model T specialist. There was no body on it but there was everything else.I managed to find somebody in Australia who was restoring one and I have copied from the photographs of his to reproduce the body as it was originally."

Far from the boards of America, these woods near Tythecott host the final three sections. It is half a mile down the track from the road where the cars queue for their turn to take the first of three hills on this stage.The minutes between stopping and taking to the hill are spent letting air out of the tyres to improve grip.

The Class B1 and B2 motorcycles have made it up easily, as have most Class Eight cars so far. Now it is the turn of Dudley Sterry and passenger Chris Phillips in their MG J2.

The talk among the marshals is that this hill, at Section 16, which is new to the course, is too easy and that a restart, in which the cars and bikes have to stop on the hill and go again, may be necessary next year.

The Class D motorcycles and Class Five cars are much less successful at Section 16.

Martin says: "There is such a wide range of vehicles with different capabilities and you try and cater for them all, but you have got only one hill."

Sterry and Phillips make it to the top and go on to finish a provisional fifth in Class Eight, the most competitive class. Their car started life in 1933 and is "a bit of a one-off" according to Sterry, 73, who has been driving it in events since 1965.

"I got it in 1964 and started using it in trials," he says. "I modified it, modified it and modified it, so it is an awful long way from being standard.

"What you see is MG. It is the chassis from one car, the engine from another, that sort of thing."

Sterry's car has an insured value of £18,000. "That's quite low because to buy a working J2 you have probably got to pay a minimum £25,000," he says. "If it is spotless and gorgeous, it could head towards £50,000. The prices on MGs have gone crazy in the last couple of years."

Over the last decade classic cars have proven a shrewd investment, performing better than gold as they rose 430 per cent in value. Over the same period the FTSE 100 climbed just 55 per cent.

Not all those taking part have fancy vehicles. The contrast presented by the Ford Escorts, VW Beetles, Peugeot 205s and Suzuki X90s is marked.

"The Suzuki X90 is almost a buy-and-go-trialling car," says Martin. "You don't really have to do anything to it. It's got the ground clearance, the bigger wheels, everything."

Riders and drivers come prepared with spares and a philosophy of helping each other out. However, in the company of such enthusiasm and expertise, one thing comes as a surprise – there are times when they have to call out the AA to get them home. "It is only for that time that you have not got the part, or chassis damage, or something that requires a welder," says Martin.

Monte Carlo Or Bust? No AA vans were spotted during the making of the film.

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