5am and the fog was thick. Dawn was attempting to break and I’m hammering away at the nut on a Morgan rear-right wheel – covered in mud and sheep droppings. We had a puncture on the first stage and there was a heck of a long way to go yet… welcome to the world of MCC Trials.
Words and photos: James Ball
As a complete novice to trials, I learnt very quickly that they are hard work – a true test of man and machine, and a tradition that dates back to the beginnings of the motorcar itself. A Morgan is a sports car, designed for the road – smooth, predictable tarmac. Why on earth would you throw it down a rutted farm track with huge boulders threatening to dent every panel and break every part?
Trials were designed to test a car to its limits. If a car could perform well, and survive the brutal punishment of trials, then it would perform solidly for years on the easy tarmac. The Motor Cycling Club (MCC), first started the trials back in 1909, and they have been a mainstay motoring event ever since. There are three main trials, the Lands End, the Exeter and the Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh is the trial I tried my hand at navigating, and, somewhat strangely perhaps, it now takes place in Derbyshire. Originally it was known as the London to Edinburgh, the event used to cover hundreds, if not over 1000 miles. Although less point-A-to-point-B, the new style of Edinburgh is just as difficult. I have been off-roading in a pretty hefty 4×4, and honestly, I wouldn’t have tackled many of the Edinburgh Trial stages in that. For a Morgan to breeze by, with its two-wheel-drive, completing most stages with relative ease is nothing short of astounding.
Seasoned trialler, John Bradshaw, was kind enough to let me navigate and get a taste of what trials are all about, and fills us in on the significance of the events for Morgan, “As far as we’re aware, there has been a Morgan competing in every trial since the beginning.” For the Edinburgh, John was due to enter alongside Chris Adeney in his flat-rad. Unfortunately Chris’ car had a mechanical issue and wasn’t able to enter, so thankfully John’s 4/4 was in good shape and he could keep the Morgan flag flying.
The car is so brutally functional it might be the most characterful Mog we’ve ever encountered. With its unpolished cowl and bonnet, and those black wings, it’s a fantastic looking Mog, (in fact John’s car was the inspiration for Morgan’s Brooklands Editions). It was the first weekend of October, and a blurry-eyed 2:30am, when John picked me up in this utilitarian 4/4. The roads were silent until I heard the rumble of the Mog with its yellow headlamps eerily glowing through the mist.
I packed my things into the back, zipped up my jacket and pulled on a hat. The cockpit is snug like a Mog usually is. In front of the passenger is a small glove compartment, an LED navigation light, a completely exposed gearbox, and – just outside the door – a pleasantly burbling brass exhaust. Registration and the beginning of the trial commenced at Tamworth Services just off the M42. Arrival time 3:10am. Through the black of night and the cold, the car was scrutineered and the drivers and navigators headed in for an early morning coffee.
Prepped and ready to go, I had my notes and we hit the road – it wasn’t long until I had already lost a piece of important paper to the wind! Not the best start. The first stop was Carsington Water, where the triallers gathered in preparation for the first stage. One by one we were released onto what turned out to be a very rutted and wet farm track, with a moderate incline. Due to heavy use by tractors, the ruts were deep, which posed a problem for the Mog. John placed one wheel on the centre in the hope of gaining more traction. Unfortunately, as John pressed hard on the accelerator, the morning dew caused us to go nowhere. A quick readjustment and we were going, and at some speed.
The skid plate-equipped 4/4 managed to slide across many obstacles (due to which my back may never recover), and it performed out of its skin. With its subtle but numerous modifications, and John’s experience, it simply crashed and banged its way up the hill. We were nearly at the top when John shouted out, “Oh no!” The car began to bobble and he pulled up. “We’ve got a puncture,” John stated. Out we jumped in the wet mud and set to work replacing the wheel – thankfully the knock-on knock-off nature of a Morgan wheel makes this pretty easy.
We were at the back of our group of cars (Class O), which meant if we fell behind too far, they’d scrub us off the list and we couldn’t continue. Pressure was on. New wheel fitted, and mud and sheep poo everywhere, we hopped back in and continued. The MCC are excellent at designing routes between stages. We travelled along beautiful country roads and forgotten gravel tracks to get to the next competitive stage.
After the hiccup of stage one, John and his Mog performed well. “I’m not a great trialler,” John told me modestly, but he clearly knows how to drive these stages. The Mog seemingly fights him all the way on every route, but he never loses control. With prearranged stops at pubs, cafes and village halls, the hours flew by and we got to know our fellow triallers pretty well. At the Bull in the Thorne, deep in the Peak District, we got to observe just how varied the trials cars are. There were many specific trials machines, but also standard MGs, a Ford Cortina estate (dubbed ‘Mountain Goat’) and a husband and wife team piloting a classic VW Beetle.
As the day went on, the Morgan seemed unstoppable. We pulled up at an infamously difficult stage known as Excelsior. The very rocky track, complete with some difficult turns, was teeming with spectators. John floored it to gain momentum and we crashed and smashed our way up. No problem! The rules say: to pass a stage you must do so without stopping. Although we had gained a puncture in the first stage, we had in fact crossed the line. If you pass every stage then you’re granted a bronze award. To achieve the higher awards you must complete stop/start zones placed on some stages and stick to the MCC time schedule as accurately as you can.
We pulled up at the last stage and it looked like the bronze award could be on the cards. The final stage was a two-parter, the first of which John hadn’t been able to pass in previous attempts. With his prior knowledge, and using a wider entry, John revved the 4/4 up the extremely steep lane. Nearly falling out, I gripped on to the dash as the car writhed and rolled, but kept moving forwards. A sharp right turn greeted us halfway up, John rounded it with ease, working the wheel left and right as we hit every bump and rut.
For the final stretch he gave it some welly and the Mog pulled through. Now for part two, a fairly flat grass route. Everything went well until we hit the final hump, a huge grassy sleeping policeman. The Mog reached the crest and hesitated, seemingly struggling for power. If we stop, we lose the bronze award. The car slowed to a near-stop, John gave it some more juice and the 4/4 sprung to life, crested the last hurdle and completed the stage. “Did we stop?” John asked me. “I don’t think so,” I replied. We both look to the Marshal, “You stopped.” He said, painfully deadpan.
Not keen to debate, and with no witnesses, we failed to gain a bronze award by the smallest of margins. Considering the punishment this 4/4 went through, I was blown away by its durability. After around 15 hours on the road, many of which were on backbreaking terrain, the Mog stayed solid – even if its navigator was broken. It may be tiring and punishing, but it’s also one of the most light-hearted and friendly events I’ve ever been a part of. You’ll find no elitism here, with only a £60 entry fee and requirement of a car that’s two-wheel drive and possesses two spare tyres, it’s fair game for pretty much anyone.
This is a genuine competitive motorcar event for less than the price of a meal out. Trials run through the heart of Morgan and an integral part of all motoring history, and I was flattered to help uphold the tradition of a Morgan competing in every event. Say you’ve got a Morgan in less-than-perfect condition. It’s running, but it’s definitely worse for wear. You could fork out the cash and get it completely restored, or you could simply use it as H.F.S and Peter Morgan would have, in the trials.
Although the factory has focused on track racing instead of trials in recent years, perhaps it’s time to go back to the roots and get Morgan trialling again? Imagine a trials-spec 3 Wheeler? Now that’s something we’d like to see…