Monday, 13 April 2009

Team Robert ride again in the 2009 Land's End Trial

My involvement in this year's Land's End Trial occurred at the 11th hour when my scrap buddy, Rob Robinson-Collins, suddenly found himself without a navigator. This was particularly disappointing because Rob had arranged to borrow the Candidi Provacatore Allard J1 from Roger Ugalde. Rumours soon abounded that Rob’s navigator had fled to the country at the prospect of writing in such an awe inspiring open top car. Some of my local trialling friends pointed out that Roger's nephews ran the principle undertaking business in Liskeard and there was even more ribaldry about my life expectancy.

But I wasn't listening. Rob and I already had some minor trialling history with this car and for a couple of years we had campaigned the Cox-Triumph sidecar outfit. Team Robert were about to be reunited, even though according to the programme I was masquerading as Robert Hall -- that would have been Robert “Facom” Hall (say it quickly.)

Roger was clerk of the course for this year's Land's End so couldn't enter the event himself but he’s such a generous chap he'll lend this magnificent car to fellow competitors and enthusiasts. He knows Rob pretty well now, especially as more buyers two Allards in kit form and is in the process of shortening one to make a J1 replica.

We met at the Roger’s place between Honiton and Sidmouth on Maundy Thursday and drove up to Rob and Tina's house near Andover. The following day was happily spent measuring the bodywork on Roger's car and checking it over. Running as number 156, we were booked in to start at Popham airfield, although a start from Plusha services would probably have been more convenient. Changing the start would be awkward at such a stage when unexpected advantage of the extra road miles was that it allowed Rob and me to get to know Roger’s Allard that much better.

The weather forecast was uncertain. We've had quite a bit of rain as we journeyed east and soon after setting out on the trial we had some very heavy downpours. But after that things began to clear up and the rest of the night was dry. When the sun eventually came up, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and we experienced ideal weather for the rest of the event.

The Land's End Trial is marked by a considerable road mileage between sections and as well Popham there were starts from Plusha in Cornwall and Michael Wood services in Gloucestershire. We all converged at Bridgewater and in the darkness of a gradually drying night we were able to check out the other entries, including this rather splendid Model A Ford.

The restart box at Felon’s Oak looked little wider than a wheels width in our headlights that due to unfamiliarity with the Allard's controls we ran back out of it so failed our very first section before it had hardly started. However, we had no difficulty getting away and when one of the MG drivers that we've been following complained about our bright headlights I suspect our wall-to-wall grins brought on by the glorious engine note were so dazzling we were potentially lighting up the night sky.

Sat on the start line of Beggar’s Roost confidence in our machine was at an all-time high but, ironically, this proved to be our ongoing for the old warhorse just died on us after struggling a few feet up the hill. Rob thumbed the starter but it was obvious to everyone that we had a ground to a halt and he gave it plenty of beans to bring us up to the restart box which we negotiated without any problems. The only thing we could think of was that, after a brief stop to check tyre pressures, on start-up there wasn't quite enough petrol in the carb to keep us going.

Rodney's Revenge was not a section that I'd come across before. We approached it through extensive Forestry Commission woods. By now the clouds cleared and there was a magnificent moon -- almost a full one. Despite this, the night was still very dark. Gazing up at the moon, in the otherwise pitch black sky, I began to make out what appeared to be red-and-white stars twinkling way up above it. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I realised that these were trials cars ascending into the heavens. And after they’d ascended, they were reversing back down again.

It was a bit like witnessing Jacob's ladder, which many people nowadays believe wasn't Angels climbing a ladder to Heaven at all but alien astronauts being beamed up into their spacecraft.

If it wasn't for the fact that the competitors before us were reversing back down again, I could easily have suspected that they were being kidnapped by aliens with invisible tractor beams.

As "seasoned competitors", we had been selected to be travelling marshals. I suspect that this was Roger's little joke. Part of our responsibilities as travelling marshals was to investigate any hold-ups and offer our help to the marshals in charge of that particular section so I borrowed the armband of authority and wandered down to the front of the queue.

It was obvious that very little was getting up and Rob remembered Rodney's Revenge as a "stopper" from when he was passengering for Dave Turner in his BMW 318iS.

But this was the hill where the combination of Team Robert and the Allard J1 all came together.

We managed to get around the first hairpin -- not easy in a car the size of an Allard, even a shortened one -- and Rob floored the throttle. The old warhorse dug in and we had great climb, clearing the section without me really having to do any bouncing. At the top, we were euphoric.

From then on, we felt invincible. We cleared Cutliffe Lane, Sutcombe and Darracott, although we've flattened the restart boards on that last one as we slithered out sideways under power.

Growing in confidence and enjoying spectacularly sunny weather, we approached Crackington.

Conditions so far had been very muddy and the locals in this part of north Cornwall have a reputation for "doctoring" this hill and all manner of interesting slurries. In anticipation of this, Rob kept the gas on all the way up. There was no room for any slacking. Fortunately for us, there was no restart box but it was incredibly claggy and I really had to work hard, bouncing for all I was worth, to get a grip and maintain momentum.

But we did it and in the red haze that had descended upon us almost forgot to obey the stop sign that has obviously put there for a reason just after the Section Ends boards.

And when we came onto the tarmac at the top to pump up our tyres, a small boy materialised with some little Easter eggs for us. And a passerby told us that Crackington had never been so muddy following a landslide even before a load of slurry had been tipped down it.

Doing our Travelling Marshals bit, we saw Colin and Edna Perryman in their BMW 2002 by the side of the road and stopped to ask if they were okay. Unfortunately, they'd severed a rear brake pipe and although Colin managed to crimp the end they decided to retire at the Wisley Down Control. This was a particular shame because they were clear up to then.

We also saw a Spridget having a diff changed on the verge but I'm happy to say that we saw them going very well afterwards.

At Panter’s Bridge, just before Warleggan, we met Roger and Caroline and were able to tell them what a great time we were having. I had never ever cleared any of the hills that we had cleaned so far although I had already been successful on Felon’s Oak and Beggars Roost in previous events.

Roger said we should be ashamed if we failed this next section. Many years ago, I'd marshalled on Warleggan and could remember a particularly bumpy section just up from the restart box from when we attempted on the Triumph outfit. If anything, it looked worse than ever when we squared up to it but Rob just nailed the throttle and I did my bit although nowhere near as much as on Crackington.

At the top we found James Shallcross and Neil Andrew in Adrian Booth's old Peugeot 205. They'd just got a clean and were doing well although Warleggan had just caught out Lee and Rebecca Huck in a similar machine.

Down in Cardinham Woods, Ladyvale featured a cunningly placed restart box but we managed to get going again and on Hoskin Hill we sort of fluffed the start again with the motor just dying. We might have got away with this nut frankly I doubt it and we probably were recorded as a failure even before we moved off the start line. However, we negotiated the rest of the hill, including the restart box, in style.

By now, the entrants seemed quite spread out. For much of the distance we were running among many Class O competitors. At the Wilsey Down Hotel control and rest halt we heard an official asking the ladies in the restaurant to stay open for another couple of hours due to delays, presumably as a result of protracted recovery operations as people failed the very muddy sections.

What struck me was how well organised everything was. Everyone involved, either as officials or marshals, was in their place at the allotted time and knew what to do. I know many of them have been doing this year on, year out but it was still impressively slick.

Rob and I were particularly looking forward to Bishop’s Wood because, when we were on the outfit, we seem to be practically airborne for the whole section but in reality it was probably the greatest disappointment. There was an enormous lump of polished rock with a very muddy restart box at its foot and this was the only occasion where we honestly couldn't find any grip. Our wheels started to spin and eventually gravity overcame friction and we slid backwards, still with our wheels going forward. With a run-up I'm sure we wouldn't have had any trouble but a following Marlin in the same class as us managed it. We were very suitably impressed and told him so but forgot to ask how he had placed his wheels in the restart box. We reckon that he had gone further to the right and up the hill from where we attempted the restart.

Tooling down the A30, I was really looking forward to Blue Hills. In my less than illustrious trialling career, I haven't managed to clear either of these sections. The 2009 Land's End Trial had -- so far -- seen me clear hills that I never managed to clear before, either as a driver or passenger and whether on three wheels or four.

But when we came through the narrow lane that leads into the valley from Cross Coombe, the old familiar vista opened up to us again of a vast crowd on the opposite hill. It always looks so steep and impossible at this point and when we had attempted Blue Hills 2 on the outfit we couldn't even get off the start line.

Blue Hills 1 has just a fearsome reputation as the more spectacular blast up the cliff path. By looping the trial through very muddy water and place in the restart box right at the foot of polished stone setts that lead onto the tarmac road, this section was claiming many scalps.

We applied what we’d learnt so far and made the old Allard bellow in our efforts to get going again as we attempted the restart. But although we made plenty of tyre smoke we didn't get anywhere. I was shouting to Rob to “keep it in” when I heard him reply “it's no good”. Despite the crowd cheering us on, he throttled back.

But then something quite inexplicable happened -- the Allard nonchalantly eased itself up the polished stone setts and Rob suddenly had to rapidly turn the big steering wheel to stop us from hitting the opposite bank. A great cheer went up and we whooped and hollered in disbelief. But the section wasn't over. It ended on the other side of the narrow gates leading up to Blue Hills 2 and Rob fortunately had the presence of mind to keep going and the skill to aim our car through those suddenly little gates.

In front of us on the start line of the final section was an innocuous Toyota Corolla that had successfully negotiated Blue Hills 1 in style. This made it look easy but made us more determined than ever to do as good as we possibly could on what is probably the ultimate trials hill out of all the classics.

As we pulled away to come up to the start line the Allard ran out of beans again and we stalled. "Oh well," said Rob, "at least we didn't do that coming away from the start."

We nearly managed Blue Hills 2. We got away quite nicely and made our way to the restart box without too much trouble. Rob had lined us up quite nicely and I bounced furiously to get us away but he didn't quite turn the wheel quick enough and our nearside front wheel hit the outer bank of this sunken section so hard that it brought us to a dead stop.

Then there was the omnipresent Mr Ugalde. “Oh come on Robert!” he said in a loud voice that could have applied to either of us, “what are you playing at?”

We rolled back and had another go and this successful ascent is the one that has made it onto the Internet. Of course, we failed the section but thanks to my mate Pete, who was in the right place with a video camera, this clip makes it look like we didn't.

There was an extended stop at the top to swap stories and meet up with old friends. Somebody pointed out that my motorcycling over suit had a huge hole at the back. I must have bounced my way through my waterproofs or maybe it was our seat-of-the-pants performance. Although it looks sunny at Blue Hills, I was glad of my Heine Gericke gear on underneath and sundry layers below that. It must have been from shock at ascending the premier section in classic trials for the first time. (Blue Hills photos by Pete Cross)

Over the years the Allard has become very well-known - a lot of people came over to pay their respects to it.

Some people were moved to even prostrate themselves before the Allard's split axle front suspension. Pumping up the tyres was the last thing on our minds but we remembered it in the end.

The general consensus of the finish at Scorrier was that had been a particularly hard trial but for our first time out in a strange car we couldn't really have hoped for a better result.

This impression was reinforced when we saw Roger the following day when we returned the car. The results have not been published yet but as we signed off we could see how many people thought that they might have won an award. Not many were claiming Golds but there were quite a few Silvers and Bronzes. One or two people had simply written Lead.

Blue Hills 2 had seen a couple of accidents, one where a sidecar outfit flipped over onto its crew and another where a bouncer hit her head on the top of the windscreen when the car hit the same section of bank that caught us out. One of the spectators had also suffered a heart attack but the emergency services were quickly on hand and a good recovery is expected for all concerned.

A huge thank you is due to everyone involved. We were all there for the same reason and shared our mutual enjoyment unsparingly.

And a difficult trial has made attaining our simple Finisher’s Certificate all the more sweeter.

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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Wormton Lamb competition

5 people have just won copies of The Wormton Lamb in a competition run by Zopa the internet social lending network. I should be able to get them in the post on Saturday.

The Wormton Lamb is released on 11th April. I won't be involved in a huge media event - on that date I'm crewing a 1946 Allard in the 2009 Land's End Trial for a mate of mine who was let down by his navigator/co-driver/bouncer-for-when-the-going-gets-sticky.

So obviously I've got my priorities right.

I should also point out that any similarities between classic trials and The Wild Hunt in my books about Hob and Anarchadia are purely coincidental.

More about The Wormton Lamb dreckly.

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Saturday, 22 November 2008

Vintage Thing No.35 - the flathead Ford V8

There aren't many engines that burst out of the engine bay and assume a life of their own but the flathead Ford V8 is definitely one of them. Look - there's one that's escaped even now, wriggling across the pebbles of my scrap buddy's drive. As Rob puts it, this engine won World War 2. That's a bit of an exaggeration but it was really what the flathead Ford V8 got up to afterwards that makes if of interest to me and marks it out as a Vintage Thing in its own right.

You've probably heard of the phrase Anglo-American Bastard? It covers a wide variety of British cars that used big, low-stressed American engines in stripped down chassis and lightweight bodywork. This trend began before World War II with things like the Brough Superior and Railton and carried on right up into the sixties with the Gordon-Keeble, Bristol and Jensen.

Some of these cars weren't so much Anglo-American bastards but more love children.

Liberated from their heavy American chassis and bodywork, these engines enjoyed outstanding performance for their day and were really early hot-rods. The early ones were usually powered by Hudson flathead straight eights. Then Ford UK got in on the act and producer factory version in the shape of a Ford Pilot. By the time World War II broke out, there were many Ford V8s powering private motor cars. During World War II, this doughty engine was enlisted and powered everything from staff cars to artillery tractors. After World War II, the Ford V8 embarked on an illustrious competition career.

You'll've heard of Rob before. He is my scrap buddy and is mildly obsessed with Allard trials cars but in a good way. Sydney Allard was a larger-than-life character who spotted and started to exploit the performance potential of the Ford V8 in the late 1930s. He began by making mud-plugging trials specials, initially just for himself and a few friends, but then he began series production. He also entered the history books when he won the Monte Carlo Rally in a car that he had designed and built himself, a feat that nobody else is likely to ever match. During the war, his garage serviced all sorts of military vehicles powered by this engine. After the war, the Flathead Ford V8 was available cheaply as ex-army surplus.

But why's it called a flathead? It's because it has its valves on the side of the cylinders. In the case of the Ford V8 they nestle down in the vee of the engine. It's a very simple layout but is not very efficient. The combustion path is tortuous and lopsided. Overhead valves are much better in this respect but require a more complex head casting. Cylinder heads are on side valve motors are little more than slabs of iron or aluminium, hence the nickname flathead.

Let's just do the numbers on this engine. Cubic capacity is 3,622cc (221 cubic inches if you're over the other side of the pond) with a 77.72 x 95.25 mm bore and stroke. On a 6.2 to 1 compression ratio they put out 90 bhp. Mercury V8s had a bigger bore of 80.96mm to give 3917cc and 100bhp on a 6.75 to 1 CR. These were shared with Ford trucks and later with Fords cars. To perpetuate Mercury's premium brand image, and performance reputation, the V8 was stroked to a full four inches to give 255 CID (4184cc, 80.96 x 101.6) that ultimately gave 125 bhp on a 7.2:1 CR in production form.

We don't talk about the 2227cc V8. This was a small bore taxation special that found rice pudding skins intimidating. It was replaced in 1941 by a larger capacity straight six but was popular in midget racing in the US. Under the UK's pre-war RAC rating, which was calculated on bore size, the 66.04 x 81.28 engine was dubbed the V8-22. It's bigger 3.6 litre brother was the V8-30, which was much more expensive to tax annually. Still, phwaaoorr, though, eh?

"Enjoying the new crankshaft, gentlemen?"

The first flathead Ford V8 appeared back in 1932 and it was remarkable for being the first monoblock V8 engineered for mass production. V8s were by no means a new idea but combining the crankcase and blocks together in a single casting was. This was the key to making it cheap enough to produce and viable for Henry Ford to use in a family car. He picked a handful of his best engineers and housed them in an authentic replica of Thomas Edison's inventing shed. Suitably inspired by these surroundings, engineers Carl Schultz and Ray Laird worked closely with head of the pattern shop Herman Reinhold to build the prototype. Once the engine was up and running, however, it needed the determination of production manager Charlie Sorensen to work out a way to insure that 54 separate cores stayed put in the mould. All of them had been exactly the right place at the valve sections and cylinders in the engine block. It was only after many failures and sometimes days when the Ford factories produced only scrap that eventually the production problems were solved and Charles Sorensen became henceforth known as "Cast Iron Charlie."

There then followed an anxious time as production slowly built up to meet demand that this was the height of the depression. Between November 1931 and March 1932, the vast Ford factories produced no cars at all while Sorensen of the rest of Ford's team raced to solve the production problems. It was only Henry Ford's fast personal wealth that tided the company over until the new car had overcome initial buyer resistance.

The Ford flathead V8 was an early incarnation of the world engine concept. It powered American, Canadian, British, French and Australian vehicles and Rob has an ex-NATO example for one of his Allards that was built in Clermont-Ferrand in the 1960's.

Because of its thick walled cast iron engine block, over-boring of the cylinders is quite feasible and capacities of up to 286 CID or 4691cc are possible. I found Vanpelt Parts and ServiceAmerican website and they quote a four and one eighth inch stroke crank as well as the stock ones.

Ford flathead V8 capacities (in metric, I live in Yerp you know)
Stock Stock Special
95.25 101.6 104.78
Stock 77.8 3622 3864 3985
Stock 80.9 3917 4178 4309
Special 84.1 4233 4515 4656
Special 85.7 4395 4689 4835

The example on Rob's drive has the desirable - count them - 24 stud head. When tuned for high performance, standard heads, which are little more than thin slabs of metal, can warp. (That's another reason for calling them flat heads - it encourages them not to warp.) More studs aid the seal between head and block and prevent blown head gaskets. This engine also has the rare twin carb Allard induction manifold.

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Thursday, 13 November 2008

What my scrap buddy has been up to

I was near Andover at the weekend with my neighbour and tractor man Andrew. We dropped in on my scrap buddy, Rob Robinson-Collins who has a weakness for Allards. Here are Rob and Andrew in Rob and Tina's back garden. If ever Rob rings me up to tell me that he has discovered another Allard, or parts thereof, I don't dissuade him. I encourage him. I'm happy to say that he is rarely in any doubt about the desirability of any Allard or Allard parts so it is not difficult for him to follow my advice to, "Buy it!" We both realise that this is not really what having a scrap buddy is all about. What should happen, is that one of us says to the other, "Look, what you really want is just one car and one motorbike and that's it." Sometimes, one of us might actually say this but it is quickly ignored. Very often, this sentence is not uttered at all.

Here, Rob is explaining the niceties of shortening an Allard chassis to Andrew's boots. You may have noticed that the Allard chassis tapers so once the side rails have been shortened, all were cross members have had to either be narrowed or widened, depending on where they are in the new chassis layout. It's not a job to be undertaken lightly but, fortunately, Rob has done this all before. Unfortunately, he had to move house and sell the chassis that he had shortened but now he has two chassis is to play with and he's cracking with both.

At the moment, Rob doesn't really have anywhere to work on either of his Allards. This doesn't stop of course. He has created a portable folding garage and this is the green thing that you can see in the background.

What we should have done was enticed Tina outside for a photograph. Her presence would certainly have brightened the photographs up a bit. Tina puts up with a lot but shares Rob's enthusiasm for Allards.

Robert and Tina have a garage but it's full of parts and more of a storage area than a workshop. There are at least three motorbikes in this photograph and the second of Rob's Allard chassis, to say nothing of various gearboxes and engines. Rob's plan is to buy Tina a new garden shed but all this stuff in his garage will have to come out while Rob builds a new bigger and better structure. the only place all this stuff can possibly go is Tina's new garden shed.

As Tina said to me, "I don't honestly know who he is deluding more - me or himself - but he always has the best intentions."

That's my scrap buddy!

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