Morgan, like Lotus, did not begin their trophy-laden motorsport careers via the high octane and glamorous world of Grand Prix circuit racing. No, to find the real origins of our favourite automotive artisans you have to look a little off the beaten track … quite literary. And so, one balmy summer’s day at our Welsh HQ over a fistful of Hobnobs and a milky tea it had seemed like such a good idea; during that ‘editorial brainstorm’ we’d agreed that it might be a refreshing new angle to look at the same grassroots motorsports that had showcased those early Morgans almost a century before. Perhaps readers were growing weary of seeing us dicking about in £50k factory-fresh beauties? Perhaps it was time to lead with some sporting mud-caked Moggies as the founding father, H.F.S Morgan had intended?
I have to admit that five months later, as I navigated the greasy back-roads of Somerset on that drizzly January evening, my enthusiasm for the feature was beginning to wane: the remaining half-bottle of Christmas Port, a James Bond box set and a warm Slanket® (it was a present!) seemed a much more attractive option. Nevertheless, the arrangements had been made to meet with the newly reformed Trial Team Morgan (TTM for short) around midnight at the Haynes Motor Museum, the first gathering point for all competitors in the Motor Cycling Club’s (MCC) Exeter Trial.
Founded in 1901 the MCC is one of the oldest motorsport clubs in the UK. It was formed by a group of gentlemen motorcyclists in the back room of a swanky London restaurant, at a time when there wasn’t even a universally accepted title for the new-fangled “powered bicycles”. These enthusiasts were keen to prove that their machines represented a clean and practical alternative form of personal transport at a time when the capital was ankle-deep in horse manure (The Times having predicted it would be nine feet deep by 1945). So began a series of gruelling long distance reliability trials designed to show the establishment just how capable these revolutionary motor vehicles really were … and why not have a jolly bit of sport at the same time?
The first London to Edinburgh trial took place in 1904 when 46 hardy souls embarked on the 600 mile cross country challenge. It captured the public’s imagination to such a degree that it was repeated the following year and continues to the present day, making it one of the longest established motorsport events in the World. Next came the the London to Lands End Trial, and in 1910 the first London to Exeter Trial took place, where a certain Harry Morgan entered his new Runabout Cyclecar, having unveiled it at the Olympia Motorcycle Show just one month earlier. Despite the initial interest in the Runabout, sales were quite slow, mainly because it was a single-seater and had a quirky tiller steering system. Determined to prove the soundness of the Runabout’s design, H.F.S. entered it in the MCC’s inaugural London to Exeter Trial. Amazingly, H.F.S. cleaned up in every section, to take Morgan’s very first trialling Gold medal – the first of 24 before the outbreak of WWI.
The MCC’s “Big Three” are described as Classic Trials because they follow the traditional format: they are open to all types of machines, vintage and modern, and running on two, three or four wheels. The only real rule is that they must be road legal and not 4WD. Indeed, you’ll probably never see such a motley collection of machinery in the same car park as you do at the Haynes Motor Museum midnight Rest Halt. The Morgans we’d come to support were scattered somewhere among the Dellow and Liege “trials specials”, the battle-scarred Beetles and various jacked-up hatchbacks running in the more competitive classes. Elsewhere, a team of TR7 owners stood around discussing tyre pressures and checking kit lists, while the novices nervously re-read the route book and doodled on O.S maps.
Today’s MCC trials are more localised than the original slogs from London, and only a third of its current membership are motorcyclists. However, the basic format has changed little since trialling’s pre-war golden age when works’ teams from all the major marques, including MG, Austin and Morgan, showcased their newest products and battled for advertising space in the motoring press. A printed route book is used primarily to get the crews from one observed section to the next and to keep the event flowing more-or-less to schedule. The rules are quite simple: an observed section is either “cleaned” or “failed” as teams have to tackle a tricky mix of steep muddy farm tracks, rutted forestry roads and rock-strewn inclines, approaching 1 in 3 in some places. Just to spice things up, some sections also have “restarts” where you must bring your vehicle to a complete stop astride marker cones before trying to set off again – usually in a plume of mud, tyre-smoke and bad language as you scrabble around for grip. Awards with the main classes are based on a simple system of ‘Gold’ for cleaning all the hills, ‘Silver’ for failing one, and ‘Bronze’ for failing two. The heroic few that achieve a ‘Gold’ medal in all three MCC events that season also receive a ‘Triple’ – the most revered award in classic trialling, and the title of the club’s magazine.
One of the main appeals of this type of event is that you can compete at whatever level you prefer. The Morgans were actually running in Class O; a relatively new category designed to take competitors on a slightly “less damaging” route around The Exeter’s more infamous sections. Notorious “car breakers” such as Simms and Fingle Hill generally get the biggest crowds and are rarely conquered by the newbies. These are the main source of most private battles among the returning triallists – and the main topic of conversation in the bar afterwards. However, as modern machinery, especially the motorcycles, have become more capable The Exeter’s best known sections have been adapted to provide more challenge. They might share their names with those same hills that our Grandfathers might once have tackled in the sport’s heyday, but they are not the same; it’s now nearly thirty years since a Moggie took a Triple. Today, Class O is a much closer experience to the type of trialling Peter Morgan was so enthused by, and is ideal for beginners or owners of older, more fragile or valuable cars and bikes. Nevertheless, cleaning every section in Class O is certainly no mean feat and earns successful crews the MCC’s much respected Tin medal.
It has been said that Morgan is to classic trials what Ferrari is to Formula 1. While Scuderia Ferrari has competed in every F1 season since its beginnings in 1950, Morgan’s continuous association with the MCC goes back much further. Starting with H.F.S.’s debut in the very first Exeter Trial, Peter Morgan soon caught the trialling bug from his father. Between them they were hugely successful and accumulated dozens of MCC medals (many of which are on display at the factory museum in Malvern); in the 1948 season they were the only crews to take Triple Awards at the helm their new Morgan 4/4s. To the present day it’s believed that at least one Morgan – whether it be three-wheeled or four-wheeled; works prepared or privateered – has competed in every Exeter Trial.
Peter Morgan in particular, was especially keen to promote the versatility and ruggedness of Morgan’s products through MCC events; so much so that in he even loaned his personal +4 drophead coupe to a novice crew from Autocar magazine entering the 1954 Exeter Trial – where, to everyone’s surprise, the two delighted journalists claimed a Silver medal.
Because you are not in direct competition with the other crews, classic trialling is considered to be one of the friendliest forms of motorsport there is; sponsorship and financial gain is non-existent, and only a genteel rivalry exists between competitors. On numerous occasions we saw bikers stopping to assist their stranded comrades, or several pairs of legs sticking out from beneath a troublesome trial car – that’s not something you’ll often see on road rallies, hill climbs or other types of competitive motorsport.
For more info about this fabulous event check out the MCC website at www.themotorcyclingclub.org.uk