The long way to Land’s End
The Land’s End Trial was first run in 1908 as the ultimate test of vehicle reliability. 111 years later, it remains a formidable challenge
It doesn’t get much madder than this.
We’re 12 hours into one of the UK’s oldest and most punishing motorsport events, slithering up a narrow track that you could barely walk up. The wheels are fighting a losing battle with gravity, spinning away on the damp surface and sending clouds of mud flying towards the spectators cheering us on. In a last-ditch attempt to regain traction we start bouncing furiously in our seats and my sleep-deprived brain ricochets around inside my skull like a pinball. Somehow we make it to the top and clear another section. This is roughly the halfway point in the 2019 Land’s End Trial and things are going well.
Skip back 12 hours or so to the previous evening, and we’re about to be waved off from the start line, near Cirencester. My ride for the event is the Reliant Scimitar SS1 of Stuart Highwood. Stuart’s a seasoned pro at this sort of thing, who will be doing the driving while I try my best not to get us lost in the maze of country lanes that make up the 327 miles of road sections. The real test, however, comes with the 14 off-road sections, ranging from a comparatively mild spot of green-laning to the sort of thing most people would think twice about taking on with a Land Rover. And we’re doing it in a small 1980s sports car.
There is a caveat here, though. You won’t see many on the high street, but the Reliant Scimitar SS1 – in all its aesthetically-challenged glory – is a favourite of the trials community. With a lift kit on the suspension, the chunkiest tyres that the rules allow and a set of race numbers plastered down the side it looks like an extra from Mad Max. Under the bonnet of this example, there’s a 2-litre Ford Zetec engine from the Focus ST170, running on bike throttle bodies and a motorsport ECU. It also has additional chassis bracing, a rally-style trip computer and a hydraulic handbrake.
Our car is, in fact, comparatively sensible by the eclectic standards of this competition. When it comes to four wheels, the oldest entry in the field is a 1920s GN, but there are several MGs and Austin 7s from the 1930s. There’s the obligatory glut of Volkswagen Beetles, ranging from gleaming road-going classics to full-on Baja Bugs, not to mention a scattering of UVA Fugitives and other purpose-built buggies. Two-wheeled entries range from step-through Honda Cubs to big BMW and KTM trail bikes. However, the award for the strangest vehicle we encounter on our trip has to go to either the trials-prepared Reliant Rialto three-wheeler or the air-cooled Soviet-built ZAZ-966. The latter was entered by Hughie Walker – more commonly found sliding pre-war aero-engined specials around Goodwood – just weeks after he’d flown to Ukraine to buy the car and drive it back.
Not everyone covers the same route. Most of the 400 or so entries begin from one of three different start points dotted around the South West, all converging on the Somerset town of Bridgwater. This first leg of the event is exclusively on-road and it covers around 94 miles from any of the three start points. From there, the different classes are divided into three routes – two that feature off-road sections (of differing severity) and one that’s essentially run as a road rally with little chance of incurring any damage. We’re following the more severe off-road route, although being a production-based sports car we won’t have to tackle some of the more difficult restarts that are thrown in to challenge the purpose-built machines.
Through the night
After reaching Bridgwater we hand in our time card for a compulsory one-hour stop, before heading out towards the wilds of Exmoor. It’s 1:15am as we reach the start of the first ‘observed section’, a narrow, stony lane that winds up into the darkness. We jump out to adjust the tyre pressures and then queue for the start of the section behind a Beetle, which promptly snarls off into the inky blackness. Next, it’s our turn.
I can feel rocks clattering off the floor of the Scimitar as we crawl our way up the hill. The traction is impressive, but the SS1 doesn’t have as much ground clearance as some of the cars on the event and we grimace at the thunks and thuds from underneath. Nonetheless, Stuart makes it all look easy and the first section feels like something of a formality by the time we reach the top.
The next leg takes us over Exmoor. It’s around 2am, but the weather is unseasonably mild for mid-April and there’s a giant full moon, which is so bright that we barely need the headlights. Right now it feels more like a leisurely classic car tour than a test of endurance. But things are only just getting started.
We carry on through the night, winding our way down a warren of country lanes, driving for hours at a time without seeing any cars aside from those in the competition. The off-road sections come roughly every 45 minutes and, so far, each one has been dry and stony; the Scimitar bucking and heaving over the broken surfaces, but doggedly carrying on. By the time we reach Sutcombe in North Devon the sky is starting to pale and the terrain is changing to mud. This is where the real challenge begins. “Better give it some beans,” advises a biker coming back down the hill having failed the section.
We clear Sutcombe and press on to Darracott and then over the Cornish border to Crackington. This is where our story began with that long, muddy hill that looks suspiciously like it’s been watered deliberately for the event. On this terrain, a slow, methodical approach is no longer enough. All the cars in the competition are two-wheel drive and running on road tyres, which means you have to attack the steeper sections with real vigour or face bogging down. In some places, the quicker cars are cresting the tops of the hills with their front wheels clean off the ground, such is the gradient.
There’s a brief period of respite as we follow a stunning road down the Cornish coast to the breakfast stop at Wilsey Down (and another compulsory one-hour halt). We watch the cars and bikes flooding in and take the chance to catch up with some of the other competitors. It’s here that we meet The Vikings – a trio of bikers from Sweden who set their sights on the event having watched videos of it on YouTube.
“This is all my brother’s fault,” jokes Lars Mossberg. “He’s an experienced adventure biker, but I haven’t done much off-road riding. He started showing videos of the Land’s End trial and I got hooked.”
It’s soon time to hit the road again, and as midday approaches, there’s a feeling that we’re on the home stretch. Some of the toughest bits are yet to come – including the infamous Blue Hills section that clings to the windswept headland near St Agnes – but if all goes to plan we should be finished by around 5pm (21 hours after leaving the start line).
The Warleggan section on the edge of Bodmin Moor is utterly brutal. It manages to be both muddy and rocky, with huge bumps and troughs that send impacts shuddering through the car. Surely we must be about to rip something off? But no, the little Scimitar just keeps on going.
The next group of hills are clustered around Cardinham Woods. These are some of the most technically challenging climbs on the event; steep, slippery and littered with bumps. It’s here that Stuart’s driving skill really pays off – knowing when to ease off in order to regain traction and when to charge. We slither to the top of Hoskin Hill and give silent thanks to the fact that we’ve cleared one of the trickiest sections.
All is not well, however. Driving away from the woods we notice a clonk on the rear end. Closer inspection reveals that one of the three rubber mounts for the differential has sheared, leaving it rocking on the other two. We limp onwards while we deliberate what to do, but 100 yards later the movement becomes too much and the left-hand driveshaft rips itself clean out of the differential. Our competition is over, with five observed sections and 50 road miles left to go.
We sit there, waiting for the recovery truck, marvelling at the Scimitar’s gargantuan panel gaps and its peculiar set square styling. Had it not been for the diff mounts giving up the ghost we’d have been in the running for a gold award (signifying that we’d cleared all the hills). And yet the amount of punishment that this car has taken is still impressive. The Land’s End may have beaten us this time, but that leaves a tantalising challenge hanging in the air for next year.
We will be back.
Photos: Chris Pickering, Duncan Stephens and Peter Browne
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