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New kids on the block: Vintage cars, young drivers and a whole lotta mud

by Chris Pickering
9 December 2022 6 min read
New kids on the block: Vintage cars, young drivers and a whole lotta mud
Photo: Steve Shelley

The vintage car scene is not quite as you might imagine it. Tea at the village fete? A spot of croquet on the lawn? Not today. We’re at Prescott – home to the Bugatti Owners Club, and one of the oldest motorsport venues in the UK – for the Vintage Sports Car Club’s (VSCC) annual Cotswold Trial.

For anyone not familiar with trialling, it’s perhaps best summed up as off-roading in old cars that were not designed for the purpose. There are a series of test hills, connected by public road sections, where the crews attempt to drive up the sort of steep, slippery terrain that most people would think twice before attempting in a Land Rover. It’s every bit as bonkers as it sounds, and the teams do this in an eclectic selection of machinery, ranging from homebuilt specials to priceless Bentleys and Bugattis.

VSCC Cotswold Trial 2022
All smiles ahead of tackling the hills. Photo: Steve Shelley

It’s a diverse bunch of people too. One thing that really stands out against the often-ageing classic car scene is the number of young people here. They make up around a third of the field, with female competitors well represented too.

We’re here to meet some of those younger competitors and find out what’s drawn them to prewar cars.

Ross and Rory Mangles, Riley 9 Special

Ross and Rory Mangles, Riley
Up, up and, er, back down. Ross and Rory Mangles give author Chris Pickering a memorable ride. Photo: Mike Griffin

First up are brothers Ross and Rory Mangles, aged 26 and 28. Both own Austin Sevens, although today they’re driving a Riley 9 Special loaned by another young member, Toby Bruce.

They fell into vintage car ownership more or less by chance after a visit to the Chateau Impney hill climb, in Droitwich, a few years ago. Rory recalls: “I remember going there and thinking ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever seen’. There was a really interesting selection of machinery, from single seaters to the Whistling Billy steam car. But what caught my eye were the homebuilt specials. I realised that we could actually get an old chassis and build something ourselves.”

The pair began looking for an Austin Seven chassis on eBay, but instead they ended up buying a complete car with a two-seat ‘special’ body – running, although in need of some tidying – for the princely sum of £3,150. That, technically, is Rory’s car, although they shared it for their first few events.

Earlier this year, Ross bought his own Austin Seven, a 1932 RN saloon affectionately known as Beryl, which set him back £4,000. Both cars combined cost comfortably less than you might spend on a typical nineties hot hatch.

Ross and Rory Mangles, Riley
Photo: Mike Griffin

“You get a very different emotional attachment with a vintage car,” observes Ross. “Growing up on a farm, where people tend to mend things and keep them going, I think we always had an interest in old things, whether that was old buildings, old tractors or old steam engines. In some respects, old cars are a logical extension of that.”

With the saloon not especially suitable for trialling and the special currently off the road, Toby stepped in to offer them the use of his Riley. Christened Kismet, it began life as a Riley 9 Plus Ultra, but during a heavy snowstorm in the 1960s, the roof of its garage collapsed and destroyed the original Monaco saloon body. It was rebuilt in the 1970s with the current four-seat touring body, and now features a series of improvements, including a somewhat breathed-on engine with high-lift camshafts putting out around 65 horsepower. The Mangle brothers looked like they were enjoying it.

Sarah Blake, 1921 GN Vitesse

Sarah Blake, 1921 GN Vitesse

There’s a congenial atmosphere to the paddock at Prescott, near Cheltenham, as the cars queue up for scrutineering. Along with Shelsley Walsh, around an hour up the road, it’s the spiritual home of prewar motorsport in the UK. You can feel it in the air. There’s the same sort of buzz that you might get wandering through the gates at Le Mans or the Nürburgring.

Just before the cars set off we meet 21-year old Sarah Blake, who’s driving her dad’s 1921 GN Vitesse. Along with her brother, she’s the third generation of the family to campaign the car, which gleams in the sun with its polished aluminium bodywork.

“As soon as we were old enough, my brother and I started riding along with our parents on these events. We’ve grown up with old cars, and it just seems weird to me when people aren’t into them,” says Blake. “The club is very much about the cars, but it’s also very much about the people. We’ve got this massive group of friends, where our parents and our grandparents often know each other as well.”

Jim Edwards and Archie Bullett, 1922 GN Sports

Jim Edwards and Archie Bullett, VSCC Cotswold Trial 2022
Jim Edwards and Archie Bullett tackled the Cotswold Trial in a 1922 JAP-engined GN Sports. Photo: Steve Shelley

A few miles down the road, the crews are preparing for the first competitive section. It’s a smorgasbord of vintage cars from diminutive Austin Sevens and MGs to towering Dodge and Chrysler saloons fit for Al Capone.

Here we find Archie Bullet and Jim Edwards. Archie is one of the youngest drivers in the event at 17, and another lifelong member of the VSCC. In contrast, 28-year old Edwards was introduced to vintage cars while training as a mechanic. He’s since gone on to set up his own business specialising in chain-drive cars, and today he’s bouncing for Peter Kite in his 1922 JAP-engined GN Sports.

“Cars of this era are just more fun to drive. There’s a lot of stuff you can do with them from sprints and hill climbs to circuit racing and trials, and there’s a really good social scene,” Edwards enthuses. “I just stumbled into it really – my family aren’t into old cars. But you meet a few people and then it starts to spiral. I think we’re genuinely away every weekend doing something with the club, and a lot of us have forged careers out of it.”

Jim Edwards and Archie Bullett, VSCC Cotswold Trial 2022

Bullet’s in an Austin Seven Ulster that’s been in the family for more than 20 years. He prepares the car himself, and also takes part in sprints and hill climbs.

“You can start trialling at 14, so I began doing it with someone else driving me between the sections. And that was often Jim. This is the first year I’ve been able to drive the whole event myself,” he explains. “It’s a chance to come and have a weekend away with my mates.”

Ben Abbots and Matt Hurst, 1934 Austin Seven special

Ben Abbots and Matt Hurst
Work overalls a wise choice for Ben Abbots and Matt Hurst. Photo: Steve Shelley

Later during the 2022 Cotswold Trial, we catch up with Ben Abbots (31) and his co-driver Matt Hurst (30) in Abbots’ 1934 Austin Seven special, known as Haywire. The car was bought as a rolling chassis two years ago, and Ben spent the next 12 months saving up to buy parts. After that, it took just eight weeks for Ben to build the body, and he began competing shortly afterwards. To date, he believes he’s spent around £8,000 on the car, including the initial purchase and a full engine rebuild.

“No one else in my family was really into old cars,” Abbots recalls. “But ever since the first time I saw a vintage car with a big upright radiator, cycle wings and a folding windscreen I knew that was what I wanted. It was just a question of finding an affordable route in.”

There’s also a very visceral aspect to driving a prewar car that particularly appeals to Abbots: “The Austin only has about 19 horsepower and it’s certainly not fast, but it’s got a real capacity to thrill. The straight pipe exhaust makes a great noise, the cockpit has a really minimalist feel, and you can drive it absolutely flat out perfectly within the limits of the law. It’s so short that you can be completely sideways and still well within your own lane.”

Hurst has now caught the bug too. He explains: “It’s just so thrilling to take what most people would consider to be museum pieces and use them as they were originally intended. Ben and I both have Morris Minors as our daily drivers – we look after them, but we use them as if they were modern cars, and it’s the same sort of philosophy here with people racing and trialling cars from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Hurst is now saving up to buy his own prewar car, with his eye on something like a Ford Model A. “I like the idea of something a bit bigger that I could use for events like this, but also use daily and drive up north to visit my grandparents,” he tells us. “The Model A appeals because they’re relatively affordable, but you still get a roof, room for passengers and a large engine with a decent cruising speed.”

As newcomers to the scene, both say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of young people who are involved. “I’m a member of a few classic car clubs, and I’d say the VSCC actually has the youngest average age, despite the cars being 30 or 40 years older,” comments Abbots.

From here, at least, the future of vintage motoring looks bright. It’s testament to the appeal of these cars that many do stay in the family with the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of previous owners carrying on that tradition. But, in part thanks to the efforts of the VSCC and its supportive members, the vintage car scene is also a lot more accessible than many people realise, with models like the Austin Seven often available for less than the equivalent modern classic – and parts sometimes easier to source as well.

What’s important is that these cars do get used. Engines are thrashed; tyres are skidded mercilessly across the slippery surface; and cars are sent fully airborne off some of the bigger crests. It’s noisy, exciting, frenetic stuff. But maybe after that there’s still time for that civilised cup of tea.

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Comments

  • Jonathan Stafford-Clark says:

    This is so good to hear.
    The long term future of the motor car in it’s original internal combustion engine form is completely dependent on this generation if it is to survive and prosper.
    These young people have my absolute respect; many of their peer group are either indifferent or openly hostile to anything to do with cars so we must nurture and encourage those who are bucking the trend.

  • George Colman says:

    I loved reading this piece because I Marshalled on the Clee Hill Trail last January and met these young competitors having so much competitive fun, I also met the Girls featured here on a Curborough Sprint in the same car this summer. Great stuff!

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