The Experts Trial – Tough in the Old Days

Originally published with the Supp Regs for the 2022 Experts Trial Re-Visited Navigational Tour

The first Experts Trial was run in July 1947. It was the brainchild of Alan Watkin, an experienced trials competitor who suggested to anyone who was interested “that a really hard trial should be staged”. He was as good as his word and started a traditional event that became the Experts Trial and has always challenged competitors to the full. Those who entered Experts Trials expected no mercy from the Director and received none.

Watkin’s event started at the Brunswick Street LCCA clubrooms and went via Doncaster, Wonga Park, Yarra Glen, Rob Roy (where a timed section was held) Dixons Creek, Mount Slide, Steels Creek and St Andrews, finishing back at the clubrooms. These places are now suburban areas of Melbourne but back in 1947 the country was open and the roads were little better than goat tracks. 13 of the 29 starters got to the finish, and the driver awarded best all round performance, including three sub events, was W Luxton (Wolseley)

The Experts was always run in the winter months, when wet weather was almost inevitable, and the roads chosen and the navigation difficulties were the most testing possible. These were the days before shires and forestry officers were concerned about whether roads should be used in wet weather, and the event director would delight in using roads which had become quagmires due to rain.

Experts Trial 1950. G Lord (Austin) A Ferguson (Morris Minor) and H King (Wolseley)
Photo Australian Motor Sports magazine

In early Experts Trials competitors had to complete the entire course to be classified as a finisher. The instructions were handed to crews at each control, so if you didn’t reach a control you did not know where to go next. Only the best crews succeeded, so the event was well named. A glance through the results over the years confirms that the leading drivers of their respective eras invariably placed well in the Experts: names such as Stan Jones, Lex Davison, Bib Stillwell, Doug Whiteford and Bill Patterson all feature in the results at various times, followed in later years by Harry Firth, Frank Kilfoyle, Tony Roberts, Bob Watson and Geoff Portman. As well as having good pace to make up time after navigation problems, drivers were required to coax, cajole or bulldoze their cars through roads and tracks that a four wheel drive would shy away from.

Tyre chains were essential equipment, as was a winch. Hand grips were fitted to the boot lid so that navigators could stand on the back bumper bar and bounce cars through deep mud, and in the 1960s some factory cars were fitted with off road electric winches for de-bogging purposes.

The Experts Trial of 1972 lived up to all of the challenges expected of a “proper” Experts. Run by champion navigator Jim McAuliffe, the difficult course through the mountains around Marysville became a nightmare thanks to atrocious weather.

After battling through muddy tracks and flooded creeks the field was confronted by deep snow on the Mount Margaret section north of Marysville. Conditions were such that the course opening car considered the conditions impossible, and it did not traverse the course. This left the first competitor (myself and Geoff Thomas in a Peugeot 504) to blaze the trail.

Bob Watson/Geoff Thomas battle the mud in their Peugeot 504 in 1972 Photo Chris Brown

We fitted tyre chains, and ventured into the virgin snow, following a vague gap between the trees where we assumed the track might be. Geoff understandably missed a turnoff, and the increasingly deep snow finally stopped the Peugeot in its tracks, the radiator boiling furiously due to the effort required to plough along at slow speed. Laboriously we turned the car around by winching it back and forth and were about to retrace our tracks when another rally car arrived, followed by several more. All of the cars needed to be turned around, and by the time this was done and we set off down the correct road we were hours late, and very close to our time limit.

When the convoy arrived at the control there was a massive crowd of people, as all of the service crews for the various rally cars were waiting, the field having been missing for several hours. Narrowly within our late time Geoff and I pressed on, visiting as many controls as time would permit, to the finish. After a week of calculating results, we were declared the winners, with a score that a cricketer would have been proud of, which reinforced the fact that in an Experts Trial, you never give up trying.

From the mid 1970s the navigation requirement became much more intensive, and to have success it was necessary to go out and map the areas the trial was passing through or use highly specialised maps. Directed by Stuart Lister, the events became contests in which the skill of the director to set navigational challenges was pitted against the skills of the top navigators to find the correct course. For this reason the event lost some favour with drivers and consequently its status as a state championship round, and became a specialized contest between the top navigators. The days of battling through terrible roads were over, and as a result the Experts Trial lost much of its reputation as a fight for survival.

The winning navigator of the Experts Trial each year from 1970 to 1986 was presented with the Perpetual Broadbent-Robinson Trophy, which was donated by Robinsons, the company which took over the Broadbents map company. The whereabouts of this perpetual trophy is a mystery, and the HRA would be most grateful for its recovery.

George Spanos (Riley) negotiates a ford in the 1948 Experts Trial
Photo George Spanos

Deep creek and river crossings were a constant challenge, none more so than in the 1964 event which started at Cobbledick’s Ford near Geelong.

Bruce Ford was the Event Director and set off about an hour before the first competing car, through the ford and away. The weather had been wet for weeks and was still pouring down on the day of the event. Mal McPherson and Ian Home in a Holden were the first car off and when they reached the ford the water was quite high and running rapidly. Seeing no sign of the director who must have have gone the same way they plunged into the raging torrent. The car was swept downstream and turned over with the crew struggling to get out and maps and paraphernalia floating out of the windows. Eventually the car snagged against a tree and the half drowned crew abandoned ship.

For years afterwards McPherson blamed Bruce Ford, claiming he had avoided the ford somehow, but it turned out on investigation that the gentleman in charge at the nearby Melton Weir had decided his dam was getting a bit full so he released the water just before the rally started. The rally was re-routed.

Bob Watson

Some stories from the late Graham Hoinville, winner of four Experts Trials

Graham Hoinville, the top navigator of his era, successful driver in races, rallies and hill climbs and co director of the BP Rally, won four Experts Trials navigating for Harry Firth. He shares his experiences in some of the early Experts trials:

“In 1951 I took the plunge, entering the Experts Trial (as a driver) which was a two day event directed by Roy Linden and Donald Thomson. We stopped overnight at the Isle of Wight hotel at Cowes on Phillip Island, the event being run under very wet conditions with frequent floods and the added challenge of the car bonnets being sealed, with a penalty for breaking same. I finished third in my Singer behind Stan Jones/Maurie Monk and Frank Sinclair (MGTD). I recall Harry Firth getting stuck in a non stop mud section on the outskirts of Cowes.

I regard the 1952 Experts as “my” event. At night we had a “non stop entry into control” in the Black Range area south of Murrindindi. We were struggling to keep moving in six inches of snow, and as we entered control the official, a LCCA committee member who was often on controls and inevitably intoxicated, pronounced “you stopped back there”- and we were penalized 30 points, putting us back to third place behind Stan Jones and Mal McPherson. Although a member of the LCCA I clearly did not fit in with the reefer jacket and cravat image of the club.

During various events I had become friendly with Harry Firth, who was becoming a leading tuner of MG TCs. Late in 1953 Harry came to me with a proposition-would I join him as navigator in trials? Harry was friendly with Russell Lane, principal of Neal’s Motors, the Rootes Group distributors, and they provided a Sunbeam Alpine, the same specification as the car that Stirling Moss was enjoying success with in Europe. Harry was offered the car for use in “important” rallies.

Peter Manton (MG P Type) gets some assistance in the 1948 Experts Trial
Photo Australian Motor Sports

Our first event was the 1953 Alpine trial which we won comfortably. We then used the same car in the 1954 Sun Rally, and won, being the only crew to “clean sheet”. At that time trials were becoming destructively rough, and Neal’s Motors withdrew, leaving us to “freelance” in various makes. In the 1956 Blue Ribbon Trial Harry was forced to run his “work ute”, which was a dilapidated World War 2 British Army Morris 10 ute which he had purchased for 10 quid.

The engine was basically the same as an MGTC and Harry and I fitted it with a Marshall Nordec supercharger borrowed from my MG TC. This, together with the low rear axle ratio of the ute gave it shattering acceleration, although the handling above 60 mph was a challenge.

We won the Blue Ribbon, and the following weekend was the Experts Trial, but the Light Car Club refused to accept the entry of the ute. Not to be discouraged, we borrowed a VW and won the event anyway.

The toughest event I ever experienced was the 1958 Experts. It was very wet, and we used a VW. There was a very deep creek crossing near Officedale early in the event, the water was over two feet deep and the exit was a steep bank. We could not quite climb out, and the VW slipped back into the water, swamping the engine. An official Land Rover pulled us out and I set to draining the water out of the distributor and drying the cap out with a handkerchief. The engine fired up, and we were off, but moisture kept condensing inside the distributor cap, and drying the inside of the cap became a regular routine. Then the starter motor failed, so we had to park on a hill every time we dried out the distributor.

Harry Firth and Graham Hoinville in 2010

We had two lakes of water about two inches deep that came into the two depressions in the floor pan. The water sloshed backwards and forwards under acceleration and braking. I did not dare drop a pencil or map as they would be lost in the muddy lake under my feet. We pressed on, arriving back at the LCCA club rooms in Brunswick Street at about 11 pm after a very long night. I was knackered, so Harry drove me home in a borrowed car and returned to the club rooms to find that no other competitor had reported in. He left for home, confident that the event was ours!

Graham Hoinville

Experts Trial Winners

1947W LuxtonWolseley
1948A J ChalmersStandard
1949Bill PattersonFord V8
1950S KingWolseley Hornet
1951Stan JonesHolden
1952Stan JonesHolden
1953Stan JonesG W PattersonHolden
1954Doug WhitefordW WilcoxStandard Vanguard
1955Reg SmithRob WhyteVW
1956Harry FirthGraham HoinvilleVW
1957Bob ForemanJ A McDougallVW
1958Harry FirthGraham HoinvilleVW
1959Harry FirthGraham HoinvilleAustin Healey Sprite
1960Harry FirthGraham HoinvilleVW
1961Geoff RussellWally WalshPeugeot 403
1962Don OpieDoug RutherfordFord Anglia
1963Frank KilfoyleMike FlanaganFord Falcon
1964Tony TheilerMartin HartiganVW
1965Reg LunnGeoff ThomasFord Cortina
1966Ray ChristieJoe DunlopVW 1500
1967Tony RobertsPeter HaasHolden HR
1968Bob WatsonJim McAuliffeHolden HK
1969Tony RobertsMike OsbornePorsche
1970Bob WatsonJim McAuliffeRenault R8 Gordini
1971David CuthbertAndy ChapmanHillman Hunter
1972Bob WatsonGeoff ThomasPeugeot 504
1973Bob WatsonJeff BeaumontHolden HQ
1974John ColemanBernie PeasleyHolden Torana GTR
1975Garry HarrowfieldGeoff BoydDatsun 1600
1976 Garry SpenceNoel KellyMitsubishi Galant
1977Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1978**Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1979Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1980Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1981Not run
1982Geoff PortmanRoss RunnallsDatsun 1600
1983Not run
1984Gary GrealyGeoff Byron
1985Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1987Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsDatsun 1600
1988David OfficerRoss Runnalls Mitsubishi Starion
1989Warwick SmithPaul PatersonMitsubishi Lancer
1990Glen CuthbertRoss RunnallsFord Escort
1991John RawsonDave SmithDatsun Stanza
2013Geoff Portman Ross RunnallsHolden Commodore
Experts Winners
** The Experts was not in the Victorian Rally Championship after 1978.

See the Experts Page on Rallypedia for more information.

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Bob Watson and Jeff Beaumont in the 1973 Experts. Pic by Chris Brown.